For more than two and a half hours, a gaggle of teenagers stood around outside the high-school gym, watching their fifteen year old classmate being beaten, stripped naked and then raped. “Police say witnesses took photos," CNN’s Stephanie Chen reported, “Others laughed.”
It doesn't happen only in India.
There was the American anthropologist, earlier this year, gang-raped by nine Papua New Guinea men who tied her husband down. The California men who gang-raped a schoolgirl this summer, phoning her father from her cellphone as they did it so they could taunt him. The Canadian teenager who committed suicide after a photograph of her gang-rape spread through her school. The girl raped on a Glasgow bus, in full view of other passengers. The London schoolgirl raped by nine boys, some as young as 13. There was Anene Boysen, left by the roadside, her intestines ripped out, just weeks before the rape-murder of the Delhi physiotherapist.
Last week’s gang-rape of a Mumbai photo-journalist might have been horrific, but it ought not shock: rape isn't the work of a few evil men, it’s among the most everyday crimes there is, everywhere in the world. It’s going to take something more serious than outrage to even begin to address this problem in India — and a good starting point is understanding that we just don’t know enough to do anything worthwhile.
From history, we know this: past outrage on rape hasn't achieved much. In March, 1973, a teenage adivasi girl was raped by three police officers at the Desai Ganj police station in Chandrapur. The alleged rapists were acquitted, in essence because judges agreed that she hadn't fought the perpetrators in a manner that met their standards.
Indian law was amended, because of publicanger, making it mandatory for judges to presume victims were telling the truth when they said they hadn’t granted consent.
The year the adivasi girl was raped, 44.28 percent of perpetrators were going to jail. In 1983, the year the new laws were enacted, it fell to 36.83 percent. In 1993, it was 30.30 percent. In 2003, it was 26.12 percent.
Last year, 14,717 rape trials were concluded in the courts, and 3,563 perpetrators were convicted. That’s 24.21 percent. That is precisely what our outrage is worth: 24.21 percent, the culmination of a decade-on-decade decline. It’s likely got something to do with under-resourced police and a broken criminal justice system — but also makes clear laws don’t mean justice.
Even the best-resourced criminal justice, though, don’t have very different outcomes. For every 100 rapes that take place in the United States, only 46 are reported. The 46, on average, lead to just 12 arrests—one for every fourth victim. Nine of the 12 arrested perpetrators go on to be prosecuted, but only a third of these are eventually convicted of rape.
Put simply, just 3 of every 100 rapists ever see the inside of a prison cell.
It’s depressing to note that the California school-gym case came three decades after the case that is sometimes claimed to have transfigured attitudes: Cheryl Araujo’s gang rape in 1983, on the pool table in Big Dan's Bar in New Bedford, as patrons watched and cheered.
Ever since the 1970s, there has been a rich debate among social scientists and evolutionary biologists on why men rape. Feminists have long argued sexual violence is an inexorable outcome of patriarchy. Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape, argues that “rape not only appears to occur in all known cultures, but in a wide variety of other species where there is certainly no cultural encouragement of such behaviour". The shared pessimism of these very different perspectives should caution us against easy sloganeering.
None the less, the United States has seen a steady decline in rape since the late-1970s — possibly a consequence of a feminist-informed social consensus about consent, better policing of public spaces and improved prosecution. It’s been a slow, nuts-and-bolts process, built on the understanding there’s no magic bullet that can fix the problem of sexual violence.
For there to be progress in India, we need to know where rape happens, who the perpetrators are and how they chose their victims Indian government data doesn’t give us this kind of information. The cases reported to police — which are almost certainly very different to the real incidence of rape — suggest Bharat is more dangerous than India: of 24,923 cases in 2012, just 3,035 were in major cities. They suggest the typical perpetrator is known to the victim, and that they’re not mostly feral juveniles, crazed by hormones or bad upbringing.
The data doesn’t even tell us how many gang-rapes there are, and whether streets or homes are the most dangerous places for women.
In the United States, the National Organisation for Women reported in 2010, 11 percent of the 100,000 rapes reported to police annually were gang rapes. In 73 percent of those cases, the perpetrators were strangers to the victim, an inversion of the pattern in single-perpetrator attacks. In India, we don’t have a clue: there isn't a single robust criminological profile of perpetrators, or demographic and spatial mapping.
Everything’s from slumdog rage against empowered women, the breakdown of traditional values, migrants, westernisation, cultural tradition—and, yes, chowmein—have been suggested as causes of rape. As things stand, they’re all just as likely to be true or false, because we simply don’t have any data.
This reflects a public culture with a depressing contempt for fact: it’s only in India a major newspaper that would carry an article asserting rape is a “cultural and civilisational thing”, based on the proposition that sexual violence in India’s north-east was “very low” relative to north India. Five minutes with the data makes clear this is drivel: to Bihar’s 1.83 reported rapes per 100,000 population, Mizoram saw last year saw 20.81 followed by Tripura with 12.77, and Meghalaya with 12.46 and Assam with 11.34.
Plenty of models exist for the kinds of granular research we need. In a 1999 study based on Chicago police records, Sarah Ullman found that gang-rape perpetrators were “were younger, more likely to be unemployed, but not different in marital status or race [than in individual rapes]”. She found drugs and alcohol played an important role in these attacks. Diana Scully and Joseph Marrola’s path-breaking 1984 study bust the myth rapists were driven by sex.
For police forces and criminal prosecutors, these kinds of studies are invaluable, focusing attention on problems that need fixing — and suggesting how best they might go about it.
From gangs attacking women in Egypt, to the sexual violence in Syria’s brutal war; from the mass gang-rapes in Congo, people have been outraged by it all — for as long as it takes for something else to come around to be outraged about. It’s among the easiest, and least useful, emotions there is.
There’s one model that’s guaranteed to fail — and that’s trying to fix a problem without knowing what it is. The outrage-driven debate, by substituting for serious, policy-relevant discussion on rape is part of the problem.