One of the realities of living in South Africa is that one tends to grow accustomed to the extremely high prevalence of crime. This is not to say that South Africa is a terrible, crime-riddled ‘gang-land’ as it has so often been described by social media and foreign newspapers. However, it does seem to me that we, as South Africans, are somewhat desensitised to reported incidents of crime just like citizens in many other developed parts of the world. At the beginning of last year, there was a series of sexual assaults committed in close proximity to the Rhodes Memorial Statue – a historical site on the Upper Campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT) in Cape Town, South Africa. The perpetrator targeted female students. There were five reported incidents of rape between November 2015 and February 2016. Even though rape is, unfortunately, a frequently committed crime in SA, I was shocked by the casual response to these incidents. The university passively sent out updates and warnings to the student body but did little else. The South African Police Services took a remarkably long time to apprehend the perpetrator considering the information available to them for their investigation. Yet, what I found most startling was the response – or lack thereof – from the students themselves. The students on campus spoke about the incidents from time to time, but no one did anything. Considering the heightened protest activity regarding tuition fees on our campus at the end of 2015, I would have expected at least some kind of mobilised effort to object to the fact that female students could not feel safe on campus. As disappointed as I was by this, I felt that it would be hypocritical to expect others to act if I could not do so myself. That is when I started to do some research and embarked on quite a journey.
These events at UCT caused a stir amongst many female students. It was disturbing to know that fellow students had been so viciously assaulted – especially considering that these incidents had taken place when the victims were so close to campus. As one of many female students at UCT and in South Africa, I was deeply troubled by this. I found that I could not just think of this as standard criminal activity that one hears about on the radio. I thought about the fact that I had never truly felt safe on campus. One of the victims had been attacked while running on a trail which had been an old favourite of mine. I had run that route alone on many occasions and this made me wonder if I had been reckless and lucky in the past. Many people responded to this particular incident by throwing out statements like “she shouldn’t have been running alone in that area.” UCT administrators sent out many emails, text messages and social media posts imploring all (but especially female) students to be cautious and to avoid the Rhodes Memorial area. Of course, I heeded these warnings, but there was a very big part of me which was confused by this. I realised that, at the end of the day, I was essentially being told that it was my responsibility to ensure that I would not be assaulted.
I was troubled by this burden that I, as a woman, have been expected to bear throughout my life. Obviously, it makes sense to encourage girls and women to protect themselves against the worst, but the culture of victim-blaming seemed to be unfair and blatantly sexist to me. These revelations were strengthened later in the year when I read about the Brock Turner case in the United States of America (USA). In this case, Turner, a student at Stanford University was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious woman outside a party. There was public outrage over the extremely lenient 6-month prison sentence that he received. To add insult to injury, Turner refused to accept responsibility for his actions. Instead, he blamed his behaviour on excessive alcohol consumption. He even made a weak argument that the culture of partying that exists on many campuses is what leads to incidents like this. Moreover, it seemed to me that Turner painted himself as a victim of societal scapegoating. In a harrowing letter to her attacker, the victim of the assault discussed how Turner hired a powerful attorney to defend him and aid his escape from guilt. She also described in painful detail how she was framed as being irresponsible and promiscuous throughout the trial. The fact that she had been heavily intoxicated at the time was used against her at every turn. Even though she had been too intoxicated to speak comprehensively, Turner claimed that she had consented to his actions. I was shocked by every word that I read. Here was yet another classic manifestation of rape culture.
It seems quite simple to me. If a woman is so intoxicated that she cannot string a sentence together, it seems unlikely that her alleged consent could be meaningful. Yet, Turner did his best to reduce his predatory and violent actions to a simple misunderstanding that arose because both he and the victim had been drinking and partying. When I read the victim’s description of the trial I was mortified. Here was another woman being told that she should have been more responsible. That she should not have had so much to drink. That her suggestive conversation with her boyfriend on the night was indicative of her probable sexual choices. This is when I truly understood rape culture and victim-blaming. This culture protects the Brock Turners of this world. It tells women that we must dress in a certain way, that we should stick with our friends at parties and that we must be very careful about how much we drink. Implicit in these notions is the absurd idea that it is a woman’s fault if she is assaulted and that she must take care to avoid it. This is where I have to draw the line and say that these ideas are both ludicrous and preposterous. It was not alcohol that assaulted this woman, it was Turner. Running alone close to Rhodes Memorial is not what caused a rape, but rather a sick man who was preying on young women. I felt so frustrated by the position in which rape culture has left women that I was desperate to do something. I just needed to figure out what that ‘something’ could be.
I was perusing Instagram one evening, and I stumbled across a post which was captioned: “#SprintForHer.” Intrigued, I followed the hashtag and discovered that the #SprintForHer movement was aimed at showing solidarity and support for female victims of sexual assault. To be more specific, the movement had started to create an online space where victims could go to seek support and care. To achieve this, the initiative encourages athletes to dedicate their work-outs (runs, cycles, swims, etc.) to victims of sexual assault by posting pictures on social media (primarily Instagram) and captioning “#SprintForHer.” This social network campaign has dual effects. Firstly, it raises awareness around the issue of rape and sexual assault through an extremely popular social platform. Secondly, and more significantly, the use of the hashtag creates a ‘physical’ online space where victims can go to see that there are people who believe, support and care about them.
After looking through many #SprintForHer posts, I was inspired to contact the founder of the movement, Bryn Tod-Tims. Bryn told me a bit about her own journey and how she runs ultra-marathons to show solidarity for victims of sexual assault. Many of the #SprintForHer pictures on Instagram were pictures of her training and participating in the marathons. She told me that since she had started #SprintForHer she had received numerous messages of appreciation from survivors of sexual assault. These messages inspired her to continue running ultra-marathons and promoting and growing #SprintForHer. One of the things that I realized when talking to her is that many victims do not know how to talk about what happened to them and thus are unable to seek the support that they need. The beauty of #SprintForHer is that it enables victims to seek support without having to talk to anyone or see anyone. If they are struggling to process what happened, they can find support privately on their cell phones or computers. I found this aspect of #SprintForHer very moving and powerful. I also thought that it was very innovative to harness fitness and exercise as a mode of encouraging people to engage with an extremely prevalent social issue. This is because it is so easy to hear about incidents like the Rhodes Memorial attacks at UCT, and then forget about them almost immediately. Rape and sexual violence are sensitive and uncomfortable topics to consider on a daily basis, and therein lies a great problem. My research indicated that, statistically, one in three women suffer some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime. Furthermore, there is a very high chance that there are women and girls in all of our lives who have been victims in the past without our knowledge. As such, sexual violence is certainly an issue that should be discussed regularly so that more people can take action to prevent it. If this were to be the case, it may also be easier for victims to speak out as they might feel more supported. Furthermore, the #SprintForHer initiative seemed perfect to me. It encourages people to engage with these issues regularly by encouraging them to use exercise – a regular or daily activity for many – to express their support for victims.
Even though #SprintForHer was started by a Canadian woman living in London, I was convinced that this initiative had the potential to do a lot of good in my own country. Running and exercise is very popular in Cape Town, so I spoke to Bryn and some friends at UCT and I decided to do what I could to bring the movement to Cape Town. My vision was to host monthly group runs leaving from UCT. Students could join the runs to show their solidarity for victims of sexual assault. The runs could also be used as a means of encouraging UCT students to join the online #SprintForHer movement by posting pictures. Bryn was extremely supportive and helpful. So, I created an Instagram page (@sprintforhersa) and a Facebook event and everything took off from there.
My friend, Kimberley Bolton, joined me in organising the event and driving the South African chapter of #SprintForHer. We were extremely impressed by the support that the first group run received, and since then we have successfully hosted several more group runs in honour of the #SprintForHer cause. Many people who are regular attendees have spoken to me and told me that they enjoy the runs as they can show support for a cause which means a lot to them. The runs are also social and allow attendees to meet new people. Recently, we have also started to work with Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust – the oldest organisation in South Africa which supports survivors of rape. At our monthly runs, we have been collecting funds to donate to Rape Crisis in order to provide sponsorship for the Volunteer Counsellor Training Programme that they offer. It is my hope that our fundraising initiative will grow in the months to follow.
Working through the #SprintForHer initiative has been rewarding and inspiring, but also challenging in many ways. Dealing with such a complex and sensitive issue has forced me to learn a lot, meet new and interesting people and truly examine the world differently. In short, over the past few months I have started to interrogate the idea of rape culture as well as the true meaning of ‘consent.’ I used to think of rape and sexual assault as isolated incidents of violence, but my journey through #SprintForHer has made me realise that rape culture runs a lot deeper than that. It manifests itself in areas which are perceived as harmless and fun – such as joking expressions like “persistence beats resistance” being thrown around in nightclubs. Rape culture has fostered the idea that a woman is not entitled to the full control over her own body. For instance, it seems to me that women who choose to dress in a revealing fashion are often judged and viewed as being promiscuous and immoral. There may have been a time when I could have bought into this way of thinking, but now I simply cannot. There is nothing on this earth which gives any person the right to another’s body. At least in South African law, each person’s bodily integrity and privacy is given the highest possible protection by the Constitution. To be precise, the right to human dignity is non-derogable and is enshrined in section 10 of the Bill of Rights. Likewise, the right to bodily integrity and the right to privacy are enshrined in sections 12(2) and 14 respectively. Although the Constitution must be interpreted by the courts, it is difficult to imagine any interpretation of the rights to dignity, bodily integrity and privacy which would allow for the objectification and any form of physical exploitation of women. Theoretically and legally, a woman should be able to wear no clothes at all and still be respected as an individual who is in control of her own body. Furthermore, any suggestion that a woman was ‘asking for it’ is fallacious and is a product of rape culture – a culture which permits the objectification of the female body.
This brings me back to the fact that UCT’s solution to the Rhodes Memorial attacks was to encourage female students to travel in groups and avoid the ‘danger zone.’ If society is truly committed to ending rape culture, it is time to stop telling women to avoid danger and to start dealing with the danger itself. The #SprintForHer initiative is not going to achieve this on its own. In fact, this initiative is only a very small life boat in an extremely large and rough sea. Nevertheless, at least it is a way of taking action and forcing people to think about rape culture. It also has the tremendous potential to grow and spread through social media. Bryn’s vision is that this is exactly what will happen and gradually more and more people will try to stand up for victims of sexual assault, thereby giving victims the support that they need to speak out. Over time, this could even force society to deal with the deeply embedded issues of rape culture, at least that is Bryn’s (and my) hope.
Although #SprintForHer has challenged me at an intellectual and emotional level, it has inspired and empowered me. My greatest wish is that it can do the same for many other women (and men) as the campaign grows in the future.
For more information on the #SprintForHer campaign, visit @sprintforher, @sprintforhersa and @berkeleysprintforher on Instagram.
4. Section 10 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. See http://www.justice.gov.za/legislation/constitution/saconstitution-web-eng.pdf.
5. Sections 12(2) and 14 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996.
taking steps with #sprintforher
By Lauren Loxton
Lauren Loxton is a 2nd year law student at the University of Cape Town. She completed a Bachelor of Commerce Degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics before commencing her law studies in 2016. She has lived and grown up in South Africa and is passionate about social justice and environmental issues.