"I’ll give you my full name for now but I might change my mind later. I’m not sure how I feel about being googleable as a survivor."
Michelle, 21, leans forwards to spell her first and last, just in case.
As her head dips, a shock of hot pink hair frees itself from her dampened hood, waving in stunning defiance to the onslaught of ominous cloud cover settling over Rhodes University, located in South Africa’s East Cape region.
Returning pen and hair to their respective states, Michelle expounds, “Say I apply at a company. Because I’m a social media journalist it’s likely they’ll Google me and see what comes up. I’m not sure I want that to be first.”
Unfortunately, extending this preference to her daily life isn’t as simple.
"As a survivor you work really hard to not let it define you," Michelle says. "But I think the unfortunate thing is you can’t really choose whether it’s going to be a part of who you are."
2014 marks Michelle’s fourth year as a participant in Grahamstown, South Africa’s annual Silent Protest against rape and sexual violence, but her first identifying as a survivor of sexual assault.
Her mouthpiece is an oversized purple t-shirt silk-screened with the words “Survivor and …” Beneath the inscription sits a thick white text box, left blank as a space for survivors to define themselves as more than their assault.
Michelle’s reads, “REINSCRIBER.”
"Last year I took an anthropology class about heritage. When a country has a difficult heritage, for example: apartheid, people take old spaces that have a terrible history and they raze that history," Michelle explains. "But, instead, you can reinscribe that. You can make something happen in a once negative space."
This ideology is the foundation of Silent Protest.
First organized in 2006 to bring attention to the estimated 1 in 25 [some 400,000] acts of sexual violence that go unreported in South Africa each year, Silent Protest has existed as a safe space for survivors to break their silence in the company of solidarity.
Protesters demonstrate support by silencing themselves with strips of black gaffer tape for a 12 hour period to generate awareness for the silencing nature of rape culture.
Others, choosing to protest not in silence, but in solidarity don t-shirts identifying their roles in the protest: silenced, solidarity, rape survivor.
This year, 2014, marks the first year that the protests have expanded to offer shirts for survivors of sexual abuse, along with rape survivors.
Though seemingly minor, the innovation is a testament to the protest’s movement towards inclusivity under the direction of coordinator Kim Barker, a Rhodes University doctoral psychology student researching the effectiveness of the Silent Protest for survivors.
“The decision came from the participants in my research, largely. Some of them had been sexually assaulted, rather than raped, and had chosen not to wear the rape survivor t shirt because they felt it would be disrespectful towards survivors if they did. Others felt angry they didn’t have a place to acknowledge what had happened to them. There seemed to be the need for a broader acknowledgement of sexual violation.”
For many Silent Protesters, the accessibility of the survivor shirt was the prompting they needed to reveal their assault.
“The first time I’ve been really open with it is today,” Michelle says. “I think I decided I would wear the survivor shirt when I saw that shirts were being made available this year to survivors as well as rape survivors.”
Finding the courage to tell not just one other person, but an assembly of her peers is a significant marker in Michelle’s recovery process.
“Weirdly, the hardest person to tell has been myself, because to wear this shirt in front of all these people, I’ve got to believe myself. When you relinquish yourself to the fact that it’s not your fault, it’s terrifying because you’re acknowledging that they had all the power in that moment.”
Barker says the difficulty Michelle experienced in accepting her assault as truth is a universal struggle for survivors.
“It comes down in a large degree to victim-blaming, blaming themselves, so it wasn’t rape it was, ‘I was stupid. I got into a difficult situation and I couldn’t get out of it.’ Actually calling something rape is a really big step,” Barker says.
For Michelle, taking that step meant replacing the stereotypes that had populated her understanding of rape culture with the clarity of her own experience.
“In the conversations I had when i was in high school sexual assault was something that was violent, that was exacted by a stranger,” Michelle says. “But, when I was sexually assaulted it was by my boyfriend, who I trusted. I’ve learned that a lot of the time rape is not just a violent act but a violation of trust.”
By unpacking the taboos and misconceptions that many survivors hold about sexual violence, the discussions facilitated by Silent Protest expedite the recovery process for many survivors and create an educated platform for change.
“You can’t really choose whether it’s going to be a part of you, because it is. But being part of the protest means that instead of it being part of me in a negative way, it gave me the opportunity to be a person who speaks out about this to break the silence and invisibility of survivors and to use my bad experience as a way of educating others about sexual violence,” Michelle says. “So I guess what you can choose is not to let it crush you, but to make it empower you.”