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A risky formulation

The argument that unequal access to space is leading to rapes relies on an entrenched sense of male entitlement to women’s bodies, write Srimati Basu and Brinda Bose.

india Updated: Nov 05, 2012 22:25 IST

Consider the following moment of unequal exchange, as narrated in noted economist Abhijit Banerjee’s article It’s time to get real (Poverty Line, October 30), in sympathy with a fellow Banerjee’s (Mamata) suggestion that the recent rash of rapes in India is to do with an increase in public displays of affection among our youth: a deprived boy looks on in envy as the object of his lust is claimed by a boy richer in social assets (or better at courting). His “sexual jealousy” is awakened, satiable only by an act of violence in which he can grab the object for himself. A benevolent State, interested in questions of development and social justice, can easily crush this incipient violence if it commits itself to providing “equal social access” for all its male citizens — which apparently translates into access to a room of his own for every young man over 25, so that he can marry and have a sexually-fulfilled conjugal life, and not have to gape and froth at his “coevals go[ing] by with their wives and girlfriends, holding hands or cuddling”.

There are many problems here to make us gape and froth. But the central one is this: the currency of this social access, the transactional object, the commodity being flung around, is women. Women’s control of their sexuality, their right to bodily integrity and their rights to mobility and public spaces are notably absent in this equation. In perceiving the public sphere entirely as a zone of male competition, Banerjee’s argument replicates the idea that rape is correlated to uncontrollable male urges — a physical and psychological given, with a ‘men will be men’ sigh of resignation — and its removal must therefore be dependent upon finding more legitimate, socially-acceptable means of satiating them.

This dangerous formulation relies on an entrenched sense of male entitlement to women’s bodies as empty (or irrelevant) vessels waiting to satisfy male sexual desires. Urbanisation, modernity, or women’s sexual confidence and assertiveness become justifications for men’s refusal to wait for consent before displaying, and slaying, their lust.

One could entertain this line of argument if the terrain of rape in India supported these factors. The touchstone of Indian rape legislation, Mathura’s rape, is a stark reminder of caste-based privilege, of the complicity of State custodians like the police in violence against women, of courts’ determining of rapists’ guilt by the sexual history of the female victim. Every other grisly account, including rapes by the military in the North-east, the gangrape in a West Bengal train earlier this year, rapes of Dalit women by landlords in retaliation against their voting pattern or the use of sexual violence in genocidal riots, to name a few examples, underlines the use of rape as a deliberate demonstration of male power for female humiliation. Judicial opinions of rape claims, in contradiction of the law, have often considered the rapists’ state of mind (for example, ‘the bewildered and/or monstrous rural man unaware of urban sexual codes’), or ordered reparation by marrying off the rapist to the victim, still seemingly with no awareness at all of women’s consent.

Rape also gets coded as a matter of family honour, the ‘besmirching’ of a woman’s name more shameful than the mental and physical violence she suffers. Marital rape, on the other hand, is not considered punishable, and family sexual abuse is almost always unreported, meaning that these ubiquitous private spaces of rape (conjugal beds, homes, families) are invisible to the law. By condoning the West Bengal chief minister’s bizarre (yes, we endorse this adjective which he refutes) analysis that public displays of affection incite rape in roving men who alas do not have lovelies dripping over their arms, and by suggesting that the solution to rape lies in the State providing low-cost housing so that all young men can relieve their rampant lust behind closed conjugal doors, Banerjee shockingly refuses to recognise the reality of domestic sexual violence, and spuriously suggests that married men do not rape, inside or outside the home.

Yes, some men have more privileged sexual access than others, based on caste, class, profession or indeed social skills; but that misses the nature of rape as a crime of bodily integrity and consent. Indeed we are sympathetic to Banerjee’s arguing for equitable access to space across classes, but we would rather like to think of this space as fostering an exciting social and sexual life rather than enforcing a claustrophobic conjugality to keep men off rapacious roads.

The image of the lonely deprived boy ogling the unavailable woman and then raping her goes too far down the garden path to argue for equitable housing, we think — for, unlike housing, health, sanitation or work, there is no such thing as men’s right to equal sexual access to women. In fact, efforts are on to create a gender-neutral definition of rape for the legislature: to think of rape simultaneously as a gendered crime and as a crime that goes beyond gender roles.

So it is the male sense of entitlement to non-consensual sex that is the crux of the problem, and not the presence of women as obscure objects of desire for them, who then need to be trundled off to marital bedrooms for everybody’s peace and fulfillment.

Srimati Basu teaches in the departments of gender and women’s studies and anthropology at the University of Kentucky. Brinda Bose teaches in the department of English at the University of Delhi. The views expressed by the authors are personal.