Theorizing Rape and Potential Rapists

Sculptor Giambologna's "Rape of Sabine Women". Just as he delighted in solving the complex spatial problems of three intertwined figures in this famous sculpting, detached from the nature and act, the theoretical exercise too appears the same. (Image: Wikipedia)
Sculptor Giambologna’s “Rape of Sabine Women”. Just as he delighted in solving the complex spatial problems of three intertwined figures in this famous sculpting, detached from the nature and act, the theoretical exercise too appears the same. (Image: Wikipedia)

I have often felt that the urge to theorize does more disservice to the disciplines apart from the waste of time and resources that happens anyway. The discontent is about the sort of scholarship prevails that has no link to practice. Then that begets the question if one should even care for such scholarship. It is not meant to be a tirade against theory.

At the university, someone proposed a seminar on rape and specifically on the thought – if all men are potential rapists. Fantastic timing to have a faculty seminar on such a topic in India, where the frequency of rapes being reported in the newspapers as well as the number of high profile cases coming to light is at an all time high. The intention and personal motivations of the researcher are not suspected. Considering that they are well meaning beyond doubt, the method and arguments are reflected upon. To attempt a framework about how to understand a phenomenon in the society – particularly of extreme forms of sexual violence towards women is understandable.It is not just this particular case of presenting theory on rape that I am referring to. It is about a variety of opportunistic research that is pursued in the academia which sort of gets into a discipline because the ‘time is right’. No problem with this as long as the reasons reflect integrity and coherence. For instance, the historical background of rape and how women have been raped in every recorded century is irrelevant to a question of contemporary sexual violence against women in India. Theorizing rape in the following way is at best an opportunistic move and lacks practical sense or relevance. Here are the assumptions which drove the thought on rape in the seminar and why they are contentious –

  1.  Taking an ‘immanent’ position in theory – While the intellectual honesty in proposing a position where the researcher himself is located within the world which he is examining is appreciated, this doesn’t explain why this position should be the most ethical of other positions in theoretical exercises. The danger that is often talked about is that researcher cannot occupy a moral high ground when he speaks of subjects like desire and violence. The propensity to commit to these acts in him is as much present as in the ‘others’ that he is directing his enquiry on. And therefore, instead of being located somewhere outside the system and examining the ‘others’ he must be located within this system. This is the immanent position. However, does this automatically incorporate high and desirable ethical standards in the theory? The presenter seemed to think so. The point I am making is that it is not enough to indicate a position in a theory. The work must also reflect this at every assertion that it makes. Being located in the same system as the observed (in the binary of observer and observed) and yet not being able to grasp that rapes are not only an ‘opportunistic’ behaviour among men but are also driven by motivations – like ‘teaching the woman a lesson’ by outraging her modesty. Such a phrase is not unheard of in India. How does it escape a consideration here is not quite clear.
  2. That ‘desire’ is the only driver of rape: This is a psycho-analytical hangover that keeps manifesting itself in studies which are better of without such a lens. This can get tiring besides being frustrating – the idea that there is violence in all of us, subdued within and that this finds expression when one gets an ‘opportunity’. If ever there was a depressing take on the human condition it is this. It is baffling that one can label all men as desirous of raping women, restraining themselves because they have not got the opportunity to do so.
  3. Use of history in this analysis – This is by far the most contentious aspect of theorizing rape in the current times, for me. How does one use historical evidences and to what effect is worth reflecting on. If one cites the rape of Sabine women in ancient Rome as an evidence to prevalence of the tendency of rape in men then it is either a serious error of judgement on the researcher’s part or that historical information is being distorted to the effect of making one’s point forcibly. How is the rape of Sabine women committed by roman men in 750 BC suggestive of anything related to propensity to rape by men today? Besides this, the implied meaning of “rape” in the form that it was recorded in history may not have been of ‘sexual violation’ but that it meant ‘abduction’ (i.e. Latin form of ‘rape’ and not the modern English usage).  Not stating this doubt about the intended meaning and ambiguity in the use of word ‘rape’ is a serious issue. On this basis alone, one can call off the entire exercise to be of dubious nature. 

At our company, while conducting field research for clients we have often observed the big disconnect between theories in a discipline such as social sciences and the real action on ground. Out of maybe 10 theories in sociology only about 2 or 3 theories are likely to have any bearing on the patterns observed in real world. But this is just our experience. Many of these theories as our friend proposed right in the beginning remain at an ‘immanent’ level – i.e. a mental act performed entirely within the mind.

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