There seems to be an aftershock from the Delhi gang-rape and subsequent death of the 23-year-old victim named ‘Damini’, the “lightning” strike that continues to shake the world. But is it that the incident is so horrifying, it makes us cringe at the thought of such an occurrence or does it essentially strike a chord with Britain’s prevalent rape culture?
Soon after the atrocity, a group of women vandalised a bar in Mumbai because it had continued to sell a cocktail called the ‘rapist’, despite India being amid a social and political upheaval after the death of ‘Damini’. But rape cultures have not been created in a vacuum. It has been nourished by traditional norms and attitudes, even condoned, trivialised and celebrated in popular culture and language both in the West and the East.
‘Rape’ jokes, analogies and casual talk are commonplace within all walks of life in British popular culture, from titillating lads’ mags to comic gags about incest and pornography. At the 2012 Edinburgh comedy festival, there were rape and domestic violence jokes flying left, right and centre. Writer and spectator Tanya Gold described an instance of a comic called Gerry K, who told a joke about watching a pimp fighting with two prostitutes. “I’m not having that,” he says, “So I joined in.” And then the reveal – “I punched her spark out.”
Renowned comic Jimmy Carr, of course, has several one-liners on the subject (“What do nine out of 10 people enjoy? Gang rape.”) Trivialising and normalising violence towards women only makes it more acceptable and easier to perpetuate inequality. Unfortunately, sexism does not appear on par with other forms of prejudices, and so it is still used excessively both in the UK and in India.
Another common culprit is lads’ mags. A group of men and women participating in a study at Middlesex University published in 2011 found it difficult to differentiate between statements given by convicted rapists and the way lads’ mags routinely describe women. Quotes were taken from The Rapist Files: Interviews With Convicted Rapists by Sussman & Bordwell and four titles: Zoo, Nuts, Loaded and FHM.
“Go and smash her on a park bench,” could appear to be the words of a convicted rapist. But in actual fact, the phrasing was chosen by former Sky Sports presenter Richard Keys in 2011, which was a direct quote from a mid-shelf publication. So it comes as no surprise that the results revealed overall, more of the men identified with the quotes by rapists, only changing their minds when the source of the quote was revealed.
So after I attended the Delhi Gang Rape protests in London, I was hardly surprised to be confronted by women campaigning that “Rape is No Joke”. The campaigners write:
“One brave woman in the audience of a Daniel Tosh comedy gig heckled “rape jokes are never funny” after he had told several in a row. He responded by asking the audience: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?”
We’re not laughing. And neither are the 80,000 women who are raped every year in the UK alone.”
Rape culture in the West gives the impression that is harmless, titillating entertainment, while India’s customs is considered social and deeply political. The shift onto the political has helped to showcase the topic as a matter of urgency, allowing the UK to distance itself from its own imperfections around inequality by demonising Indian society.
However, India is not far behind the UK and the US in terms of creating a western rape culture, becoming the third largest user of pornography in the world according to the Hindu Times. The vast country even has its own cultural language to describe the endemic sexual harassment of women and sexual aggression – Eve teasing. This kind of harassment, often described in India as innocent play, is almost routine.
The archaic term comes from the Old Testament, describing harassment as “teasing,” and manifesting as touching, groping, staring, slapping, flashing and even pornographic material. And yet such degrading behaviour has been linked to romanticised Bollywood films.
A hero teases a heroine as part of the wooing process and invariably, the latter succumbs to his ‘masculine’ charms. However, Indian men seem to be re-enacting their own lewd versions of the films. As many as 90% of women have reported instances of Eve teasing, according to a study by Srividya Ramasubramanian on the Portrayals of Sexual Violence in Popular Hindi Films.
The author wrote: “The ﬁndings suggest that moderate sexual violence is depicted as fun, enjoyable, and a normal expression of romantic love […] severe sexual violence was portrayed as criminal and serious, whereas moderate sexual violence was treated as fun and romantic.”
And no doubt, Indian governance and politics plays a substantial role in disenfranchising women from the offset. In 2002, Law Professor Upendra Baxi said that the political system created a rape culture, preventing women from being able to report sexual violence along with other crimes, and concluded that it set the stage for violence against women to be a “perfect crime”.
By creating a foundation that trivialises rape, both Western and Eastern societies have set an example that it is perfectly acceptable for women to be sexually harassed. Without changing societal attitudes and transforming fundamental practices, the rape culture will continue to transcend boundaries, legitimising violence against women.