In 2013, India enacted into law a provision to realise the possibility of the death sentences in some rape cases dealing with repeat offenders. Five years on, we have once again proclaimed that we want to subject rapists to the death penalty. This time, however, it is child rapists who are the focus of our ire.
In the intervening years, there has been no discernible change in the propensity of rapists to rape. There isn’t a day that goes by without a report of rape in the media. This is despite the law against rape having been made far more stringent in 2013.
Those who commit the crime are largely secure in the knowledge that they will be protected. Regardless of what some might like to believe, this isn’t an issue of anyone’s politics.
Rape exists within the spectrum of crime against women. At its core is the desire to assert power against the person raped – and it so happens that people who commit rape are often socially well-placed even without direct reference to their targets. They may be insecure or plagued by the the torments of toxic masculinity. That said, what emboldens them is not their own anxieties but the almost certain knowledge that they will not be held accountable for rape.
As a people, we tend not to know abusers within our own circles. If we’re forced into knowledge, we often defend abusers with a ferocity that should put us to shame. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Whether we identify with left wing or right wing politics, whether we use the language of social justice or outright bigotry, we support abusers we know and we achieve little except to further traumatise victims.
In doing so, we also perpetuate a culture in which it is almost impossible to hold rapists to account. And we weaken legal processes that are informed by our so-called collective conscience. This is not a problem that is limited to rape: we act much the same way in relation to abuse regardless of where on the continuum of violence it lies. Our defence of abuse tends to normalise more and more behaviour that would once have been considered egregious.
Concurrently, we also establish our humanitarian credentials by demanding harsher punishments for rape. But, of course, since abusers ostensibly do not exist within the bubbles in which we live, these harsh punishments focus on those we treat as being different from ourselves. So different and so monstrous, in fact, that we have no qualms about demanding that their existence be obliterated. That is where the death penalty comes in.
There is no convincing evidence that the possibility of being killed would deter rapists. This is particularly true since, given our willingness to defend our own, the possibility of being punished may quite accurately seem remote to those ensconced in social networks. The fallout, of course, is that those least well-connected are the most likely to be subject to the death penalty. They are the “other”, the most vulnerable amongst us who will almost certainly be disproportionately killed. Shorn of privilege, and often arousing no one’s sympathy, they are the least likely amongst us to be able to launch a legal defence of themselves.
This doesn’t even take into consideration more practical problems. We have no guarantee that rapists would not commit murder just to silence those they rape. We are not certain how to execute people in a supposedly-humane manner. Hanging has often been called barbaric and the newer death by lethal injection is often nothing short of torture in its implementation. If that weren’t enough, the death penalty is also always susceptible to irreversible error considering that no legal system has ever been infallible.
Putting rapists to death reeks of machismo and patriarchy. In a society that routinely creates the impression that women are destroyed by rape, death for rape simply realises the old norm of an eye for an eye. It is a form of retributive justice in an age when justice is meant to be reformative.
Rape is itself largely a manifestation of toxic masculinity. The solution will not lie in engaging in yet another act of toxic masculinity. Two wrongs do not make a right.
If we are to address rape, we need to develop legal processes to report and prosecute rape that are easy to navigate and which would increase the likelihood of rapists being held to account. We also need to interrogate social processes and challenge defences of abuse across the spectrum particularly, within our own social circles.
What we require is an alternative paradigm that is independent of toxic masculinity. We need to hold not just abusers to account but also those who support them and thereby facilitate abuse. That process, more often than not, will require us to begin by taking a long, hard look in the mirror.