Jokes and memes aside, a boy at Bishops has been hurt
If ever there was a capsule of elitism lodged firmly in the soil of the leafy suburbs of Cape Town it is Bishops Diocesan College. With its top-end facilities, elegant archways and emerald sports fields, it is the quintessential “prestigious private school”.
These past few days, behind its gleaming white walls, the Bishops community has had to think very carefully of how to manage its reputation while also investigating a case of sexual misconduct with due diligence, and providing support to other potential victims.
But beyond the politics of the school itself, it has been a real litmus test for society at large about what happens when we flip the gender script of what we think a sexual violation looks like.
The story of 30-year-old teacher and water polo coach Fiona Viotti’s sexual relationship with a pupil who matriculated last year has hogged the headlines. The teacher has resigned, and the school is now looking into a number of other such cases in which the teacher is possibly involved.
But, as the victim is a young male, and the perpetrator an older female, social media has made sure the story is papered over with jokes, memes and a communal nudge-nudge-wink-wink of the “every schoolboy’s fantasy” variety.
But how appropriate are those responses, and from what sensibilities do they spring?
For Hlonipha Mokoena, a researcher at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research, the reaction to the Bishops story is a thread that has been running through society for a long time.
“Throughout history, the sexual misconduct of women towards younger men has been written about as a rite of passage rather than a form of exploitation. Even in contemporary society, relationships between older women and younger men are defined by terms such as ‘cougar’ and ‘cubbing’ and they are not seen as ‘deviant’ as relationships between older men and younger women are,” she explained.
She adds that this double standard is all about power.
“Men are seen to be abusing their power when they prey on younger women but when women prey on younger men, it is seen as sexually audacious and the young man is almost congratulated for bedding an older woman. There is, therefore, an assumption that young women’s bodies must be defended and protected from violence whereas young men’s bodies do not somehow require the same protection,” she said.
Kathleen Dey, director of Rape Crisis, says of the Bishops case: “We don’t know the dynamics of these particular relationships. What we say about them is based on many assumptions that might not be true. Even the fact that he reported it doesn’t tell us about the truth of the situation for this particular young man.”
She said that what we “should be concerned about” were the reactions to the story, and what they say about us as a society.
It’s a stereotype about men that they’re not vulnerable and don’t experience emotional pain when it comes to sexual relationships. A sexual situation can be emotionally and psychologically violent, even if not physicallyKathleen Dey, director of Rape Crisis
“It’s a stereotype about men that they’re not vulnerable and don’t experience emotional pain when it comes to sexual relationships. A sexual situation can be emotionally and psychologically violent, even if not physically,” she said.
The lighthearted laughter surrounding the situation comes from what Dey calls a stereotype that men are indiscriminate about when and with who they’ll have sex, and that women can’t be sexual predators.
However, “adolescence is a developmental stage with sexuality playing a crucial role, and what happens in someone’s sex life during this stage can be vitally important to how they develop”.
Then there are the myths behind the mirth.
“Laughing at the situation that this young man finds himself in perpetuates the myth on a spectrum that says men can’t be raped. It is ‘a joke’ — it can’t happen, it is funny, and therefore it is not real or serious, and we can make light of it and ignore it,” said Dey.
The reactions have been to a “sex scandal” as opposed to “an abuse case”, Dey said, adding, “If we can react like this to a sex scandal, might we not react in a similar way to a case of abuse? The jokes and memes and the whole situation being taken more lightly because the victim is a man and the perpetrator a woman raises serious questions.”
She said that at Rape Crisis, they had “heard from men who are victims of rape that when they went to the police station, they were laughed at and dismissed by police officials.
“In that sense male rape survivors have a degree of vulnerability that society fails to appreciate,” she said.
Dey added that police officials are products of their own society, and if that society laughs then it gives the police a kind of licence to laugh also.
“That is what makes this reaction sad, if not dangerous,” she said.
Reflecting on how the media has handled the story and how the public has responded, William Bird, head of Media Monitoring Africa, said, “Somehow this situation reminds me of an episode in South Park where the police rush to the school when they hear that one of the characters has been sexually assaulted by a teacher. When they arrive they’re all ready to beat someone up, but when they discover that it was a woman teacher, instead they say ‘nice’.”
He said the current Bishops case was “a little tricky” as it was not statutory rape. However, “the power relations clearly are deeply problematic” - and yet we need to acknowledge the difference.
Also weighing in on how we define this case, Dey said, “From a legal perspective, a crime has not been committed and there isn’t a clear case of abuse in terms of sexual offences legislation, because it seems that the boys in this matter were not underage.”
However, she said that “in terms of professional codes of conduct, it is very clear that a teacher may not have sex with a learner so, from a professional standpoint, there is no question that what was done is wrong and there is a moral issue there”.
Then again, flipping the gender script is only part of the picture. There is also the class and socio-economic components that come into play in how people have reacted.
Mokoena said that the first breaking news story she read about the Bishops case placed emphasis on how expensive the school is.
“That already places a distance between the allegations and similar allegations and incidents in poorer public schools,” she said.
Mokoena added that “some of the comments by the perpetrator’s father suggested that the ‘stiff upper lip’ class approach is being taken and that the matter is not being regarded as sexual misconduct but just as poor judgment on the part of the offending teacher”.
She said that the “the status of Bishops as a private and exclusive school thus seems to be determining the gendered response”.
Bird agrees, saying that the fault line between rich and poor was very clear here.
“For sexual abuse in poor schools and how it is reported on, there is a strong sense of chaos and little action unless [Gauteng MEC for education] Panyaza Lesufi is involved. With the Bishops case, however, the spin is that action has been taken, and that the offence isn’t nearly as bad.”
He concluded: “My sense is that there are clear race and class dimensions as well as gender dimensions to the stories, and this affects how they are reported on.”
Dey said the sensationalism of this incident “taking place at an elite school as though it could not possibly happen there” has also brought “a sense of Schadenfreude in seeing ‘how the mighty have fallen’.”
She said, “When we see the dirty laundry of the wealthy being paraded about locker rooms and on WhatsApp groups while rival schools are gloating, we might feel a guilty pleasure at their misfortune.”
But again, she said, this misses the point that if boys have suffered, “their suffering is not appreciated in the same way that the suffering of girls in the same position would have been appreciated”.
This, she said, had “serious consequences for boys and men speaking out about sexual violence”.