Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Melissa Gilbert, host of The Grass Gets Greener Podcast, and talk about my story of how I got involved with AVFTI. I spoke on my love for exploring and my deep seeded need to travel. Physically exploring the world has always helped me explore what I was feeling inside.
As I sit and write this, I have just nearly exited the plane after a 30 hour long journey home from a 3 week study abroad course in South Africa. I’ve just washed my hair, done my laundry, and my dog is curled at my feet. I’m writing this from comfort in a familiar place, something I haven’t had for nearly a month. Being in a new place can be intimidating, but when you travel, you also agree to the unspoken rule that you will partake in the culture you have entered. You will try new things, eat new food. Cultural exchange is something you can partake in at any given moment, but is expected in travel. To some, that’s scary. To me, it’s always been exciting.
Let me get one thing straight: I love South Africa. I loved all of the things I had the privilege of experiencing while I was there. However, this is a country deeply rooted in a historical belief system that has only recently been abolished. Our host university arranged for all 11 students, 2 professors, and 2 staff members stay on a farm that had a very intimate look at just what the dregs of the now nonexistent Apartheid laws were left behind. That is all we were going to look at. We wanted to see what made this farm: its owners and its workers, the livestock, and the land that it was built on. We were told there was a river to swim in and a mountain to climb. It was just another piece of adventure of our African experience.
Upon arriving to the farm, we learned there were actually two farms. Two older married couples shared the land between their separate establishments. Each couple had an extensively beautiful house, adorned with photographs, artwork, trophies from game hunts (including an actual giraffe mounted on the biggest wall I’d ever seen). Professors, staff, and the two male students were assigned to one mansion, and all nine female students were assigned to the other. The mansions were about 10 miles apart on dirt roads through African terrain, complete with foreign wildlife. The only way to get back and forth was through a truck driven by one of the farm owners.
During the three days and two nights we spent at this farm, it was clear that they were very interested in the female students who had come to stay with them. Out of the 11 of us students, 9 of us were females. As soon as the sun went down after dinner, everyone was brought alcohol in bottomless amounts. With a fervor, they honed in on us. I could go on about all kinds of rude and arrogant things they said, but at a certain point my AVFTI voice kicked in. I began to listen, document, and pull apart the words being slurred at us by drunken men old enough to be our grandfathers. Some of the quotes I had written down include:
- “You there. What’s your name? Is it Jessica? We’ve wanted a Jessica for so long. We’re just dying to have a Jessica for [Farmer].”
- “I like to take pictures with the girls who come to the farm. But only the pretty ones. So all of you must look your best tomorrow. There will be a beauty contest. Make sure you’re wearing your lipstick.”
- “There are so many beautiful women here tonight. And I cannot have any of them. So that is why I drink so heavily.”
- “You’re missing out on your chance to be with a South African. Boyfriend or not, it doesn’t matter.”
- “Stay up all night with us girls. We want to give you Irish coffee. Won’t you please just come and drink more with us?”
The wives of these men stood next to them with stone cold smiles on their faces, never once saying a word about why this misconduct might not be okay to nine American strangers who came to experience African farm life. The only time they spoke directly to us was to point out some kind of flaw in us. Instead of saving us from the inappropriate banter of their husbands, they took us down in a way only they could. We were intimidated. We were scared. And they knew that. We did not hide our discomfort, yet they laughed in our faces.
Around the time I was barricading our door to prevent another drunk farmer from barging in and begging me to drink more with him, a man was given a less than minimum sentence for being caught raping a young woman in public. Statuses flew to the newsfeed I would check later that week, calling out the horrible rape culture in his sentence, his statement, and his lack of a mugshot to appear online. “Something must be done,” people said. “How could this have happened?” they asked.
I’ve had 2 weeks to reflect on the events that happened at the farm. As a group, we spoke with our professors about the comments and the actions that accumulated to our need to a quick exit that Sunday morning. They were appalled.
When I think about the statement made by Brock Turner’s father, and the experience I had while studying abroad, I think about the rape culture I have witnessed on two sides of the world. I wanted to dissect them and find out what the common themes were in both environments. In truth, they are not all that different.
Rape culture has and always will involve sympathy towards the attacker. It victimizes the person who originally created a victim where there wasn’t one originally. However, there is another element towards rape culture that doesn’t get called out nearly as often as it should: entitlement.
A rapist feels entitled to the thing a victim doesn’t want to give. They use unchallenged power to take what they want. Someone who participates in rape culture will remember the rapist is human, the rapist will make sure to remind them of the respect they deserve. Sometimes civilians are too fearful to call out the behavior, sometimes they just don’t. So the snowball grows, it expands.
Brock Turner’s father lamented that his son can no longer eat a steak with fervor because “20 minutes of action” resulted in a less than minimal punishment that is “destroying his life”. Victims are discredited because of the clothes they were wearing, the measures of skin showing just how much their attacker deserved. At the farm I knew that these men were making these comments, these gestures, and these uncomfortable touches not because they wanted any particular one of us. They knew we were completely blind to the cultural norms of the area. They got away with these horrible things while we visited because they knew they could so they did. It was a simple and as heartbreaking as that. They laughed in our faces because they were protected by our ignorance and their wives’ forgiveness.
If we want to change a culture, we have to remind ourselves and others that no one is entitled to anyone. We have to remind ourselves that entitlement is a motive for the crime our culture works hard to cover up and protect. And we have to remember no matter where we are in the world that rape culture could and does exist, and is not acceptable anywhere.