Posted by Sayantani Ghosh
TW: Mentions of rape, sexual violence
Rape, noun, originates from the Latin rapere (supine stem raptum), which means “to snatch, to grab, to carry off”.
The crime, typically committed by a man, is of forcing somebody to have sex with him, especially using violence or with a person who is beneath a certain age or incapable of valid consent.
The very definition of ‘rape’ remain disputable, in fact there is an entire trajectory of what the term came to mean legally today, through history. Recently, the definition or rape has been expanded to include any gender, containing stricter definitions of consent. The act of sex by a man with a woman if it was done against her will or without her consent has been made punishable and seven years of jail term to life imprisonment to whoever commit the offence is provided by Section 375 and 376 of IPC, respectively. The definition therefore rests heavily on ‘consent’ which itself is rather recent in its development, following a more feminist perspective.
This article argues not the history but the anachronistic way of talking about rape despite the term evolving historically and culturally. The way we talk about rape and make the survivors narrate their stories actually shapes a lot of minds who read them. Therefore, it becomes utmost important to find a ‘language’, a discourse to position rapists and victims within a space that inherently condemns violence against women.
According to Constance Grady, the culture writer at Vox, “It’s not that we don’t have a vocabulary for talking about sexual violence, because we do. But that vocabulary is inadequate. It is confusing and flattening in ways that make it hard to talk about sexual violence without trivializing it, obfuscating the systems that enable it, or getting so specific as to become salacious or triggering. So whenever I talk about sexual violence, I feel like I’m translating: taking the acts that actually happened and trying to cram them into the language that I have available to describe them.”
Besides terminologies such as ‘victim-blaming’, ‘slut-shaming’ and ‘gaslighting’ what still is lacking, is a more spontaneous manner of talking about rape that does not even unconsciously let the victim take the brunt of any assault. Even the language of empathy, support and companionship must change because in talking to ease the grave impact of the crime we are in fact reiterating them to the victims.
The attempt must be to put them in the same narrative in a way to make one believe that neither the guilt nor the blame should be on the victims. Rather, the misogyny and patriarchal justification of violating women’s bodies is the obvious and the only shameful aspect of the incident at hand.
In saying “woman was raped” and not “the man raped a woman”, keeping the rapist (man) out of the headline somewhere in a passive tone burdens the woman to bear with the severity of the action coming in the first place. To begin a statement with her at the mercy of an assaulter while saying ‘she was stripped’ instead of ‘he stripped her’ we miss to mention the actual perpetrator and eventually denounce only ‘what was done to her’ than ‘who did that’. It becomes important in the sense that in a society so enriched in patriarchy and masculine ideology placing the women in the first place naturally brings us only to “her”- her whereabouts, character, dress and virtue, family and values, etc.
Further, the scope for women’s safety which remains evidently missing despite stricter laws and public outcry for ‘death penalties’. Vows taken to ‘punish’( not reform) by the patronising state structures is rather guided by masculine saviour syndrome when it comes to ‘sisters’ and ‘daughters’, and rarely ‘women’ as individuals without any affiliation to social institutions and more precisely, ‘to men’. While feminists look forward to social reformation at the structural levels and changing socialisation patterns, it is necessary to talk about how on one hand, men are capable and feel wrongly entitled to violate women’s bodies as well as put themselves on the frontline while discussing rape within the family-to children and boys.
Grady then goes on to say: “Historically, the language of sexual violence has been an ideological battleground: If there is no word for an act, you cannot name it, which means that you cannot report it or legislate against it. This dilemma is baked into our vocabulary for sexual violence. Throughout the 20th century, feminist activists struggled to create words for acts of sexual violence that our culture has kept nameless and hence unspeakable — only to find that once the words were created, they were rapidly stripped of their power.”
Formulating sentences like ‘that man did this’, than ‘she was violated’ puts the perpetrator at the beginning, thus shifting accountability onto his part. Speaking of rape this way may provide women with agency to defend themselves. However, arriving at a specific discourse for ‘rape’ involve major dilemma–media images that surface with every rape incident is majorly a woman in utter shame to show even her face, while this does contain message of her helplessness it rapidly becomes about the lost chastity than the crime or criminal itself.
Grady says “Language reflects culture, and our language reflects a culture that does not want to make it easy to talk about sexual violence — that wants to make it difficult, uncomfortable, and confusing. And I have found that the less specific my language is, the more invisible the violence becomes. But I also worry that the more specific I get, the more sensationalized my language feels.”
The need for a discourse emerge when the space to talk about certain issues that pertains particularly to the marginalised groups become more and more inaccessible and pose a threat of complete erasure. The subaltern, feminist, queer discourses therefore have emerged out of that need and so should a language and discourse for rape.
Sayantani has completed my graduation in sociology from St.Xavier’s College (autonomous), Kolkata. Recently she is pursuing M.A in sociology from Calcutta University. She has always been passionate about books and words and have gradually developed a proclivity towards writing. Sociology has only done better in confronting her with both mundane and severe issues on which she would like to articulate her opinion. She enjoys movies, series and further discussions on them. She is more of a family person and likes spending time with my family and mostly, with myself. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram.