The view that it will deter rape is misplaced and based on a narrow, sexual intercourse-definition of the crime

There is a fascinating urban legend that Apple’s logo is dedicated to Alan Turing, who committed suicide by biting into a cyanide injected apple. A few years after he was instrumental in breaking the German Enigma code in World War II, Alan Turing was convicted in 1952 for homosexual acts in England. He agreed to the administration of female hormones when faced with incarceration. Apart from the abhorrent aim of such a measure, the scientific claim that hormone injections could alter sexuality proved to be dubious. The intuitive appeal chemical castration has as a method of drastically reducing the incidence of rape, I argue, is largely misplaced because it misunderstands the nature of rape as a crime. Rape is not about sex. Rape is about power, violence, intimidation and humiliation. Attempts to reduce the incidence of rape by controlling the sexual urge of men are bound to be ineffective because they invoke a very shallow and inadequate understanding of rape.

‘More effective’ punishment

Much before the current demand for chemical castration as a legal response to rape, Additional Sessions Judge Kamini Lau, while sentencing Dinesh Yadav in May 2011 for raping his 15-year old step-daughter for four years, called for a debate on castration as an alternative to incarceration in rape cases. Sentencing Dinesh Yadav to the minimum possible punishment of 10 years for such a crime under Section 375(2) of the Indian Penal Code, Judge Lau indicated that castration, surgical or chemical, would perhaps be a far more effective method to prevent rape. While contemplating the legal and ethical aspects of such a measure, it is important that we understand the precise terms of the suggestion, its potential to reduce the incidence of rape and its potential for abuse.

Clarity on the meaning of some of the terms might be useful at this juncture. Surgical castration does not mean removal of the penis, but is instead the irreversible surgical removal of the testosterone producing testes. Chemical castration involves injecting anti-androgen drugs that suppress the production of testosterone as long as the drugs are administered.

Modern legal systems have flirted with biological control of sexual functions for a long time for a variety of reasons. Forced sterilisation of criminals and intellectually disabled people through legislation to protect the purity of the gene pool was seen as an acceptable response to the eugenics movement in Europe and the United States in the early 1900s. The United States Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell (1927), upheld the constitutionality of the 1924 Virginia statute that authorised the forced sterilisation of intellectually disabled people (‘mentally retarded’ was the term in the statute). Vehemently endorsing the eugenic aims of the statute, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. permitted the forcible sterilisation of an 18-year old woman, with an alleged mental age of nine years and a family history of intellectual disability, with the infamous words that ‘three generations of imbeciles were enough’. Though Buck v. Bell has never been explicitly over-ruled, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942) and the events in Nazi Germany considerably dented the popularity of forced sterilisations as part of the eugenics agenda. Forced sterilisations in the best interest of the intellectually disabled continued in the United States till the early 1980s and it was in the mid-1990s that the debates around chemical castration as a response to rape surfaced as a result of legislation in certain American States.

Once we get past the historical baggage of the term ‘castration,’ the strongest argument in favour of chemical castration is that it is a non-invasive, reversible method of nullifying the production of testosterone and thereby controlling extreme sexual urge. The use of Depo-Provera in many American States subsequent to chemical castration legislation does indicate that it reduces the risk of recidivism. However, such an approach limits the understanding of rape to the framework of sex. Irrespective of the differences in their positions on rape, influential feminists like Susan Brownmiller, Catharine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Ann Cahill, etc., agree that rape is not about the manifestation of extreme sexual urge. Violence, power, aggression and humiliation are central to understanding rape, and sex is only a mechanism used to achieve those aims.

Addressing the sexual element of rape does not address the violence and humiliation that rape is intended to inflict. Responding to a question on whether chemical castration for child molesters works, Catharine MacKinnon in an interview with Diane Rosenfeld (March 2000) captured the issue at hand by saying that “they just use bottles”. Castration as a response to rape furthers the myth that rape is about the uncontrollable sexual urge of men.

The limited role that sex has to play in understanding rape is further borne out by the fact that not all sex offenders are the same. In essence, an understanding that requires us to look at rapists merely as individuals engaging in deviant sexual behaviour is inaccurate. Rapists fall into different categories including those who deny the commission of the crime or the criminal nature of the act; blame the crime on factors like stress, alcohol, drugs or other non-sexual factors; rape for reasons related to anger, shaming, violence, etc; rape for reasons connected to sexual arousal and specific sexual fantasies, etc. Administering anti-androgens to rapists outside the last category will not be an effective response to check the incidence of rape. Mapping the long standing demand in India to reform the definition of rape (beyond penile-vaginal penetration) to include object/finger-vaginal/anal penetration on to the different categories of sexual offenders shows that a sexual intercourse-based understanding of rape is extremely narrow.

Gender violence

Even the most ardent supporters of chemical castration recognise that administration of anti-androgens without relevant therapies defeats the point of the entire exercise. Given the significant side-effects of chemical castration, a law that would require indefinite administration of anti-androgens for sex offenders is likely to be unconstitutional. Even if the argument is that governments must invest in chemical castration even if it means a minuscule effect on the incidence of rape, it would require State governments to put in place a rigorous system of providing therapy for it to be a constitutional option. Given the condition of state health care services in India, there are very good reasons to be sceptical about the feasibility of providing such therapy.

It is difficult not to succumb to the intuitive appeal of chemical castration as a response to rape. But it is an intuitive appeal that fades away on intense scrutiny. Intuition can be a great asset in politics of all sorts, but it is best avoided while contemplating a law requiring huge public investment, whose potential for abuse is immense and the benefits of which are, at best, uncertain.

Any meaningful attempt to protect women against rape must engage with gendered notions of power entrenched in our families, our marriages, our workplaces, our educational institutions, our religions, our laws, our political parties and, perhaps, worst of all, in our minds. There are many violent manifestations of these entrenched patterns of power in our society and while rape is certainly one of them, it would be a great disservice to empowerment of women in this country to not attach the same kind of urgency and significance to gender violence beyond rape.

(Anup Surendranath is an Assistant Professor of Law, National Law University, Delhi, and doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Law, University of Oxford.)

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