Facing the Beast

Without understanding multiple perspectives, we cannot face or fight rape in its true and hideous form

New Media Fellows 2013

By Anindita Sengupta

January 21, 2013

Also published at Bangalore Mirror

Since the gang-rape in Delhi, media reportage on sexual violence has increased and yes, this is necessary and long overdue. But more coverage is not always better coverage. An endless parade of news items on rape can have a desensitising effect unless accompanied by contextualisation and analysis. It makes sense then to examine how the issue is being covered by newspapers and what might be missing.

Gang-rape may be the most headline-grabbing sort of rape; but it is not the only sort

Firstly, many of the news stories involve perpetrators in the lower income group. This has the danger of creating a pervasive belief that rape is perpetrated only by poor men. It’s worth remembering that rape among the middle and upper classes (and perpetrated by them) often goes unreported to preserve sheathes of social propriety, filial loyalty and tradition. We shouldn’t get carried away by the narrative of the poor, migrant rapist. It’s a convenient narrative but not an accurate one. In the last month, there have been many references to Raj Kumar Santoshi’s 1993 film Damini; let’s not forget that Damini was persecuted by her respectable, upper class family.

Then, we know more about rapes that take place in cities. There are more follow-up stories in the media about these incidences. We can imagine the details more easily and it feels closer, so we’re more outraged and afraid. We protest more. In an article in the website Roundtable.co.in, Priya Chandran points out that skewed media attention dismisses or undermines the struggles of Dalit and lower caste women. Talking about the Delhi gang-rape, she asks: “If the responses to this case stop with guessing, suggesting or implementing immediate solutions to an easily identified problem, would it cause much change in the way our society functions?”

Without understanding multiple perspectives, we cannot face or fight this beast in its true and hideous form. We’re not going to miraculously achieve freedom and safety in our own cocoons while women elsewhere remain shackled and unsafe.

We also need to talk about the psychological implications of sexual violence. I recently asked a reputed doctor if I could interview her about the medical (including psychological) repercussions of sexual violence. She refused. Her contention was that the general public need not be aware of such matters. I disagree. We cannot encourage a culture of stupidity and then complain about that culture of stupidity. Intelligent discussion about sexual violence — what it means and how we must deal with it — is important. While our focus is overwhelmingly on “preventing” sexual violence, what are we doing to better address the problems of those who have already faced it? Not just at the systemic level but also at the individual level? If we are a society overrun by sexual violence, shouldn’t we learn how to address the aftermath?

For example, the Yale University website has a paper on “Rape: Psychology, Prevention and Impact” by Professors Marcia Cohen and Sherrie H McKenna. They state: “A woman may feel guilt, wondering why she was the victim. She may question whether she really did “ask for it” or lead someone to the wrong impression. She may also be embarrassed about what other people think of her. These feelings may cause her to avoid sexual relationships for a time. And finally the anger that her personal freedom was violated and the man is walking around free takes over. Anger may take different forms but most psychologists feel that it is the emotion that can lead to a successful emotional recovery. It is at this stage that the woman wants to fight back and get her life in order.”

How many well-meaning family members will urge a survivor of sexual assault to “move on” without giving her an opportunity to work through all the emotions?

The paper goes on to say: “The woman who denies the event and says she’s OK needs the same kind of counseling and support as other women, perhaps more so as she is repressing her true feelings.” How many Indian families — even upper class families who can afford counseling — are aware of this need?

Gang-rape may be the most headline-grabbing sort of rape; but it is not the only sort. Let’s talk about acquaintance rape, date rape, marital rape; rape directed at males, sex workers, hijras. Even while we raged about the Delhi gang-rape, a Delhi court dealing with a different case refused to admit that forcible sex with a wife is also rape. The Indian Penal Code still does not recognise marital rape as a crime. Refusing to talk about rape — and instead constantly talking around it — makes it harder to recognise the brutality of the act in different contexts. It also makes it harder for rape survivors to break their silences.

Anindita Sengupta reports on maternal and reproductive health with a grant from the International Reporting Project in Washington, DC