Scarred But Not Damaged
Every young woman I have spoken to has a story – stories of coercive circumstances; harassment, sexual propositions and overtures; emergency contraception; sexual abuse; controlling behaviour or intimidation. I am not writing on behalf of all victims or survivors of sexual assault, harassment or gender-based violence (GBV). Nor am I writing about the all-encompassing normative power of GBV legislation for victims or survivors. In fact, I say ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ with a degree of caution because of their doubtful connotations of strength and weakness.
Quite simply, for my tenth African Scene piece, I’m going to turn my analysis of gender relations inward and share my own story with you. A story which began with a guy I considered a friend. A person I trusted who threatened to break my pelvis in an act of sexual violence and ruin sex for me forever because I did not give him what he wanted, when he wanted it. And, in my lawyerly mind, I found it liberating to locate my experience squarely within the Domestic Violence Act 116 of 1998 (DVA). This legal framework (for all of its procedural flaws) has incredible value as a normative touchstone in reminding me that a threat of physical and sexual violence against any women is inherently wrong and therefore, allowing me to work through my own internalized self-blaming GBV myths.
But how could someone within my circle of friends – someone I thought was the teddy bear of the bunch – threaten me?
For me, this question was founded on a myth of two extremes. On one side, women were only supposed to be harmed by nameless strangers. While on the opposite side, ‘domestic violence’ only occurred in the context of a ‘home’ or ‘family’ environment. There could be no grey area. Nonetheless, the DVA makes provision for grey areas by sanctioning a broad list of people who could qualify as abusers, ranging from someone with whom you’ve shared a residence to a person you’ve had any kind of romantic relationship with, regardless of how long it lasted.
Sexual offence and GBV legislation uses ‘complainant’, a word I abhor on a personal level because of its ‘hysterical woman’ undertone. Although perhaps the worst thing about ‘complainant’ is the isolation it fosters. An isolation which had me believe that if such a threat was made against me, then there must have been something fundamentally wrong with me in the first place.
After all, I’m a legal academic. Domestic violence is about bruises, black eyes and trips to the emergency room. It’s only supposed to happen to women who occupy a vulnerable position in society.
When the phrase domestic violence is used, many of us imagine the most common factors – physical violence between heterosexual partners. However, the purpose of GBV is not only an attack on bodily autonomy, but also a violation of a person’s psychological integrity. The DVA’s definition of domestic violence is wide enough to accommodate this psychological element in the particular and personal experiences of women in various abusive situations. In my own story, pertinent components of the DVA’s definition jumped out at me. Apart from actual or threatened physical abuse and sexual violence, the DVA also covers emotional, verbal or psychological abuse which could include threats intended to cause emotional pain as well as intimidation or threatening the victim in a manner that causes fear. Ultimately, abusive behaviour is defined by its purpose of control and bullying in a manner which results in imminent harm to the complainant’s safety, health or well-being.
Once the incident or threat has occurred, shouldn’t the relationship be over?
Whereas, legislation may set out examples of an abusive situation, the law cannot explain why women stay and it cannot tell her to leave her partner. And in some cases, women are most vulnerable after they have left. While I was angry and self-assured enough to remove myself from such circumstances eventually, this does not necessarily mean that I removed myself immediately. The abuse or threat of abuse is often followed by a reconciliation phase of apologies, reassurances that it will never happen again, affection or just overlooking the incident.
On my part, I ignored the significance of this threat for a long time and have only recently started talking about its gravity, which has left me profoundly effected and maybe a little scarred or sometimes frightened, but not damaged.
Photo by FranUlloa