I was about 10 years old at a beach in South Africa, walking hand in hand with my mother past a group of men. One of them grabbed my hand and jerked me towards them. My mother then pulled me to her, reminding them I am just a child. “Sizothatha wena ke.” “We’ll take you then.”
A few years ago I was walking down the streets of Johannesburg, when a man threatened to rape me when I ignored his catcalls. This year something similar happened, except this time he said he would stab and kill me. These instances are just a few examples of the harassment women face at the hands of men, especially in Africa.
Sexual harassment is an issue most African women have to deal with on a daily basis, often from an unusually young age. My story is not unique. This is the story of normalized sexual deviance that thrive in a system which protects men from the consequences of their actions and instead blames women. This is the system of rape culture. And in Africa, it thrives.
The problem over here is entitlement. With the frequent sexualization and objectification of women everywhere you turn, it becomes apparent that women are often seen as mere sexual conquests for the gratification of men. This evokes a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. All sense of autonomy is removed from a woman and with men taking what they see as rightfully theirs.
This problem begins at home. When juvenile girls are advised not to wear ‘short’ skirts and dresses in their own home, in front of their male relatives, it plays part in the process of victim-blaming. From a significantly young age, we are told how to sit, act, dress, when to leave the house, when to come back. Do boys also get the same treatment? No. Instead, we are told “boys will always be boys,” “he’s just a boy,” “you know how boys are.” These statements aid in the normalization of rape culture where a boy can make a rape joke and everyone — including girls — find it innocent and amusing. After all, it is “just for laughs”. The problem is that behaviors such as catcalling, unwanted touch, unsolicited nudes and victim-blaming have all become normalized to the point where people no longer see the wrong in it and deem it part of ordinary life.
It is critical to note the role that women play in rape culture. Often times, this role is subconscious and comes from our mothers, grandmothers and aunts. It comes in the form of ‘protecting’ adolescent girls from men by modifying the girls’ behavior so as not to ‘tempt’ the man. This places the onus of not getting raped or harassed on young girls who barely know what it is. This also leads to feelings of shame and self-blaming on the victim if they do get raped as to them, they did not take enough precautions to ensure their safety. Not to mention questions like “what were you wearing?” “were you drinking?” “did you lead him on?” coming from all sides.
It’s a process. A pyramid. Normalization is at the bottom, moving on to degradation, removal of autonomy and finally, explicit violence – rape. These are no isolated incidents. They play a part in the process of rape culture where the bottom tier supports and reinforces the topmost tiers. It is urgent to realize that rape is not only the violent act in itself but also sexual harassment, sexual coercion, rape jokes, catcalls and condom removal. All these acts play part in a process of brutal violence towards women – and men. So no, boys will not always be boys. It is about time we realize that and change the narrative.