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Praveen Swamy: The rapist in the mirror

by Dilip, 20 January 2013

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If we are to combat sexual violence in our cities, it is time to begin discussing the dysfunctions of young urban men
“I remember seeing a documentary about some animal being eaten from behind while its face seemed to register disbelief, fear, and self-hate at its own impotence,” recalls Roy Strang, the rapist at the centre of Irvine Welsh’s supremely disturbing Marabou Stork Nightmares, of one of his victims. “That was what she reminded me of,” says Strang, watching his victim’s eyes, “frozen,” “dead,” through the mirror he forced her to hold up to her face as he raped her.
Last month’s gang rape in New Delhi has focussed nationwide attention on the epidemic proportions of sexual violence against women in India. Long overdue debates on criminal justice and gender have begun — along, predictably, with bizarre calls for schoolgirls’ bodies to be concealed under overcoats and curfews. Yet, there have been only the awkward beginnings of a discussion on the problem itself — men. It is time, though, to start looking at the rapist in the mirror.

RITUALS OF MASCULINITY

To anyone familiar with young men in India’s cities and towns, Strang’s world is far from alien. For many youth worldwide, violence against women — a spectrum that runs from gang rape to domestic violence and street sexual harassment — is part of the system of masculinity-making rituals, along with sport, drinking and brawling. 58 per cent of men arrested for rape in India in 2010 were aged 18-30; in the United States, 55 per cent are below the age of 30. 53.92 per cent of men held that year for molestation or sexual harassment were also from the same age group.
This is not to suggest that a dysfunctional masculinity is the root of rape; few human behaviours have a single cause. Yet, from the testimonies of women, we know that this cohort of young men have made homes and streets the site of a pervasive gender terrorism.
Rape, though, is something rapists do, not who they are. Precisely why particular individuals find pleasure in inflicting violence on women is a question everyone from evolutionary biologists to cultural theorists have weighed in on; there is no consensus, and may never be. Yet, as Welsh noted, strange behaviour “always has a context.” Five such contexts suggest themselves as possible keys to the production of India’s urban-male dysfunction. Together, these contexts ensure young men are rarely fully weaned; able to lead an adult life characterised by agency and individual choice. The consequence is a deep rage that manifests itself in nihilist behaviours.
India’s transforming urban economy has, firstly, produced a mass of young, prospectless men. The parents of these children, many first-generation migrants to cities, worked on the land or were artisans. Though this generation’s position in the economy may have been inequitable, its agency as workers was not. The young, though, find themselves fighting for space in an economy that offers mainly casual work. This casualisation has come about even as hard-pressed parents are spending ever more on education. Even the pressures on middle-class and lower middle-class men are enormous. Frequently coddled in son-worshipping parents, young men are only rarely able to realise the investment and hopes vested in them.
For a second context to hyper-violent masculinity, we must look at culture. Increasingly, cities have no recreational spaces for young men. Films, long one of the few cultural activities that a working-class audience could participate in, now target élites; movie theatre prices exclude large parts of the youth population. There is diminishing access to theatre, art, music and sport. In its place, the street becomes the stage for acting out adulthood, through substance abuse and violence.
Thirdly, a number of young men, particularly in new urban slums, are being brought up by no-parent families — families that fathers have abandoned or are largely absent from, and where mothers work long hours. Elsewhere in the world, too, this social crisis has been linked to sexual violence. South African researcher Amelia Kleijn, in a 2010 study of child rapists, found most had deprived childhoods marked by “physical and emotional abuse, as well as neglect.”.. Read more: 

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