Sense of entitlement, victim-blaming most common traits of sexual offenders, says researcher who interviewed 100 rape convicts

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published on 9 November, 2018. It has been republished as it assumes relevance following the rape and murder of a 28-year-old woman veterinary doctor, whose remains were found on the outskirts of Hyderabad on 29 November. The gruesome incident found a mention during the ongoing Winter Session of Parliament. The four accused in the case are in judicial custody and three police officials have been suspended.

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Off all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity; the female sex

— Mahatma Gandhi

It has been five-and-a-half years since Jyoti Pandey was raped and left to die on a busy road in the national capital. The girl became a symbol of collective frustration against evils that are born and bred in the Indian society.

A week after 16 December 2012, when the incident took place, the Justice JS Verma Committee was set up to review existing laws and recommend necessary amendments to deter such crimes. Though not all the recommendations of the committee’s 644-page report were accepted, it helped amend the law were the court’s discretion to give rapists a sentence lesser than the minimum of seven years was abolished. The punishment for rape was made harsher. The amendments also included improved standard of consent — it needs to be unequivocal and clearly communicated — and fast track courts were also set up for rape cases. Trial in rape cases now needs to be completed within two months of filing a charge sheet. Parallely, India now has laws on sexual assault offences. Stalking, unwanted sexual advances and touches, and voyeurism are specific offences under IPC Section 354A-D. These offences earlier fell under Section 354 on outraging the modesty of a woman.

 Sense of entitlement, victim-blaming most common traits of sexual offenders, says researcher who interviewed 100 rape convicts

File image of Madhumita Pandey

In the light of these amendments and the new laws, are women in India any safer? The plight of young girls at the shelter homes in Muzaffarpur and Deoria seems to suggest otherwise. One has to merely go through the National Crime Records Bureau’s data on women safety to understand that the two cases are not exceptions. Part of the Ministry of Home Affairs, the NCRB which collects annual data on crime in the country, reports an increase of 2.9 percent cases under crime against women category in 2016 over 2015. Rape cases have reported an increase of 12.4 percent from 34,651 cases in 2015 to 38,947 in 2016.

The fight for justice for Jyoti Pandey, for the eight-year-old who was raped in Kathua, and the 46 minors who have been rescued from Muzaffarpur shelter home is meaningless and does not make sense until we eliminate the reasons leading to the crime that repeats itself regularly. Is it because of the fault in our education system or due to lack of gender sensitivity in attitudes of the state and civil society?

Madhumita Pandey, a lecturer of Criminology at Sheffield Hallam University, UK, believes that convicted rapists are in a unique position to give information that has not been considered  previously. For her doctoral thesis at the Criminology Department of Anglia Ruskin University in the UK, Madhumita visited and interviewed 100 convicted rapists at Tihar Central Jail in New Delhi. In an email interview, she opened up about insights and findings from her field work. Edited excerpts from the interview:

What drew you to the subject?

Amidst all the outrage (post the Jyoti Pandey rape case), everyone was thinking the same thing — “why did this group of men do such a thing?” or, "how could they do such a thing?” To my surprise, while everyone was asking these questions on TV news channels, in the parliamentary debates or in social gatherings, no one bothered to think that perhaps the answers could come directly from the perpetrators of sexual crimes against women... so, I thought why not ask them. My research interests include sexual violence against women, particularly rape in India with a focus on offender perspectives.

Why is it necessary to read the mindset of those convicted with sexual crimes?
Convicted rapists are in a unique position to give information that we've previously not considered. We can learn a great deal about their motivation, their offending pattern, victim selection, etc, and at the same time also about their own lives — what made them commit such a crime, their thinking, feelings, personal relationships, and so on.

Among the 100 convicts you met for your thesis, you held back one case... Why?

I remember every case as all of them are very unique and useful to my research in their own way. The one particular story I am sharing is of Participant 49.

This 23-year-old convict had not completed primary school and was working as a temple cleaner. He was imprisoned in 2010 for raping a five-year-old girl. He described his victim as a small beggar girl who provoked him while he was busy with his duties.

When I asked him to elaborate on how she "provoked" him, he said, "She was touching me inappropriately, so I thought I’ll teach her a lesson... Her mother is also like this, she too has a questionable character." Victim-blaming is a commonly found phenomenon in the narratives of sex offenders and this case was not any different.

What disturbed me more than the vivid description of the attack was the fact that he thought he could make up for his crime by marrying the girl after he had completed his sentence.

Before I spoke with him, he was asked to complete two questionnaires. He scored lowly in the Attitude towards Women Questionnaire, indicating conservative or traditional mindset towards women. His results for the Multicultural Masculinity Ideology Scale highlighted lack of sexual responsibility along with low sensitivity. He also ranked high on the toughness factor, indicating that he had internalised cultural norms on how men should act and what defines a “man or manliness”.

I have often been asked if this particular story impressed or troubled me the most. I decided to write about this case because: a) this convicted rapist was not included in my final research sample, so I didn’t have to worry about revealing my findings prematurely, and b) I was writing an article about child sexual abuse and he was one of the handful who had been convicted of raping a young child so it seemed fitting that I use this case as an example.

It was also interesting to see that his idea of marrying the victim in order to pay for his actions had been previously suggested by other prominent people of our country — Madras High Court Judge P Devadass recently let a rapist out of prison on bail so he could "mediate" with his victim. Globally, a former Sharia judge Datuk Shabudin Yahaya in Malaysia suggested that the rapists should marry their victims as this way the victim would at least ‘get a husband’. Similarly, last year several West Asian countries also updated their laws that previously pardoned rapists who married their victims. People often forget that rape causes more than physical harm — the emotional hurt is far superior and many survivors of sexual assault are treated in the same way as individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Protests against Kathua rape case in Mumbai. Hassan M Kamal

Protests against Kathua rape case in Mumbai. Hassan M Kamal

Did the rape convicts you spoke with express remorse for their actions?

Very few men convicted of rape took responsibility for their crimes but there are two points to note here: first, in order for a rapist to feel remorse and apologetic, he must first understand and accept that his actions were wrong. Since most men in my research sample did not identify their actions as wrong (as many of them did not understand what consent meant) they did not feel like they had anything to apologise for. They said they are not guilty. Second, there are different ways in which remorse can be expressed. Some men out rightly said that they were repenting their actions while others said that they would not want anyone to do this to their sister or daughter, highlighting that at some level they did understand that their actions were wrong.

Of all, I recall one of my participants telling me that he has an older sister and he cannot even imagine what he would do to someone who might hurt her. A few minutes later he said, "She (the victim) would also have been someone's sister madam". So, while some participants did not out rightly say that they were remorseful, some of their statements suggested that they felt guilty. But only a few expressed this feeling.

In an average mind, what is it that triggers an act like rape? Is it done to fulfil desires or is there something darker behind it?

We think that there is something inherently (biologically or psychologically) wrong with rapists — "dark desires" as you've put it but that is not the case. Rape is a very complex crime and there are always several factors at play. I explored the socio-cultural aspect of the crime. While we cannot separate sex from a sexual crime, not all rapes are about lust and sex. I mostly found that men convicted of rape simply committed the crime because they "could" — they had motive as well as the opportunity. The motive was not always sex, but when it was, there was (also) a sense of entitlement present. The other times, it was also about power and dominance.

What was that one thing you found common in all or most of the rape convicts, you met during the study?

Victim Blaming and confusion about (the meaning of) consent.

How much would you blame our education system for sex crimes? Do you feel the absence of sex study in schools is one of the prime reason for this?

Yes, there is a severe need of sex education in India. How can we talk about a sexual offence when we can barely speak about sex?

A comprehensive curriculum-based sexuality module can not only make teenagers understand their bodies and the age related changes better but also about consent and respecting each other's personal space. Along with learning about menstruation, sexual intercourse, sexually transmitted diseases and risks of pregnancy, young people also need to learn about the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse, which, in turn, will allow them to recognise these (sex crimes) should they occur and also to protect themselves. They can learn to identify and access available sources of support. Sensitising children and giving them a safe environment to discuss these issues are essential steps in tackling sexual violence.

A few years back I saw an article by a senior of mine from school, Nikita Gupta from the School of Life Foundation and I was thrilled to see how this organisation was conducting workshops with parents, teachers and young children in order to teach them about how to communicate “safe and unsafe touch”. In a country that is battling child sexual abuse it makes so much sense to teach young ones about their body parts and how they alone have the ownership of them. There is no right age to start such discussions. Parents and teachers can create awareness by having age- appropriate interactions with children as young as 3-4 years of age. But there are hardly any initiatives around dispelling gender stereotypes or creating awareness on sexual violence against women in India.

Roughly 90 percent of the rape cases go unreported in India, what can be done to improve this?

Encouragement and support needs to come from all levels. On a personal level, family and friends should not think about the "reputation" or the "honour" of the family and remind the victims that it’s "not" their fault. On an institutional level, medical and psychological help should be made available at the earliest. The police and legal teams should undergo sensitivity training. The victim should feel comfortable in going to the authorities and registering a complaint. On a social level, we need awareness campaigns that focus on bursting popular rape myths such as victim blaming and other gender stereotypes.

These days we rely a lot on social media, which is an important tool in the modern world but in India it is limited in its accessibility as it doesn’t always reach the remote and rural parts of the country where such crimes are often underreported or simply handled by Khap Panchayats. I also feel that awareness campaigns and discussions on consent, attitudes towards women and sexual violence should be in all regional languages. The government should also have an active voice on this matter and should not treat sexual violence as simply an "add-on" topic.

Is there a need to be alarmed by the latest figures from the NCRB, which show an increase in the number of registered cases of sexual aggression in India?

It may seem alarming but there are a few positives hidden there. First, it shows how more survivors and their families are coming forward to report the crimes. Due to more stringent laws, media reporting of cases and rise in public awareness, there is less stigma surrounding sexual offences. Second, it highlights an improved response from police officials in registering the complaints, which further inspires confidence among people.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

Following the Kathua and Unnao rape cases, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti and Union Women and Children Welfare Minister Maneka Gandhi have demanded death penalty for rape of minor. Is this the right way forward?

I do not share the same views in the matter of death penalty. I am a strong believer in reform and rehabilitation. Retribution is not a very helpful starting position, instead, we should direct our attention towards structural societal change that addresses the asymmetric power relationship between men and women in our country.

What was the most Important finding of your research?

I often said that these men are not monsters. There's a boogeyman mentality which breeds the idea of 'us' — the law-abiding do-gooders and 'them' — the wicked lot. Through this division we find an easy way to blame all that is wrong in the society on 'them' without having to ever look inwards. Self-reflection and awareness is important and that is why this research is also aiming to change the beliefs that allow us to isolate an entire group of men and label them as ‘monsters’ without trying to identify the core elements that have shaped the collective attitudes of our society, which these men are also a part of. Rape in India is unique because of the diversity we see in the country — religious, political, cultural, geographical, economic and educational just to name a few. The population doesn’t help either. It becomes a mammoth task to underpin a universal pattern of sexual offences.

Overall, I think the most important finding from my work is highlighting and reiterating that sexual violence takes place on a continuum. Because rape is on the far, more extreme end of the spectrum, we tend to pay more attention to it and consider it more severe. However, these acts of extreme violence occur because we tend to overlook the issues on the other side of the continuum such as everyday eve teasing, sexist jokes, degrading language against women, and harassment — which are not even considered a threat at all, and are more commonly accepted. Our focus should be on these 'less threatening' issues as they eventually lead up to extreme violence or build tolerance towards it. I strongly believe that we should focus our attention on more achievable and realistic goals that will help combat this issue long term.

In summary, a multi-disciplinary research puts forward different motivations for rape which can stem from biological, cognitive/psychological, situational/ criminological and social areas. My work explored the socio-cultural influence and highlighted the themes of traditional gender roles as observed through the domestic division of labour, cultural archetypes of femininity and a toxic or distorted sense of masculinity to name a few. There is no one answer for why “rapists do what they do” as rape is a complex crime. Every narrative is unique and highly subjective — some men were involved in a gangrape, some knew their victims while some had raped a complete stranger. There are also different types of rapists — anger rapist, sadistic rapist, and serial rapists. However, despite the differences in the nature of the crime, the underpinning commonality was a sense of entitlement which further points towards male privilege in our society. There was acute victim-blaming which again is not unusual given the presence of widespread rape myths and other stereotypes in our society regarding women. Lastly, there was a severe lack of understanding of "consent".

It's more important to make systematic structural changes that address everyday normalised misogynistic attitudes and behaviours than straight away jump to find an all-in-one solution for rape.

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Updated Date: Dec 04, 2019 08:23:21 IST