If we are to combat sexual violence in our cities, it is time to begin discussing the dysfunctions of young urban men

“I remember seeing a documentary about some animal being eaten from behind while its face seemed to register disbelief, fear, and self-hate at its own impotence,” recalls Roy Strang, the rapist at the centre of Irvine Welsh’s supremely disturbing Marabou Stork Nightmares, of one of his victims. “That was what she reminded me of,” says Strang, watching his victim’s eyes, “frozen,” “dead,” through the mirror he forced her to hold up to her face as he raped her.

Last month’s gang rape in New Delhi has focussed nationwide attention on the epidemic proportions of sexual violence against women in India. Long overdue debates on criminal justice and gender have begun — along, predictably, with bizarre calls for schoolgirls’ bodies to be concealed under overcoats and curfews. Yet, there have been only the awkward beginnings of a discussion on the problem itself — men.

It is time, though, to start looking at the rapist in the mirror.

Rituals of masculinity

To anyone familiar with young men in India’s cities and towns, Strang’s world is far from alien. For many youth worldwide, violence against women — a spectrum that runs from gang rape to domestic violence and street sexual harassment — is part of the system of masculinity-making rituals, along with sport, drinking and brawling. 58 per cent of men arrested for rape in India in 2010 were aged 18-30; in the United States, 55 per cent are below the age of 30. 53.92 per cent of men held that year for molestation or sexual harassment were also from the same age group.

This is not to suggest that a dysfunctional masculinity is the root of rape; few human behaviours have a single cause. Yet, from the testimonies of women, we know that this cohort of young men have made homes and streets the site of a pervasive gender terrorism.

Rape, though, is something rapists do, not who they are. Precisely why particular individuals find pleasure in inflicting violence on women is a question everyone from evolutionary biologists to cultural theorists have weighed in on; there is no consensus, and may never be. Yet, as Welsh noted, strange behaviour “always has a context.” Five such contexts suggest themselves as possible keys to the production of India’s urban-male dysfunction. Together, these contexts ensure young men are rarely fully weaned; able to lead an adult life characterised by agency and individual choice. The consequence is a deep rage that manifests itself in nihilist behaviours.

India’s transforming urban economy has, firstly, produced a mass of young, prospectless men. The parents of these children, many first-generation migrants to cities, worked on the land or were artisans. Though this generation’s position in the economy may have been inequitable, its agency as workers was not. The young, though, find themselves fighting for space in an economy that offers mainly casual work. This casualisation has come about even as hard-pressed parents are spending ever more on education. Even the pressures on middle-class and lower middle-class men are enormous. Frequently coddled in son-worshipping parents, young men are only rarely able to realise the investment and hopes vested in them.

For a second context to hyper-violent masculinity, we must look at culture. Increasingly, cities have no recreational spaces for young men. Films, long one of the few cultural activities that a working-class audience could participate in, now target élites; movie theatre prices exclude large parts of the youth population. There is diminishing access to theatre, art, music and sport. In its place, the street becomes the stage for acting out adulthood, through substance abuse and violence.

Thirdly, a number of young men, particularly in new urban slums, are being brought up by no-parent families — families that fathers have abandoned or are largely absent from, and where mothers work long hours. Elsewhere in the world, too, this social crisis has been linked to sexual violence. South African researcher Amelia Kleijn, in a 2010 study of child rapists, found most had deprived childhoods marked by “physical and emotional abuse, as well as neglect.”

Fourth, there is a crisis of sexuality. Few men, working class or rich, have access to a sexual culture which allows them sexual freedoms or choices. The crisis is exacerbated by the fact that sections of urban élites participate in a sexual culture which is relatively liberal — a culture that young men can watch on television and in public spaces, but never hope to participate in. For some, the sexually independent woman is thus enemy to be annihilated. In his hit song C**t, the rape-valorising rap star Honey Singh voices his yearning to kick a woman after raping her, to drive out the bhoot of ego from her head. Similarly, Strang sees on the streets a wash of “blonde and auburn wigs, lipstick smeared on those deadly pincer-like insect jaws.”

Commodities

Young men of all classes, finally, see women as status-enhancing commodities — emulating the long-standing gender privileges tradition has vested in élite men.

None of these five contexts is new. Particular stresses linked to the reordering of India’s social fabric, though, are giving new lethality to gender inequity. In a 2008 paper, Jon Wolseth showed how neoliberalism created the conditions for a murderous surge of youth gang violence in the Honduras during the 1980s. Economic policies, he argued, had not just impoverished the poor; they also tore apart community networks, diminished public spaces and closed the door to political participation. Evangelical Christianity and the assault rifle-armed gang emerged as mode of liberation. Elsewhere in Latin America, scholars have observed much the same.

In India, women’s bodies appear to have become the principal terrain on which male rage is venting itself. It isn’t that young Indian men are inherently violent than they were in the past. In 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, 29,937 men between 18 and 30 were arrested for murder. Twenty years earlier, it was 38,961. In 1991, 270,602 men of this age group were arrested for rioting; in 2011, the figure was 72,867. Sexual violence data, though, trends the other way. 8,864 18-30 men were arrested for rape in 1991; 16,528 in 2011. Molestation and sexual harassment arrests from this cohort have also almost doubled, from 23,075 in 1992, the first year for which data is available, to 32,581 in 2011.

Lacking agency isn’t, obviously, the cause of sexual violence: women aren’t responding to their disenfranchisement by attacking men; men with power can, and do, rape. The point here is, rather, that the large-scale disempowerment of urban men is lending intensity to a pre-existing culture of sexual violence.

Illusion of empowerment

For many men, then, violence against women works much as drugs do for addicts: it offers at least the illusion of empowerment where none exists, fixing feelings of rage and impotence. This, in turn, points to a wider malaise. Marxist scholar Antonio Gramsci noted that Fascism arose in a society “where mothers educate their infant children by hitting them on the head with clogs.” How men behave — on the streets with women, with other men, with animals — is taught. In our society, violence is not an aberration; it is the tie that binds us.

In 2007, the Ministry of Women and Child Development surveyed 12,477 children to learn of their experience of abuse. 68.99 per cent of children, over half of them boys, reported suffering physical violence. One in 12 children, again a majority boys, reported suffering sexual violence. It is a staggering fact: half of all Indians have encountered abuse before they became adults.

For the overwhelming majority of Indian children, the education in violence begins in the family. The survey found 59 per cent of the 2,245 children who did not go to school located home as a source of violence. In institutions like orphanages, the survey recorded levels of violence very similar to homes. More than 65 per cent of the 3,163 school children surveyed said they received beatings along with classes in maths, science and languages. Employers of child labourers, interestingly, were significantly less cruel than teachers; 58.7 per cent of working children said they experienced beatings at home, at work, or both. In each of these categories, boys were overrepresented.

Maulana Azad Medical College researcher Deepti Pagare discovered, during a survey of boys at New Delhi’s Child Observation Home, that 76.7 per cent reported physical abuse. Half of them actually bore clinical evidence of violence — the perpetrators, in more than half of all cases, their own fathers.

Elsewhere in the world, figures like these would almost certainly have provoked a national scandal — followed by demands of criminal prosecutions. Look through Delhi’s crime statistics, though, and you will find not one father prosecuted for everyday crimes against his son.

India needs a masculinity that does not involve violence. Moral sermons, though, won’t cut it: respect for women can emerge only from a culture that genuinely values rights for all.

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