Some years ago, while working on a book on the reproductive health of India’s rural women, I was taken aback by the extent to which our vernaculars lack clear terminology to describe or discuss feminine reproductive organs, female hygiene and reproductive rights. If at all, the only commonly understood terms for sex or female sexual organs were available in a gutter language one could not use in civil company without feeling deeply embarrassed and angry.

The terms frequently emerged out of all-male gatherings and vernacular pop songs celebrating male sexuality. An unsuspecting NGO in Uttarakhand once dared use such terms in a Hindi booklet on prevention of STD and AIDS, and the writers, after being paraded in manacles through the town, ended up in jail.

A woman’s experience of ordinary physical descriptions is given an additional sexual dimension only in her case. A male political leader can publicly boast of the size of his chest as proof of his virile leadership qualities and be applauded by his supporters. But a woman who similarly announces an impressive statistic about her body would sound embarrassingly come-hitherish, will be hushed immediately and ridiculed forever. You get the drift.

In the post-Marxist world, if we are to understand gender inequality and the ways in which the theory of sexuality is scripted and used to assert male power and authority over women through physical assault, we have to take into account anecdotal as well as statistical evidence. We will then see that no rape is an isolated event or a mere moral transgression, as many public leaders, law enforcement authorities and even media reports will have us believe.

To all of them, a woman’s sexuality is something that belongs to her man (father, brother, husband or fiancé) and must therefore be saved from being stolen, bought, bartered or exchanged by others. But women never own it themselves. Ironically, nor do most men treat women in law or life with the tender care they show for their other properties. This explains the copious use of euphemisms in the Hindi media for rape – uski zindagi tabaah kar di, ruined her life; usko kahin ka nahin chhoda, made her unacceptable anywhere; or uske saath munh kaalaa kiya, blackened their faces by copulating with her and so on.

Is rape really about sex?

Rape, when all is said and done, is a sex crime. But most perpetrators get away with it because it is not regarded as a crime if it can be made to look like sex. The conviction rate for crimes against women in India hovers around 21%. The male perpetrator can claim an ungendered neutral ground for affirming (heterosexual) sex while rejecting violence, thus the myths about soured live-in or pre marital sexual relationships leading most jilted females to file cases of rape against the male partner.

In Maharashtra, Dr Rani Bang, a Harvard-educated gynaecologist working in the tribal area of Gadhchiroli, handed me a booklet called Kanosa (Heard in Whispers), a painstaking compilation of terms gathered from her female tribal patients. These terms, she told me, were invented by generations of women to whisper many sordid and worrisome facts about their sexual lives, long-term humiliations and sexually transmitted diseases suffered in silence.

The details I gathered and documented finally introduced me not only to the world women inhabit socially but also what inhabiting it feels like for them – how girls are systematically deprived of the language of sex and sexuality ever since they are born and how, step by step, they are cut off from any basic self affirming sense of their own vital role as a partner in sex.

Men as a group were revealed to benefit all along from the same socio- economic arrangements by which women are deprived of their idea of sexuality .This was further confirmed when taken together and subjected to serious scrutiny with available hard data. Any enquiry into rape, sexual harassment, incest and child sexual abuse all showed that actual intercourse is almost incidental to rape, the primary impulse is to display and assert raw male power. Forcible violation of women is the essence of sex. A dynamic control mechanism thus reveals itself in which sex (both as desire and forced assault) is defined by male epistemological stance.

Police personnel try to manage crowds during New Year's Eve celebrations in Bengaluru. Credit: AFP

What is sexuality?

It is quite common today to hear that males have co-opted an inordinately large amount of power, most of all in politics, through traditional male bonding. We must remember also that such power is a diffused entity. It is not lodged in any particular place. It is everywhere, from the sleazy red light areas to board rooms, school buses, university seminar halls and highways.

From all over, it surfaces now as a story about a child raped at home, or in school or college campus, at others as women being groped and forcibly kissed or molested in metro coaches, pubs, or during New Year’s eve celebrations. It is clear from details that follow how sexuality is a pan-Indian social construct. But this raises the question – what material is sexuality constructed of within our society? Who initiated and handed it over, how and where?

All cases of molestation and rape and the mixed reactions they invoke underscore one basic fact: dominance eroticised defines masculinity in India and submission eroticised defines femininity. Even in the permissible ways for treating women deferentially (like the sniggering “Ladies first!” and gallant opening of doors, or offering help in banks and shops to compute the bills assuming women are techno-duffers) a sensitive nose can locate underlying male sexual interests and the unstated requirement that women, if they are not to be called feminazis or worse with clenched teeth, must play at being dumb and compliant.

At election time, the discourse further elevates grand plans for the empowerment of “our” mataon and behnon. What such segregationist dole outs underscore is: women as a gender are physically weaker, mentally less mature, and incapable of taking care of themselves unless escorted by dually vetted male companions, or segregated from them and/or armed.

Thus we have special women’s railway coaches and more recently, the right to carry a knife (with a blade no longer than three inches) while travelling – something that the Central Industrial Security Force has allowed for women in the Delhi Metro.

New definitions

I watch TV debates carefully for the semantic clues that they provide to the Indian mind. Allowed/not-allowed being the ideological axes of sexuality in India, the term mahila or woman is used by politicians, priests (lately they are often the same) and TV panellists to mean a creature who is somewhere between an adjective and a noun: half possessive and half biologically pre-destined to being possessed.

And for the liberals among them, sexual freedom is increasingly being interpreted as women being allowed to express their sexuality freely, like men. Read: free to initiate genitally driven satisfaction (as opposed to emotionally-driven) through heterosexual relationships. Problem with the dictum is that in case women end up being sexually abused and violated against their will in a “free” relationship, the same dictum will be adroitly used to trivialise their experience and often brand them as a willing partner in crime-turned-whistle blower against a poor unsuspecting male who would not rape if he got voluntarily compliant sex from his female partner.

“Sadomasochism is to sex what war is to civil life: the magnificent experience!” wrote Susan Sontag. Rape is not a spontaneous outburst of male violence against a woman resisting sex. (If the man wanted violence not sex, why did he not just hit her?) This cunning line of thinking also has the merit of distinguishing violent sex as not sex while leaving intact the accepted sexual fundamentals of male dominance and the whole range of sexual taboos for women that eroticise gender hierarchy.

Men who sexually harass women often defend themselves by saying women had harassed them first, by dressing provocatively or laughing in their face or making fun of them while refusing their proposal or sexual advances. What they really mean is that they are aroused by women who defy them.

The assumption that in sex what women really want from men is what men want from women makes male force against women excusable if not invisible. It also ends up making a female rape victim seem less human, less injured and more to be blamed for rape.

If we are to really understand and address the phenomena of sexual violence against women, we need to go beyond happily accepting (usually useless) sops such as knives with three-inch blades or cans of chilli powder or tin whistles.

We must now begin to ask a different set of perilous questions. Does sexual mechanism in our society have a theory? If yes, how did it get scripted? Who was or is the deus ex machina that spells out the pressures, gendered socialisation, withholding of benefits or extending of advantages to women who will toe the line in a particular clan, society, state or nationally? How many women, subjected since birth to male-perfected socialisation in a patriarchal society, remain capable of realising they must have a choice and they must assert their right to equality with men? What can self-respect and pride, life as a woman, and sex come to mean to a constantly targeted species in a rape culture?

And then finally, we must stand the Freudian question “What do women want?” on its head and ask instead: What do men want?