Rape: A Reading beyond the Body

By Rituparna Patgiri*

Content highlight

Negating the biological explanation of rape
Victim blaming
Rape and loss of honor
Rape and power

Theorists have argued that in every society crimes have existed and that it is not possible to eliminate crimes completely. Even the so-called primitive or tribal societies were not devoid of crimes. And it would be no exaggeration to state that rape as a form of crime is as old as human society itself. It is because of the fact that power is present in every society and rape is after all a manifestation of power relations in society. Incidences of rape cruelly highlight the power tussle that marks relations between human beings—the ones who can exert it and others who it is exerted upon. In the case of rape, it is most often men who bear power and women (not always the case, can be men also) are at the receiving end.

Power can be defined as “the probability that one actor in a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his will despite resistance offered by others” (Weber 1947: 152). In rape, this becomes very evident as the rapist is able to exercise his will in spite of resistance from the raped. The former can also provide justifications for the act committed. Thus, to understand the complexities involved in rape, one has to look at not only the act but also its implications. This essay is an attempt at doing that, by using a variety of examples from different contexts.

1. Negating the biological explanation of rape

Rape has been historically perceived as an expression of masculine aggression and justified by the popular belief that “boys will be boys” (Sanday 2007: 83). The ideology inscribed in this discourse represents male sexuality as more natural and explosive than female sexuality (ibid: 41). However, not all men rape and neither do all societies have a ‘rape culture’. Rape is rare in 47 per cent of band societies and there was evidence of male-female integration in the affairs of everyday life, especially in domestic activities of these societies (ibid: 6). Therefore, rape cannot be justified on the basis of biological reasons. The attempt to provide a biological explanation of rape by comparing rapists to animals is an effort to naturalize the act, arguing that rapists succumb to their animalistic instincts. However, animals do not rape in their natural habitat—the wild. Sex in the animal world is called ‘mating’ and it is a cyclical activity set off by biological signals the female puts out (Brownmiller 1975: 12).

Humans, however, are different and their mating is not dependent on any particular season. A male can evince sexual interest in a female at any time he pleases and his urge is not dependent on her biologic readiness or receptivity (Brownmiller: 13). And it is in this regard that rape becomes intertwined with power: a man can forcibly enter a woman’s body, despite her physical protests and struggles. This became the vehicle of his victorious conquest over her being, the ultimate test of his superior strength, the triumph of his manhood (ibid: 14). This power gets manifested in different forms and rape is one of them. It is not only exerted by the act of coercion but also by throwing the onus on the victims to protect themselves and creating a situation of victim blaming.

2. Victim blaming

The fact that women are taught to protect themselves by being careful is testimonial to society’s belief that rape is something that they can ‘invite’. It is one of the rare crimes when the victim is suspected of inciting/instigating the act. It can be argued that this is one of the fundamental aspects of power, to instill fear among a group of people so that domination becomes an easy process. It is in the interests of the patriarchal society that the victims of rape question themselves if they did something to ‘invite’ rape. Because rapes have been treated as crimes against women, the culpability of the rape victim has long been questioned. Her dress, her demeanor, where the rape occurred and her resistance all become evidence for whether a woman was even raped at all (Hill Collins: 223).

Many women who are molested or raped are questioned about what they were wearing, at what time it happened, who they were out with, etc. This highlights the ‘soft power’ (makes people on whom it is exercised co-operate, very subtle and more powerful than physical power) of rape as a strategy to put the raped in a vicious cycle of self-blaming. By blaming women for provoking male sexual aggression, women are controlled through the agency of fear. The fear is that a woman who does not guard her behavior runs the risk of becoming the target of uncontrollable male sexual aggression (Sanday 2007:106).

In fact in many cases, it is justified as an act of ‘teaching a lesson’, that one ‘deserved it’. For instance, in the South African society, many young men practice ‘steamrolling’, which is one form of rape and abduction, and justify it by saying that the aim is to discipline the woman, destroy her “confidence and humiliate her” (Wood 2005: 309). Women are trained to be rape victims. Rape seeps into their childhood consciousness by imperceptible degrees (Brownmiller 1975: 309). It has been presented as something that women desire, that it is imbibed in their unconsciousness as a ‘fantasy’, a term propounded by Sigmund Freud (ibid: 315). Thus, a rapist argues that he did nothing wrong but only fulfilled a woman’s desire. This so called ‘fantasy’ to be dominated or raped has been given a new meaning in a type of sexual practice called BDSM (Bondage Domination and Sadism Masochism). The woman is shown to desire brutal sexual practices like being tied up, beaten and raped as depicted in one of the best-selling novels, Fifty Shades of Grey. Within the context of this sexual culture, the male projects his own sexual tension on to the female, fetishizing her as ‘wanting it’ (Sanday 2007:18).

Another way in which women’s consent is tampered with is by making it ambiguous. On many college campuses in the U.S.A., sex with a drunken, nearly comatose or passed-out woman is not defined as rape by the male participants. A woman who gets drunk is said to be “asking for it”. This is true despite the fact that fraternity brothers admit that the goal of their parties is “to get them drunk and go for it” and that they make the women’s drinks “really strong to loosen up inhibitions” (Sanday 2007: 2). Similarly in South Africa, while admitting that women “do not like it”, many young men insisted that streamlining was not ‘rape’, deploying arguments relating to the tactics used (often trickery and coercion rather than outright violence) and the lack of voiced refusal on the target’s part (Wood 2005: 310).

3. Rape and loss of honor

The fact that rape is associated with the idea of a woman’s honor becomes an instrument for men to ‘teach women a lesson’ or take revenge. As is the case elsewhere, the social stigma attached to rape in the Indian context is reflected in the very usage of phrases like ‘izzat gawa dena’ (loss of honor) and ‘zinda laash’ (living corpse). The implication is that men have the power to destroy a woman’s life by raping her; that she has no life after rape. These are contentious as it indicates the existing bias against the people who are raped.

All these processes of victim blaming mean that people who are raped are hesitant to report the crime. Many victims either choose not to or are unable to report their victimization because of shame, guilt, and/or fear (Green 2004:104). Many sexual assaults pass unnoticed because the victim is murdered during or after her assault (ibid: 195). Rape is considered to bring ‘dirtiness’, and therefore for a survivor the experience of it is often shameful. Beyond a concern to protect their reputations, one reason underlying some women’s unwillingness to report coercive streamlining was that it might lead others to question what they had done to ‘deserve’ it. Targets of streamlining were often described by men as having deserved it. This notion was particularly applied by elders and young men to women who were perceived to be behaving in ways which challenged ideals of proper femininity through alcohol consumption and ‘provocative’ dressing. Such women were thought to be signaling their sexual availability, hence the lack of public disapproval of violence directed against drunken girls (Wood 2005: 310).

This tendency of equating women with honor is also reflected in laws. For instance, under the Geneva Conventions, rape was considered a crime against a woman’s honor. This put the emphasis on the woman’s character and value rather than her personhood or rights (Green 2004: 99). To cite an instance from India, a raped woman called Mathura was considered to be a ‘shocking liar’ because she was ‘habituated to sex’, and, therefore, it was concluded that she had consented to sexual intercourse with the accused (Gangoli 2007: 82) Thus a woman with a sexual history is not seen as someone who can be raped as it is assumed that she always consents to it. It is also considered that since her ‘honor’ is already lost, there can be no wrong in raping such a woman, for example prostitutes.

Even the ones who detest rape and protest against it put forward stereotypical arguments as can be seen in the rape case that involved a woman named Maya Tyagi in 1980 in India. Her rape was equated with the loss of honor for all women kind, but her male friends who suffered an equally tragic fate, that is, loss of life; were not projected as symbolic of Indian men. Therefore, the opposition to rape often stemmed from patriarchal ideology, that is, the honor of women and the need to protect it (Gangoli 2007: 84). This mindset still continues as exhibited by many political leaders who termed the 16 December 2012 rape victim in Delhi a “zinda laash” (living corpse).[1]

4. Rape and Power

The interesting facet about rape is that it gives all men power over all women, irrespective of class, caste, race, status, etc. Even men who are subjugated otherwise exercise control over women who belong to their social categories. To overcome their ‘crisis of masculinity’ (subjugation by other men), these men take to exerting their power over women (Wood 2005: 304). This power nexus is vivid among the African-Americans. Black women have not only been raped by white men but also by black men. The sexual violence committed upon African-American women has historically carried no public name, garnered no significant public censure and has been seen as an issue that diverts Black politics from its real job of fighting racism (Hill Collins 2004: 217). An increase in women’s status relative to men is expected to increase the perceived threat to men’s collective interests. In response to such threats, the importance of defining masculinity in contrast to femininity may increase (Whaley 2001: 533). Rape then becomes a medium by which men demonstrate their power over women; it shows that men can forcefully violate their bodies. This becomes particularly evident from the fact that not only is African-American women raped by white men; even African-American men rape white women. Thus, rape as a form of crime gives all men power over all women; a white woman’s supposedly ‘superior’ racial status does not guarantee that she will not get raped.

Those in positions of power also use rape as a weapon to maintain their status quo. War time rapes, custodial rapes, child abuse, date rapes and prison rapes are examples of this. The notion that women embody the honor of a community is used by warring groups to inflict pain upon the enemy in wars (substantiated by the uncountable number of women raped during such historical events as both the World Wars, partition of India, etc.). Raping women become the simplest way to ‘steal’ another man’s ‘property’ and ‘honor’ as it inflicts not only physical but also mental and emotional damage. Men of a conquered nation traditionally view the rape of “their women” as the ultimate humiliation, a sexual  coup de grâce. Rape is considered by the people of a defeated nation to be part of the enemy’s conscious effort to destroy them. Rape by a conqueror is compelling evidence of the conquered’s status of masculine impotence. Defense of women has long been a hallmark of masculine pride, as possession of women has been a hallmark of masculine success (Brownmiller 1975: 38).

For instance, since Black women as a class emerged from slavery as collective rape victims, they were encouraged to keep quiet in order to refute the thesis of their wanton sexuality (Hill Collins 2004: 223). African-American women grapple with sanctions within their communities that urge them to protect African-American men and their honor at all costs by not reporting rapes (ibid: 226).

In custodial rape, it is the ones with legitimate authority who rape. Three women—Mathura (1972), Rameeza Bee (1978) and Maya (1980)—were all raped in police custody in India. The policemen who are expected to protect citizens were the ones who perpetuated the violence; it is a clear abuse of power (Gangoli 2007: 79). The unholy silence that shrouds the domestic sexual abuse of children and prevents an appraisal of its true incidence and meaning is rooted in the same patriarchal philosophy of sexual private property that shapes and determines male attitudes toward rape. For if woman is considered man’s original corporal property, then children are a wholly owned subsidiary (Brownmiller 1975: 281).

Date rapes and rapes by men who have had prior relationships with their victims also contain elements of coercive authority that militates against decisive resistance. Here the “authority” takes the form of expected behavior (ibid: 257).

Prison rapes highlight an important facet of rape—not only women, but even men, are raped. The so called homosexual “abuse” in prison was formerly thought to be symptomatic of the brutality of a few prison guards. However, it is seen today for what it is: acting out of power roles within an all-male, authoritarian environment in which the younger, weaker inmate is forced to play the role that in the outside world is assigned to women (Brownmiller 1975: 258). Through the act of rape, the victim is redefined as an object of sexual abuse. He has been proven to be weak, vulnerable, ‘female’, in the eyes of other inmates (Hill Collins 2004: 235). The men are also proving their virility to each other.

This proving of masculinity to one another is very clear when many men rape one woman. The woman involved is a tool, an object, the centerfold around which boys demonstrate their power and heterosexual desire by performing for one another. They prove their manhood on a wounded girl who is unable to protest. Her body stands in for the object of desire in porno-staged acts of sexual intercourse that boys often watch together (Sanday 2007: 7). Resisting a gang rape, as it is popularly called, invites ridicule for a man and being compared to a homosexual or effeminate. This argument is substantiated by an American soldier’s statement: “[T]hey only do it when there are a lot of guys around. You know, it makes them feel good. They show each other what they can do” (Brownmiller 1975: 107). Thus, even so-called ‘nice men’ get involved in gang rapes as it is a quest to demonstrate their masculinity and prove their manhood to each other.

The very construction of male and female sexualities is a product of power. Most sexually stimulating material like pornography and erotica are geared towards men and help in promoting this ‘rape culture’. The women’s body becomes a site through which men communicate with each other; violating it enhances their social status and secures their masculinity. Thus, sexual behavior is not only a biological drive but is also driven by the desire to dominate others. Therefore, one cannot understand incidences of rape without analyzing the sexual culture that helps breed it, and it is itself located in the nexus of power.


[1]Sushma Swaraj, for instance, argued that “even if the 23-year-old survived she would be a “zinda laash”, traumatized for life. See: http://gulfnews.com/news/world/india/gang-rape-victim-still-in-critical-condition-india-cries-for-justice-1.1120689.[back to text↑]


1. Brownmiller, S. 1975. Against our will: Men, Women and Rape. pp. 11–113, 210–283, 309–347. New York: Fawcett Columbine.
2. Gangoli, G. 2007. Indian Feminisms: Law, Patriarchies and Violence in India. pp. 79–99. Aldershot: Ashgate.
3. Green, J. L. 2004. ‘Uncovering Collective Rape: A Comparative Study of Political Sexual Violence’, International Journal of Sociology. Vol. 34, No. 1. pp. 97–116. M. E. Sharpe, Inc.
4. Hills Collins, P. 2004. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender And The New Racism. pp. 215–245. New York and London: Routledge.
5. Sanday, P. R. 2007. Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, brotherhood and Privilege on Campus. New York and London: New YorkUniversity Press.
6. Weber, M. 1947 [1997]. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. pp. 152–154. New York: Free Press.
7. Whaley, R. B. 2001. ‘The Paradoxical Relationship between Gender Inequality and Rape: Toward a Refined Theory’, Gender and Society. Vol. 15, No. 4, pp. 531–555. Sage Publications, Inc.
8. Wood, K. 2005. ‘Contextualizing Group Rape in Post-Apartheid South Africa’, Culture, Health & Sexuality. Vol. 7, No. 4, pp. 303–317. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.


About the author:

*Rituparna Patgiri is pursuing M.A. in Sociology from Delhi School of Economics. She holds an undergraduate degree in Sociology from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, and a post-graduate diploma in Conflict Transformation and Peace Building. Her research interests include gender, law and media. She could be reached via email at missrituparnapatgiri@gmail.com.


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