The questions at the heart of it all: Why does rape happen? What can we as a society do about it?
On December 16th a 23-year-old Indian student boarded a bus in New Delhi with her male companion. What had the makings for a day like any other quickly turned savage, deadly. Both were beaten with an iron rod and reports say that she was then gang-raped by six men and further “brutalized” for 45 minutes. The man has been discharged from the hospital, but the woman, whose name has not yet been released, was pronounced dead yesterday at a hospital in Singapore.
Protests have erupted throughout India and many peaceful protestors are claiming they’ve been beaten by riot police. All the media coverage is allowing needed space for stories to resurface, stories like that of a 17-year-old Indian girl who claimed she’d been gang-raped during the Hindu festival Diwali in November. A formal case was registered by police fourteen days later. Earlier this week she committed suicide, leaving a note behind that blamed her alleged rapists.
The profound sadness and mourning is fostering deep and necessary conversations on the current state of Indian masculinity and on the nature of rape itself. Some of the clearest commentary has come from Professor Ratna Kapur in her piece for The Hindu titled Rape and the crisis of Indian masculinity:
Rape is not simply about law and order, or about deranged individuals. Nor is the problem going to be solved by more laws, more police on our streets, more CCTV cameras on our buses or stiffer sentences for rapists. The gang rapes that are occurring with alarming regularity must compel us to reflect upon who we are as a society.
Rape taps into our most visceral emotions and as such it’s far easier to reach for the easy answers than to view it, as we do with other crimes, from a variety of perspectives. The primary way we get perspective seems to be through the fictionalized rape that dominates our media. Rape is at once sexual and violent and these are the tried-and-true ingredients that draw ratings. Many of our highest-rated and longest-running television programs often begin with a rape scene and then keep us glued to the television screen for the next twenty minutes because we want to get inside the rapist’s head to see why or how they committed the crime. I believe we’ve become entirely too comfortable with learning about and discussing the complexity of rape primarily when it’s fictionalized. There’s a serious danger when what we think we know about a crime we only “know” because of what TV drama has fed us (my latest visit to a sex trafficking shelter was with a woman whose entire knowledge of the crime came not from well-researched documentaries or books but from watching Liam Neeson in Taken. Her entire point of view was skewed to the point that a blank slate would have been far better. Fictionalized movies can be the spark for awareness but anything after that…). When we’re talking about real victims/survivors and real rapists our emotions from the raw reality of the crime can close us off and we become comfortable talking about rape only through the safe and prescribed ways – nearly always through the lens of the victim/survivor.
While this perspective is certainly necessary, it’s also necessary to view rape as the brutal crime it is, and this sometimes means the difficult and even politically incorrect strategy of ratcheting down the focus on victim/survivor empathy and placing attention elsewhere. This can happen effectively in university criminal justice courses because there’s an understanding that the ratcheting down has nothing to do with being a “rape apologist” or “rape sympathizer” and everything to do with trying to understand the crime itself, there’s an understanding of why it’s important. Much of what we know about organized crime didn’t come from those who were beaten or swindled out of money or property, it came from listening to the criminals, it came from viewing each crime not as a single acute act but of one part of a network, one created and grown through certain parts of our collective society. What we see in the public sphere regarding the crime of rape, however, is an absolute and blind allegiance to the victim/survivor, so much so that speaking of rape through any other method is a surefire way to receive one of the aforementioned labels. Professor Kapur took the difficult road. Easy it would have been to call the six men monsters and be done with it. Easy it would have been to speak only of “them.” Professor Kapur also looks inward, she looks at “who we are as a society.” When it comes to rape it’s far easier to vent than it is to, as Professor Kapur does here, seriously try to find answers.
She goes on to say:
Just like the killing of young innocents is forcing Americans to address the societal reasons for such violence and not just blame one individual, Indians need to understand that gang rape is not just an aberration committed by inhuman men. We need to address how we as a society are implicated in producing such appalling levels of violence against women, which is increasingly being tolerated and even normalised. As women enter the work place and the public arena, their boldness and confidence seem to trigger a sense of insecurity in a society where men are used to being in charge. While it is impossible to reduce the issue of violence to one sole cause, that is men, the fact remains that young men are the ones committing these crimes.
Bravo. Here is a thinker capable of balancing both the raw emotion for those brutalized and the raw rationality needed to unravel the nature of the crime itself. Good as it may feel, one singular factor cannot be blamed here. Major events like those in Newton and New Delhi create within us a host of emotions that can range from depression to total rage and anything beyond and in between. We owe it to those hurt the most – to the victims and the survivors – to channel those emotions, as Professor Kapur did, into ways that deepen the discussion, that show new perspectives, that don’t simply blame the perpetrators or the government, the situation or, as happens too damn often, the victim. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had it right when he wrote in Letter From a Birmingham Jail:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea.
We’re all in this together. All of us who are taking time from our lives to think and write about the nature of rape are doing so because we hate rape more than anything in the world and we’re trying to understand its complexity. May the dialogue continue with respect and with understanding.
–AP Photo/Kevin Frayer: Protesters shield themselves as Indian police prepare to beat them during a violent demonstration near the India Gate, on December 23, 2012.