After watching the movie Life of Pi at a popular Delhi shopping mall, 23-year-old Jyoti Singh boarded a privately operated, off-duty bus with a male friend. The six men on board had been drinking and were out taking a joyride (earlier in the day they had lured a man onto the bus and robbed him). At approximately 9:30pm, the bus pulled over at the stop where Jyoti and her friend were waiting; the youngest of the six men told them the bus was heading where they wanted to go. The two friends climbed aboard. They knew they were in trouble when the driver deviated from the route the bus usually took. The men surrounded Jyoti and her friend, harassing them for their improper behaviour (being out late as an unmarried couple). A tense situation quickly turned violent. Jyoti’s friend tried to protect her but he was beaten unconscious with an iron rod. The young woman, a physiotherapy student, was brutally raped and beaten. She fought back, got a few bites in. But the men overpowered her. They raped her – all six of them. They beat her, bit her, forced an iron rod into her. When they were done they tossed the couple off the bus. The driver tried to run over Jyoti’s naked body but her friend dragged her out of the way. Her body was destroyed in any event. She had suffered massive internal injuries to her genitals, uterus and intestines (most of which were removed during the fifth operation on her). The attack happened on December 16, 2012; Jyoti died 13 days later. On top of the severe genital and gastrointestinal injuries she suffered, she had experienced cardiac arrest, brain damage, abdominal infection and pneumonia.
God knows how many women are raped each year. There are statistics but they do not begin to represent the real story. In Tanzania 20% of women report being raped. In South Africa, a country with one of the highest child and baby rape rates in the world, rape is so common it rarely makes the news. In a survey of 1,500 schoolchildren from Soweto, a quarter of the boys interviewed said that “jackrolling” (gang rape) was “fun”. In Turkey, 33% of the police officers interviewed believe that “some women deserve rape”. In Egypt, an estimated 200,000 women are raped each year. At an American university, male students staged an on-campus demonstration during which they chanted: “No means yes, yes means anal!” In Italy, 14% of women said they had experienced attempted rape. In Jamaica, many women are afraid to go out for fear of being sexually harassed or assaulted. In a UN report on male violence in Asia, some 22% of Chinese men said they had forced a female to have sex (86% of them said they did it out of a sense of “sexual entitlement”).
The official statistics for rape – shocking as they are – do not come even remotely close to revealing the scale of the problem. Rape isn’t just a stranger violently dragging a woman into a park bush and assaulting her under cover of night. It occurs most often between spouses, lovers, roommates, friends. It spans all ages and affects both genders. No one can say with any degree of accuracy how many children are conceived by rape each year. In America alone, a recent study put the figure at approximately 32,000 infants. The global figure surely runs into hundreds of thousands of children each year. A city the size of my Vilnius could be populated solely by human beings borne of violent, one-sided sex.
Even in the relatively advanced West, there remains a considerable disparity between the law and cultural attitudes. The idea persists, like a buzzy fly that just won’t be shooed away, that some women “deserve” it: they were drunk, they were wearing a short skirt, they invited him home, they led him on. The ubiquity of pornography has undoubtedly made matters worse, reducing women as it does to a servile object of pleasure. The pornographic woman is an interchangeable body, a blank face (de-individualized through cosmetics), a culturally sanctioned dumpster for male worthlessness. Men flip the body around, ram away at it like some medieval fortress, before the dramatic denouement of ejaculating on the woman’s passive face with the disregard of a dog cocking its leg to mark its territory. Despite all the considerable legal and cultural advances that have been made in recent decades, an American President, no less, can boast about being able to grab women “by the pussy” and not be removed from office. Perhaps it is time to understand rape from a broader perspective rather than seeing it as a social problem (a set of statistics) to be tamed. Put bluntly, rape is a natural phenomenon that occurs in other species (sexual coercion, in its various forms, is so prevalent it could be said to be a biological norm). The word ‘brutal’ often collocates in connection with human rape: it derives from the 15th century and refers to the behaviour of lower animals. As long as we continue with the pathetic fallacy that we are different from animals (there really is no such thing as ‘high’ or ‘low among animals), we will never understand why rape is so common or be able to address it beyond the palliative measure of prohibition.
Geese, ducks, orang-utans, chimpanzees, sea otters, bottlenose dolphins and Adélie penguins are among the better known examples of animals that use rape as a means of reproduction. Rape is so common among some ducks (an estimated 1 in 3 couplings) that female genitals have evolved to counter the male phallus by twisting against its coiled form. Bottlenose dolphins indulge in gang rape. Sea otters rape baby seals so aggressively they can kill them in the process (they may then rape the decaying corpse for up to a week). Various birds, fish and insects forcibly mate. Rape is clearly not unique to homo sapiens. But interpreting it is not easy, not least because it is so tempting to impose our male-skewed view upon any extrapolation. Things are further complicated by the widespread use of sexual coercion in the animal world, where animals do not rape, per se, but use various methods of intimidation to cajole females into submission.
The science is complex and far from conclusive. But what we can say is that the act of mating, whether enacted “voluntarily” though a ritualized selection process, or through some element of male force or coercion, is fraught with tension. While many animals clearly derive pleasure from coitus, many do not; just listen to two cats having intercourse – it’s a sonic disturbance that could jam alongside nails scratching chalkboards, pneumatic drills and bawling babies. Humans themselves frequently feel disgusted, remorseful, ashamed, etc. after sex although this is almost certainly culturally induced. Rape, especially among humans, is far too complex to be explained away either by biological determinism or cultural conditioning. But it is safe to say that nature clearly feels conflicted (about reproducing and perpetuating itself) at an elemental level.
Our (Greek-derived) world was, to a considerable extent, born of rape. The gods, the heroes, the mortals were all caught on a carousel of irresistible passions, which often overflowed into madness. New forms were molded from this metaphysical drama. Life was abducted, swept away. Eros ruled supreme. Europe was, in the extreme, the result of rape. Please curb your modern sensibilities, reign in your millennial outrage. Rape shaped reality. Force forged the world. Maybe it had to be that way. Life, precious and impossible, is an aberration; it had to be dragged into the light. Replication is both evolution and diminution. Physically, the specimen improves; mythically, it degrades. A profound contradiction.
Christianity was a stroke of genius from a biological perspective. Lucretia committed suicide after being raped. For reason-raping theologists she was posthumously guilty of pride and of having felt involuntary pleasure. Monotheism, rigid and foreign to the metaphysical leanings of the human mind, was an impossible code to live by. But it sanctified every wayward sperm, it blessed every remorseful sinner. The forbidden must have been irresistible in the knowledge that a little contrition would redeem you. Christianity spread, it crusaded; one might say it raped its way to pre-eminence. Because rape should not be confined to sex but metaphorically extend to any forceful invasion of sovereignty. I sometimes feel “raped” after watching a particularly bad Hollywood film, for example. Or when I perform loathsome work for financial remuneration. Or when I enter churches and shopping malls.
I am neither scientist nor philosopher so I can only speculate from the heart. And this is what my achy breaky heart thinks.
Rape among humans is not a reproductive strategy but a brutal expression of dominance. When up to an estimated two million women were raped as the Red Army marched across Europe towards Berlin, the soldiers were not thinking about fathering children but about taking (violently pleasurable) revenge against the perceived people who had committed unimaginable atrocities against them. Oh, and they were indignant at how well the Germans lived compared to them.
When a self-entitled American college student forces himself on a reluctant but too-drunk-to-resist young woman, it is because he has been brainwashed into seeing women as sexual objects to serve his self-gratification (something linguistically and iconographically reinforced at every level of society). When a gang of Indian men rape a young woman, it is because they have been nurtured on misogyny (explicit and codified). Women are projections of their own moral failings and weakness; rape, for them, is an intoxicating emotional compound of self-negation and affirmation. They succumb to their passion (in defiance of whatever conscience they might have) but simultaneously appropriate the object of that passion in the process (in the sexually Gung-ho spirit of the times). Forget the conjurations of psychology; reason is in thrall to desire. These (respectively) intellectually, economically and sexually impoverished men, egged on by a circuitous network of affirmatory signals, are seizing what they believe to be theirs: pleasure, ownership, perpetuity.
A confession: I like looking at pictures of naked women. This is because I am a sad, lonely creature. It is because the act of doing so releases pleasurable chemicals in the brain which make the unbearable passage of time momentarily disappear and because it simulates atavistic instincts to hunt things down (in this case recurring images that flicker into the semblance of a story). I say this, possibly at great embarrassment to myself, because I want to make a very sensitive point. I feel ashamed and disgusted with myself afterwards because I feel like I have violated these women’s privacy. They did not ask or want to be looked at by me. The broader point I am making is that despite my exposure to the pornographic mindset, I have never succumbed to the misogyny that led to the making and dissemination of these images. Some feminists may be horrified by this admission and I would fully understand their indignation. But, given my voraciously sexual nature, I would rather see it as fighting the good fight.
There is one animal that gives me cause for hope and it is our closest cousin (along with the chimpanzee): the bonobo. Bonobos live only in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the current “rape capital” of the world). These peaceable creatures are so human-like (in the best sense) that they share food among strangers and even exhibit empathy through “contagion yawning”. Most remarkable of all, though, is their extraordinary use of sex. In Bonoboland, everyone has sex with everyone. All ages and genders and family members use sexual contact to defuse tension. It is an ingenious system, the very opposite of the pornographic model which has taken root in human society. Bonobo sex placates aggression and reinforces social bonds (here it is worth mentioning that it is a matriarchal society). How predictably and pathetically tragic that we humans pose a grave threat to their continued existence. Just as the Greek gods consumed one another to stake out their divine claim to existence, so we consume everything around us to puff out our shaved chests and bra-enhanced breasts. If rape is an act of physical appropriation, then we are all guilty of rape to some degree.
This text has no end. It will spill over in a few days into another text. Until then, here is a thought. We will never rid the world of rape until we radically transform how we see women. The west thinks it has achieved sexual equality (at least legally speaking); this is laughable. Women, at best, are wives, lovers and girlfriends (while holding down a job or pursuing a career running around in stilettos). Even now, after everything, women are seen as incomplete if they go it alone. What is worse, the hard-won gains of feminism have been violently reversed. Feminism has become so meaningless in the mainstream as to be worthless, and the mainstream is the only stream worth worrying about. Feminism is now about “self-empowerment”, which is just another way of atomizing the individual and de-politicising the world. Just as the chimpanzee is our close cousin, so mainstream fashion and celebrity magazines are close cousins of pornography. It will take a small revolution to change this skewed and damaging state of affairs. The banning of photoshopped images would be a start. Followed by normalizing the growth of armpit hair (other hair to follow but one step at a time). But nothing will ever change so long as pornography is viewed as a normal representation of sex and the mainstream media keeps peddling an image of femininity that keeps a multibillion beauty industry in business. In the meantime, fight the good fight.
Although there was widespread outrage in India following the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, the situation has arguably worsened there. Across the Muslim world, in Africa and Asia, and in the West, the future is unthinkably bleak if attitudes towards women aren’t transformed. But it’s not for dinosaurs like me to affect this change, it’s for you – the young – to try and make it happen. It’s your future, your world; I want nothing to do with it. But please save the bonobos while you’re at it.