Survivors don’t owe you their story – changing the narrative of the ‘good survivor’

  • Marike Keller

I can’t think of a single woman I know who has not felt an uncomfortable shiver running down her spine due to unwanted advances at least once. Perhaps she spoke out, telling her close friend, colleague or family member. But there is every possibility that she kept quiet – for fear of reprisal or for seeming “impolite” or for not being able to take a “joke”.

I believe the #MeToo social media campaign – created by activist Tarana Burke 10 years ago and reignited by a tweet posted by actress Alyssa Milano – has created a sense of solidarity among many women, and in some cases, may be cathartic and empowering for those who have not spoken about their experiences before. Conversations that bring to light the many everyday aggressions women are subjected to are necessary and critical, and I’m glad the #MeToo campaign has started them.

The campaign does not however come without its critiques. An array of articles have criticised the movement for placing the onus and responsibility on women, once again, to point out what is happening to women rather than men taking responsibility for perpetuating misogyny and committing to making a change. I wholeheartedly agree. Because women have been speaking out against harassment and violence for decades. And because men have known and seen the gendered violence perpetrated around them and have been complicit in its perpetuation. The responsibility should not lie with women to show men how many of us have been hurt and violated. Men need to educate other men.

And yet, other articles have praised those speaking out for having the courage to do so, with some crediting the #MeToo social media campaign and the solidarity and empowerment it has created with them outing their own stories of sexual assault and harassment. Locally, we heard the revelation by former ANC MP Jennifer Ferguson, who last Wednesday alleged that she was raped by South African Football Association boss Danny Jordaan at an event in Port Elizabeth 24 years ago. She credits her breaking the silence to the #MeToo social media campaign. This power of solidarity is not to be underestimated.

I, however, would like to acknowledge those who have not spoken out, and may never do so. Those who may not be ready to speak out. Those who fear the repercussions, some potentially fatal if, for example, the perpetrator issues and follows through on death threats against the survivor or her family should she speak out. Those who might be ostracised by their families and communities for speaking out. Those who would be deeply shamed and blamed for what happened. Those who fear that they won’t be believed. Those who cannot speak out due to a lack of access to resources, such as police stations or psycho-social support. Those who don’t have access to digital forums such as Twitter, and aren’t exposed to empowering online campaigns – bear in mind that of almost 56-million South Africans, only 7.7-million are on Twitter.

As a society, we are taught and constantly reinforce, however unintentionally, the narrative of the “correct” way to survive, or how to be a “good survivor”. A survivor who immediately reports sexual harassment, assault, or rape. A survivor who recounts her story openly and honestly. A survivor who is supported by her family and friends no matter what. A survivor who knows it wasn’t her fault. A survivor who is called brave and courageous for speaking out.

We tend to affirm those who speak out by rewarding them with praise and acknowledgement. And yet, what makes a survivor who speaks out any more courageous than one who doesn’t? While there are certain risks when speaking out – I’ve mentioned a few above – the context in which the survivor lives determines the severity of these risks. Those with strong support networks through their families, friends and communities, access to psycho-social care, and living in an enabling environment in which speaking out is encouraged, are less likely to remain silent and carry a lower risk compared to those who do not have the support and resources at their disposal. I believe that it also takes a lot of courage to remain silent and survive in an environment of fear and silence. Not to mention the mere fact that surviving in itself is courageous. And this way of surviving must also be recognised.

This is in no way intended to minimise the lived experiences of the many women who have taken the decision to post #MeToo on social media, and who have spoken out on other platforms. There are many different ways in which to survive, and those speaking out are exercising their agency in doing so.

It is, however, a call for us to change the narrative of the “good survivor”, and challenge what we deem the “correct” way to survive is.

We know the reality of gross under-reporting of rape and assault in South Africa. The Medical Research Council (MRC) estimates that only one in nine women report rape. With 109.3 reported rapes per day, a more accurate picture of rape in our country is that it may be closer to 983 per day. This does not even include other forms of sexual offences, let alone those violations not classified as criminal, such as catcalling.

Taking this under-reporting into account, we need to acknowledge the many varied barriers to reporting, which contribute towards survivors’ silence. These range from stigma within families and communities; intimidation by the perpetrator; fear of not being believed by families, police, communities, and the courts; shame, guilt and embarrassment, and secondary victimisation, to name only a few.

One of my favourite tweets associated with the #MeToo hashtag, originally posted by Alexis Benveniste – a writer from New York – and widely shared across social media, which powerfully sums up the need to change the “good survivor” narrative, reads as follows: “Reminder that if a woman didn’t post #MeToo, it doesn’t mean she wasn’t sexually assaulted or harassed. Survivors don’t owe you their story.”

It is easy to praise those who decide to speak out. How else are we supposed to know that someone is a survivor without them telling us? What the #MeToo social media campaign has shown us though is the extent of violence – physical, verbal, structural and otherwise – perpetrated against women’s bodies and how everyone may have a story to tell (even those who decide to remain silent). We cannot assume that someone who doesn’t speak up, doesn’t have a story and isn’t a survivor.

We need to change the narrative of what it means to be a “good survivor”. One way to do this is to ensure that our praise and empathy is not only reserved for those who speak out, but also includes survivors who are silent. This can be done through the awareness that anyone can be a survivor.

For those remaining silent: You too are strong. You too are brave. You too are a survivor worthy of praise.