Rape in India: Who is to Blame?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently, a girl in India was gang-raped and killed. The incident produced a nationwide dialogue about India’s rape culture and the causes thereof, some of which has spilled over into the wider global conversation about gender roles, feminism, and so on. The blame has been directed a number of different ways with most of the arguments being impassioned, emotional, and defensive. I would like to cut away the passionate recriminations and attempt to come to a reasonable conclusion as to what the source of rape is and how states might go about combating it.

There are broadly three interpretations of the problem:

  1. Rapists are to blame.
  2. Rape victims are to blame.
  3. Society is to blame.

To this point, the discussion has devolved into a shouting match between the first two sides, with less attention paid to the third. On the “rapists are to blame” side are many feminists in the western world, who attach personal responsibility to the men who committed the rape and the men who are lax in prosecuting rapists and pursuing rape cases. These men are villainised and attacked as misogynists, and some of them indeed are such, but the vitriol with which this position is often articulated makes me sceptical of its reasonableness. There is an awfully large amount of shouting going on, and well-reasoned views are rarely shouted (as Alex Jones demonstrated the other day).

The “rape victims are to blame” argument takes many forms, and some of those forms are inarguably misogynist and backward in their outlook. All the same, I wish to examine them, to see if there is anything to them.

Some have denied that rape is possible:

Can one hand clap? I don’t think so.

This argument suggests two fallacious things:

  1. Sex is not possible without the female’s arousal.
  2. Arousal is sufficient for consent.

The former is biologically and scientifically false, the second deprives the individual of psychological independence from physiological reaction. The fact that a person is aroused does not oblige said person to consent to sex. If this is not self-evidently true to the reader, consider a case in which one was attracted to someone whom one knew to have HIV, and said someone attempted to pursue intercourse. While one might be physiologically aroused, one is not obliged to consent on the basis of said arousal because one may nonetheless have reasons for not desiring sexual contact. While HIV is an objective and obvious reason, it illustrates the wider principle, which applies legally to any and all reasons, reasonable or unreasonable, that a person might have for not wanting sex. In most countries, one is not so much as required to provide the reasoning to the other person, as sex is considered a facet of bodily autonomy over which the individual has absolute authority.

Then there are arguments concerning the dangerous environments in which most rapes happen, and the apparent culpability of rape victims in so far as they placed themselves in circumstances in which rape was more likely:

Just because India got freedom at midnight, is it necessary for women to move on the streets at midnight?

She should have assessed the situation before getting into the bus.

This argument is not quite as wholly fatuous as the one that preceded it. Imagine the following scenario:

I go to the very worst neighbourhood in Detroit, where the poverty and human misery is greatest, in a Ferrari. I park that Ferrari on the street, and I get out of the car with a briefcase. Inside the briefcase is a million dollars. I put the briefcase on the hood of the Ferrari, I open it so that the million dollars is visible to those who pass by, and I put the key to the Ferrari on top of the pile of money. I then abandon the car and the money overnight. If the car and the money are gone when I get back, am I to blame?

It’s certainly the case that the thief, whoever it was, was wrong to steal my Ferrari and my million dollars. Despite this, I was very stupid–I went to a place in which theft is statistically unusually common and I was very careless with my belongings. I ignored the poor social conditions in that neighbourhood, the high crime rate, its reputation for danger, and I placed my things in a dangerous environment foolishly and recklessly. I am not blameless in this scenario. I wish that every neighbourhood was a safe place in which to leave a Ferrari and a million dollars without having to worry, and the world would be a better place if it was, but for me to act as though the world is a safe place when it is not that way is nonetheless a very stupid thing to do.

Girls who travel in dangerous locations at dangerous times of day wearing outfits that attract attention are behaving stupidly. Obviously, they do not deserve to be raped for that stupidity, but if they are raped, they have certainly contributed to the fact that it happened with their choices and behaviour. In a world in which no one was ever raped, such choices would be completely wholesome and fine. There are many environments in which girls may dress provocatively without danger, and many outfits girls might wear in dangerous environments that discourage rape. To argue to the contrary is not rational, it is wishing for a world which unfortunately does not at present exist, one in which the risk of rape need not be a factor in the decision-making of people.

However, some people take this argument further and argue that no, the choice to dress provocatively not only descriptively does make rape more likely, it normatively ought to do so. It is one thing to say that dressing a certain manner unfortunately makes rape more likely, quite another to say, as these people do, that it deserves to happen:

One has to abide by certain moral limits. If you cross this limit you will be punished.

I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady.

This argument crosses a line and gives the potential rapists the option of determining the moral quality of the women they meet and then choosing whether or not to rape them on this basis. It makes the men judges of the women, and consequently raises the men above them. On top of this, the moral concern being raised, the promiscuity of women either in point of fact or in point of appearance, is not in and of itself a moral issue in the first place. Dressing provocatively does not harm anyone or cause any negative consequences in and of itself–its harms only persist because there are people who have this opinion that dressing provocatively indicates desert of harm. It does no such thing.

This brings us to the third argument, the one I think is most persuasive, the argument that rape is a social phenomenon. Lacking the passion and the sheer polemical anger of the other arguments, it has been largely ignored. Rape happens because there are men who believe that rape is acceptable and there are women who are careless and ignore this fact. Society can combat rape in two corresponding ways:

  1. The short term solution: helping women avoid dangerous environments, dangerous clothing, and so on down the line.
  2. The long term solution: a gradual erosion of the cultural values that make rape permissible to so many people through education and judicial deterrence.

The Muslim world has adopted the former, deliberately dressing up their women in head scarves and burqas so as to be sexually unappealing in public, and some in India want to follow that path:

there should also be a law that women should not wear less clothes and roam around with boys who are not their relatives

This broadly speaking amounts to an embrace of the Saudi Arabian model, and it sets women up in the long term to be enfeebled and weakened in their legal position relative to men and denied basic liberties that contribute to the happiness and welfare of women. The western world has gradually pursued the latter, seeking to modify gender roles so as to make them less constraining on behaviour, to lift women up socially and economically and to make them as productive and as socially useful as their male counterparts. The western model doubles a nation’s productive power in the long-term and provides better for the happiness of its female population (unless said population is so wholly used to its inferior position that it has grown accustomed to it like Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Django: Unchained).

India was a British colony. It also has a large Muslim population and has in the past been ruled by Muslim states (the most recent of which was the Mughal Empire). This gives it a relatively rare shared East-West perspective, and a choice about which direction to guide itself in. It is an Indian decision to be made by Indians for Indians, but all the same, let me offer this advice–in the long run, states that use their women as they use their men make themselves stronger by far than those that use their women as they use their children or their pets.