What happened on 16th December 2012 in South Delhi, sent shock waves across India and the world. Nirbhaya, which means ‘the fearless’, was what the female victim of this violent gang rape came to be known as in the media and subsequently, this incident and the name stirred nationwide protests and there was an uproar in the Parliament. There was widespread demand for ensuring the safety of women and anger erupted across the country against the inaction and ineffectiveness of the government and law machinery in stopping this menace.
Following this incident and protests, very soon, the Justice Verma Committee was constituted by the central government to suggest amendments to the criminal law to deter sexual assaults. As a result, the death sentence was introduced as the maximum penalty for cases in which rape assault results in the death of the victim. In addition to this, fast-track courts were introduced for dealing with rape prosecutions as a response to this incident. Yearly memorial services have been taking place in several places across India every December in remembrance of Nirbhaya. As previously pointed out by many, the death penalty hasn’t evidently stopped violent or fatal sexual assaults from happening. The gruesome Kathua gang rape incident that took place in January 2018 is a testament to that. And it resulted in a national outcry as well.
While it is only fair that these incidents solicited an explosive response from the media, civil society and politicians, all sort of sexual assaults on males are reduced to a small column in the second page of a newspaper. Public outcry is eerily absent and as a result, there is no mounting pressure on governments to address this issue as seen in previously mentioned cases. This paltry response to male sexual abuse is because of the popular belief that men (and boys) can’t be raped and that it isn’t as harrowing or traumatizing as in the case of women. It also stems from the fact that Indian law doesn’t recognize or acknowledge that men can be raped. The only role Section 375 of Indian Penal Code accords men is the role of the perpetrator of rape.
On 16th June 2018, a 17-year-old boy had to endure the sexual assault by five men in Ghaziabad and a foreign object was inserted into his rectum. It made it to the newspapers but did not raise any red flags among civil society. A case was registered under different sections of IPC and POCSO Act. While it was possible to register the case as the victim is a minor, POCSO doesn’t extend similar protection to men over 18 years of age. The POCSO Act, until a few months ago was only applicable in the case of a girl child, but since May 2018 it was given gender-neutral status following a judgement by Delhi High Court, thus making it possible for male child victims to get justice.
The conversation surrounding adult male sexual abuse is harder as there is a tremendous amount of shame associated with admitting the occurrence of rape. As a result, there is no dependable data that shows the number of rape instances among adult men in India.
In October 2018, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court by an NGO seeking gender-neutral rape laws that would also acknowledge adult males and transgender survivors of sexual violence. This plea argued that the current rape laws under IPC Section 375 are in violation of Article 14 (Right to equality), 15 (Prohibition of discrimination based on sex, caste, race, religion, etc.) and 21 (Right to life and personal liberty) of the Constitution. But following this, in a disappointing turn of events, in November, SC refused to hear the petition and Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi said that SC can’t interfere at this stage and it was up to the legislature to look into this issue.
In addition to the legal and legislative paradigm in which this discussion is situated, it is also important to understand the role of female rights groups who have fiercely opposed the gender-neutral definition of rape. They argue that the gender-neutral laws will make female victims more vulnerable due to the possibility of counter complaints by the perpetrators of assault. Given this scenario, it is impossible to discuss male and transgender sexual assaults in India independent of the socio-legal mechanism put in place to address female sexual assaults. Moreover, in the wake of partial striking down of Section 377 by Supreme Court in September 2018, several questions remain unanswered. While gay consensual relations have been legalized, IPC Section 375 does not address the issue of non-consensual sexual assaults by members of the same sex, as it only recognizes females as victims and males as perpetrators. Thus, there exists a gaping hole in the present definition as it doesn’t consider the scenario where the perpetrator and the victim are both women or men.
So, it is increasingly evident that Section 375 doesn’t reflect the changing laws and isn’t up to date. Its discriminatory nature (based on sex and sexuality), its inapplicability in different cases and the archaic tone that it exudes make a compelling argument for the gender-neutral definition of rape. But, sound arguments alone can’t bring about this major legislative change. This can only be made possible if this troubling silence surrounding male sexual assault is broken and the myth that men can’t be raped is debunked in popular narrative.