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V-Day stands for… vapidity

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

On 14 February, “One Billion Rising” will take place – also known as the main project of the V-Day initiative. It’s a celebrity-endorsed attempt to get a billion activists worldwide to take part in a choreographed dance to end rape. The trouble is, it’s got bugger-all to do with rape at all. And it’s unlikely to achieve anything, either.

What are you doing this Valentine’s Day? Are you racing to get last-minute chocolates for your loved one? Watching the day go by with a cynical smile on your face?

Or will you be swaying with a flash mob on Muizenberg beach to prove, in case anyone was unsure, that you disapprove of rape?

14 February is the day when activists the world over will attempt to unite a billion dancers – representing the billion women who are victims of sexual or other violence worldwide – to protest against rape. It’s a V-Day initiative – V-Day being a fifteen-year-old drive which, according to its mission statement, attempts to reclaim Valentine’s Day for a feminist cause, raises millions of dollars in funding and has attracted a number of celebrity endorsements.

And now, as we reel in the aftermath of Anene Booysen’s assault and murder, this US-based movement is coming to South Africa.

Well-timed, you might think at first glance. V-Day, we’re told by writer and organiser Eve Ensler, stands for “victory, Valentine and vagina”. And vomit, I’d add. Because on all the pages of the vagina-themed website (yes, really) there is a great deal of sentimentality, a lot of references to the power in one’s lady-parts…and very little else.

And that does make me feel ill.

Let’s back up a little. Visit your nearest Mac or PC, log into Facebook, and you’ll find a link to a South African leg of OBR – dubbed Flash Dance for Freedom. Here, it appears from the RSVPs to this particular event – although there is more than one – a modest 56 people will be dancing “to end rape”. Should you decide you would like to dance along with them, you can visit YouTube and watch the video tutorial of legendary Flashdance choreographer Debbie Allen running through the moves. The dance itself goes something like this: you take a few steps, mime the word “STOP”, wave your hands about soulfully, add “YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW ME”, and twirl. (Because, of course, it’s not rape if your rapist does know you.)

The trouble is, the event as a form of activism is utterly, utterly naff. It’s limp-wristed in the extreme. It’s everything that is wrong with activism in so many parts of the world. In short, it’s all about the noise you make, and nothing to do with the people you’re supposed to help.

Trawl through the pages of the site and you’ll find numerous references to fundraising – and even a donations page – yet the lack of transparency is striking. There is a reference on nearly every page to funds being gathered “to end rape” and “stop women abuse” but no specification of how this is to be done. Which I’d say is significant, since “ending rape” is rather a murky goal. Are you running rapist rehabilitation workshops? Castration communes? What?

According to reports, the publicity and funds gathered are rather impressive. Yet the only explicit reference anywhere to what the money gets spent on is, ahem, awareness-raising performances of Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues. For real. One billion people are dancing on beaches all over the world and spending hours learning the steps and words to the main jingle… and the only specified purpose is to fund Eve Ensler creatively. On a play she’s been running for years.

Or so it seems.

To be clear: I am not saying that the money does only fund Eve Ensler; she is a prominent activist and it is unlikely. But what I am saying is, nobody knows. And V-Day sure isn’t saying anything to clarify. The only purpose they actually specify is the abovementioned. And that’s a problematic lack of transparency.

I should come clean and say upfront that Eve Ensler is no friend of mine at the best of times. I don’t appreciate her reducing women and their issues to one rather two-dimensional symbol – a talking vagina – and riding on the (yawn) shock factor to say very little at all. I don’t appreciate her biology-centric approach, either, as I believe it excludes sexual equality of intersex people, transgendered people and various other forms of sexual multiplicity. And most of all, I don’t think pretending my genitals talk is the route to empowerment. I think shifting the focus onto women’s sex organs instead of their rights doesn’t reclaim anything at all; I think it reduces them to being just a body, and it’s just as insulting as raping them.

Plus I just really don’t like her poetry.

But even without my deep-seated dislike of Ms Ensler and anything she touches, I’d still have a huge problem with the approach of the One Billion Rising V-Day dance. How, for the love of God, is doing a choreographed theme-dance going to help anybody? How on earth is a gathering of swaying hip(pie)s going to stop rape? In the dance demonstration, an impassioned Allen urges you to raise your arms and “invoke the spirit” that will make rapists the world over think better of their ways. True story. But that’s as close it gets to specifics. Invoking the effing spirit, I ask you.

But getting one billion people together to dance in protest is awesome, you might argue. The event will raise awareness of rape, you might add. The only problem is that firstly, we’re all aware of the staggering rape statistics, and that’s not actually changing anything. Secondly, ‘raising awareness’ is a personal bugbear of mine, largely because it’s an easy way to hide behind armchair activism and not actually do anything. I have seen people embrace social networking in a similarly impotent way, confusing talk with action. “Copy and paste this with a <3 if you want to stop rape”, they will say. “Post the colour of your bra to stop breast cancer” or “Share these gruesome pictures of slaughtered rhinos to stop poaching”.  These compulsive ‘awareness’ raisers are not actually achieving anything except a great deal of copying and pasting. It works on my nerves.

There is a staggering difference between having ‘awareness’ of a problem and actually doing something about it. I can personally go tomorrow and tell everyone I know all the rape statistics I know, and I bet you anything you like not one of them will respond to that information with any kind of action. Yet I will be able to feel good about myself for spreading ‘awareness’.

That’s bullshit.

The third problem with the Flash Dance approach is that even where it does raise ‘awareness’ (and I use that term skeptically) it does not actually engage with any of the underlying causes of rape. It’s a superficial, gimmicky awareness. In each country, area and community, the complexities of rape are undoubtedly different, although I can say with reasonable confidence that in South Africa, the major contributing factors are the underlying sexist attitude described so well by Gushwell Brooks, as well as pervasive social inequality.

The latter is particularly important, because however you might like to dress it, privilege protects you – and putting a whole parade of middle-class liberals on a beach – all of whom are probably unaware of the degree to which they don’t understand the dangers facing their poorer sisters – is decidedly unhelpful. You can raise all the awareness you want, but when you’re living in a shack and the door doesn’t lock, and you don’t have a car to get you home safely from the pub, you’re facing a far greater danger from the rapists around you. And that’s a pretty South African problem.

So do you want diminish the negative impact of rape? Great. Here are some ideas; some things you could do with your time instead of memorising a visually unappealing dance and swaying your tushie for half an hour in Muizenberg.

You could do what I do and kick off your own campaign to raise funds for organisations that protect women who have suffered sexual or domestic violence. You could do what my partner does, and arrange self-defence workshops in townships, so that lesbians can feel they have some recourse if faced with a corrective rape attack. You could make some donations yourself, monthly, so that organisations like Rape Crisis don’t have to close. You can spend some of those hours you spent learning choreographed dance moves volunteering at a shelter. (Think what a billion man-hours can do…)

You can teach your own children, male and female, how to be both respectful and assertive. You can teach your sons and your daughters to fight back – because no, rape is not just a female problem, although it is more common for victims to be women. You can stand up and intervene when your drunk friend sexually harasses someone at a bar. You can join Girls Not Brides, and fight against forced marriage.

You can teach your children and their friends and your nieces and nephews to respect the differences between their genders, and engage with the similarities. You can lift your female friend home if she’s had a few drinks and she’s considering catching a ride with that stranger she met in the bar.

You can join or attend equality or gender sensitivity workshops, or suggest that these be run at your place of work. You can start your own charity initiative aimed at addressing some of the social inequalities that facilitate rape – whether this is to start a cheap taxi service for young girls or to distribute tazers in township schools; the choice is yours.

These are just ideas. The point is, you can do something, if you really want to, to stop rape. And you can choose what kind of scale you want to operate on – no matter what your capacity, there’s something you can do.

But for God’s sake, don’t insult the victims by congratulating yourself on “doing” something when all you’re doing is step, step, twirl. DM

* Update: It has been pointed out that the Flash Dance(s) for Freedom are not the only OBR event(s). Daily Maverick was aware of this; however, in terms of prominence, the dance events are receiving a great deal of publicity and are widely perceived as representative of the campaign, which is obviously problematic. Visit the OBR website and the emphasis is very clearly on dance flash mobs and on dance as protest. Certainly many participants are opting to join the flash mobs without volunteering in other areas. There are also volunteer organisations affiliated with OBR; however, these are separate and distinct from the flash mobs in question. Furthermore, the volunteer organisations that have pledged to assist OBR are just that – affiliated – and are doing their admirable work regardless. Either way, it does not change the fundamental argument that simply to ‘dance for awareness’ is not an effective enough form of activism, and that we have to go beyond that and into action in our daily lives, on whatever scale we can manage.


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