The #JustMen theatre project offers the possibility of South African men finally taking a stand against rape and gender-based violence. After seeing the pioneering production in Cape Town, I realised that healing through theatre is a work in progress. There are a lot of positives. The challenge is to make an impact beyond hand-clapping. This is my experience.
Trigger Warning: Sexual assault, gender-based violence, child molestation.
I walk into the theatre. The first thing I notice on stage is the four-man cast and the words scattered around the backdrop behind them. They read #IWill, #IDidThat, #StandUp and #JustMen in brightly coloured chalk. As I sit down I look back at the auditorium seats. I notice the faces of even more men, many of them. I usually feel uncomfortable and unsafe in environments where I am surrounded by men.
I think back to just two weeks ago. I went to a gathering with a friend. As soon as we walked into the house, we realised that we were the only women there. My friend immediately slid a pair of scissors, lying across a table, towards her. She did it discreetly. She said that she knew that if something bad were to happen, she’d have a weapon to defend us. Fortunately, nothing happened, but as women, we live in constant fear of being violated.
Seeing all the men in this theatre tonight feels different, it is comforting. It makes me think that we have finally got their attention, that they’re going to take a stand and join us in putting an end to rape and gender-based violence. But it is disturbing that this is only happening now. So many women and children have been violated, often killed, before we got to this point. I ask myself why has it taken so long for South African men to realise that they also need to take a stand. Why are men only taking action now?
What is #JustMen?
“What you hear tonight could trigger an emotional release… If you need to leave, that’s okay… And last, don’t forget to breathe,” director Heinrich Reisenhofer says in his opening. His words are reassuring, especially to survivors in the audience.
#JustMen is a production running at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town until 30 June 2018. It is devised by the four-man cast of Thando Doni, Loukmaan Adams, Sherman Pharo and Johan Baird, and Reisenhofer.
#JustMen is a response to the #MeToo movement (a social media movement against sexual assault and sexual harassment) and the recent femicide and gender-based violence attacks in South Africa. It is based on real-life events. The actors share their true stories and the production gives them the freedom to own up to their actions and also deal with their own shame.
What happens in #JustMen?
In light of the Fifa World Cup, the opening scene begins with the four actors tossing around a ball and sharing “rape jokes”. One of the jokes is: “Why did the guitarist go to jail? Because he fingered a minor.” This is met with a reaction of sympathy from most, but also laughter from the group of young men sitting behind me.
I turn my head to stare them down, they do not look ashamed. What is funny about child molestation? Maybe they are so soaked up in rape culture and are so used to this type of “banter” in their locker rooms that it has become second nature for them to laugh. Maybe they do not even realise that it is problematic. Another part of me thinks that they are laughing because they cannot confront their own experiences when they see what is depicted on stage, that laughing is a reflex to shame and discomfort. I want to stop the performance and ask them why they laughed, but of course I cannot. The inappropriate reaction of these men is what I believe #JustMen is trying to make a point of.
Men can also be rape survivors
In one of the scenes, an actor shares his story. When he was 12, he worked at a tuck shop. One day, the 33-year-old woman who managed the shop locked him up and raped him. He did not realise that he had been raped until he was in rehearsals, devising this play. It dawned on him then that he had internalised his pain for years.
Men are scared to speak out and say that they have been raped, peers laugh at them, they ask them “how did it happen?” or assume that they should have enjoyed it. Many men are broken inside. It is important that we remember that men can be rape survivors. And they need space to speak freely. The #JustMen show provided that space. #WeBelieveYou.
Men need to own up
The same actor shares another story. He, along with a group of friends, invited a female classmate over to one of their homes after school. They slipped a pill into the girl’s drink. He describes the pill as something that would make the young girl more relaxed, more flirtatious and more willing to engage in sex. I assume that this was a date rape drug.
The girl did not accept the drink, “I think she noticed that we were too excited,” he said. She survived. The actor talks about the consequences had the young girl accepted the drink. He speaks about how their futures could have been ruined, he and his friends could have gone to jail. He also speaks about how that day could have affected the girl’s life forever, how traumatised she would have been. And even though the actor seems remorseful, at no point does he say the word “rape”.
I can’t help thinking that perhaps his friends had attempted to rape that young girl by spiking her drink. Perhaps they, like society generally, do not understand the meaning of consent?
Consent cannot be given when someone is under the influence of drugs, or alcohol. It is rape when you sleep with someone who is under the influence. We need to say it like it is.
This takes me back to an incident at university last year. I remember sitting with a group of male friends. It was shortly after the #MeToo movement became popular. They were going through their Twitter feeds, and they were talking about how scared they were that they would wake up one day and one of the “loose girls” they had slept with after a drunken night out would accuse them of rape. I think many saw the #MeToo movement as a witch hunt. They did not understand that they had raped, they did not understand consent.
Consent is when someone agrees, gives permission, or says “yes” to sexual activity. Consent is always freely given and all people in a sexual situation must feel that they are able to say “yes” or “no” or stop the sexual activity at any point.
Consent should not be assumed. You cannot assume that someone wants to sleep with you because of their body language, silence, lack of resistance or even previous sexual activity/being in a relationship with that person. The meaning of consent needs to be drilled into the minds of all people.
Masculinity and its fragility
I listen to another actor speak about a day on the beach with his daughter. He describes how she takes her clothes off, and runs to catch the waves in her bathing suit. All the men stare at her. He is enraged. It is only then that he is able to empathise with a rape survivor, by imagining – what if it were to happen to his own baby girl?
I am in no way justifying the men who undressed that young girl with their eyes, but after hearing that story, I wondered why is it that so many men are enraged by sexual assault only when it happens to their own daughter, sister, or girlfriend? They should be just as angry when it happens to each and every woman.
For me, this makes me think of men’s obsession with possession; they think they own the bodies of the women who are close to them. They want to protect them, and maintain power over them. When someone threatens “their women”, their masculinity is challenged and their ability to protect in question.
Men should be appalled by every man who violates all women. How many men have watched their friends rape or beat up other women and said nothing or stopped their friend because “it’s against bro code”? If we become a more empathetic society where people look out for others, then we can reduce violations.
Better fathers, better men
#JustMen deals a lot with masculinity and delves into father-son relationships. It deals with how men are forced to be strong, to become the protectors, never cry, and never confront their own pain.
One of the actors talks about how, growing up, he watched his father beat up his mother. This led to him being involved in gangsterism, going to prison and even hurting his wife by choking her during an argument. All he ever wanted to do was to protect his mother but he did not realise that he was becoming his father in that process. Maybe one of the reasons why we have such broken men in our society is because of their fathers.
Is #JustMen doing enough?
In Reisenhofer’s opening speech, he explains that #JustMen was initially intended to be watched by men only, but they opened it to women. He is pleased to see a predominantly male audience tonight, because women are usually the ones who drag men to see productions like this.
I think that #JustMen is needed in our society and is a step in the right direction. This production is not a play, it is a project that encourages discussions, engagement and vulnerability.
But a lot more can be done. Men need to own up to what they have done and not sugarcoat rape and gender-based violence. We need justice, we need to protect all. We need to understand the severity of rape and gender- based violence; there is no such thing as a rape joke, it is serious. We need men to call out other men.
And as women, what do we need to do?
We also need more supportive women. After the production, the men and women are divided into two separate groups to discuss our feelings about #JustMen and share experiences.
In the women’s engagement room, the facilitator says: “Please raise up your hand if you have been raped.”
I cringe at how insensitive and direct that question is, it is a trigger. One of the survivors tells her story. She was raped by her pastor, who she later found out was raping other women. Nothing much was done by the church. The facilitator tells her to speak up, to report this man and “name and shame him”.
I disagree with the facilitator’s approach.
I tell the group that I feel that some women put too much pressure on survivors to take responsibility for the action of their attackers, without acknowledging the resilience that comes with surviving such an atrocity, or saying in a room full of other women, that “I was raped”.
We make things worse if we lay a guilt trip on survivors and call them out if they do not report rape incidents. Chances are that survivor is already beating herself up for not reporting the incident. It is more important to be supportive, to listen, to encourage healing, so that the survivor will report the crime when ready.
There needs to be more awareness that reporting rape violations in South Africa can come with antagonism from police officers when they take your statement. There is often scepticism from community members who ask “what were you wearing” or gossip and call you promiscuous. There are family members who refuse to believe you or break down, knowing that you were violated. There is the emotional trauma that comes with retelling your story over and over again for each statement and each court appearance.
Survivors endure a lot of pain. We should not shift the focus of responsibility on to the survivor, when they are not yet ready.
As women, we do not want to create healing spaces that do more harm than good.
I told the facilitator that I feared that survivors would not speak up if they were met with this approach. She explained that she was not telling the survivor to name and shame the perpetrator but to report him to save other women. She also said that she would be more sensitive to people’s pain in future. The survivor pulled me aside afterwards and expressed how scared she felt when she told her story and the reaction from the facilitator and some of the women in the room. She was also grateful that someone spoke up for her.
My final thoughts
There is a moment towards the end of #JustMen when the actors shout out to the audience and ask the men to stand up. The men in the audience all stand up and clap. To me, this feels like they are just giving a standing ovation to a great play, that the production is nothing but a performance, and the fact that women are being raped, beaten and killed every day is just a performance on stage, it is not real.
Well, this is nothing to smile and clap about, it is a reality that we deal with every single day.
Rape and gender-based violence kill, and I am not only talking about a physical death. They crush people’s spirits and break up families. We are forced to be ashamed and silent. We are labelled as victims and not survivors of these atrocities. We need men to act too. There were 39,828 reported rape cases in the country in the 2016/17 year. There are many more survivors. #MeToo. DM
This article was amended on 2 June, 2018, to include official rape statistics
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