Rape is the worst crime an individual can inflict upon another. It’s not just her body, but also her mind, her soul, her honour, her dignity that can be usurped through this heinous act of non-consensual penetration. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, a lifetime of humiliation, trauma, and shame awaits those women who have been irreversibly defiled in this fashion.
But does it really have to be this way? Is rape really that bad? Why is it that we must insist that sexual violence is distinct from generic forms of violence and assault? What really is the difference between assaulting someone’s vagina and assaulting their shoulder, or their foot, or their forehead?
The answer seems obvious- the consequences borne by the victim are much worse in the case of rape, than in physical assault. Someone who rapes is inconceivably monstrous and inhuman while physical assault is a very common human tendency.
Most decent people hold this view. But there are some who’ve chosen to think slightly deeper. Arvind Raghavan, a friend of mine, and a fellow male feminist, said, some time ago:
“As a staunch feminist, I militantly support women who refuse to let their body/genitalia define them, and who don’t think sex is, by default, more special than eating or exercise.
Aren’t I then obligated to oppose a criminal distinction between “rape” and “battery”? Or at least hope for its eventual erosion? I’m conflicted.”
And this got me thinking about one of the fundamental questions regarding gender and sexuality. We all live in societies that fetishise sexuality as something that is taboo, or peculiar, unlike any other human characteristic. Sexuality and genitalia are the darker, less disclosed aspects of our lives and their exposure in any way ought be a source of shame.
The conflation of sexual and reproductive functions of certain parts of the human body, along with patriarchal notions of motherhood that stem from the perceived differences in roles that the two genders have to play in working towards an end goal, has lead to female genitalia being viewed as sacrosanct, as delicate. The end goal, in this context, has historically always been the continuity, and survival of the tribe through procreation.
Patriarchal societies therefore, have always attempted to claim ownership over female sexuality. Because they see the purity of their tribe as paramount. Because they will never negotiate on reproductive purity, they will never negotiate on sexual purity.
This is why the hymen is a red line. This is why so many people in India consider consensual pre-marital sex infinitely more criminal than marital rape. This is why a father would rather have his daughter dead than have her elope with a man from a different tribe, caste, or community. This is why even educated people in modern metropolises are obsessed with a woman’s sexual history. This is why abstinence and ‘virginity balls’ are so popular among Christians in the USA. This is why female adulterers are awarded death within certain kinds of Islamic law. This is why so many Hindu families shun their daughters and sisters after they’ve been victims of rape- because these women possessed something that was valuable to their community, but now it’s gone.
It would not, in my opinion, be an overstatement to say that the notion of virginal honour is the root of all misogyny. Women have been convinced that their honour resides an inch or two up their vaginas, and that they are useless without it. Rape is therefore a convenient tool to rob this woman’s honour, and more pertinently, the honour of her family and her community.
It therefore ought no to surprise us that people blame victims and slander sluts. It ought not to surprise us that people are willing to let boys be boys. It’s a woman’s job to preserve her vagina on behalf of her community, and a man’s to penetrate, also on behalf of his community. It ought not to surprise us, that the Yadavs in the UP government have had such a cavalier attitude towards the horrors of Badaun- because the perpetrators, and the callous police officers, were for all intents and purposes, acting on behalf of Yadavs, against Dalits.
Whether it’s Yadavs on Dalits in Badaun, Hootoos on Tutsies in Rwanda, Buddhists on Rohingias in Burma, Cleganes on Martells in Game of Thrones, or simply men on women anywhere in the world, rape is a collectivisation of contempt, hatred, and oppression.
Rape is a hate crime- by one community upon another, by one gender upon another. And the life long trauma and humiliation caused by it far exceed the physical pain.
Isn’t it absurd that being involved in a sex crime is a source of humiliation for the victim? In what other scenario would an individual feel ashamed if something bad happened to them or was done to them? Why is it that the identities of victims in physical assault trials don’t have to be concealed?
I would posit that the ill effects (apart from the physical pain itself) of any form of sexual violence are not inherent to the act, but are a figment of socio-cultural imagination. The perception that rape and sexual assault are uniquely heinous crimes has been so pervasive that it has become reality. And like Arvind, I wish it were never this way.
And of course, I wouldn’t ever suggest that we use this as a reason to be more lenient towards perpetrators. For as long as they are acting within the paradigm wherein their actions have horrendous consequences, they must be held responsible for those consequences. But I am suggesting that we puncture the societal narrative that leads to these consequences in the first place, and shift to a paradigm wherein all victims of rape can react in a bold and positive manner as the victim of the August 2013 ‘Mumbai Gang Rape’ did, asserting that she would not let the experience mar or taint her life in any manner, or like the victim of the Maryville rape case, who had no qualms about publicly revealing her identity in her attempt to bring the perpetrators to book.
As is evident, changing the discourse around virginity and rape can lead to victims being empowered in that they can pursue justice without feeling shame. But I suspect it will also lead to perpetrators being disempowered, because when rape is viewed as an uncomplicated act of one individual violating the body of another, and a man cannot dishonour a woman or a community with a few violent thrusts, fewer people are likely to engage in rape, sexual assault, honour killing, et cetera as forms of punitive or retributive action against others.
Rape will always be a crime. But it need not necessarily be a hate crime.