December 24, 2012

Why do rapes happen?

Delhi Protests 2012

Unless we know why rapes happen, we cannot prevent them from happening. Rapes are prevalent in nearly all species of animals (especially primates). They happen in all cultures in every country in the world. And they have been happening for a very long time.

There is no country, as yet, that has managed to stop rapes from happening. Nothing has helped. Not even the death penalty has deterred rape.

Decades of research have brought us no closer to an answer that is fundamentally insightful enough to design prevention of rape. However, almost all research agrees on the following-

  1. That rape is not a sexual act. That it is an act of power. Of entitlement.
  2. That there may be other emotions involved, such as anger or mental depression.
  3. That the incidence of rape in a society or culture is a function of what’s commonly perceived to be a man’s ‘entitlement’ in that society and avenues it provides for discharge of the anger when such expectations are not met.

Which kind of leads me to the fact that women are physically weaker than men. That’s the way it’s always been. Why is that so?

I presume that at the beginning of the evolutionary cycle, there must have been females who were physically equal to or even stronger than males as well as females who were weaker than males. Now why did natural selection favor females who were weaker than males in almost all species that exist today? What was the evolutionary advantage of being a female who was physically weaker than a male?

Is it because weaker females were “preferred” in some way by males for reproduction? Are we humans a result of stronger, aggressive males systematically raping weaker females over millions of years? That’s a horrifying thought. Yet, that’s how far back in time we might need to travel in order to find where the demons lie hidden.

Is there such a thing as a ‘rapist’ gene? Do all males have it or is it just some? Can it be modified to change / eradicate this aggressive, entitlement behavior? Time will tell.

As scientists explore the “ultimate” reasons for rape from an evolutionary perspective, law makers and citizens must pay attention to the proximate causes for rape. In Indian cities and our society – there are many proximate causes, all of which are fairly obvious.

Imagine this. A group of young aggressive males, filled with an entitlement of superiority, encounter a single woman who’s more educated or successful than them. They feel emasculated. Rage erupts. One person suggests rape.  Group dynamics kick in. The others join in. And that may be how a gang rape results. This is not a justification. It’s an explanation. An explanation that does not provide solutions to preventing rape. But it provides some clues to women as to how they can safeguard themselves by spotting or avoiding signs of trouble.

The question is – why do men have a sense of entitlement? What do they feel entitled to? Can we medically or otherwise (mandatory therapy?) erase such notions from their minds? Research should hopefully shed some light on this.

As long as the law looks at crimes against women through the eyes of men, nothing will ever change.



  • Rachna

    I agree with you. Unless, we find out what causes them to rape women, we might never be able to address the problem. And the issues are complex. Which Indian woman has not faced snide remarks and even molestation? The situation is completely out of control and even in a city like Bangalore, I am scared to drive or travel alone at night. There is overwhelming leching and even intimidation of women who have no fault except for being women :(.

    • whatho

      The situation is pretty scary, I agree, Rachna. And looking at the people who're supposed to help solve this problem (govt, researchers, media, law & order, etc), I'm not hopeful that we'll make much progress anytime soon. Unfortunately I think we're on our own and have to take care of ourselves to the extent we can. I think this is true anywhere in the world.

  • bhavanas11

    Thoughtful but gruesome post, Srini. We have not studied the rape psychology of men in India. We assume way too much, postulate theories based on this and that. We have to interview in-depth men who have raped or gangraped and understand the why of things. The only article I remember is linked below:… which I felt was an important insight into male psychology. Men who have raped and feel that burden of sin need to come out and speak.

    • whatho

      Couldn't agree more, Bhavana. A lot of research has to be done, instead of making layman assumptions and statements.

      I don't think we're doing that in India. I am totally not qualified to speak / write about this. In fact, I resisted the temptation to write about this for a while. But felt I had to share a few things I learned from reading on this subject.

      Thanks for sharing the link. Will read through it as well..

  • Srinivas Tangirala

    If that is so, is any man capable or prone to raping a woman, under maybe favourable and tempting circumstances? Maybe in a group, maybe in the middle of night or late evening when the raakshasa instinct in man awakens, most likely.

    But, I don't think I can rape a woman. Am I not a MAN?

    – Tangi

    • whatho

      It's entirely possible that any person is capable of anything, as you've pointed out .. under a certain set of circumstances.

      Having a latent tendency is different from acting on it. Statistically, only a small percent of males commit rape (between 3 and 5 percent). This percent has been observed to be higher in some demographics (younger males, armed forces, etc) according to research done in the US..

      My point was that – it's possible that all males have be "contaminated" by a certain way of perceiving women, however good or bad. And as long as the problem is viewed through the eyes of men, it may not be solved.

      • SumneNeeve

        Which is precisely the problem with fancy ideas like entitlement, etc etc

        If 3-5% of males rape and the others are ok, then the entitlement theory fails since it doesnt even apply to the majority.

  • Zephyr

    Somehow entitlement alone does not seem a plausible cause for crimes against women. It is much deeper than that. Anger, insecurity, social inequity, misogynist tendencies and a lot of other psychological and pathological reasons besides that create criminals who feed on the defenceless. The world over, mindless crimes are increasing due to reasons that need to be urgently addressed.

    • whatho

      Hi Zephyr, yes there are quite a few factors that go into crimes against women. I'm certainly not the expert on this but have been reading up on some research in this area over the last month or so. There are both fundamental and circumstantial (proximate) causes, from what I gather. The question of why almost animal species have this behavior is most puzzling. Which leads researchers to believe that there are fundamental evolutionary aspects to it. Social inequity may not really be a factor. Very affluent western societies with little social inequity have seen their share of crimes against women.

      According to research, the common thread across cultures, society stratas, time eras, etc is this sense of entitlement that men seem to have. It's not understood why such a notion exists in the male pysche, and what its origins might be.

      It's a complex topic and I worry that we (people, society , govt) are not giving it the attention it deserves.

  • Ash

    A lot has to do with the way men are brought up, I guess. If they are brought up to respect women and people at large, it is unlikely they will indulge in such horrific crimes. Unfortunately, most men in societies like ours seem to be conditioned to believe that they are superior to the other gender, are entitled to be one-up on women – as a matter of right. I really do believe conditioning and upbringing has a lot to do with it. Very well written post. Do stop by blog, I have expressed my views on this topic too.

  • Prince

    I think we/you are missing the point that this is not just a problem lying within men. I agree that there is some psychological issue that leads to rape as much as any other act is driven by psychology, but the execution of rape is only possible due to the anatomy and physiology of males. Women can feel equally powerful and entitled, or depressed and angry and looking for a release, but they cannot commit rape. So they resort to other underhand or even overt actions that are violent but without including sexual assault. And because men are expected to be able to defend themselves, these violent acts go unreported.

    I do agree that the violence against men by women may not be as bad as the episode where the rape victim in Delhi lost her intestines in the assault, but I have heard of men and women doing crazy things to themselves, which required hospitalization afterwards. The point is, if we restrict the question to simply the act of rape (which by definition includes sex), we might be chasing the wrong problem. The ultimate problem is that of a psychological state that gets people to "insist" on getting what they want – any way, any how, as opposed to simply walking away after the request has been rejected.

    Can we say "ego"?

    • What Ho!

      Very well said!

  • Murali R

    From what I have read and known one case of rape of a friend I have tried here to group them. I am no specialist of any sort. I just want to contribute in the much-needed on-going discussions on rape which could provoke some thoughts I hope.

    Scenario 1:
    The male has been fantsising about having random/perverted/illegitimate sex; not necessarily a sex-deprived male. He gets an "opportunity" (for want of any other word) to fulfill the urge without retribution (or so he thinks). The girl/woman herself is of no importance to this male – age, beauty, relationship none of these seem to matter. A female working in a farm or factory or office and alone at a not-normal hours.

    Scenario 2:
    Gang rape where the mob-psyche kicks in where a normally meek male also joins in assuming there are no consequences to his deed since it is part of a group.

    Scenario 3:
    The unprotected female raped as a matter of course – like in the villages where the landlord takes any woman/girl he wants, like girls sold off by parents/relatives in to flesh trade. Let us not forget these are also rapes.

    Scenario 4:
    The male knows the female. He believes, she to actually wants it but is playing hard-to-get.

    Scenario 5:
    Where the male knows the woman/girl and is obsessed by her. The thought of she having sex with anyone else (her husband for instance) is maddening. This provokes him to act violently which is not his normal nature.

    Scenario 6:
    Incest: Where the male has absolute control over the female – physical, mental and financial. This male seems to have know boundaries and gets unrestricted sex whenever he desires.

    The last 3 scenarios are mostly unreported till it is too late where the female has started accepting it . The female herself believes she stands to lose more by reporting than by accepting to her own utter contempt. These cases are normally reported by a friend, teacher or a relation.

    There could be other scenarios, for sure.

    Other factors complicating the rape victim's life:
    – Availability of mobile cameras and the likes are helping the subjugation of women and continuation of the crime.
    – The shame and "dishonour" attached to the act of rape. If I am robbed of my possessions I (male or female) is seen as a victim and there is no shame in telling everyone about my loss. Whereas when it is a rape the loss is considered a shame and a dishonour

    We can theorize about why rape happens endlessly and a preventive measure could be found in a not-so-near future (a la Minority Report). There is no medical or clinical cure for this at the moment or in the near future – before the crime happens. Hence we should focus on two aspects: prevention (from the view point of the prospective victim) and helping of the victim to cope with the crime if unfortunately it happens. This is not just about females only; this is more relevant to the males.

    What can we do?
    It is very important to be aware of all your female relations (irrespective of age, employed/house-wife/student) behaviour / moods – depression or change in behaviour like lack of self-worth, disinterest in happenings around etc.

    Teach the girls/women about Rape and help her develop an instinct about sexual interest of a male around her.

    Listen to a girl when she complains (however subtly) about a male irrespective of who he is – father, brother, uncle, family friend and irrespective of his age or status. Isolate/insulate her from such predators and environments.

    We should tell all particularly female children/adolescents/young adults etc that there is no shame or dishonour on her part, being a victim of a crime – in this case rape. On the other hand she should be encouraged to come out in the open about it. This is should be taught in schools, taught by parents, propagated through media – BEFORE SHE BECOMES A VICTIM OF THE CRIME. More importantly the male members of the family should be enlightened about this. If in the unfortunate event of such a thing happening the culprit should be brought to book – irrespective of whether he is a father, brother, uncle, or family friend. Else he will be emboldened to repeat the crime on another victim.

    • whatho

      Thanks Murali! Awareness among women on protecting/defending themselves is a key part of the solution, agree.

  • @biswal_udit

    srini sir, i hav a lot to say about this topic, so just posting a link.

    • whatho

      Thanks man! I read through your post. Pretty cool. Thank God for young men and women like you, who're showing a great deal of resolve in tackling our problems! More power to you!

  • SumneNeeve

    You rape because you can get away with it. In countries where people cant get away, they dont rape. Similar reasoning with all other crimes. Crimes are rampant if the system is weak enough to prevent abusers/criminals to get away with it. Fix the police and the courts and you can take care of any crime.

    All this nonsense of mentality, entitlement will disappear the day, “Men” realize they will be punished to their crimes.

  • Abhijit Gadgil

    I don’t think the evolutionary theory the way you put it makes a lot of sense – however powerful “a male human just cannot choose to give birth to an offspring”, left to herself – the female human would choose to not give birth to offspring, why? She’d fear if it’s born as a Son, there’s another female who’s going to suffer a similar fate as me and if it’s born as a girl, she might suffer from the same fate as mine. On the contrary – what if the female chose instead to give birth to only those offspring – which were conceived from stronger men – so that they could enjoy the benefits of the world (regardless of the sex with which they are born), especially during the days when there were no Nobel Laurette s and Pop Stars . So in some way – if evolution is the reason – females have made a very wrong decision (unfortunately with the benefit of hindsight)

    Coming back to the original point – a very valid one – it’s an act of entitlement – now it is very hard to change that behavior, if we let it to genes alone. For that you need systems in place – which would serve as a deterrent to such behavior – so a harsh punishment is certainly called for – but most important is justice is met in time. Second – avoid circumstances that can lead to unpleasant situations. If you’ve a functioning public transport system – a girl would not be boarding a private bus at 11pm midnight.

    Thus you cannot eliminate it completely, but make the probability of such events smaller and smaller.

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