By Shambhavi Saxena:
In the year 2011, New York City based photographer Grace Brown started Project Unbreakable to visually document survivors of sexual abuse and violence holding up placards of the things their abusers said to them. Brown started off on Tumblr, until the project gathered steam and all but exploded the internet with images of unbreakable rape survivors. Many of these survivors are featured looking straight into the camera and even smiling triumphantly, letting the world know that if shame is to be attached to anyone, it ought to be the rapist or abuser.
Brown’s project and the speed and reach of social media have certainly opened up dialogue about hush-hush topics like sexual assault. But scrolling through the photographs, you notice a minority group surfacing now and then, between every thirty or forty pictures. Now you’d think a minority group in the case of sexual assault survivors would count as a good thing, wouldn’t you? Not quite. The group of which I speak, male survivors, is oft ignored when it comes to discussions about sexual violence.
For this, there are a combination of reasons. The most obvious of these is the notion of traditional masculinity – which denies men vulnerability, urging us to believe that they cannot be victims of sexual abuse. Corollary to this is the belief that men are naturally inclined to be perpetrators. And that’s where the second obvious reason comes in – the law. The laws that exist are coloured by society’s perceptions of ‘order’. Needless to say, laws can and do change when human needs and demands change. However, when dealing with male victims of sexual violence, the rule book remains uncomfortably silent.
Little over a year after Project Unbreakable took off, the incident that came to be known as the December 16 gang-rape shook the collective consciousness of a nation, necessitating a re-evaluation of the laws. Thanks to the Justice Verma Committee, several additions and changes were formalised, including recognising acid attacks, stalking, voyeurism, intent to disrobe, unlawful sexual contact, and several clauses on will and consent. However, nearly all of these provisions gender the perpetrator (the accused) as male, and the victim (the complainant) as female.
Many women’s groups have fought against the gender-neutral language of the new laws, and with good reason. In a country like India, because of patriarchal values embedded in caste, labour roles, the majority of interpretations of religious scripture, and biologically-based human worth, the frequency of male-on-female violence is not only high, it is institutionalised, commonly pardoned, and in places actively encouraged. For many women who don’t have access to health, education and a comfortable income (but not discounting those who do have that access), violence, coercion, policing and disciplining is a part and parcel of being a woman.
In India, there are certain identities that are more or less receptacles for force and abuse. These identities are stripped of their power, with their roles defined. The majority of men cannot claim to share these experiences of oppression, simply because of their accidental position on the power scale. The concerns about gender-neutral laws on sexual violence are, then, these: that men, who already enjoy a great sum of power, may easily misuse legal provisions by filing fraudulent cases against the women they violate, in order to save their own skins. If you think this isn’t likely, remember that dowry and honour killings are a very real and frightening phenomena perpetrated by men in power, and they will stop at nothing. So these groups’ reluctance to have gender neutral laws in a country where gender is visibly polarised is understandable.
Because of how power is distributed between men and women, female-on-male violence is not systemic, and if we all keep our heads, it isn’t about to become systemic. But men can get raped. This is true no matter who tells you what. On 16th July, Delhi auto-driver Umesh Prasad became the target of what appears to be an attempted rape by a female passenger. His assailant has been booked for confinement and robbery, but no charges could be made for sexual assault, because of the genders specified as rapist and victim under Indian law.
When men become victims of rape, it poses some complicated questions. The first is: how do you define rape? Until only very recently, the definition of the act of rape was limited to penile-vaginal penetration. As per this description, it could not be said that men can be raped, even by other men. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013 expanded this definition to include non-consensual penetration of any orifice by the assailant’s body parts or an object. This expansion, it would seem, recognizes that rape can happen to men, to trans people, and even between same-sex partners. Yet the legal language extinguishes much hope when it reads:
“A man is said to commit “rape” who, except in the case hereinafter excepted, has sexual intercourse with a woman under circumstances (mentioned as clauses)” – Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code.
Male survivors have to cope with shame and vulnerability, for which their gender instruction has not prepared them, they have to ‘man up’, leaving their emotions and trauma unaddressed. They know that reactions to their story will be crude laughter, humiliating remarks or worse, disbelief. They know they can’t approach the police.
They know that there are no services they can seek out. And at this point, they know that they shouldn’t talk about it, or laugh it out. All of this is extremely damaging not just to the one person, but to a host of others going through the same thing.
It’s a sticky situation, where the legal framework is concerned. Do we amend the rape laws and risk the safety of women? Do we leave them be, and risk the safety of men? It is clear that a solution cannot be arrived at easily. If only we had a gender neutral society deserving of gender neutral laws.