Rhodes University Logo
Rhodes > Latest News > 2013

Moral outrage, risk, and vulnerability in “The Rape Crisis”

Date Released: Tue, 23 July 2013 10:59 +0200

The well-known independent researcher Ms Lisa Vetten who has worked in the field of violence against women since 1991, argued yesterday that a reaction of moral outrage is often ineffective when it comes to rape in South Africa.

She was speaking at Rhodes University, opening the eleventh annual teach-in entitled “The Rape Crisis” hosted by the Department of Political and International Studies

She focussed her address on the question of how to shift the national public discourse to ensure a wider and richer response to rape.

“Saying something is wrong and getting upset about it is not the same as doing something about it,” she said.

Furthermore, the moralised and gendered language used to discuss rape can, according to Ms Vetten, over-simplify questions of responsibility by making perpetrators seem so other that society need not look at its own role in perpetuating the problem. She argued that we need to speak about violence in ways which do not stigmatise and demonise.

“We need to shift the language and thinking away from the ‘bad’ individual and locate it in the social conditions that allow these things to happen,” she said. As an example, Ms Vetten spoke of women living in informal settlements who have to walk unlit and unguarded streets to catch public transport to work early in the mornings.

She also problematised a public discourse which places the responsibility for avoiding danger on women. She argued that the language of moral outrage creates the idea of a hierarchy of rape victims in which some, such as children and the elderly, are more innocent than others.

Adult women, she said, are charged with ensuring that their behaviour in no way exposes them to risk and may be seen as somehow responsible if they are in fact raped. Ms Vetten said that this reflects an assumption that there is nothing to be done about the behaviour of those who harm so that it is the vulnerable who must watch their conduct. Public space in this view is seen as male territory into which women can only venture if they ensure “correct” behaviour and attire.

“Rape is a form of social control that limits women’s dress, freedom of association, and freedom of movement,” she argued.

She asked “Is it fair and reasonable to ask those who bear the risk of victimisation to also bear the responsibility of protection?”

She also questioned the language of vulnerability used to discuss women in society, who posited that it not only disempowers women, but also illogically excludes men from the category.

“While rape is something which overwhelmingly happens to women and children that does not mean it doesn’t happen to men and boys, but our language leaves no room for speaking of men as vulnerable,” she said. “Focusing our discussions on moralism shifts it away from discussions of gender relations and how we change them.”

In conclusion, she said that a reaction of sadness is perhaps more constructive than one of moralised anger as it will place South Africans in a better position to start thinking reflectively.

By Kyla Hazell