The danger to women lurks within us

Even as public anger on rape mounts, it is important to understand that policing is a small part of the problem — and can only be a small part of the solution

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:15 pm IST

Published - December 27, 2012 02:30 am IST

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edit page praveen swami 271212

“I ripped away at this and that and the other, the others going haw haw haw still,” recalled Alex, the hyper-violent teenage protagonist of Anthony Burgess’ masterpiece A Clockwork Orange , “and real good horror show groodies they were that then exhibited their pink glazzies, O my brothers, while I untrussed and got ready for the plunge. Plunging, I could hear slooshy cries of agony”. “Then,” he went on, “there was like quiet, and we were full of hate, so we smashed what was left to be smashed — typewriter, lamp chairs.” “The writer veck and his zheena were not really there, bloodied and torn and making noises,” Alex concluded. “But they’d live”.

Following last week’s hideous assault on a New Delhi resident and her boyfriend, few Indians will need a dictionary of the teenage slang Burgess invented to grasp the horror of this passage — without doubt the most searing description of gang rape in the English language canon.

The text, though, is also of historical significance. In 1962, when Burgess published A Clockwork Orange — in part a working-through of the gang rape of his first wife — feminist campaigns against sexual violence were beginning to garner momentum. Burgess was hostile to efforts to remake masculinity, seeing them through his Catholic ideological prism as assaults on god’s domain and free will; his Alex was redeemed by a quasi-mystical encounter with the idea of fatherhood.

Battle against sexual violence

Yet, we now know, sexual violence against women can be successfully fought. Figures derived from the United States Justice Department’s authoritative National Crime Victimization Survey — designed to capture rape cases which do not make it into the criminal justice system — show the incidence fell from 2.8 per 1,000 in 1979 to 0.4 per 1,000 in 2004.

There are important lessons in this experience. In particular, the limits of solutions that centre around policing need to be clearly understood. The decline in rape in the U.S. has mainly come about not because policing has become god-like in its deterrent value, but because of hard political and cultural battles to teach men that when a woman says no, she means no.

In 1980, Diana Scully and Joseph Marolla began an extraordinary series of conversations with evil. The scholars interviewed 114 rapists serving time in a Virginia penitentiary for hideous crimes: among them, one who had forced a vacuum cleaner hose into his victim’s vagina, before severing her nipples with his teeth; another, a college student who, as part of a gang of four, forced his victim to lie naked on a snow to add to her pain; a third who raped and murdered five women, because he was heartbroken, or so he said, that his girlfriend had left him.

Like the gang rape in Delhi, these stories lead many to believe that rape is a psychopathology; the work of a handful of evil men. It isn’t: data from across the world shows rape is extraordinarily commonplace.

Every year in the U.S., the highly-regarded Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates, over 200,000 women suffer sexual assault — one approximately every two minutes. In 2000, the United Kingdom survey concluded that 4.9 per cent of all women had experienced at least one rape or sexual assault; a more recent survey put the figure at above 10 per cent. Ireland, Sweden and Germany have survey estimates that range from 25 per cent to 34 per cent.

Likelier than not, the 24,206 cases reported to police in 2011 are almost certainly the tip of the iceberg. Fifty-three per cent of 12,000 children polled in a 2007 government survey said they had encountered “one or more forms of sexual abuse.” More than a fifth, over half of them boys, reported severe sexual abuse. It is almost certain that even more encountered sexual violence.

Scully and Marolla pointed out that the sheer pervasiveness of sexual violence rebuts the notion that rape is the work of a “small lunatic fringe of psychopathic men.” Even though the men they interviewed had committed acts of maximal violence, they were also entirely normal in their values and behaviour.

The men, notably, made no effort to hide the fact that they saw hurting women as entertainment. “I always felt like I had just conquered something”, one prisoner said, comparing his serial rape experiences to a visit to a famous amusement park ride in Dallas, “like I had just ridden the bull at Gilley’s.” Few rapists indicated that “guilt or feeling bad was part of their emotional response” to their crimes; 92 per cent said “they felt good, relieved or simply nothing at all.” Like so many other things, Scully and Marolla concluded, “rape is a learned behaviour.”

Culture of misogyny

None of this ought to surprise us: though we might condemn rape, our culture shares the rapist’s values. India’s mass culture is replete with misogyny. Few films ever seek to escape romantic memes which involve men pursuing, and eventually conquering, women who say no; it is no coincidence that pop singer Honey Singh, whose lyrics valorise the taming of liberated women, has become a youth icon. Even a cursory YouTube search for rape takes us to a plethora of film-clips eroticising the crime. This mass culture, in turn, accurately reflects the values of a son-worshipping society in which large-scale violence against women is seen as entirely legitimate — running the gamut from street harassment on Holi to female foeticide.

Policing can’t change a culture that produces and legitimises violence against women. From the western experience, it also becomes clear that even the best-resourced policing can have only a limited impact on deterring and punishing rapists.

Figures derived from RAINN’s official statistics graphically illustrate the point. For every 100 rapes that take place in the U.S., only 46 are reported. The 46, on average, lead to just 12 arrests — one for every fourth victim. Nine of the 12 arrested perpetrators go on to be prosecuted — but only a third of these are eventually convicted of rape. Put simply, just 3 of every 100 rapists ever see the inside of a prison cell.

In the U.K. , 58 per cent of rape trials end in a conviction — but only because the crown prosecution service rigorously weeds out cases unlikely to survive legal challenge. The stark fact is only six of every 100 women who report an offence will see the perpetrator convicted.

Conviction rate

The point here isn’t that India’s less-than-luminous conviction rates — 26.5 per cent nationally, similar to the U.S. average; 41 per cent in Delhi — are less grim than they seem. Rather, it is that policing isn’t a panacea. The utter failure of highly-resourced U.S. campaigns to stamp out narcotics use is a case in point.

None of this is to say improved policing can’t mitigate the problem. More officers, particularly women officers, on the streets, will deter street sexual harassment and stalking. Capacity building for investigation and prosecution will lead to a more effective punishment of perpetrators. Even better lighting in public spaces has been shown to yield results. Harsher police action on street crime, elsewhere in the world, has often correlated with declines in rape rates.

Yet, we ought not to delude ourselves about what can be achieved. There is no reason, for example, to believe more police checkpoints will deter rapists, when they have done next to nothing to apprehend terrorists or robbers. Forensics will also help — but, outside of crime-fiction shows, DNA isn’t a magic anti-criminal bullet. Leaving aside the fact that forensic evidence can be matched to perpetrators only in a tiny percentage of cases, criminals have become increasingly adroit at covering their trail. Even a Mumbai suspect recently forced his victim to bathe after raping her, demonstrating a robust grasp of evidence destruction. Lapsing into pseudoscience fantasies that the screening of possible perpetrators will help detect rapists, as judges of the Delhi High Court recently did, helps not at all.

Legal reform

Legal reform, another centrepiece of the ongoing campaign, is also needed — but will achieve nothing unless it is backed by investigative and prosecutorial capacity. Past legal reforms, it bears mention, have done little to stem the decade-on-decade decline in rape conviction rates, from 44.28 per cent in 1973 to 26.5 per cent in 2010. India’s experience of extraordinary slow fast-track terrorism courts give little reason for optimism, either, that fast-track rape courts will work better.

Fixing the police and the justice system, thus, will achieve only so much — and that so much is not a great deal. The real battle is one that women’s organisations have fought to address for decades — to change the ways in which men relate to women; to create a culture of masculinity that does not involve subjugation. For progress to be made, we must begin by acknowledging this one fact: the problem isn’t the police, the courts or the government. The problem is us.

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