In 2019, we started TCW Chat, a series of conversations with various people discussing topics around consent, sexual assault and the intersection of their work and life around these topics. During that time, we had Olutimehin Adegbeye tell us a little about consent in low-income neighbourhoods in Nigeria, Dayo Adedapo told us about toxic masculinity and Jade Bentil told us a little about feminism and the representation of black women in media.
We took a break in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic and this year, we are back, better and more consistent. Every month, we’ll pick someone and talk about these urgent topics in the hope that one way or the order, we are disseminating the message and breaking down complex conversations into simple tidbits. This month, we have Mbali Shongwe joining us. Mbali is a 21-year-old student studying History and Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand. She is the founder of Mindful(l) Organization, a mental health non-profit that aims to destigmatize mental illness and provide access to mental health tools and health care for the black South African youth.
Mbali is a social activist at heart and promotes the importance of intersectionality. By shining light on the injustices she has experienced based on her race, sexuality, sexual assault and mental illness, she aims to show that these multiple identities are not mutually exclusive and each is of equal importance.
What does consent mean to you?
Consent is a central and ongoing function of all human interactions – an essential predeterminate in any encounter between two people. Many believe that consent is exclusively limited to serve as a feature of sexual encounters but it is more than that. It exists in the mundane and ritualistic areas of our lives too. Consent determines whether you can hug the child you have just been introduced to or share stressful details about your personal life with a friend. It applies when you ask to borrow something from a loved one or when you would like to take an open seat. Consent is not respectful, it is not sexy, it is essential and simply the right thing to do. By asking for consent before you interact with another person you are simply acknowledging that they are autonomous being worthy of the right to boundaries and control over what happens to their body and their space. If we normalise and emphasise the practice of consent in non-eventful areas or activities in our lives, we will naturally start to implement it in all areas, sexual included.
Why is early consent and sex education important and what do you think is the ideal age to begin teaching young children about consent?
Early consent and sex education are important because they serve to normalise the ideas before the child is privy to any external influences which might disrupt their understanding. By teaching children about consent and safe sex from a young age, it positions them to be aware of what is right and wrong whilst also empowering them to identify any potentially violent situations in future as they know what these things are. I believe consent should be taught as soon as you start teaching any other values and should be a constant feature of a child’s upbringing. It is essential that children are aware and understanding of consent before they start interacting with other children as it will equip them with the respect for others and their space and serve to promote healthier interactions.
Who would you say is responsible for consent education for kids? Parents, schools, activists?
I believe it is the responsibility of any person/activity/institution that has an influence on children and is someone/something that children interact with regularly. Following the African proverb, It takes a village to raise a child, it is my understanding that if you can be a positive force in a child’s life, it is then your responsibility to do so. By working together, the message is more likely to stick and having the idea of consent reinforced from every angle will undoubtedly have a positive influence and instil the necessary values.
In what ways can we learn to be clear about our sexual boundaries and make the giving of our consent more transparent?
I believe that this is a personal process and each person needs to navigate it in a way that feels comfortable to them. Generally, I think that there is a need for a societal shift in the thinking around female sexuality and how it’s expressed. As it stands, women are discouraged from tapping into their sexual autonomy and are rather encouraged to be passive when it comes to sex and their desires and needs. This norm decentres women from the sexual experience and suggests that they serve as objects of male pleasure, making them less likely to express their boundaries and expectations during sex. Highlighting the importance of equality and open expression during sex serves as a tool to empower women to communicate their boundaries honestly and unapologetically.
When it comes to consent, both partners should continuously check in with each other to ensure that they’re both comfortable. As a rule, if any new activity is going to be introduced, there should be verbal communication to confirm that both parties are comfortable with the progression. Although there is much to gain from physical cues, it is important to remember that CONSENT IS VERBAL. Ask before doing and ensure that a clear answer has been communicated. Consent is a central and continuous part of the sexual experience.
How do you approach conversations with friends who have problematic views about consent?
Given the nature of my friendships and my own experience with having boundaries infringed upon, there is a consensus amongst my friends when it comes to my views on the matter. I am unapologetic when it comes to differentiating between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and am not afraid to challenge my friends who hold problematic views.
My approach always is to lead with the goal of education. I feel like we are all on a constant journey of learning and unlearning behaviours that we have socialised to adopt as the norm. Should I identify that someone is partaking in problematic behaviour, I will raise it with them identifying what is wrong and seeking to educate them on ways to do it better. In instances that I have tried and violent behaviour persists, I will communicate my disapproval and cut ties with the person as I hold no space for violent behaviour and the active dismissal of boundaries.
Do you think there are grey areas with regards to consent? How do you approach this conversation?
Technically no. Following my understanding of consent that I have explained previously, consent should be applied to all interactions with another person despite the relationship and is something that should be practised continually throughout every encounter. Using this framework, there should be no room for grey areas. However, I am aware of many instances that have become popularised as “grey areas” of consent such as sexual encounters within relationships, when both parties are intoxicated or with regular sexual partners. Many believe that in these instances, consent is “assumed” or granted on the basis that it has been granted before. This is a dangerous assumption which will result in “grey area”s, however, without assumption “grey areas” do not exist.
Rape and Sexual Assault
We keep talking about consent and yet there are high numbers of rape cases daily. What other ways do you think we can approach this?
Creating spaces in which consent education is promoted and the dialogue is normalised is one of the most effective ways to raise awareness, however, awareness does not mean compliance. Oftentimes what is said in conversations surrounding consent is disregarded or downplayed as I think is often the case within the South African context. Whilst raising awareness, I also believe it is of great importance to ensure that there are harsh consequences for perpetrators of sexual assault. A large part of the frequency of these cases is the knowledge that there is a high likelihood of getting away with it and perpetrators are not likely to face severe consequences for the crime. Creating a culture where perpetrators are exposed to economic and social exclusion for acts of sexual violence and the legal system works hard to ensure justice is obtained will have a large role to play in decreasing the frequency of these crimes. The element of fear needs to exist and at the moment, it is evident that it does not.
In Africa, the constitutions and government aren’t friendly to victims of sexual harassment and assault. In a perfect world, what would be done right?
Firstly, there needs to be more prominence placed on the laws that already exist and police forces need to commit themselves to actively ensuring that these laws are enforced. A large part of the trauma and challenges that victims face when going to report is the fact that there is a desensitisation to these crimes and police are no longer urgent when it comes to investigating and solving them.
Secondly, there needs to be more intensive sensitivity training that is done by the police or crimes of sexual assault need to be handled by a specialised unit. In many countries, victim encounters with the police are not only violent but serve as a site of secondary trauma as the officer’s gaslight, victim-blame and shame individuals when they come to report instead of providing a safe and supportive environment. This behaviour following a crime of that nature will only inflict more harm on the victim and often discourages them from either reporting or following through with the case.
Thirdly, there needs to be more urgency in processing sexual assault kits. South Africa has a serious backlog when it comes to processing rape kits and this means that the most important evidence that can be used to solve the crime (DNA) is not being prioritised. A quicker turn around in processing these kits could be essential when it comes to identifying and catching sexual predators whilst also ensuring that repeat offenders do not have a chance to strike again.
What do you think is the appropriate consequence for sexual predators?
Sexual predators need to feel the consequences of what they have done in all realms of their lives. On a societal level, predators need to be annexed from society and have to confront their actions alone. When predators are supported following allegations, it not only discounts the severity of the situation but also puts doubt on the allegations made by the victim. Predators must be removed from any work environments immediately and need to face financial consequences for their actions. In terms of justice, it is important that sexual assaulters are not granted bail under any circumstances and I believe that appropriate sentencing is life imprisonment. The only fair consequence would be for perpetrators to remotely experience the same feelings that they have inflicted on their victims such as shame, guilt, isolation, trauma and heartbreak – alongside the many psychological challenges that come along with a crime this heinous.
How do you feel about social media shaming for rapists and abusers?
Social media is extremely important when it comes to outing and shaming abusers. In a time when the police have become complacent and legal consequences for these actions are a rarity, kangaroo courts serve as the next best thing. Using social media as a tool is effective as it alerts a community of members within the space who are dangerous and gives people the autonomy to avoid interactions with said people. Social media outing is also one of the few ways we see a true consequence for actions as abusers are often annexed from social groups and forced to be accountable for their actions. Removal from any positions of power and jobs usually follows which means that perpetrators experience financial consequences as well which is of the utmost importance. Social media outing is one of the few ways in which victims are heard, believed and supported and that fact alone is a justification that proves its significance.
As someone who works with an organization that focuses on destigmatizing mental illness, what are the most common misconceptions around mental health you know of?
The misconceptions surrounding mental health are many but the most common and harmful misconceptions that I am privy to are: mental illnesses are a choice and serve as a sign of weakness, mental health issues are a middle class or white problem and men are less likely to suffer from mental illness. Misconceptions like these uphold the stigma surrounding mental health and discourage people who are struggling from seeking help for fear of being invalidated or judged. Just like the other non-communicable diseases, mental illnesses are medical issues that require support and sometimes treatment to be maintained and alleviated. The reality is that 1/4 people will battle with their mental health within their lifetime and a situation like the current Covid-19 pandemic has exemplified just how normal and human mental health challenges are. Mental health is everyone’s issues as we all need to maintain a healthy state of mind to feel our best. Speaking about mental health and mental illnesses and taking the time to understand what they help debunk the misconceptions and allows those in need of assistance to seek it openly and unashamedly.
Due to the media, there’s an increased awareness regarding mental health issues. Is there more you think that the media can do?
Media has played a massive role in educating people with regards to mental health issues and it has helped open a dialogue that has been avoided for a very long time. Alongside its educational role, media can share resources that can aid those struggling with their mental health with regards to finding tools for coping, where to access professional support and sharing tips and stories of those experiencing similar journeys. The many platforms can also play the invaluable role of connecting individuals in distress to support networks and communities that can help assist them with understanding and overcoming their mental health challenges. Organisations such as Mindful(l), show just how valuable and multi-faceted media can be in its approach to addressing mental health issues.
How do you think friends and allies can support survivors with regards to mental health?
As a survivor, one has to articulate how they would like to be supported as the needs differ from person to person. What I found particularly comforting was being allowed to share my thoughts and feelings with those closest to me without judgement and just having a safe space where I knew I was valued and heard. It was also great when friends shared resources with me or words of encouragement and positive affirmations to keep me going. Being actively present for the survivor is very important because it’s likely that they are feeling extremely alone following the incident. Having friends accompany me to psychologist appointments or when visiting the police station was invaluable and a simple way of making me feel held and supported through what was a very difficult period. Sometimes people need space and sometimes they want to be in the constant company – the best way to support a survivor is truly to just ask instead of anticipating needs.