Class Societies and Sexual Violence: Towards a Marxist Understanding of Rape

Maya John

The movement which emerged post the 16 December 2012 gang-rape case in Delhi was a media sensation.[1] The circumstances leading to the victim’s rape (i.e. a young woman returning from a high-end shopping-cum-cinema complex) touched a chord very quickly, especially with the city’s upward mobile middle-class inhabitants who quite easily read their own experiences into these circumstances. Considering that the resulting public outrage did not emerge from a marginalized section of Indian society, it was not surprising that the media and the country’s ruling elite responded in a comparatively more sensitive manner than is generally the case with other incidents of sexual violence on women.[2] Responding to this particular incident, the media, politicians, as well as the city’s middle-class youth were quick to project women’s oppression as a ‘universal’ issue—something which was easy to do given that women are a part of every class. This particular form in which women’s oppression was projected, gave the anti-rape movement its overt middle-class appeal, and shaped the form and content of its politics.

The given form and scope of the anti-rape movement was such that it provided ample space for a wide spectrum of participants: from funded NGOs to radical feminists; from students of JNU to students from numerous private institutions like management institutes, engineering colleges, coaching centres and schools; from committed activists to people who merely wanted to be captured on camera and wanted to check out the ‘pretty’ girls assembled at protest venues;[3] from Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena (which has absolutely no relationship with the progressive ideology of Bhagat Singh, nor any connection with kranti) to Shiv Sena activists; from misogynist ‘babas’, to funded ‘anti’-corruption crusaders; etc. Concealed then behind the battle cry of the anti-rape protests were diverse (and contradictory) voices. Of course, some activists, with leverage from JNU’s students’ union, catapulted to identifiable faces in the otherwise faceless crowd. Nevertheless, the fact that all kinds of people could and were joining the anti-rape front, did not, and cannot mean that women’s liberation has suddenly become everyone’s concern.[4] Even the more recent protests that have broken out in April 2013 in response to the rape of a 5-year old girl in east Delhi are a conglomeration of all kinds of contradictory forces. Many of the participants, like those from the notorious Aam Admi Party (AAP) that has become the new launch pad for local-level politicians and musclemen, are simply allying with the struggle against sexual violence out of sheer opportunism. Their mere presence at protest venues, attempts to bombard the anti-rape agitation with their nationalistic slogans, and their ransacking of ministers’ homes can hardly conceal the fact that the gender-sensitive credentials of AAP cadre (many of whom are conservative to the core) are highly questionable.

Another important fact relating to the nature of the anti-rape movement was that it represented an embodiment of the discontented voice emerging from upward mobile middle-class women. Certain ‘Left’ groups have increasingly come to identify with this voice, making it a rallying point of their mass politics when it comes to the issue of sexual violence. What has emerged in the process is an anti-rape struggle that defines women’s ‘equality’ in a particularist form, and asserts gender equality as the ultimate solution to rape/violence on women, while positing amendments to law, more gender sensitive policing, etc. as the more immediate solutions. Issues of caste, tribe and nationality-based oppression have been raised simply to add on to the list of women who are oppressed. As a result, a form of politics that highlights class stratification, its effect on human sexuality and its role in creating conditions of vulnerability as well as culpability has been pushed aside as residual of the old left. In this regard, it would be correct to point out, just as Clara Zetkin (an early twentieth-century communist leader) did in many of her writings, that every class has its own distinct women question. The dominant view on women’s oppression, identified as feminism, is representative of a blend of different contradictory ideas. It packs together aims and interests that are different—its targets and tasks are vastly dissimilar, and more often than not, it represents the embodiment of the discontent of upper class women—a discontent which is projected as the general interest of all women.

Having said this, one of the most important features of the recent anti-rape movement is the fact that it emerged within a distinctly urban context. Earlier of course, most of the anti-rape movements erupted in villages as part of anti-feudal or anti-dominant caste struggles. For the first time, however, we witnessed an anti-rape movement involving large numbers in an urban context. In this regard, a fact worth noting about this distinctly urban movement is that it evolved separately from larger movements against the axes of power which facilitate rape. It is then best to begin with the specificities involved in cases like the 16 December gang-rape.

The 16 December gang-rape: Understanding the specificities of urban rapes

The discussions that emerged immediately after the horrific details of the Delhi gang-rape became public clearly capture how varied forces (individual activists, Left groups, as well as right-wing organizations) have sought to comprehend the reasons for an increase in the number of rape cases. Many are aware due to past struggles against rapes in villages, that such sexual assaults are the result of caste hierarchy and upper caste domination. In a rural context, it is clearly caste dominance which gives men the power to rape women.[5] This is precisely why when people fought against incidents of rapes in villages, they fought not only against a callous and conniving state, but also against the power exercised by the dominant caste. Similarly, in insurgent areas whenever rapes have occurred, we know that they have been possible due to the power bestowed on armed personnel by the state, i.e. through laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), etc. In such a context, movements have emerged not simply to fight against rape but also to fight against military occupation. Likewise, communal rioters have sexually assaulted women from minority groups in order to instil fear, snatch away local businesses from minorities who are often forced to migrate, and to forge a false sense of unity within the dominant community on the basis of religion, regionalism, etc. In such cases, the nexus between the local police and politicians from the dominant community has helped shield rioters from the law and to cover up the details of rioting. Without a doubt, in all these cases and contexts, it is easy to identify the element of power which is at play, as well as the exact nature or source of this power.

Nevertheless, what confronted us all in the form of the brutal 16 December gang-rape was more complicated. While the term ‘gang-rape’ itself encapsulates an image of an assertion of power, the fact that all 6 rapists were far from being men with power – neither did they have a traditional status to guard/assert, nor an economic position which would protect them from being apprehended for their crime – made it difficult to visualize this rape as a typical case of ‘power rape’. In fact, we are somewhere still grappling to explain rapes that occur in the country’s urban context, i.e. a context in which the most powerless and downtrodden of men have emerged as violent perpetrators of sexual crimes. In many cases of rape across cities involving perpetrators from vulnerable sections of society, what is the axis of power through which we can explain such assaults? Is it correct to use the axis of caste inequalities in an urban context that often conceals indicators of caste (the 6 rapists would hardly have known their victim’s caste when luring her into their bus)? Similarly, would it be right to draw on any axis of power without judging its actual prevalence in and organic link to urban society? Simply put, in a certain context, such as in a rural one, it is easy to pin-point underlying caste hierarchies and resulting inequalities as the axis through which the majority of rural women are raped. We cannot, however, use the same logic to explain rapes in an urban context that brings with it a certain anonymity of position, a certain mobility, etc. With this absence of identifiable axes of power that facilitate rapes, it is not surprising to find certain feminist explanations of rape win favour with activists, intellectuals and the youth. Unable to locate the typical structures of power that make rapes possible such as in villages or insurgent areas, many in their anxious efforts to identify causes for such assaults have resorted to explain the 16 December assault as an expression of male power. Something had to explain the 16 December event and its brutality – if nothing else, it had to be male aggression and the typical male desire to subjugate the sexuality of the woman which empowered the 6 rapists to assault their victim.

This line of argument essentially echoes typical feminist assertions like rape is about power and not about sex, and that rape can be understood through the axis of male power, or basically men-women inequality. Importantly, it is characteristic of feminism to see rape as an expression of brute power which has nothing to do with sexual gratification. This is an informed and consciously defended feminist position since the effort is to comprehend sexual violence from the perspective of victims and not from the perspective of perpetrators. Correspondingly, it has been assumed that all men are in the position to rape, and that all women are in the position to be raped. In order to explain why rape is an expression of power, or basically, why men come to rape women, there is a tendency to draw on ‘patriarchy’—a malaise that is seen to manifest itself in state apparatuses, individual mindsets, societal norms and culture. In the process, patriarchy is quite easily projected as a coherent system against which an intensive struggle is necessary.[6]

Of course, these feminist views have only gradually won favour, and have emerged as a more generalized perspective on rape precisely during moments such as these, where a spate of sexual assaults have shaken the very core of urban society. Notably, this tendency to attribute rape to a (seemingly) ever present men-women inequality is well reflected in current assessments on rape put forward by feminists and activists who participated in the recent anti-rape agitation. Kavita Krishnan, for example, asserted in her January 2013 article, that “rape is not an expression of lust for women but of hatred for them…”[7] A little earlier in another article, Krishnan wrote: “…Rape and other forms of sexual violence are an assertion of patriarchal dominance and power…”[8] In the same article, she also emphasized that: “Rapes are part of a larger web of violence and subjugation of women. Fear of sexual violence has a disciplinary effect on women…We need to assert the nature of rape as a crime of power.” Taken together, these statements reflect a strong tendency amongst women activists to attribute sexual violence to a game of power initiated by an embedded men-women inequality, which often alone, or together with other “centres of power”, works towards disciplining women’s sexuality and in keeping them in a constant state of fear.

There were at the same time some observers, who attempted to explain urban rapes by drawing on the well-established explanation for rapes that occur in the country’s villages, namely, the prevalence of caste hierarchy and hence casteist backlash by dominant castes. Shuddhabrata Sengupta in his 23 December article,[9] for example, tried to comprehend the 16 December gang-rape through the axis of caste as well as gender inequality when he highlighted that all 6 rapists were upper caste men whose patriarchal conscience was disturbed by the victim’s decision to be out with a man at night. He hinted that migrant upper caste men (like the 6 rapists) were prone to respond in such violent ways as they were unaccustomed to the freedom offered by urban life, especially to women, whom they were used to seeing in an extremely docile and subjugated position. In other words, according to some individuals, such rapes are simply an extension of the rural mentality which informs the conscience of majority of men who migrate to the cities. According to this position, majority of men perceive the loosening of the hierarchy of caste and gender within an urban context as the ‘crossing of boundaries’, which warrants a backlash in terms of sexual assaults aimed at teaching their victims a lesson and instilling fear in everyone to adhere to traditional norms. Of course, by extension of this argument, urban rapes do not have any specificity of their own.[10] This assumption has, in fact, been openly expressed by some who do not consider it important to understand the specific context in which rapes take place, and to account for factors like the social background of rapists and their victims. Instead, in the angst to locate a commonality, the specificities are denied. Hence, arguments which assert that irrespective of whether there is an “urban rape, rural rape, middle class rape, working class rape, modern rape, traditional rape, live-in rape…[r]ape is rape. Everywhere it is an assertion of power and a violent attempt to subjugate.”[11]

Clearly then, despite slight variations, most of the aforementioned assessments are trapped in the problem of not being able to locate any axis of power other than male-female inequality to convincingly explain the substantial increase in urban rapes. It is then brute force emanating from men-women inequality that can supposedly explain why men (like the 6 rapists), despite the poverty and vulnerability of their position, have the ability and intention to rape women. For many feminists and activists, it becomes important to understand rapes as an expression of power and not sex – even if it means working with an abstract notion of power based on an (ever present) men-women inequality – because for them acceptance of the existence of sexual intent is considered as an approach which slips into justification of rape. It is thus to prevent such scope for justification that feminists and several activists deny the element of sexual frustration involved in a large number of rapes. Furthermore, by drawing on such a line of argument, feminists attempt to shield victims from the typical blame game unleashed by society—something that often translates into blaming the victim for dressing well, for moving out of ‘safe’ zones, for encouraging male attention, etc.

However, does such a stance truly help us to understand the source of rapes in urban areas, and to combat the recurrence of rapes such as the one on 16 December? Have we really understood the somewhat concealed factors that played themselves out and made the 16 December assault possible? My contention is that we have not, and will not, until we fail to transcend what feminists have identified as the main fault-line plaguing our society, namely, the prevalence of gender inequality between men and women. By restricting and locking the problem of sexual violence to the question of male-women inequality, there has been an unnecessary downplaying of the (class) inequalities which breed sexual inequities, and hence, sexual frustration amongst a large section of men in our society. In the light of rapes such as the 16 December case where the perpetrators belonged to oppressed, exploited and powerless sections of society, it becomes necessary to rethink given assessments of rape as a mere expression of power. Indeed, can we not develop a sensitive way of approaching the issue of rape while also respecting the specificities related to the rapes occurring in our urban centres? Surely we can, for the increasing trend of rapes and other sexual assaults on women and children in cities is symptomatic of much more than gender inequality. It is indicative of larger inequalities stemming from sharp class divisions in our society—divisions that breed sexual inequalities, that provide little time to nurture human relationships, and that produce phenomenal levels of frustration and aggression, especially amongst men from the toiling masses.

Challenging and uncomfortable though it may be, it is time we account for the role played by the dehumanizing conditions in which a large percentage of our cities’ inhabitants live and work. The city – on one hand with its glitzy malls, air-conditioned offices, bungalows and life in the fast lane, and on the other, its slums, sweatshops, run-down shelters and poverty – has become a haven for barbaric sexual crimes. There is then something specific about the nature of sex crimes in our cities. Here the grid of factors which produce rape is much more complicated – assailants are not necessarily upper caste men or communal rioters. And rather than an expression of power, many such rapes are the outcome of people’s sexual frustration that preys on women and children in vulnerable conditions. The fact that the brutality of city-life is breeding potential rapists and victims in significant proportions is one of the factors contributing to the immense fear that informs the life of the majority of women in cities.[12] While it is an undeniable fact that the larger percentage of such crimes take place within women’s homes and amidst their peer groups, the greater fear that confronts women is rape by strangers – strangers who emerge suddenly, exploit the vulnerability of their victims and the impunity offered by circumstances, and then speedily melt away into the night. It is this fear which makes us think twice before setting out, from venturing out alone, and compels us to take all necessary precautions for our safety.

In this regard, perhaps there is some truth in certain right-wing arguments about rape in contemporary times. The question is whether the Left can rescue the validity of some of these observations about the impact of modern, capitalist development in our country from the usual culturalist, xenophobic clap-trap that right-wing assessments of modern society are usually ridden with.[13] Can the Left direct much-needed attention towards the sexual crisis created by capitalism? Unfortunately, if we fail to step up to the challenge of addressing entrenched class inequalities that prevent the realization of gender equality and make rapes possible; we will be forced to witness the persistence of sexual violence. All efforts to change the law, mindsets, and the bureaucratized and insensitive functioning of the organs of the state, will yield precious little unless we connect these efforts to the struggle which seeks to emancipate all of humankind.

Considering that we are fighting an oppression that is deeply entrenched and entwined with inequalities that go beyond the gender divide, we must consciously delve into the somewhat-concealed underbelly of sexual violence and the general oppression of women. My basic contention is that rape is a historical product of class divisions that emerged in human society—a fact elided or left under-theorized by existing interventions. Rape is then one of the forms of oppression unleashed on those made most vulnerable by class exploitation, as well as on those who are burdened by the images of this vulnerability in spite of being materially distanced from it. In other words, women in present-day society find themselves at the receiving end of sexual violence because most women are reduced to conditions of extreme vulnerability by the given socio-economic system which strives on brutal exploitation of the class workers by the class of capitalists. Trapping working-class women in positions of economic, social, and hence, sexual vulnerability, our given socio-economic structure has created for the female sex, a formidable image of subjugation—an image that returns to haunt even women from non-working class backgrounds.

In addition to this, the paper argues that although from the perspective of the victim there is nothing sexual about rape, from the perspective of the perpetrator rape can still be seen as fulfilling a sexual purpose. It is crucial that we come to terms with this contentious fact since the existing resistance to it has dangerously misdirected public attention from the conditions which produce rape in our society. It is, thus, with this purpose to unpack what makes rape a possibility for some and an everyday reality for the majority of women, that a clear distinction is drawn between the (sexual) intention behind rape and the (non-sexual, traumatic) impact of rape. In order to engage with rape in all its complexities, the paper attempts to trace the history of rape, to contextualize such assault, and hence, to revisit the prevailing feminist assessment of sexual violence and women’s oppression.

A history of rape: an ever present phenomenon?

Since the 1970s and 1980s, intellectual circles influenced by feminist views witnessed a new development, namely, a growing emphasis on the issue of male violence on women. Certain texts that evolved from this particular milieu of debate and discussion became hegemonic when it came to the assessment of sexual violence on women. The reverberations of the debates, movements and campaigns that were stirred up by many such feminist interventions were soon felt in other parts of the world. Influenced by the feminist movement in the United States where several feminist interventions had led to important judicial and policy reform, various autonomous women’s groups emerged within the prevailing women’s movement in India. Indeed, the entire process of the emergence of autonomous women’s groups in India was facilitated by global networks of big NGOs and funding agencies that initiated worldwide campaigns on women’s ‘empowerment’ and legal amendments – campaigns that drew on the views of several American feminists.

In America, amongst the iconic contributions on rape was Susan Brownmiller’s book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape,[14] which was selected in 1995 by the New York Public Library as one of the 100 most important and influential books of the twentieth century. Her work influenced many activists, students and intellectuals across the world—a fact reflected in the popularity of the view within various feminist circles that sexual violence on women, i.e. rape, sexual harassment and sexual exploitation, is not about sex but about power. In her work, rape came to be defined as a “conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a constant state of fear”. In similar terms, we have assertions like: “man’s discovery that his genitalia would serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries in prehistoric time, along with the use of fire and the first crude axe” (Susan Brownmiller); “in terms of human anatomy the possibility of forcible intercourse incontrovertibly exists…This single factor may have been sufficient [emphasis added] to have caused the creation of a male ideology of rape” (ibid.); and man’s efforts to subjugate the woman is the “longest sustained battle the world has ever known” (ibid.). Importantly, this particular focus and emphasis on rape as an oppression stemming from gender inequality is what distinguishes feminism from other accounts of rape.[15]

Ironically, the aforementioned feminist view comes quite close to the highly controversial perspective known as the ‘natural history of rape’.[16] According to this so-called natural history of rape, men are prone to rape because of the aggressive orientation of their sexuality while women are prone to be raped because of their submissiveness, and because their sexuality is less governed by sexual urges than it is by the urge for a strong, stable partner. The capacity for rape is seen either as a form of human adaptation to hostile life conditions, or as a by-product of adaptive traits such as sexual desire and aggressiveness which have evolved since primitive times for reasons that have no direct connection with the ‘benefits’ accrued by rapists or the costs of rape borne by victims. Simply put, according to the theory of sexual selection, copulation and successful reproduction of early humans was only possible in cases where physically strong and sexually aggressive men forced themselves on women. According to this theory, sexual aggression became part of the gradually evolving human male because the early human female evolved in a manner which was based on restrain—a restrain which prevented circumstances of non-aggressive, ‘less fertile’ and ‘less virile’ males from copulating with women.[17]

Be it the ‘natural history of rape’ or views from the feminist camp, both have seen rape in an equally ahistorical manner by detaching it from the kind of society in which it occurred/occurs.[18] Why is this? To explain the problem with such ahistorical approaches to gender differences and human sexuality, let us consider an imaginary survey. Picture a situation where a woman approaches the first ten men she meets in the street and asks them whether they would have sex with her. Similarly, imagine if a man approaches the first ten women he meets on the street and asks them whether they would have sex with him. What would the result be? In the case of the woman, we can easily say that most of the men she approaches would accept her offer. In the case of the latter, most women would take the man’s offer as an affront and complain about his behaviour. The question is if the same man and woman are sent back in time to different periods of human history, would the results of such a situation be the same? Can we assume that the frequency of women saying no to proposals of sex would remain unchanged, or that the man’s overtures of sex would still amount to an affront? Quite naturally, there would be major differences in the responses, for the structure of human society, the nature and form of human relationships, etc. have undergone considerable change from primitive times.

With the evolution from primitive society to agrarian society, and later from pre-capitalist to capitalist society, which witnessed massive demographic changes, urbanization, commercialization etc., it would be incorrect to claim that no subsequent change occurred in the way male and female sexuality developed and expressed itself. These changes in male and female sexuality, as well as in the general position of women would have resulted in a change in the existence, meaning and frequency of incidents of rape. Clearly, rape can present itself as an omnipresent practice throughout the process of continuous social change only if we work with ahistorical notions of gender differences and presume an unchanging human sexuality. There is, unfortunately, a strong tendency towards constituting gender segregation as a system/division that is independent of prevailing historical socio-economic conditions. According to such a reading of social reality, it is easy, if not inevitable, to slip into the assumption that men-women inequality is all pervasive, and is somewhere not entirely attributable to, or explained by the socio-economic structures within which it exists.

Of course, the international communist movement and certain currents in the women’s movement have questioned such an understanding of gender inequality. Due to their intervention, gender inequality has increasingly been historicized in ways that reveal its linkages to the form in which social relations of domination have emerged and evolved in human society. Consequently, it is believed that the gender-based social division leading to a subdued female sexuality and aggressive male sexuality was uncharacteristic of primitive human societies in which such social relations of domination were more or less absent. Years and years of intensive academic research across various disciplines have come to corroborate these claims. Recent research has also shown that even in our ‘contemporary’ society there are some human communities that are free from rape.[19]

Back in the nineteenth century, by studying emerging research on early humans (who lived as hunters and gatherers in small band formations), Friedrich Engels presented one of the first valuable assessments of women’s oppression from the perspective of the international communist movement. His work (The Origin of the Family, Private Property and State)[20] showed how the gradual development of surplus production (in the form of agriculture and domestication of animals) created early class societies which, in turn, laid the foundations for the monogamous family unit. According to Engels, when it became possible to produce a surplus of food, society was able to sustain a minority of human beings who freed themselves from the drudgery of daily productive labour. This led to the creation of class societies based on the subjugation of the majority to the minority. The minority could maintain its preeminence only through control over the production of the surplus. This led to emergence of an armed power, the state, as well as inheritance through the family. The question of inheritance emerged alongside surplus production also because those who were involved in the daily grind of productive labour, sought to protect their right and share over the surplus. Children then became important for continuation of elders’ rights over a share of surplus, and thus, became guarantors of this share when their parents aged. However, for a society in which men and women did not practice monogamous pair-bonding, it was difficult to affix the right over the labour of progeny on the basis of who mothered the child as it would have still led to competing claims from all the men who could have possibly fathered the child. To resolve the crisis, early agrarian societies established the ‘father’s right’ instead of the ‘mother’s right’ over progeny—a historical transformation which led to curtailment of the practice of multiple partners, and saw its replacement with monogamous pair bonding.

Prior to the emergence of early class societies, monogamous pair bonding and collective supervision of sexual behavior was not the norm. Instead, early or primitive human groups had less restrictive sexual standards and emphasized sexual pleasure and enjoyment, albeit with some definite rules and constraints to guard the group from possible extinction. In historical conditions, wherein, humans existed in small groups in which everyone performed the same tasks, i.e. hunting and gathering food together, sexual activity was hardly based on preference or choosing one partner over another. For example, there was no choosing between the ‘better hunter’, the ‘better-looking’, ‘the one with the better status’, etc. amongst a small group of equally matched and similar featured persons.[21] Moreover, back then sexual activity was a very common activity which was organically linked to the daily life or routine of early humans and it was unaffected by a sense of hierarchy or proprietorship. A sense of hierarchy was, in fact, absent as social divisions did not exist between early humans. As a result, in early social formations the condition of human females rejecting coital activity from multiple males did not arise. This was all the more plausible considering that unlike other female species that are bound by certain periods of sexual arousal which is linked to their ovulation, the female human has evolved in a manner which enables her to be sexually active and enjoy sexual activity throughout the year. It is, indeed, a fact that unlike other female primates, the female human alone seems to have the capacity to achieve an orgasm.[22]

Here one could wonder whether pregnancy could have acted as a deterrent to unrestrained sexual activity between early men and women. Nonetheless, pregnancy would hardly have deterred women from saying no to sex in a social formation that had not yet comprehended the immediate connection between sexual activity and conception—a fact which was not so easy to grasp considering nine months elapsed before a woman actually gave birth, and that because she was sexually active throughout those nine months, it was difficult for early humans to pinpoint the role of sexual intercourse in conception. Furthermore, in a society in which child care was a collective effort of the group, pregnancy was far from a burden to be borne specifically by the woman who mothered the child. Evidently then, in such a historical context rape would have been a non-existent phenomenon.

However, as human society progressed from primitive times and as the question of ownership over surplus production emerged as a central one, early class societies began to assert the importance of the father’s right over progeny, and hence, promoted the legitimacy of monogamous family units. Engels termed the steady fading away of the mother’s right as the ‘first historical defeat of the female sex’—a process which paved the way for the female sex to be increasingly seen as ‘woman’, and as the property of the family unit/male guardian. In this regard, the female sex’s independent assertion of her sexuality came to be increasingly stigmatized.

While the aforementioned process of curtailing female sexuality in the effort to monopolize women’s reproductive rights unfolded and became increasingly oppressive, it is worth noting how rape came to be gradually identified as a criminal sexual assault on a woman. The generic meaning of the word, rape, is itself indicative of how female sexuality was perceived and shaped over time. The word originates from the Latin verb rapere which means to seize or take by force. It was originally defined as the abduction of a woman against the will of the man under whose authority she lived, and sexual intercourse was not even a necessary element. Viewed less as a type of assault on the woman than a serious property crime against the man to whom she ‘belonged’, ancient law would often demand financial compensation from the rapist (especially in the case where the woman was engaged to someone), which was payable to the woman’s household, whose ‘goods’ were ‘damaged’. Simply put, rape was initially identified as a crime against the concerned woman’s community and family, and not as an assault on a woman’s body without her consent. Not surprisingly then, women too came to be punished for indulging in sexual activity without the permission of their families and communities. As a result, any sexual activity outside set norms such as adultery, elopement with a lover, etc. was also termed as rape. It is only with time (from the late Middle Ages onwards), that in certain parts of the world, rape came to be defined more in its modern sense so as to gradually exclude from its purview practices like elopement without parental consent.

This was a historical development that was closely linked to the emergence of the individual subject position—a creation of the Renaissance period in Europe that witnessed the gradual overtaking of manorial (feudal) law by municipal law which emerged in new towns that prospered due to expanding trade and were controlled by wealthy merchant families. In its contest with community-based manorial law that justified hereditary ownership of resources (even trading profits), as well as rights that were based on one’s membership to an estate, community, etc., the new municipalities (which were the havens of emerging merchant capitalism) began to assert the rights and status of the individual over the community. As a consequence, even rape began to be gradually seen less as an assault on a family or community to whom the woman was associated, but as an assault on a rights-bearing individual.

The birth of the individual subject was not simply a creation of municipal law, but was a product of historic socio-economic transformations through which individuals were weaned away from the community structure as labour and property ownership were no more dependent on an individual’s membership to a community or estate. Amidst this new socio-economic condition, exercising individual choice when it came to seeking a partner became not just feasible but also desirable. The birth of Enlightenment, the gradual decline in the influence of the Orthodox Church, etc. further contributed to the process which necessitated and made it desirable for women to be in a position to exercise individual consent independently of the community and family. As a consequence, a suitable legal paradigm and legal sanctions came forth, albeit with many restraints as the transition from a pre-capitalist to a capitalist system was fraught with complexities (an issue to which the paper will return). Eventually then, individual choice and consent became important, and rape came to be gradually defined as intercourse without the consent of the individual woman. Importantly, giving such consent clearly represented a ‘voluntarist’ action that, on one hand, asserted an independence of position vis-à-vis the dictates of the community, but on the other hand, also entailed the exclusion of certain individuals from the scope of consent. Basically then, a woman’s consent was accounted for and considered only after it was conditioned to mean a consent given just to certain men and not to others.

With the spread of colonialism to countries in the East and in Africa, the resulting economic transformations and the colonial state’s interventions in the social life of the colonies led to the development of a similar socio-economic structure—a development that culminated in the creation of comparable legal regimes in the colonies, which increasingly established the individual subject position and individual rights.[23] In the Indian context, there are two important points to note about how the category of rape evolved. Firstly, the word rape was (and in general parlance continues to be) referred to as “izzat lootna”. This terminology indicates that, just like in other parts of the world, rape was rarely associated with the question of consent of the individual woman. Instead, the term coined for rape signified an assault on the honour of the woman’s family and community. In this light, rape was regarded and identified more in terms of illegitimate sexual access to a woman, which brought dishonour to her family/community, and hence, would include within its purview even consensual sexual liaisons between a woman and man. The second point to note about the development of the category of rape in India is the gradual and conflict-ridden process through which it evolved to include the element of individual consent of the woman.[24] In nineteenth-century India, debates surrounding colonial legislation, such as in the case of sati, the age of consent for marriage, etc. are an important insight into this entire process through which individual consent and choice became a crucial part of the socio-legal fabric of colonized societies.

Needless to say, the process whereby the individual legal subject position emerged with the development of a capitalist economy was one fraught with complications,[25] and hence, was far from a linear process of development. Nevertheless, this process pressed forth various institutional and legal changes, as well as gradually came to constitute new forms of property rights and labour relations that often challenged the system of traditional rights based on birth. At numerous conjunctures, the colonial state enforced the obligations of contract, as well as the obligations of citizenship based on people facing the state as individuals. It is in this complex process to “prevent the individual from sheltering in the anonymity of his community” and “from assuming aliases to escape individual responsibility for a contractual or other legal obligation”[26] that the first signs of women being assigned an individual subject position are to be found.

Indeed, judicial annals of the colonial period are filled with ‘runaway’ cases (essentially inter-caste liaisons) in which male ‘guardians’ try to retrieve their daughters from men with whom their daughters chose to live. The ‘guardian’ usually charged the other man for kidnapping, abducting and forcefully inducing his daughter into wedlock. What is revealed by some interesting research on ‘runaway’ cases is how the colonial state was caught in the process of identifying and establishing individual rights of women, on the one hand, and on the other, protecting traditional rights of the family/community on individual women.[27] It is, of course, only with time, further economic change which loosened the hold of the restrictions imposed by caste and community, and with the entry of a greater number of women in the workforce, that the individual rights of women saw greater if not full realization.

What is, hence, evident from the above discussion is that as capitalism strengthened and bourgeois law and ethics came to gradually entrench themselves, women for the first time, i.e. since the primitive ages when their sexual being was least restrained, were given the ‘freedom’ to say yes or no to sex. Nevertheless, the right of a woman to exercise her choice remained a structured one—a choice-making in which she was conditioned to say no in most circumstances and yes only in certain ones. Hence, while the notion of consent devolved to the individual woman, the logic of proprietary or protected or exclusive rights on the woman’s sexuality remained embedded in the mindset of majority of women, as well as in society’s gaze, which subsequently, informed/shaped what was experienced as rape. With the stigmatization of a woman’s sexual activity prior to her entering a long-term relationship (like marriage) with a partner; the demonizing of the ‘promiscuous’ woman; and the enforcement of the norm of pair bonding within one’s own class, caste, etc., rape emerged as a recurrent assault borne by women.

Given such social conditioning, rape becomes an active possibility for women whereas such an assault on men exists as a rare experience. This is because the historical trajectory of the development of male sexuality shows that men are not culturally and socially conditioned in a manner which leads them to reject sex with the same frequency and for the same reasons as women do. These obvious distinctions in the development of male and female sexuality are attributable to economic transformations that have gradually eroded the ‘productive’ roles of women and overemphasized their reproductive ones, as well as to structures of domination (the family, the state, dominant social groups, etc.) which emerged within class societies. In other words, rather than being an omnipresent phenomenon, rape as an experience and a legally recognized category is a product of a historical process of class formation, and hence, is a late development in human society.

This brings us to the issue of how transformed social norms, family structure and pair bonding since the development of capitalism have resulted in a change in the way rape has come to be defined. It is a question of much historical significance, for how exactly did the birth of capitalism and its spread across various corners of the world impact male and female sexuality, and how has it created a new foundation on which a changed understanding and categorization of sexual assault emerged?

Capitalism and women’s oppression

The development of modern capitalist society produced massive changes, both, in people’s personal and working lives. Capitalism not only restructured the world of work but also the family. With the development of capitalism, the ‘economic’ emerged as a separate sphere of activity from both the family and the state. In other words, the organization of production under capitalism (separating the means of production from the class of producers) and the process of proletarianization eliminated the corporate aspects of kin-group functioning. Increasingly, people came to face the state as individuals; the socialization of labour came to be accompanied by the privatization of personal (i.e. family) life; productive labour came to be separated from kin relations; and the family unit increasingly became just a unit of social reproduction (reducing in size steadily) and of consumption (as basic necessities like food, clothing, etc. came to be produced by the market, and family labour was, consequently, no longer expended like it was when households were spheres of production). Ultimately, with further and further development of industrial society, capitalism subsumed domestic work within definitions of femininity, stripped it of its labour content and denuded it of its economic value for the household. Activities relating to childcare, for example, came to be identified exclusively with women and such household work was denied economic value with the depressing of working-class wages and lifestyle.[28]

By creating a ‘non-economic’ private sphere in opposition to an ‘economic’ public sphere, capitalism came to unleash new levels and a new form of oppression on women. It is necessary to ascertain this particular form in which this oppression, and basically, a ‘women’s question’ emerged within capitalism. Notably, it was within the context of the capitalist dynamics of production and its misuse of the constraints posed by biological reproduction that the sexual division of labour (which pushes women into subordinate economic and social positions) emerged as a historic possibility. Simply put, biological facts of reproduction—pregnancy, childbirth, lactation—are not compatible with the capitalist system of production, and capitalists are unwilling to make them compatible (i.e. by providing ample maternity leave with pay, nursing and childcare facilities at workplaces, etc.) as it would amount to greater expenditure on variable capital which cuts into profit maximization.

As a consequence, the capitalist system has compelled women to either (i) withdraw into full-time domestic responsibilities that were stripped of their ‘economic’ value and which reduced them to a position of overt dependence on their husbands, or (ii) to bear the burden of both (unpaid) domestic work and wage labour. Since domestic work was made non-negotiable, in the case of the former, women chose to (or were made to) give up wage labour as they could afford to due to higher income-drawing male partners. In the second case, because a large number of women came from working-class families that underwent steady proletarianization, they were compelled to participate in the labour market so as to maintain precarious family budgets, and as a result, never withdrew from wage work for long periods of time. These developments were far from the reality of pre-capitalist society where women played various productive roles along with a reproductive one. This is not to argue that women were less oppressed in the pre-capitalist mode of production, but just that they were not distanced from the actual production process.

Thus, the capitalist system has historically (mis)used certain biological differences between men and women by creating a formidable crisis for the working class as it increasingly took control of workers’ time. With the emergence of an average work-day of 12 hours or more, the capitalist class, in its constant endeavour to squeeze out as much surplus value as it can, came to pose a huge threat for the working class’ survival. Long work hours and low wages, for example, made it impossible for workers to reproduce their labour power, i.e. the bare necessities which enable them to return to work every day. They could not, for example, afford to buy goods and services which took care of domestic needs (i.e. nannies, servants, laundrymen, cooks, etc.). Given these circumstances, working-class families evolved around a distinct division of labour in which one person undertook domestic labour along with supplementary wage work, while another earned wages full time. Basically then, the impermanent or supplementary nature of women’s wage work has allowed capitalists to keep wages of the working-class family low, and to draw on women as one of the cheaper sources of labour in a burgeoning labour market. It is then in the interest of the capitalist class to reduce the presence of women in the workforce to a constant state of flux, and thereby, to keep their participation in the least rewarded and ‘protected’ category.

If we closely examine the nature of women’s employment within capitalism, it is clear that women from working class and poor peasant backgrounds have been pushed into low-paying, often unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. In a country like India, a large number of working-class women are slaving away in what is popularly known as the informal sector where they survive on the piece-rate system of wages. Working-class women also constitute a large component of migrant workers who flock to metropolitans in search of employment. It is then only for a small segment of women, i.e. women from middle-class backgrounds, that jobs pay well, and for whom there are (some) opportunities for career advancement and influence in the workplace. Nevertheless, even for women in well-paying professional jobs there is a glass ceiling which very few can break. Disparities in salaries between men and women professionals; limited and delayed promotions; highly sexist (alpha-male) work atmospheres; assignment of ‘woman-centric’ or feminine work profiles; etc., are a concrete part of the life led by women professionals across the board.

Overall, the adverse impact of this precarious and oppressive position of women in the labour market is tremendous. It is particularly so in the case of working-class women whose job-contracts are highly exploitative; whose wage work often requires them to travel during unsafe hours of the night/early morning; whose neighbourhoods are dimly lit, poorly policed and have seen the growing criminalization of (and spread of lumpenism amongst) the youth; whose overt dependence on unregulated public transport compels them to bear with lecherous male commuters day in and day out; etc.

The first striking repercussion of the undervaluing of women’s productive work and the feminization of jobs is the creation of a fertile ground for sexism. With the job market pressing down women’s wages/salaries and pushing them into the least protected category of jobs, what develops is the continuous reassertion of gendered roles and behaviour. Hence, the tendency within male colleagues and employers to work with misogynist attitudes like ‘she’s just a temporary hand’, ‘she’s simply looking for some fun before settling down’, ‘she got the job so she’s probably skrewed the right people’, ‘who does she think she is ordering us around’, etc.

Pushing women into feminine and hyper-femme job profiles creates an additional burden for working women—the repercussions of which are widespread. The tea garden worker with her back bent, picking leaves for hours at a stretch; women embroiderers hurriedly working their nimble fingers through complex designs in order to complete an order and claim a day’s wages; nurses struggling to perform their patient-care duties due to skewed nurse to patient ratios; poorly paid school teachers; etc. are the usual jobs for which women are recruited as they suit the expected (feminine) roles associated with women. Meanwhile, the ‘sexy’ receptionist; the slim, short-skirt attired airhostess; the skimpily-clad dance performers at weddings and other functions; the decked-up, manage-it-all secretary; the emaciated-looking models tottering around in high heels at award functions and fashion shows; the heavily made-up bar dancer; etc. are the typical kinds of jobs in which the physicality of women is used for business profit. In these hyper-femme or hyper-sexualized jobs, women are made to dress and/or conduct themselves in ways which accentuate certain features of their body. This accentuation is least of all in the interest of these women employees (although some women employees may find such roles ‘interesting’), nor is it in the interest of women in general. Such accentuation of women’s body parts ‘for the job’ is purely in the interest of the men who wish to visually (and even physically) consume their sexuality without the element of responsibility that should arise when one links one’s own sexual being with another’s. Moreover, this skewed feminization of job profiles reinforces the stereotype that women’s worth lies more in their body appearance than in their overall personality.

Having said this, perhaps one of the most transformative effects of capitalism worth noting is its impact on human sexuality and pair bonding. With the development of capitalism and the resultant collapse of the family as a productive unit, increasingly men, and eventually even women, stepped out of their homes in search of employment as they no longer inherited occupations and sustenance from their families and community/estate. This historical process created the scope for men and women to interact outside the immediate bounds of traditional community ties. As a consequence, the basis of marriage came to be based on mutual attraction, or as Engels put it, ‘individual sex love’. In modern capitalist society, marriage and other forms of relationships are entered into freely by men and women on the basis of mutual attraction. Even in a country like India where the practice of arranged marriages is still common, tying the knot without seeing one’s future spouse or pursuing a brief courtship prior to the actual wedding, is increasingly uncommon. Moreover, it is mostly in cities, where young people migrate for educational opportunities and employment, that the chance of love/choice marriages, or at least relationships, is possible. This is due to the fact that in cities, young people are removed from the direct surveillance and control of their families and communities. However, although relationships are more freely entered into, pair bonding (between men and women, women and women, men and men) is structured in ways in which inequality and oppression form the basis of such relationships. Thus, even today the mutual attainment of emotional and sexual fulfillment remains an uncommon practice. The question, of course, is why, despite certain social transformations introduced by capitalism, has the emancipation of women (including their sexual liberation) remained a distant dream?

Without a doubt, the 1960s and 1970s heralded a new stage in women’s personal lives due to benefits like the contraceptive pill, abortion rights and greater access to rights of divorce, as well as changes in attitudes towards sex and pregnancy outside marriage. However, what many radical feminists identified as the ‘sexual revolution’ was for a significant number of years limited to the upper echelons of society in First World countries. What is even more important to note is that many such gains were the outcome of a steady growth in the participation of women in the workforce (though not necessarily in the form of well-paying or full-time jobs). Last but not the least, what was heralded as the ‘sexual revolution’ was really misnomer. The reason for this is that capitalism has maintained the structure of family, albeit on the basis of a new form of pair bonding.

This structure of family which evolved under capitalism is what many have identified as the nuclear family. Importantly, in the process of its development, the capitalist mode of production has led to a continuous decline in the size of the family, which has allowed for extreme burdening of women within their homes. Moreover, even today the average woman perceives an active sexual life before or outside the institution of marriage, a taboo and a risk. She also hesitates or finds it difficult, if not ‘unreasonable’, to assert her own choices within the structure of the family.[29] Within this context, how has rape been defined and redefined within capitalism?

Bourgeois law, rape and the importance of intermediate demands

As mentioned earlier, in the process of transition from a pre-capitalist to capitalist socio-economic system, rape came to be defined not by the lack of the community or family’s consent for sexual access to a woman, but by the lack of consent of the individual woman. Nonetheless, the transition from a pre-modern-pre-capitalist to modern-capitalist system has involved multi-faceted complexities driven in process. The result? What arises is the contemporary historical conjuncture: the prevalence of a bourgeois legal paradigm that desists from identifying certain actions (like adultery, elopement, live-in relationships, etc.) as rape, and at the same time, fails to identify many actions (like sexual assaults within marriage or during dating) as rape. This legal paradigm tends to work with an extremely problematic notion of consent, wherein, submission of a certain kind, for example, assent to marriage, accepting a date, etc. is conflated with consent to sex.

Of course, another major limitation of bourgeois law is that even when it accepts and recognizes certain individual experiences as rape, it does so only in a partial form. This means that although notions like harm, hurt and wrong (borne by the individual woman) are now incorporated within the category of rape, they are done so in highly problematic ways, i.e. in ways that  are based on weighing such hurt, harm, etc. mostly in terms of the social loss borne by the victim. To elucidate, the notion of wrong that is now part of the category of rape has been straightjacketed to the position of ultimate violation of the self; the invasion of the individual woman’s innermost, private space; destruction of the self; a form of soul murder since the victim’s body may heal but not her mind or her future; etc. Correspondingly, the harm that is identified with the category of rape has been reduced to losing one’s ‘honour’, and thereby, being exposed to social exclusion. Both these notions are then useful for the category of rape because while they succeed in keeping the sense of individual consent intact, they still succeed in linking individual consent to the question of community or family honour—an honour which is somehow housed only in the woman’s innermost, private space (basically, her genitalia).

In addition to the aforementioned internal problems of the law, is the prevalence of informal ‘legal’ systems (as in ‘law’ dictated by khap panchayas, etc.) that run parallel to the bourgeois legal system, and are based on the ‘moral economy’ and regulative authority of traditional communities. This informal ‘legal’ system is most prevalent in villages where caste hierarchies are sharply drawn, making inter-caste, choice marriages extremely difficult. Here the nexus of the local police and dominant castes makes it nearly impossible for the functioning of institutionalized law that recognizes the rights of adult individuals. Fatwas or diktats of local village bodies which demand annulment of choice marriages, death penalty, social boycott, etc. are more often than not, upheld and implemented. They are overturned only in cases where external pressure brings the local police to its feet and results in subsequent enforcement of state law. It is in urban contexts where bourgeois law has not had to directly compete with a parallel system of informal (community) ‘law’, and where young couples have jobs in the city so as to enable them to reside far away from their family/community, that greater relief for choice marriages has been possible. However, the process whereby the criminal justice system ascertains a woman’s capacity to consent, and adjudicates on whether this consent is acceptable in court, is unwieldy and highly wanting.[30] What all this reflects is that the given form of bourgeois law, i.e. the complete realization of the individual subject position, is yet to fully unfold itself and spread out evenly so as to diminish its internal inconsistencies.

In this light, the restrictive approach of the law— especially in terms of how it has defined the individual consent of the woman, the wrong, the harm and the hurt borne by her— has opened the space for contestation. In countries like America, struggles spearheaded by Brownmiller, Catherine MacKinnon[31] and Andrea Dworkin began to influence the way the law looked at problems like rape, pornography and sexual harassment. Their interventions, for example, paved the way for the removal of significant provisions like the “chastity requirement” within the law. According to this particular provision, the defendants in rape cases were allowed to place their victims’ sexual past on trial—a practice which allowed rapists to easily justify their actions, and which placed the victims under tremendous duress. Due to vocal campaigns and prolific engagements with the legal community, many of these feminists were successful by the early 1980s in facilitating the introduction of a “rape shield law” which came to curtail the ability of defendants to admit the victims’ sexual history in court.

Since then, there has been a growing tendency amongst the women’s movement to challenge the aforementioned (legal-patriarchal) rubric of assessing rape. These challenges have opened up interesting prospects for assessing rape in more woman-friendly terms. For one, there is an increasing tendency to emphasize the physical discomfort, displeasure and pain borne when identifying rape. The emphasis is deliberate as it opens up scope for downplaying the explicit focus on the sexual aspect of the assault when determining the object of punishment. The shift in focus is necessary so as to allow us to rise above the popular belief–which reinforces the tendency to ostracize victims of rape—that sexuality and the sexual organs are ‘sacred’ portions of the self, which must be protected more and differently as compared to other portions of the body and self.

Here it is important to note how some have come to contest the existing legal paradigm by clamouring for a stronger set of laws, which will apparently act as a deterrent to future attempts at rape. Importantly, the demand for iron-fisted laws like death penalty for rape is a highly patriarchal one because it single-mindedly focuses on the sexual aspect of the assault. Instead of emphasizing physical harm and displeasure—something which would facilitate rape to be seen as another form of physical violence which should be punished accordingly—lobbyists for death penalty, castration, etc. end up reinforcing the tendency to view rape as a unique type of assault in which the harm and damage borne is of epic proportions, and thus, should be punished under the severest of laws.[32] The problem, of course, with severe (and hence, unproductive) laws like death penalty, or, corrective measures like solitary confinement is that they reinforce the stigma attached to rape, thereby, closing off any avenue for approaching this problem in a manner which allows victims to move on without feeling scarred for life. Moreover, it is only by questioning the overt emphasis on the sexual nature of the assault that we create the scope for recognition of rape in cases where it is most easily denied. To elucidate, by creating an ambience in which rape is not identified by the notion of violating the innermost, private space of a woman, but by the notion of displeasure and discomfort, we allow for recognition of marital rape, rape of a prostitute, etc. By introducing the notion of violation based on discomfort, displeasure, hurt and pain, we can, for example, be in the position to defend the rights of the prostitute who due to her profession can no longer claim to have an un-invaded, innermost space, but can still experience rape when a client forces himself on her, or, leaves without paying.

In contrast to aforementioned (patriarchal) interventions seeking a ‘strong’ law against rape, feminist demands for legal reform represent noble efforts that press forth the generalization of bourgeois legality, or basically, the further unfolding of the bourgeois legal form so as to incorporate a larger and more varied (dis)content. Indeed, recent efforts within the women’s movement are geared towards expanding the category of rape to include assaults that may ‘start on a note of consent but end in exploitation and feelings of pain, powerlessness, humiliation and violation’. Such interventions from the women’s movement have meant that certain kinds of assault/actions are now increasingly perceived as rape not because sex is taking place in the absence of a patriarchal ‘right’ of sexual access, but that sex is occurring in the absence of complete consent of the woman. What this means is that a lot of ‘bad sex’[33]—in which there is disregard for a woman’s feelings, sexual desire, or even her attainment of sexual fulfilment—can and should be increasingly considered when distinguishing lovemaking from varied kinds of sexual assaults. By extension of this argument (regarding bad vis-à-vis fulfilling sex), even if physical coercion is minimal, and even if consent in some nominal form exists, the experience can still be categorized as rape.

Having said this, we must understand and engage with this feminist position more closely in order to better determine the grey areas surrounding the issue of a woman’s consent. Broadly speaking, feminists have been correct in identifying the prevalence of bad sex as a problem which must be accounted for. It is, of course, precisely because bad sex is rampant in our society that rape and other forms of sexual and emotional exploitation are possible. If we speak of bad sex within marriages, it is obvious that one of its forms of expression is based on the complete lack of consent, i.e. a form of sexual activity usually identified as marital rape. Considering that this form of bad sex (marital rape) is based on the lack of consent, feminists have been able to gradually initiate some debate within the bourgeois legal community, and have thus created some possibilities for older rape laws to be eventually revisited. The process of older rape laws opening up for amendment is, of course, an ongoing process.

However, things get more complicated when another form of bad sex expresses itself within marriages. Typically, bad sex also embodies itself in sexual activity where women have given their consent. Unfortunately, it is in this realm of sexual encounters that feminists actually fail to deliver. Liberal feminists, for example, find it uncomfortable or difficult to accept the wrongness of sexual encounters where women— unlike in cases of rape where a woman’s consent is out rightly violated— have given their consent. Heavily influenced by the (bourgeois) logic of legal transactions to which individuals ‘freely’ consent, liberal feminists have the invariable tendency to beat retreat on the question of bad (consensual) sex. This retreat characteristically articulates itself in these feminists’ undue emphasis on ascertaining whether a woman’s consent existed or not during a sexual encounter. It also articulates itself in their efforts to elide the harm brought on by prostitution, and hence, to press forth with its legalization.[34]

In contrast to the liberals, radical feminists have approached the issue of bad (consensual) sex by arguing that all sex is rape. Such an approach is also ridden with problems. For one, it amounts to the trivializing of rape as a distinct category of sexual assault, wherein, women are exploited through full violation of their ability and right to consent. Secondly, and more importantly, the radical feminist approach unnecessarily conflates the harm involved in non-consensual sex and that which is brought on by (bad) consensual sex. By denying the existence of a different and distinctive kind of harm within consensual sex, radical feminists are failing to expose to their sisters in sexual relations, the dangers of losing an organic right to the ‘autonomy’ over one’s body and mind.[35] By denying that consensual sex can exist in a fulfilling and mutually pleasurable way, radical feminists also fail to expose what pleasurable sex can actually mean for women.

Evidently, as shown by the discussion above, the contestation with the law’s functioning revolves around how the bourgeois legal form is lagging behind the (dis)content created within bourgeois society. Feminists may still be debating the nitty-gritties of consensual bad sex, but it is, nevertheless, an established point within the progressive women’s movement that both rape and consensual bad sex are real problems. In this regard, the women’s movement is right in pressing forth, what I would identify as intermediate demands which aim at ironing out certain inconsistencies within the law.[36] The significance of such intermediate demands is that they serve as grounds for preparation of larger anti-systemic struggles. It is in the process of such preparation that the women’s movement comes to provide relief to the average woman while also exposing the gross limitations of the law and state’s functioning. For example, the demand and subsequent struggle for compulsory filing of women’s complaints (FIRs) in local police stations works towards providing battered, vulnerable women external support, and makes the state accountable for women’s security—a responsibility the bourgeois state is otherwise consciously shunning.

Nonetheless, intermediate demands to combat sexual violence on women have to be substantiated with a politics that is informed by the ultimate vision of liberating human (i.e. both men and women’s) sexuality, and hence, works towards overthrowing capitalism. Unfortunately, the way in which many intermediate demands are being pursued by women’s organizations, such demands are becoming the final demands rather than launch pads for a consistent, long-term transformative politics. Thus, what is often lost in feminist contestation with the law is the simple fact that even if modern society comes to reconcile the form of the law with the burgeoning content (women’s oppression), there will still be a lack of coherence which the law will be incapable of addressing, and hence, women’s oppression will persist unabated. This means that even with the strengthening of the notion of individual consent, bourgeois law will continue to elide the fact that consent is structured by relationalities, and that most women are not in the circumstances to exercise an active individual choice. As often highlighted by communist leaders like Clara Zetkin, Alexandria Kollantai, etc., most women are not in positions to exercise such choice as they are in conditions of overt dependence on male partners. As part of a socio-economic system that thrives on nurturing unemployment in order to acquire as much work possible from fewer people, women are either bound to be unemployed or poorly paid. In such conditions, women’s dependence on the family for economic sustenance is inevitable. What follows are compromises with bad marriages, bad sex, violence, etc.

Clearly then, since the minds and bodies of two people are involved it is important to account for how consent is often structured by the dynamics playing themselves out between the two concerned persons. In this regard, nominal consent may always be present due to feelings of obligation, dependence, etc. The compromises and the forcing (often termed seduction) are clearly made possible by the mind games that play themselves out, as well as the conditions of (emotional, psychological and financial) dependence of women on their partners. Indeed, what we are constantly witnessing are situations where women, due to the fear of being abandoned by partners, and due to their economic dependence, consent to a form of sex in which sexual pleasure is detached from the person-in-the-body, and in which the woman’s body becomes a mere instrument for pleasing only oneself and not her. In fact, such a form of sex never allows for enhancement of gratitude, affection, or the deepening of the relationship between the two persons involved—something which organic sexual encounters should establish.

In this regard, can the mere existence of a legal paradigm resolve this thorny problem of consent as long as the material conditions on which men-women relationships are based are not transformed? After all, can the mere existence of a legal paradigm firmly based on individual consent create the ground for good sex based on intimacy, mutual contentment and commitment? No, definitely not. Bad sex is not an individualized, sexological problem that stems from the lack of a male partner’s understanding of his female partner’s body. In contrast, it is a general social problem for good sex remains a distant dream for the majority in our society. In a socio-economic system where the majority are burdened by long work hours, there is precious little time to nurture human relationships and to understand each other’s bodies. In such a context, most are compromising with bad sex, or pretending to have good sex as is often the case with upward mobile middle-class women.

Interestingly, while it is true that feminists recognize and work with notions of good vis-à-vis bad sex, the larger framework of their understanding is such that these notions are divested of their social complexities. Liberal feminists, for example, perceive the problem more in terms of having bad partners who do not seek the consent of their female partners. And so according to this liberal feminist position, to acquire good sex all one needs is the freedom to choose the (right) partner, the freedom to multiple partners, etc. Lost, of course, is the emphasis on how individual choice is itself compromised by the fact that you choose from what you are given by the modern society. Now radical feminists do accept the presence of a larger problem but do so only in terms of the prevalence of a (broader) male-female inequality in society.

In this context, it is impossible to think that the given legal paradigm is capable of adjudicating on and preventing the harm caused to women in consensual forms of bad sex. In reality, adjudication on bad sex, especially of the consensual variety, is beyond the scope of bourgeois law since its paradigm of legality is based on the notion of ‘free’ individuals in contract. According to its logic, once consent is given, the problem of exploitation within ‘freely’ contracting individuals is effaced/becomes immaterial. This means that the resolution to the question of bad sex and its myriad forms can begin to take place only if society transcends the ideology of free market —a process which can unfold only if human relations are unshackled from all inequalities which breed selfish, dehumanizing sex and feelings of alienation from other human beings. In this light, radical feminist arguments on ‘empowering’ women in order to eradicate male-female inequality, and hence, sexual exploitation of women, are highly misplaced as it is assumed that women can be ‘empowered’ while the other half of humankind remains fettered to the exploitation and oppression created by the larger socio-economic system.

Going beyond feminist contentions: is rape simply about exercising power?

Clearly, feminist contributions have not been holistic in their approach and are ridden with the tendency to misread the complex web of conditions which produce bad sex in general, and rape in particular. For instance, their explanations of rape and visions of eradicating this problem are heavily based on the notion of power discrepancy between (all) men and (all) women—a discrepancy that they believe stems from deep-rooted traditions of overwhelming male dominance and hegemony over all important socio-political and economic activities in society.

What is assumed by this set of views is that all men rape and all women are rape-able due to entrenched gender inequalities. Thus, irrespective of inequalities in terms of class, caste or race, a higher status woman, despite all her power and prestige, can still be raped by a man of a lower status. This perspective comes close to what we know as dual systems theory, according to which upper class women, who are oppressors and exploiters as part of the dominant economic class, can still be oppressed due to the prevalence of patriarchy. According to the same theory, working-class women are oppressed and exploited not just by the dominant economic class but also by patriarchy. In other words, the dual systems theory projects patriarchy as a comprehensive system that co-exists along with capitalism.[37] Nonetheless, the very foundation of such a claim is based on an unsustainable assumption that all men are in the position to exploit all women. Considering this, it is wrong to assume that patriarchy constitutes a system in itself; one which can explain, for example, why women like Christie Hefner (Chairperson and CEO of Playboy Enterprises that produces televised ‘soft’ porn, men’s magazine and owns numerous playboy clubs) and Priyanka Chopra (a famous Bollywood actress) can be raped in certain circumstances. In all likelihood, feminists and adherents of the dual systems theory would explain the possibility of such powerful women being raped by arguing that even the poorest man in the country can overpower them, use brute force and assault them with his sexual organs. What is elided, of course, is the fact that despite the presence of brute force of the male sex, rich and powerful women are less prone to sexual assaults like rape.

Undoubtedly, the feminist understanding of gender inequality does not often gel with the ground reality, for inequalities (like class) play themselves out in more complex ways than feminists are willing to contend with.[38] Indeed, the assumption that men tend to use their physical power in order to subjugate women is a poorly substantiated argument and explains little except how perversely one can use human biology to explain social complexities. Of course, the question is not that men are physically more powerful and tend to misuse this power in the context of gender inequality, but that in spite of this physical power and prevalence of gender inequality, poor men cannot sexually exploit rich women, except in conditions where such women are in positions of vulnerability. A Bollywood actress, a female CEO of a multinational company, or a female entrepreneur can be raped by men of the lower classes only if they happen to be in vulnerable circumstances like being stuck alone on highway because their car broke down, having to manoeuvre through an underground parking all alone, etc. To draw an analogy: lions despite their superior physical strength have not come to rule over humans, and instead the exact opposite is true. It is then only in conditions where humans are in direct confrontation with lions and are in vulnerable circumstances that they are in a position to be overpowered by them.

So rather than invalidating or blurring the role of class stratification in sexual violence, sexual assaults on middle-class and other upper class women by lower class men reveal just how widespread the impact of class divisions can be. As long as the class divided society presses the majority of women (i.e. working-class women) into position of dependence and vulnerability, the image that women are submissive and exploitable will haunt even women from the upper classes. Indeed, it is a fact that the majority of women are highly vulnerable and oppressed within their homes, labour market, etc. As a consequence, middle-class women’s arguments regarding the need to change skewed mindsets about women being weak, fragile and belonging in the kitchen are highly misplaced. This is because they overlook the fact that prevailing mindsets are based on the concrete conditions in which the average woman is positioned—a point explained earlier in the section titled Capitalism and Women’s Oppression. It is then not simply mindsets that need to change, but the conditions which nurture such images and views about women.

Evidently then, by overemphasizing gender divisions, feminists are wrongly glossing over the role of other stratifications produced by capitalism. In fact, many feminist theories collapse with the introduction of such stratifications, in particular, class stratification, within the discourse on women’s oppression and rape. How and why does this happen?

One of the focal points of feminist theory is that rape is not about sex but is a political act of violence and domination in which sex is used as a means to assert male control and power.[39] This argument is articulated in many ways like: (i) rape is motivated by aggression as rapists target any age group, any woman, and are therefore, often not looking for satisfying or good sex; (ii) men rape so as to punish women who challenge norms, and therefore, see their attack as a justified act of social control; (iii) rape is commonly motivated by hostility created by conditions like war; (iv) rape is often premeditated; (v) rape is not motivated by sex as many rapists have stable sexual partners; etc. Clearly then, all rapes are regarded not as sexually motivated deeds but as acts of aggression which are attributable to entrenched gender inequality. The logical conclusion of this line of argument is that the higher the level of gender inequality, the higher the rape rate. Concomitantly, the higher the level of gender equality, the lower the rape rate.

Interestingly, when confronted with the fact that rape has persisted despite the development of trends towards gender equality, feminists tend to argue that the short-term effect of such equality—greater visibility of women amidst the workforce, educational institutions, seats of power, etc.—has resulted in a backlash. Distinguishing this period as one of a painful transition in which the hostility between the sexes tends to peak, feminists have pressed that in the long run, equality would produce a social climate that does not foster rape. Clearly, the theory of radical change and gradual stabilization of the changes introduced[40] within the system of gender stratification informs many feminist claims about the importance of eradicating power discrepancies between men and women in order to combat rape. It is argued that with more and more women gaining entrance into the existing workforce, occupational segregation decreases; stereotypes about gender roles weaken; policies are drafted to address new problems (like sexual harassment at the workplace, lack of equal pay for equal work, etc.); women gain decision-making power in relationships and men come to participate more in familial roles as the dynamics of gender-based division of labour within the family undergo gradual change. The net result of all these developments is reduced gender stratification (within respective classes), and hence, rape.

The question is whether this reduced gender stratification is really translating into a decline in sexual violence on women. Unfortunately, statistics reflect no such ebb in sexual violence. Rape rates, in fact, appear not be directly related to gender-stratification or gender disparities in earnings, education, occupation prestige, etc. as is reflected in the shockingly high rape statistics of several advance capitalist countries like the US where higher levels of gender equality (within respective classes) have been achieved compared to other parts of the world (Haryana, for example).[41] Similarly, in metropolitans like Delhi where women have been entering the workforce steadily, rape figures have soared, resulting in city labels like ‘rape capital’. Undoubtedly, while the notion of backlash and the theory of a transition period may appeal at first, they are now inadequate to explain how rape has persisted for decades, despite the continuous entry of women into the labour market and in spite of certain landmark labour legislations. We could talk of a transition period in the 1970s, maybe even in the 1980s and 1990s, but as we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century, the idea of a backlash loses its relevance. Indeed, does this transition period ever end? It seems not. Obviously then, the theory of backlash and a transition period has lost its analytical edge, and presses us to introspect on the direct correlation being drawn between rape and gender stratification.

Let us look at other feminist arguments about rape. Two arguments, in particular, deserve close attention: (i) that rapists target any age group, any woman, and are therefore, not looking for satisfying or good sex but a window to express aggression, and (ii) men rape so as to punish women who challenge norms, and therefore, see their attack as a justified act of social control. Both arguments echo the now dominant, majestic view epitomized in many renowned feminists’ claims that rapes are not about sex but are a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear. In her iconic work, Brownmiller has even expressed this view in terms like rapists are merely “the front line masculine shock troops” in the war against women, and are “the terrorist guerrillas in the longest sustained battle the world has ever seen”. The ground reality, however, includes a more complex picture, especially if we closely examine the profile of rape victims as well as rapists. While it is true that rapists target a varied group of victims, we must also contend with the fact that within the pool of rape victims there is greater representation of victims from the lower strata of society. This reflects that most victims are raped because they are in positions of greater vulnerability. In other words, while there can be no doubt that from a woman’s point of view there is nothing sexual about sexual violence, for the average man involved, the act is often about stealing sex by taking advantage of the vulnerability of the individual woman, or the impunity offered by circumstances.

Moreover, a lot of research on the psyche and profile of rapists shows that rapists do not exercise preference for coercive sex. Furthermore, such research has shown that there are no significant differences between the arousal patterns of male rapists and other males.[42] Indeed, if we look very closely at reported cases of rapes, we will find that rapists are not raping women and children because they seek to assert power over them or teach them a lesson for transgressing (certain) norms. I say this because many cases of rape have involved victims who were in no way transgressing given socio-cultural norms, and so, encouraging the (vigilante) rapists to ‘put them in their place’. After all, where is the ‘power’ dimension or ‘teach her-a-lesson’ factor playing itself out when a 5-year old infant is raped by a family member or neighbour? In this case the rapist rapes not because he believes the infant needs to be subjugated or taught a lesson, but because he sees her (childish) vulnerability as an opportunity to ‘satisfy’ himself.[43] Thus, contrary to assumptions reached by feminists, rapists target a somewhat varied group of victims with a preference for those in positions of most vulnerability.

This brings us to the question of certain kinds of rape (gang-rape, etc.), where the supposedly obvious dimension playing itself out is power, or basically, the desire to teach the victim a lesson. Let us look at the recent gang-rape case itself. In his December 2012 article, Shuddhabrata Sengupta asserted that: ‘Rape is not about sex, it is about humiliation, its intention is precisely to make the raped person think that now that they have been subjected to sexual violence, their life will no longer be worth living”.[44] He also repetitively named the rapists (Sharma, Sharma, Thakur, Gupta and Singh) in order to emphasize their higher caste status, implying, thereby, that these upper caste men from rural backgrounds resorted to rape as they were angered by the liberated woman of the city, and hence, sought to teach the ‘adventurous’ woman a lesson. Interestingly, news reports of the initial few days after the gang-rape revealed that the six drunken men were perusing the area for a prostitute—something they often did on other nights. This means that prostitution could possibly have substituted (and did substitute on other such nights) for the brutal rape of the 23 year-old paramedic. The question that’s important to raise here is why a sizeable number of upper caste, middle-class men do not act as insensitively as the six rapists, and do not do the same in circumstances that offer impunity? How come such upper caste men have reconciled with women ‘transgressing’ certain norms, while others (Sharma, Sharma, Thakur, Gupta and Singh) from India’s villages (and now part of the lowest rung of urban society, i.e. slum dwellers), are failing to ‘reconcile’ to changes surrounding women’s lifestyles?

The answer lies in closer examination of the concerned act of urban violence. In many cases of such sexual violence on women reported from cities, it is not so much the vestiges of village-based, patriarchal mentality, but something much more complex and terrifying—something—if we are ready to see and recognize it—is a product of the urban context created by capitalism—an urban context filled with depravation and dehumanization of the majority. Indeed, why are we seeing so many working-class men—servants, security guards, factory workers, fruit vendors, rickshaw pullers, slum dwellers, chaiwallahs, bus conductors, school bus drivers, maxi cab drivers, daily-wagers, electricians, cable operators, etc.—become rapists and/or molesters? The frequency with which they are committing sexual violence isn’t simply because crimes committed by them are reported more (many cases, in fact, are not even being reported as a lot of such sexual violence is happening within the structure of working-class families—fathers/brothers raping daughters/sisters over many years is a typical manifestation of this). What then is the cause behind this exploitative sexual behaviour; the brunt of which working-class women (wives, sisters, daughters, nieces, female neighbours, prostitutes, etc.) bear?

Is it an imaginary, omnipresent sexual pyramid that renders many bodies ‘agency-less’ by permanently inscribing itself on male psyche? One finds this hard to believe, especially because of this perception’s idealist roots—is this simply about engrained mindsets—the idea of violence which then creates the act itself, or are we looking for a definitive materialist explanation of this worrying tendency in our society. And if we are claiming to draw on a materialist analysis of rape, are we falling back on the fashionable but muddling dual systems theory which postulates an ahistorical form of interaction between our given socio-economic system and patriarchy? If we are, then we will be incapable of developing a more devastating critique of the socio-economic structures or the modes of production that actually create the concrete conditions for prevalence of gender inequality (or patriarchy).

Class and its discontent: The making of rapists and victims

The basic equation-making for which feminists should be critiqued is, namely, that social equality is possible by eradicating gender stratification while doing precious little to eradicate class inequalities. Indeed, rarely affected by poverty, most middle-class women and feminists can really be conscious only of inequality that hits them directly, i.e. unequal relations within their homes and workplaces, between them and men of their class. This is precisely why we find that the tendency to project patriarchy as an overarching, independent system of oppression finds most adherence within the upper echelons of society where women are materially positioned in better terms, like men of their class. In such a position, what confronts them in more accentuated terms is not the materiality of their class position, but the gender difference between them and men of their class. Less affected by class stratification, women from the upper classes are then bound to perceive gender inequalities as a set of behaviours and a mentality that has the independent capacity to breed a system of unequal gender relations and oppression. Not surprisingly, unlike their working-class sisters who are burdened by pauperization, women from the middle class are less likely to comprehend and organize against the material basis on which women’s oppression stands. They are, instead, more prone to organize and speak out against ‘gendered mentalities’, ‘sexist culture’, etc.

Thus, for feminists, the eradication of sexual violence is possible when men and women are equal:

Men = Women

Or basically, men and women are equal within their respective classes

(capitalist) Men = (capitalist) Women

(middle class) Men = (middle class) Women

(working class) Men = (working class) Women

Feminists, thus, envision a world free of sexual violence without concretely addressing the issue of other structuring inequalities. They overlook the fact that sexual violence cannot be eradicated as long as a class divided society exists, and so, end up downplaying or eliding the question of prevailing class inequalities. They can, by ignoring the class stratification assume that:

 (working class) Men = (middle class) Women

(capitalist) Men = (working class) Women

(capitalist) Men = (middle class) Women

(middle class) Men = (working class) Women

What is evident from the above equations is just how fallacious it is to assume that equality between men and women of the same class amounts to equality between men and women of different classes. Of course, sexual violence and oppression of women will persist unabated if class divisions that nurture gender inequality are not eradicated. For example, as long as working-class women are dependent on capitalist or middle-class men for gainful employment, and are discriminated against in the job market, they are in a position to be raped whenever upper class men seek sexual gratification by drawing on the exploitable class position of these women. Similarly, as long as class divisions persist, the working-class family will continue to burden working-class women with the yoke of domestic slavery in order to reduce the costs of its sustenance—a burden which reduces these women to positions of subjugation that can be easily exploited by working-class men in their family. Clearly, until we do not address class divisions, we will not be able to eradicate prevailing gender inequalities. What we, hence, need at this moment is a rigorous critique of class stratification fostered by capitalism. If we do not do this and limit the movement to fighting the mere symptoms of the disease, i.e. patriarchal norms (lakshman rekhas, etc.) rather than the disease itself, sexual violence will continue to persist while we’ll go hoarse shouting ‘let us reclaim the night’.

But why exactly are the peculiar conditions created by the capitalist economy so central to the perpetuation of sexual violence and other forms of oppression of women? For one, the extremely harsh economic conditions imposed on the working class have produced phenomenal levels of frustration and aggression among working-class men. These men do not have access to typical date pools/sites like college/campus circles, social networking sites, pub circles, etc. as they do not have the time or the economic means to be part of them. Returning from long, arduous hours of work; heavily underpaid; and hence, malnourished and poorly dressed, working-class men are hardly in the position to attract women of the upper classes who are in a better position to exercise an active choice when it comes to choosing sex partners. In this regard, the working-class man’s inequality with men and women of upper classes, especially in sexual terms, is constantly creating the scope for potential offenders. With little time for actual coital activity, yet exposed to lots of sex through the capitalist media, working-class men are not merely conditioned to steal sex from unwilling women and children, but are also prone to indulge in unromantic sexual liaisons that are far removed from feelings of love and mutuality, and are basically, embodiments of bad sex. Recall stereotypes regarding youth from working-class and peasant families making out in empty warehouses, fields, desolate buildings and eerie parks. Yes, these are precisely the places where our impoverished youth is experimenting with sex—experiments which, more often than not, involve hurried, uncaring and unfeeling sexual activity.

This, of course, brings us to the question of how the same harsh conditions are producing a ready supply of female victims, who because of their economic deprivation cannot afford a secure life situation which protects them from frustrated and aggressive men from their (working) class, i.e. men who they encounter in their daily life (as husbands, fathers, brothers, colleagues, ‘lovers’, etc.). Unlike higher status women who can afford a better physical and social environment which is more crime free (gated neighbourhoods, personal transport, etc.), working-class women are forced to survive in more hostile conditions (poorly policed neighbourhoods, dimly-lit streets, dependence on public conveniences and crowded public transport, etc.) where they easily fall prey to sexual harassment, sexual violence, etc. Considering their life pattern, these working-class women are not in a position to protect themselves from upper class men who also exploit their vulnerability. It is then apt to say that the majority of rapes represent, on the one hand, the convergence of society’s most frustrated and sexed up men, and on the other, society’s most vulnerable and dependent women and children, i.e. working-class women and children. It is this dismal truth which alone can account for the fact that rape victimization rates are particularly high for poor women.

To elucidate how exactly the brutality of the capitalist production process generates grave sexual inequalities between different classes, it is best trace the average day in the life of working-class men. If employed, most of these men are awake in the early hours of the morning; they commute long distances to work in factories that are located in industrial belts like Faridabad, Gurgaon, Gaziabad, Noida, Okhla, etc. Others amongst them, who are not factory workers, can also be seen in the morning rushing to report for work at malls, sulabs, construction sites, sweatshops located in the heart of Delhi, garages, petrol pumps, etc.—all of which are generally located far away from the slum clusters where these men actually reside. Most of these men are contract workers, temps or daily wagers, who cannot vouch for the fact that they will be employed the next day. As a result, most among them live on a hand to mouth existence, and are often unable to bring their families to settle in the city with them. Earning a pittance for an average work day of 12 hours or more, few can afford to marry as and when they wish, or to bring home their wives and children from the village. Those who do have families in the city are forced to reside with them in small rooms, often with no windows. Indeed, working-class families are typically constituted of family elders, younger brothers, sister-in-laws, unmarried sisters, etc., and hence, entire families end up living in small working-class tenements like packed sardines in a can. Such sub-human living conditions, and the tremendous sense of alienation brought on by dehumanizing work hours, hardly make it possible for egalitarian relationships between men and women, or between human beings in general, to exist.

How does capitalism resolve this emerging crisis of working-class men being unable to have the time to nurture human relationships and to be in the position to cater to theirs and a partner’s sexual needs? It bombards them with portrayals of sex—you may watch, but who cares if you actually have or don’t have the time for the real thing. Indeed, the sexual crisis that emerges within capitalism evolves precisely around the fact that most of the youth spend the greater part of their time thinking about sex, and of course, not doing it. Its actual repression then develops into unhealthy trends in personality. For capitalism, it’s all about the fact that at least these men are watching sex as an entertainment and achieving ‘fulfillment’; an entertainment that happily adds to the billions earned by the porn, prostitution and liquor industries. Thus, the disturbing fact which we mustn’t hide from is that capitalism creates animals on the one hand and victims on the other. In its vicious trap it has ensnared not just hapless working-class women (and occasionally, middle-class women), but also working-class men.

Indeed, all one needs to do is to take a walk through industrial belts to see the filthy B-grade cinema halls showcasing porn films throughout the day. Without a doubt, the actions of male porn stars showcased in these B-grade movies become part of men’s fantasies. So do the actions of mainstream male actors whose ‘stalking’ of female heroines in films and other acts of lumpenism (whistling, staring, grabbing) inspire lumpenism and sexist fantasies about women’s bodies and how they like to be treated. Also lining the circumference of industrial areas are numerous liquor shops that are located strategically at certain transit points, highways, etc. At these transit points and even at the weekly bazars near working-class localities, one is bound to find the scarves, belts and dvd-selling vendor. His collection of dvds is sure to include the famous 5 movies-in-one dvd—a combination of porn, violent action and thriller movies. He is also sure to stock pornographic magazines which serve as nothing but decorative inducements to masturbation. Flipping through newspapers like Punjab Kesari, JagranCity, and supplements of other newspapers, the average reader is sure to feel that in this country, sexuality is shining and unfettered in its expression. At the same time, he cannot help feeling the angst that in real life he is nowhere close to enjoying this show-it-all/free-for-all sexuality.

Of course, to realize the depth of the (civilizational) problem before us, one should observe the average clientele that frequents red light areas like G.B. Road in Delhi. Finally, combine all this with glossy portrayals of actresses/models on almost every billboard in the city—from a billboard advertising a deodorant to one showcasing a bike and men’s underwear. Bombarded with hyper-femme images that objectify women’s bodies and sexuality, it is a miracle if the average (overworked, desensitized) working-class man learns to respect a woman’s body and needs. Ultimately, frustrated with inequalities, especially in sexual terms, many such working-class men seek actualization of their fantasies in any opening/orifice easily available. And that’s when many rapes and cases of molestation happen—when easy/vulnerable targets (burdened housewives, infants, a lone woman returning from work, a prostitute, etc.) become sites for actualizing sexual fantasies and sexual needs of men who are being exposed to nothing else but objectified forms of women’s bodies, while at the same time being denied the time (and other essential conditions) to actually nurture relationships with another.[45]

In such a context, when a sexily dressed middle-class woman happens to be in an exploitable condition, the chances of her being sexually assaulted are large. She is attacked not because her assailants are taken aback by her feminity, but because they are often looking for any vagina, mouth, or for that matter, any orifice in which they can insert their genitals. In reality then, sexual assaults on middle-class women by working-class men are an embodiment of these men’s efforts to gratify their sexual urges, as well as to vent frustrations that arise from social and economic inequalities particular to their class. In such situations, the sexual urge can easily get caught in class hatred, which can enhance the brutality of the assault. However, far from a class act, such sexual assaults represent the expression of this frustration in an individuated form. This means that sexual, economic and social inequalities bred by class stratification have the capacity not merely to elicit a class-conscious, collective and political reaction from the exploited working class, but also have the embedded capacity to provoke individuated, non-political and sexist forms of reaction like brutal assaults through which individual working-class men momentarily overpower women from the upper classes. Of course, by highlighting class divisions and their intricate role, one does not attempt to justify the prevalence of sexual violence in society. But as class stratification is a cause for such violence, the question of fighting it becomes essential for those who genuinely want to eradicate sexual violence from the roots.[46]

Having said this, what about rapes involving middle-class men who force themselves on their wives, girlfriends, an acquaintance at work, etc.? Here too, the acculturation of middle-class men into grabbing sex on their terms cannot be explained by simply drawing on some abstract notion of patriarchy. This, in fact, begs the question as to why notions of sexual hierarchy inform men’s consciousness. Importantly, the substratum of sexual violence perpetrated on middle-class women by men of their class is also shaped by inequalities that are bred by class. This is because many such rapes are occurring in the context of middle-class women joining an extremely insecure job market in order to enhance family budgets and their marriage prospects, dating so as to find partners of their status, adhering to family norms about ‘keeping the family together’, etc.—all of which are historical creations of capitalism. To elucidate, the pressure created by a class-divided society to seek partners from within one’s own class has pushed women into a position of compromise, wherein, they are trapped into adhering to patriarchal feminity and internalizing norms that subjugate their interests to the interests of their partners. In such positions of compromise (like dressing ‘attractively’ for work, going on blind-dates, ignoring sexual innuendos of male colleagues, tolerating ‘overprotective’ partners, etc.), middle-class women become vulnerable to oppression unleashed by men of their class.

Nonetheless, it is imperative to recognize the fact that oppression faced by middle-class women cannot be equated with the exploitation and oppression borne by working-class women. Contrary to the popular belief that there is an equivalence in the experiences and interests of women across the board, it is really hard if not impossible, to place Priyanka Chopra and Soni Sori, or for that matter a female bank manager of an ICICI branch and a woman factory worker, on the same platform. It is difficult to assume that such equivalence exists because, although gender is imbricated in the matrix of power, inequalities stemming from it are contingent on the class position to which women belong. Hence, although men have advantages over women of the same class, women from middle-class families, bourgeois families, and women of advanced capitalist countries are far closer in material conditions and opportunities to men in their class than they are to working-class women, tribal women, Dalit women, etc. This class divide is precisely the reason why the average middle-class woman has come to comprehend equality in terms of gaining equality with men of her own class rather than equality between all human beings (including equality between her and a working-class man).

In this light, notions of equivalence are merely ways in which middle-class women can conceal their guilt of belonging to a higher class and still appear radical. In fact, it is the class blind approach of middle-class feminists, which creates (misplaced) notions of equivalence, and which paves the way for a form of politics that is based on women forgetting their class differences. Regrettably, the politics of equivalence has found its most ardent promoters amongst certain ‘Left’ organizations.[47] In reality, demands stemming from notions of equivalence offer no exit for the most vulnerable women in our society. Instead, such misplaced politics reeks of typical middle class oblivion of class-based exploitation and its debilitating effects.

It is, thus, essential to be conscious of the role that class plays in shaping the content of what is identified as freedom and equality. If we turn a blind eye to its role, we will only slip into a form of feminist politics that elides any real criticism of our society. As a society, we can launch a more formidable form of fighting sexual violence from its roots only if we accept the embedded truths about how human sexuality is shaped by capitalism, as well as how human relationships are impacted by class divisions. The fight against sexual violence is then a fight against capitalism; the struggle for sexual liberation based on egalitarianism is then a struggle for the sexual liberation of all women and all men; and the fight for actual equality between the separate genders is then the fight for a classless society.

Internalizing the male gaze and the co-option of feminism

In order to shield rape victims from the hurtful blame game and social ostracism the feminist movement has tended to completely divest rape of a sexual content. Unfortunately, the strategy of wrongfully divesting rape of its sexual content has not only prevented the feminist movement from completely exposing the complex web of socio-economic conditions that lie at the core of sexual violence, but has also led to several troubling developments, in particular, the birth of certain disempowering and elitist trends in the movement.[48] The development of these trends has blunted the radical potential of the feminist movement, and has further reduced feminism to a clique. Meanwhile, women at large remain trapped in various forms of oppression created by the capitalist system.

The most debilitating repercussion of the capitalist system on women’s sexuality is the co-option of women into the biased, sexist envisioning of their sexuality, as well as their growing participation in furthering their own and other women’s oppression. A lot of this co-option is the result of cultural bombardment, wherein, industries like that of advertising; fashion; media; etc. have popularized and made normative the existence of women’s sexuality in an objectified (consumable) form. However, this co-option has also increasingly emerged from quarters of ‘informed’, ‘sensitized’, feminist camps. While one can appreciate the elements of (ideological) diversity within the feminist movement, it cannot be denied that many currents in feminism have internalized patriarchal feminity, i.e. by claiming that the feminine can be made powerful through proud acceptance of things/behaviour/predispositions as intrinsically feminine.

The growing popularity of slut walks; fashionable flash mobs; support for legalization of prostitution; as well as certain strands of feminism which promote hyper-feminine dressing under the misplaced assumption that such dressing should not elicit a sexist gaze from men—are all recent embodiments of just how distant feminism is from the needs and aspirations of working-class women for liberation. Why do I say this? Without being a defender of sexist men, I place before the readers the intrinsic problems with feminism, in particular, the problems associated with some of its aspirations.

My basic contention is that the gravest problem posed by such feminism is the obstacle it has created for the liberation of the majority of women, i.e. working-class women. It is a fact that the feminist movement of the twentieth century and thereon has been a product of gradual absorption of women into the labour market, the growth in female-headed households and the upward mobility of some women in terms of better paying jobs and influential statuses. It is with this growth in middle-class women’s employment in health, educational and social services (developments which were ultimately furthering capitalist accumulation), that there emerged “a new romance of female advancement and gender justice”.[49] Subsequently, the decades following the 1970s saw many successful campaigns led by several feminist organizations and individuals, as well as socialist mass organizations which pressed the state to guarantee women the rights to bodily autonomy. Across the world, many working-class women too have benefitted from such successful campaigns, i.e. in terms of being granted certain legal safeguards against violent relationships, etc. However, feminist mobilizations were and continue to be characterized by a class bias because middle-class women have come to demand ‘freedoms’ which are abstracted from the need to reorganize the given social and economic structure imposed by capitalism. In fact, the undercurrent of feminism remains the positing of equal rights with men within the framework of capitalism. As a result, it ends up concealing class divisions and the necessity of working-class politics by projecting an artificial division between the class of men and class of women—a division which is wrongly projected as the fundamental division (fault-line) within the capitalist system/bourgeois society.[50]

While gender stratification or men-women segregation may appear as a distinct and an overarching form of social division, there is an undeniable peculiarity to it, namely, that this form of segregation tends to blur when other social divisions (or fault-lines) are brought into the picture. In reality, the position of women is ontologically placed within the complex web of social structure in a way that makes it is subsumable within other segregations. For one, women are not a class in themselves but are divided among different classes. Upper class women, for example, tend to live and work where they associate with upper class men, and hence, remain in a social environment that distinguishes them from the mass of working-class men and women. As a consequence of these material conditions they share with men of their class, i.e. higher levels of education and occupational positions/incomes, women of higher classes are in a position to demand more respect not only from men of their class, but from men of lower classes as well. This means that segregation based on gender tends to blur when we consider: (i) the commonality of interests between men and women of a class; (ii) the sharp inequalities borne by working-class men in contrast to upper class women, and (iii) the inequalities borne by impoverished lower caste men in contrast to affluent higher caste women.

Simply put, while a patriarchal or sexist culture which reinforces gender inequalities may prevail, there is also the tendency for patriarchal households and sexist men to share a common interest with their women. We see such convergence of interests when wages or salaries earned by women are encouraged in conditions where women’s wages substantially improve family budgets. The employment of a maidservant in many upper class homes also reflects how sexist upper class men have come to accept that housework is a burden for their partners, which should rather be shared or passed onto a paid help. All such conjunctures that represent a convergence in men and women’s interests reflect the following: (i) that the gender division is not a universal, independently constituted system of segregation, and (ii) that segregation based on class, caste and race ultimately determine how much and in what ways gender divisions will articulate themselves. Importantly, unlike gender segregation which is subsumable within other segregations, these other segregations based on class and caste cannot be subsumed within the men-women social division.

What this means is that the aforementioned complex web of social divisions tends to separate the interests of middle-class and working-class women to the extent that they are often antagonistic to each other. Hence, once middle-class women gain certain rights due to their membership to a particular class, or due to the struggle for such rights, they do not hesitate in unleashing the whip of exploitation on their working-class sisters. Winning the right to work, for example, has been accompanied by employment of the maid—a development which has culminated in the brutal exploitation of working-class women as domestic ‘helps’. Most of these domestic servants are impoverished tribal girls/women who migrate to cities after marriage or in search of employment. The heavy manual work performed by them in most middle and upper class homes clearly shows just how little the feeling of sisterhood tends to exist amongst women of varied classes.

What is then lost in brazen generalizations about the ‘gender-over-class’ experience are the following: (i) that women are sharply divided amongst themselves along the lines of class and so are men separated from women along class lines; (ii) that some women have become stakeholders in the commodification of women’s sexuality; and (iii) that once the demand for women’s autonomy over their bodies is abstracted from the larger social relations which shape current sexual codes, such a demand can only pave the way for half-baked freedoms.[51]

How is it that a section of women have become stakeholders in the commodification of women’s sexuality? Disturbing as it may be, what we are witnessing today in more and more blatant forms is the constant promotion of raunch culture in the name of women’s sexual liberation.[52] Amongst those who indulge in this perversity are female chauvinists, or what I would like to identify as ‘comprador women’—those women who come to employ the strategy of objectifying theirs and other women’s bodies in the attempt to attain the same elevated status and financial gains of the dominant group (in this case, male entrepreneurs and professionals). Through their work these women not only objectify their own bodies but also those of other women, and more often than not, advocate that women should embrace capitalism and get as much power and money for themselves as they can in order to fight oppression.[53]Examples of female chauvinists or comprador women include: the woman entrepreneur who unhesitatingly uses her class power to unleash aggression on both male and female employees; the woman journo at Playboy, Cosmopolitan and Femina magazines who earns a killing by telling women what’s the “in thing”; the woman fashion designer whose fashion line popularizes Size Zero and whose one flick of the hand sends shivers down the chain of garment workers employed in developing and under-developed countries; the Ekta Kapoor-kind of women producers whose showcase-it-all movies have popularized movie plots evolving around sex scandals; the entire pool of bourgeois artists (Kareena Kapoor, Malaika Arora Khan, Priyanka Chopra and the likes) who adamantly claim their semi-nude bodies on billboards and the silver screen do not encourage a sexist culture; etc. Ultimately then, the interests of women capitalists and some upward mobile women professionals are linked to the perpetuation of a biased, sexist culture and gender oppression of the majority of women.

Another brand of feminist practitioners includes those who have come to seek ‘empowerment’ in the reclamation of patriarchal feminity, and hence, have come to defend and celebrate this feminity as a feminist action. The general misconception amongst them is that women are exercising an active choice/agency when indulging in patriarchal feminity such as by wearing body-hugging clothes, painting nails, getting piercings, going for implants, looking ‘pretty’ in order to feel powerful, participating in ‘slut walks’, and even reclaiming disempowering terms or language like slut/whore/bitch/cunt/behanchod/chutia. Subsequently, the denial of such choice to indulge in patriarchal feminity is read as oppression and is seen as antagonistic to the goal of feminism, let alone any emancipatory politics.

Such behaviour and politics is troubling because of its ridiculous assumption that women who dress in hyper-feminine ways are beating the patriarchal, sexist structuring of society at its own game. Defenders of such positions also tend to argue that sexualized dressing challenges the predominant image of the docile, ‘traditional’ woman imbued with feminine respectability. For this reason the ‘right’ to hyper-femme dressing has emerged almost like a non-negotiable demand within the current feminist movement.[54] However, it is worth remembering that both the commodified woman and the normative woman or bhadramahila are creations of capitalist society. Both are forms of a woman’s sexual being that are used to keep each other alive. While the former is often despised, she is still desired. Similarly, while the latter is often worshipped, she is also shunned. Hence, both the commodified woman and the bhadramahila are feminine roles which should be smashed rather than incorporated and defended.

What then really happens when middle-class women take to hyper-feminine dressing/behaviour? Like it or not, they end up reproducing conditions not only for their own oppression but for the oppression of the more vulnerable section of women, namely, proletarian women.[55] My two questions then to all those who brandish political slogans of ‘free choice’, ‘meri skirt se tujhe kya’, etc. are: (i) when you find yourself choosing what capitalist patriarchy promotes, is it not worth asking if it is really a choice, and (ii) can you guarantee that your indulgence in patriarchal feminity does not create any conditions for another woman’s sexual oppression?

If we take up these questions critically, it is worth noting that the discourse of ‘free choice’ is a product of a heightened sense of bourgeois individualism and egoism. Individual will and freedoms are prioritized with little or no engagement on the actual form and content of these freedoms and individual desires. Blinded by extreme individuality which is fostered by ruling bourgeois ideology, as well as ignorant of the real socio-economic relationships that are needed so as to transform collective human psyche, middle-class women are being swayed to participate in the making of their own oppression. They are slipping further into objectifying their sexuality and relationships due to greater access to cultural capital, money, etc.—an access which enables them to adhere to given codes of feminine sexuality, notions of beauty, and newer forms of personal relationships (‘free unions’, open marriages, etc.) more easily as compared to working-class women who have little or no access to such financial resources, cultural capital, etc.

By asserting ‘individual choice’, these women are happily concealing how their efforts to map down to patriarchal feminity signifies acceptance and normalization of given sexual codes of behaviour for men and women. It is, indeed, difficult to even imagine how wearing high heels, skin-tight jeans, hot pants, see-through tops, miniskirts, huge earrings, anklets, etc., does not automatically elicit certain types of hyper-femme behaviour that are easy to exploit simply because of the way these accessories end up impacting the woman’s gait, her weight, her stamina, etc. In this context, one cannot help but appreciate the significance of warnings such as ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ which indicate that adherence to things which are not in our interest will surely work against us and keep intact the status quo.[56]It is also difficult to support the free-to-be-me feminism in which people (the masses) can hardly tell the difference between a woman who has been duped into indulging in patriarchal feminity and a woman who is purposefully adhering to this feminity in order to circumvent it. If such a difference cannot be maintained nor does such dressing or behaviour change the way women’s sexuality is perceived and consumed, then one would rather propagate a different strategy.

In actual terms, patriarchal feminity is yet another expression of restrained and subjugated female sexuality. Importantly, restrain has been the characterizing feature of female sexuality despite the emergence of effective contraception post the 1960s. Contraception, by freeing women for the ‘first’ time from the fear of unplanned/undesired pregnancies, has had profound repercussions on women’s sexuality. However, despite the emergence of contraception, it is only bourgeois women and a small segment of middle-class women who, on achieving material equality with men of their class, have come to explore their sexuality in certain ways and exercise an active choice in choosing their sex partners. Nevertheless, these women ultimately fall for a form of sexual adventurism which, many a times, provides the space for sexual opportunism of men—an opportunism that frees men of responsibility, care and commitment.[57] This is exactly why many middle-class youth can be seen indulging in sexual acts in which they and/or their partners have divorced sexual gratification from genuine love, mutual commitment and intimacy. Moreover, upper class women’s sexual adventurism exists in a form that actively assists them in finding partners who enable them to remain in their class, or to move up to a higher status. There is then, nothing commendable in upholding this form of sexual adventurism nurtured by capitalism.

In order to prove this, let us explore the issue of seeking partners within one’s own class more closely. Expectedly, in a socio-economic system in which large numbers of women are unemployed and the job market is highly insecure and discriminatory towards them, women are compelled to seek security in male partners belonging to theirs or a class above. Marriage is then the means through which a woman and her family can either sustain an existing lifestyle, or access a better one through the practice of hypergamy, i.e. marrying into a higher social status. This development has to be understood in a larger context. As explained above, community-based regulation has reduced with time, and as a result, modern society has increasingly witnessed the assertion of ‘individual’ choice. Individual men and women, particularly in urban areas, are now progressively opting for marriages outside their communities. Inter-caste marriages are indicative of this trend.

Interestingly, in many parts of India, in particular, Haryana, Punjab and Delhi, inter-caste marriages are in the noticeable range of 15 to 20 per cent of marriages recorded. These states represent high levels of prosperity due to a flourishing agricultural economy (the profits of which have been diversified into sectors like transport, real estate, etc.). This prosperity has fuelled greater aspirations of upward-mobility. Importantly then, a bulk of inter-community marriages involve hypergamy. In such cases, women are opting for matches which ensure a similar, if not better lifestyle than the one provided by their parents. Simply put, majority of women do not tend to ‘marry down’ the social ladder, and hence, opt for partners who can offer them a better life and status, even if these partners are not from their community. Meanwhile, men tend to accept partners from a status below them if they look ‘attractive enough’. Ultimately, the practice of hypergamy has put women under tremendous pressure. This pressure manifests itself in the quest to not simply look attractive, but to look ‘better than the rest’. This quest to always look young, attractive, etc. requires some elaboration.

The problem with the pressure to fit into prescribed notions of ‘beauty’ is not simply that it compels so many women (in particular, middle-class women who have greater access to resources) to invest their time, energy and money on looking ‘desirable’ and for inculcating all the expected mannerisms which appeal to men who are likely to be their partners. The graver problem with this particular form of oppression is that it paves the way for a never-ending process of compromises. It’s not just what women end up doing to their own bodies in order to ‘stay young’, ‘feel beautiful’, ‘catch his eye’, etc., but what they end up allowing men to do to their bodies. Not surprisingly, in order to keep things going so many women end up compromising on various fronts: careers, fulfilling sex, self-respect, etc. It is in this process of maintaining ‘respectable’ matches/relationships that so many middle-class women come to tolerate bossy boyfriends, domestic violence, unfaithful husbands, etc.

Clearly, what is then lost in the deafening screeching about ‘it’s my body, it’s my life’, is the simple fact that by indulging in hyper-femme dressing and behaviour, many women are using their body and sexuality to satisfy partners whom they have chosen from within their own class, as well as to move up the social ladder by attracting men of upper classes. Repartees like ‘I’m doing it because it makes me feel good’ and ‘what’s it with you—it was a free country last time I checked’ are hardly convincing when we place them within the context of the kind of men-women relationships that exist in the larger society, as well as in the context of the kind of relationships built by many such self-proclaimed feminists.

Unfortunately for all of us, we are part of a society where the potential for loving is at its lowest. In the context of fragile and selfishly oriented men-women relationships nurtured by capitalism, a woman’s indulgences in the very practices which suit the male gaze and presumptions about women’s sexuality is simply an effort to attract the attention of her partner (and also, willingly or unwillingly, of other men). Such attention is sought in the form in which he (the partner) is used to seeing her and in which he expects to see her so that he can ‘feel the love’. Let us then not be mistaken into reading ‘empowerment’ into actions that are simply our slippages. Of course, women are now increasingly seeking out their own partners as compared to earlier times, but the starting point in the majority of such relationships is looking desirable in ways decided not by the individuals ‘in love’, but by external social forces. Thus, what some women are identifying as an ‘individual choice’ when it comes to exercising their sexuality is actually creating grounds for the substitution of genuine (egalitarian) love/feeling by a dishonest kind of closeness brought on by men and women who have entered physical relationships while objectifying each other’s bodies (and often after checking each other’s bank balances).[58]

Indeed, dressing in hyper-femme ways is a class-informed act/practice. It is a trap that middle-class and bourgeois women are perpetuating in order to tackle oppression unleashed by men of their own class. The class-biased nature of the various strands of feminism which support hyper-femme dressing is, perhaps, best reflected in the fact that these women who demand equality no matter what they wear and what they do, rarely seek partners outside their class. Somehow, the nature of their demand for equality, as well as the form of sexual liberation posited by them, never really allow for expansion of their date/marriage pool. This is why, despite all their claims about sexual liberation, hardly any transgress the sexual codes of their class so as to search for love amongst working-class men (or working-class women, if we talk of lesbian feminists). Hence, their idea of liberation stops at gaining unprecedented rights and privileges that men of their class enjoy—the right to wear what she wants, go where she pleases, date whoever she wants and basically do as she pleases. So sorry, but her idea of liberation says nothing of fighting wage slavery, nor does her idea of liberation accept responsibility for the enhanced oppression unleashed by middle-class notions of ‘freedom’ on working-class women.

In reality, the relevance of rhetoric like ‘my body, my life’ holds little water. Instead, the hyper-feminine images propagated by the capitalist media as well as repetitive and uncritical indulgence in patriarchal feminity by middle-class women, has created huge problems for women across the board. Now Malaika Arora Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Sunny Leone, etc. can indulge in patriarchal feminity and earn in lakhs by objectifying their bodies while, at the same time, not be in a position to be raped by the average man who watches their films, posters, etc. Really, which ordinary man can bypass their bouncers, crew, security systems, etc. so as to physically acquire/consume their bodies?! Similarly, the sensuously dressed pub-going university student may only be visually consumed by male pubbers, waiters, security guards and the auto driver who drops her home—but does anyone check how hers, or Sunny Leone or Priyanka Chopra’s bodies become the object of those men’s fantasies? Indeed, the tendency of middle-class hedonism[59] seeks expression in middle-class notions of civility and freedom, which are then imposed on the larger mass of people. Without a doubt, this middle-class ‘civility’ needs artificially created and pacified zones (university campuses, malls, discotheques, etc.) for it to express itself. The creation of these pacified zones is largely possible by drawing on the police, which reluctantly concedes a role in maintaining safe/safer havens for the upper classes to enjoy such ‘azaadi’.

Of course, these women may not be raped or molested (and one hopes they never are) when they do what they do. However, their bodies become fantasies for the average man, such that depending on the vulnerability (of the next woman/child he comes across) and the impunity offered by circumstances, rape of a (more vulnerable) other becomes possible. This takes us back to the oft repeated repartee: skirt mein, burkhe mein, dono mein rape hota hai—we should now really qualify this, and say that women in skirts and revealing tops are somewhere responsible for the rape of women in burkhas and ghunghats.

Feminist defence of hyper-femme dressing and behaviour, thus, makes little sense considering that it has accepted the fact that such dressing and behaviour is mime attention seeking which is supposed to, on the one hand, attract attention of a particular individual, but on the other hand, is supposed to repulse or elicit indifference from others. Quite naturally then, feminist rhetoric on hyper-femme dressing and behaviour does not make sense to the majority of men and women, and although feminists would defend their position by terming all these men and women who critique hyper-femme dressing/behaviour as patriarchal, such a defence is really far too shallow.

Hence, while there is need to critique the treacherous blame game let loose by (the hypocritical) capitalist society when it comes to rape, molestation, etc., there is no need to throw the baby with the bathwater. At the end of the day, the complete denial of the uncomfortable truth underlying women’s efforts to ‘do as they please’ is preventing the women’s movement from pursuing a more rigorous assessment of what makes sexual violence possible and persistent in capitalist society.

Socialism: Going beyond feminist notions of freedom

A more detailed exploration of the strained relationship between feminists and the working-class movement is currently outside the scope of this piece. However, there are few observations on the issue which must be spelt out. The most important of these is that the international working-class movement has always questioned the feminist assumption that the oppression of women can be eradicated by fighting merely or specifically for gender equality. It is worth recalling Alexandria Kollantai who lucidly articulated that many claims for equality made by feminists were not simply misplaced but also detrimental to the interests of working-class women because such claims did not speak of larger equality. Indeed, for majority of women, i.e. working-class women, equal rights with men would only mean an equal share in inequality. Of course, some feminists would always claim that their assessments of gender inequality have not been oblivious to class, but the truth is that even if, apart from gender, other articulations of inequality (like that of class, caste, race, etc.) are taken into account, they are usually seen as yet another variant of discrimination and simply a greater burden to be borne by women. The question, however, is whether class is just one of a list of discriminations—can it be reduced to another “ism”? The answer is an obvious no for class is a structuring force that cuts into gender, caste, etc., and hence, gives gender discrimination, caste discrimination, etc. their particular form of expression.

Given this ontological positioning of gender vis-à-vis class, the working-class movement has always, in contrast to feminism, posited that gender inequality can be eradicated completely only with the demise of class stratification. It is for this reason that the working-class movement has posited equality between men and women, not as a part apart, but as a part of a larger emancipatory project, which connects women’s emancipation to the liberation of the majority, i.e. working-class women and men.

Consequently, with the melting away of class divisions under socialism, various revolutionary possibilities open up for human society as a whole. In a socialist society, all women, for example, would be empowered with gainful employment and education—a facility that would free the majority of women from their current position of overt dependence on male breadwinners. In a similar vein, with the achievement of new levels of socialization of labour (collective childcare, community kitchens, etc.); women would be freed from the yoke of domestic slavery which has burdened and subjugated them since the inception of capitalism. By freeing the majority of women from positions of dependence and (devalued) domesticity, socialism will nurture a new image of women; one that is far removed from the wretched, vulnerable and exploitable image nurtured by capitalism. With no such spectre of vulnerability to haunt women, no woman would have to face the brunt of sexual violence or live a life of fear.

Moreover, the provision of full employment offered by socialism would ensure that no man or woman performs more than his/her share of work—a mandatory provision that will drastically reduce the working hours that now prevail in society. With this much needed decrease in working hours, men and women will be in the position to enjoy greater leisure time. And it is precisely in such a condition of enhanced leisure time that human relations can be nurtured, and that progress towards true love and romantic/fulfilling sex can be made. In other words, unlike the capitalist system which has created more conditions of coercive coitus than of voluntary sex and true love, socialism’s restructuring of human leisure and work time will pave the way for an actual sexual revolution. Undivided by class, unfettered by inhumane work hours and unburdened by artificially accentuated male-female differences, human beings under socialism will find no reason to and have no basis on which to rape, to subjugate, or to use another’s body for selfish gains.

Thus, till the time that gender equality simply manifests itself in equality between men and women of the same class, romantic sex or the sexual revolution is clearly misnomer. It is only when gender equality has come to manifest itself through an equality of a larger kind, wherein, distinct classes, castes and races have been obliterated, that the sexual revolution can be set to begin. Evidently then, if our civilization wants to overcome the conditions that foster sexual violence and oppression, and if we truly desire a sexual revolution, then our efforts should be aimed at building socialism—a transformation which alongside the struggle against oppression stemming from various identities (gender, caste, religion, tribe, etc.) also requires the intensification of the struggle against class stratification.

Maya John is associated with the Centre for Struggling Women (CSW), and is a researcher working on labour law at the Department of History, University of Delhi

Notes


[1]The 23-year old victim was studying to be a physiotherapist. She was accompanied by her engineer male-friend and was returning after watching “Life of Pi” in South Delhi’s multiplex/shopping mall, Select Citywalk. After the movie they tried to get an auto-rickshaw, and failing to get one, they waited at the bus-stop for public transport (i.e. the Delhi Transport Corporation/DTC bus service). Since public transport in the city (the bus service in particular) is in shambles, the couple, expectedly, did not get a DTC bus either. They were easily lured into the private bus after waiting for public transport for nearly 45 minutes. The victim was raped by six working-class men on the private bus as it plied through the streets, and succumbed to her injuries 13 days later in a Singapore hospital. The victim was not only raped but brutalized.

[2] For example, the Delhi High Court filed a suo motu case. Meanwhile, the Delhi Police were unusually swift in their investigation and caught the accused within 3 days. The national media provided continuous coverage of the case, as well as of student protesters who poured onto the streets in agitation. Corporate houses started using this issue as part of their ad-campaigns. Many protestors demanded capital punishment for the accused, and were seen occupying Raisina Hill (near the President’s residence and Ministry of Home Affairs under whose authority the Delhi Police functions). Here, generally no protests are allowed. The police remained relatively restrained, and only resorted to force under the pretext of stone pelting started by some agent provocateurs. Sonia Gandhi [head of ruling ‘United Progressive Alliance’ (UPA)], Sheila Dixit (Chief Minister of the Government of National Capital Territory), Manmohan Singh (Prime Minister of Government of India),  Sushilkumar Shinde (Union Home Minster) visited/assured justice to the victim’s family. Just few weeks before this 16 December gang-rape, a 16-year old girl from an oppressed caste was raped on 9 September by 12 men in Haryana. Only some members of the oppressed caste/s and communist organizations agitated for justice to be provided to the victim; media largely ignored the incident. The Haryana High Court did not file suo motu case. The state police did not register a complaint till the victim’s father committed suicide. Sonia Gandhi, Bhupinder Hooda (Chief Minister of Haryana), Manmohan Singh, Shinde, etc. never visited the victim.

[3] Sanik Dutta (2013), “Citizens United”, Frontline, 25 January.

[4] The general male chauvinist response is to protect one’s own womenfolk, but to do the same to others. This is precisely why at various venues of the anti-rape protests, many male ‘agitators’ were seen harassing (ogling, touching inappropriately, etc.) women protestors. Following the incident of gang-rape in the capital, various groups mushroomed at protest venues demanding death penalty for rape. Not to say the least, their participants were misogynist—a fact reflected in the nature of their slogans against rape. To give an example, up till recently there was a dubious group of people sitting at Jantar Mantar (wearing black bands and black stickers that carry slogans of death penalty). This group had placed a memorial stone called ‘Damini’ (a fictitious name given by the media to the 16 December gang-rape victim) at this prominent place of protest. They sat around this without any concrete demands in hand. They claimed they were instigating a ‘kranti’/revolution against rape, and would not move till the accused were hanged. Even the recent rape of a woman factory worker in Welcome area of northeast Delhi by a rapist whose own daughter was raped earlier (19 December 2012, Times Of India) points to the hypocrisy with which male chauvinism functions. Even a rapist can fight against rape, and so the fight against rape is itself not struggle for the liberation for women.

[5] Many a times the victim/s in villages is/are forced to keep her/their mouth shut by her family or village ‘elders’. The police do not register the crime under the influence of the accused party or panchayat, and doctors at times manipulate the medical reports. Instances of rapes in rural India which indicate the prevalence of rampant sexual violence include: Bhanwari Devi in 1992, was raped by upper caste men in a village called Bhateri in Rajasthan; Phoolan Devi was raped in 1979 in a village called Behmai in Madhya Pradesh by upper caste men; two Dalit women (a mother and daughter) were gang-raped in Khairlanji village (Maharashtra) in 2006, and almost their whole family was lynched to death by members of the dominant OBC caste, Kunbi. The outcome of all these cases shows clear presence of police-judiciary connivance, and hence, complete miscarriage of justice.

[6] I refer to patriarchy not as a ‘system’ which exists parallel to the given socio-economic system that envelops us, but rather, I equate it with sexism. For me, sexism or patriarchy is a historically evolved behaviour pattern which differs from era to era, and thus, patriarchy in capitalism is distinct from that which existed during feudalism or slavery. There are also other equally engaging interventions in the ensuing debate on rape, which have delved quite closely on the question of short-term and long-term strategy required for fighting the growing oppression of women in our society. Critiquing the ensemble of demands that erupted from protest venues, some of these interventions have posited the need for impossible demands which, by their very nature, are expected to smash the entrenched conditions that foster gender inequality. It goes without saying that we cannot merely raise slogans that bolster the legitimacy of the bourgeois state, but surely, there can be a Leninist way of raising the ‘intermediate demands’, i.e. demands that have some immediate resonance with the people’s aspirations, and at the same time, pose a challenge to the state. In the process of rallying around these ‘intermediate demands’ we may organize ourselves, strengthen our cadre base, raise the aspirations of the masses and build a lasting influence amongst them, etc. so that when we are ready, we pose the (im)possible demands before the state. Unless we proceed in this way, we are faced with the two-fold danger of either, left wing deviation (a situation in which we are raising slogans that are completely out of sync with the masses, and hence, leading to our isolation), or a right wing deviation (a situation in which by merely raising popular slogans, we fall prey to petty-bourgeois slogans, lose our critical tinge, as well as our independent proletarian will and action).

[7] See, Kavita Krishnan (2013), “Patriarchy, Women’s Freedom and Capitalism”, www.kafila.org, 25 January, accessed on 3 February 2013.

[8] Kavita Krishnan (2012), “Some Reflections on Sexual Violence and the Struggle Against It”, www.sanhati.org, accessed on 26 December 2012.

[9] Shuddhabrato Sengupta (2012), “To the Young Women and Men of Delhi: Thinking about Rape from India Gate”, December 23, www.kafila.org, accessed on 30 December 2012.

[10] Reports from the National Family Household Survey, which arguably provide a more accurate picture of the actual rate of violence than the reported data calculated by India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), confirm that city-dwelling women are more likely to face sexual violence/abuse than women living in villages.

[11] Devika Narayan (2012-13), “Some Thoughts on Rape, Sexual Violence and Protest: Responding to Responses”, Critique, vol. 2 (2): 39-40.

[12] Now with the spread of cities into what we would call the ‘suburbs’, many villages bordering large cities have seen a spate of rapes conducted on highways, etc.—a fact which reflects that easy targets are also being sought in the peripheries of cities. Incidents of village women or women factory workers being pulled into cars, empty warehouses or waylaid on such highways are now very common, which goes to show that just as in the city proper, even bordering villages are witnessing rapes that don’t necessarily fit the paradigm of power rapes because of the nature of perpetrators and because the rapists sought to exploit the vulnerability of the victim rather than teach her a lesson. The main point is that people circulating to and fro from urban to rural areas is leading to the gradual spread of the urban pattern of rapes to the rural milieu.

[13] Some right-wing bigwigs have argued that rape is an urban and modern phenomenon, fuelled by the anonymity somewhere offered by the city. The statement of RSS supremo, Mohan Bhagwat on 4 January 2013, who was addressing a group in Silchar, further complicated the issue by claiming that rape is a phenomenon which ‘takes place in India, not in Bharat’. For Bhagwat’s discourse, India is the substitute for urban areas, and Bharat stands for rural India. For him, it is the ‘Western’ lifestyle adopted by people in urban areas which is leading to an increase in the crime against women. In his address, he stated: “You go to villages and forests of the country and there will be no such incidents of gang-rape or sex crimes”. He further implied that while urban areas are influenced by Western culture, the rural areas are nurturing Indian ethos and glorious Indian traditions. For him, ancient Indian traditions gave great respect to women, and it is due to these values of Indian tradition that the country’s villages are free from crimes against women. Needless to say, India’s ancient traditions are glorified by people like him without going into the core of social relationships. In this light, it is essential to understand the past in the context of its the social milieu, the system of production, the level of education etc. The blind glorification of the past leads to conclusions that are off the mark. It is a fact that during the long span of India’s ancient past, the status of women kept changing. Nevertheless, women as subordinate beings was the running theme. We also know for a fact that Indian villages have seen brutal sexual assaults on women.

[14] Susan Brownmiller (1993), Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Ballantine Books).

[15] See, Lee Ellis (1989), Theories of Rape: Inquiries into the Causes of Sexual Aggression (New York: Hemisphere): 10.

[16] See, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer (2001), A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (Cambridge: The MIT Press).

[17] The undeniable problem with the theory of ‘natural history of rape’ is the fact that it is based on many unsubstantiated views, such as rapist men differ genetically from men who do not rape, and that sexually aggressive (rapist) men are more capable of impregnating women than men who do not force themselves on women.

[18] This ahistorical approach to gender inequality is something which informs the views of several renowned feminists. For example, Simone de Beauvoir is known to have argued that women “have no past, no history” (cited by Lerner (1986), Creation of Patriarchy, New York: Oxford University Press: 22). In similar terms, Andrea Dworkin in an interview, stated: “I think that the situation of women is basically ahistorical.” (See, E. Wilson (1982), “Interview with Andrea Dworkin”, Feminist Review, vol. 11: 27).

[19] Christine Helliwell (2000), “It’s only a Penis”: Rape, Feminism, and Difference,” Signs, vol. 25 (3): 789-816; Peggy Reeves Sanday (1981), “The Socio-Cultural Context of Rape: A Cross Cultural Study,” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 37 (4): 5-27. Christine Helliwell and Peggy Sanday have successfully demonstrated that certain contemporaneous communities like the Gerai of Dayak communities (Indonesia) and Minangkabua, are rape-free.

[20] Friedrich Engels (1973), The Origin of Family, Private Property and State (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

[21] The existence of small band formations within which sexual activity took place led to the development of a relatively small genotype, and hence, the reproduction of very similar featured progeny. In addition, the nature of hunting-gathering subsistence was such that individual traits and capabilities were much too entwined with the human collective so as to socially distinguish one individual from another. Hence, variable factors leading to differential preference for pair-bonding, such as status, individual physical traits and capabilities, etc. were not so prevalent.

[22] Just like the male form of the human race, the female has developed certain muscle memory and sensitivity to touch in the pre-natal stage, i.e. during the nine months of existence in the amniotic sac of the mother’s uterus. Protected and fondled by the warm and thick amniotic fluid of the womb, the human specie has inculcated a sensitivity to touch with some body parts developing a more heightened sense of touch, i.e. the erogenous zones which include the genitalia, mammary glands, ear lobes, etc. Engrained with this sense of touch which soothes the nerves, muscles and sensory ends/organs, the human specie seeks to replicate what it has learnt from the pre-natal stage. In this regard, sex amounts to an advanced form of touching and sensation to which the human specie has been conditioned during a long pre-natal stage. Indeed, just as singing is a complex form of speech, sex can be seen as a complex form of human touching. Of course, the consequences and intentionality involved in sexual interaction are determined by the form of the relationship shared between the two individuals. Hence, sex is not simply physiological, but highly mediated and transformed by the social milieu in which humans find themselves. In class stratified societies, our cultural and personal meanings associated with individuals, objects and situations greatly influence our sexual desires.

[23] See Radhika Singha (2000), “Settle, Mobilize, Verify: Identification Practices in Colonial India”, http://www.oslo2000.uio.no/program/papers/s4/s4-singha.pdf, accessed on 12 April 2013.

[24] See Radhika Singha (1998), A Despotism of Law (New Delhi: OxfordUniversity Press).

[25] The transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist structuring of Indian society and economy was both restrained as well as facilitated by the colonial state, which marked the survival, re-creation and reproduction of older social forms. Further development of this point is, however, beyond the scope of this paper.

[26] Radhika Singha (2000), “Settle, Mobilize, Verify: Identification Practice in Colonial India”.

[27] See Prem Chowdhry (2007a), Contentious Marriages, Eloping Couples: Gender, Caste and Patriarchy in Northern India (New Delhi: OxfordUniversity Press).

[28] By depressing the family wage of the working class (i.e. wages earned by the breadwinner of the family), and by pushing women out of jobs once they gave birth, the work of child bearing and rearing were established as tasks which were to be ‘done for free’, i.e. which had no role in sustaining the economy, and hence, for which the capitalist was to bear no cost.

[29] In India, for example, the tendency of young women to marry even before the completion of their higher education is significantly noticeable. Those who do manage to attain a certain level of education are often given no opportunity to pick up jobs before they enter marital relations. This reflects the fact that women are often made to forfeit education and career interests for the sake of ‘suitable’ marriage offers. Many, of course, are unable to return to their studies, etc. after tying the knot.

[30] In urban contexts, the provisions of the criminal justice system (pertaining to abduction, etc.) are often misused by the families of couples who have gone for choice marriages. The procedures of the court and the connivance of the local police with the family have allowed many male ‘guardians’ to exhaust such couples in months and sometimes years of litigation. On the other hand, informed by a class bias, the local police have also been seen circumventing procedures of the criminal justice system to the extent that they have often refused to file missing person reports of working class girls who have gone missing, or have declined to file FIRs of abduction when these girls’ families name suspects. Clearly, when it comes to women of poorer sections of society, the police generally assumes that they have left their homes willingly—a practice which allows them to waste crucial time in locating these missing girls and ascertaining, under section 164 of the CrPc, whether they wilfully left their homes.

[31] Catherine MacKinnon is a highly cited and influential legal scholar. See, Fred R. Shapiro (1996), “The Most Cited Law Review Article Revisited”, Chicago-Kent Law Review, vol. 71. Also see, Catherine Mackinnon (1987), Feminism Unmodified (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press). Interestingly, hers as well as the views of Dworkin, etc. spread across other parts of the world through networks of global NGOs and funding agencies which were part of international level campaigns on women’s rights.

[32] Surprisingly, even progressive intellectuals who were, obviously, moved by the emotional and tense atmosphere emerging post the 16 December gang-rape case, slipped into demanding greater severity of punishment, albeit not in the mould of death penalty and castration. For example, a prominent progressive blogger, Shuddhabrato Sengupta floated the idea of life-long solitary confinement for the rapists. Op. cit., endnote 9.

[33] I use the term bad sex in lieu of any better concept which can be used to explain the lack of mutuality, care, and fulfilment in many sexual encounters. The concept of bad sex hence refers to sexual encounters where someone’s pleasure is another’s pain, discomfort and displeasure.

[34] It is to be noted that in direct opposition to such liberal feminist views, others have argued that prostitution (in cases where consent exists and even in cases where it doesn’t) is sexual violence in itself, and amounts to paid rape as the money given only appeases the men’s guilt. For elucidation see, Trisha Baptie (2009), “”Sex worker” ? Never met one !,” http://sisyphe.org/spip.php?article3290, 26 April, accessed on 28 March 2013.

[35] By loss of autonomy I do not mean individual choice in conflict with other individuals and social interests. For me, both the self and the autonomy that self seems to enjoy are conditioned upon the relations where it is vested. Self is never alone and it can only come on its own by continuously engaging with other human beings. What in real terms the loss of autonomy of sexual choice means is the breakdown of the psychic connection between pleasure, desire, motivation and action. So the real question is not to restore autonomy in la liberal way, but to re-create different form of (social) relations.

[36] See, Appeal to All Concerned with Violence Against Women and Demand Charter (2012), released by Maya John on behalf of Centre for Struggling Women (CSW) and supported by many other organizations, 26 December, www.sanhati.org. Also see press release released by CSW and Nurses Welfare Association, “Nurses and women’s groups demand safety audit of workplaces”, The Hindu, 22 January 2013. Here, the demand for necessary amendments to laws and state regulation in order to create safe workplaces has been discussed in the context of varied concerns of working women. Amongst one of the suggestions pressed forth by nurses as working women is the conducting of regular safety audits of all workplaces by the state.

[37] Kavita Krishnan recently articulated such a position in her 25 January 2013 article, where she said: “…capitalist exploitation of women involves much more than just ‘denuding’ women. It exploits women by profiting from their unpaid labour in the home; by paying them less than men for the same work at the job – and it is able to do all of this because of women’s unfreedom as imposed by patriarchy [emphasis added].” The statement clearly assumes that capitalism is a system which functions in the manner it does because of the prevalence of another system, namely, patriarchy. By this logic, it is patriarchy as a separate system in itself which makes capitalism patriarchal, and not the inner logic of capitalist exploitation which breeds patriarchal functioning of society.

[38] Rejecting the primacy of class, as well as the radical feminists’ attempts to install gender in the same position of categorical privilege, some feminists have propounded the theory of ‘intersectionality’ (of class, gender, caste, race, sexuality and nationality). This is, in fact, a very common route of escape for many feminists when articulations of class, race and many other social positions confront feminist categories of analysis. The problem with the argument of intersectionality is that it works with nothing less than a pluralism of identities. This pluralism ensures a never ending list of identities to be distinguished and accounted for. What is lost in this analysis is, of course, the ontology of social positioning. In other words, the hierarchy prevalent in social positions and the objective interest involved is completely overlooked as constitutive of the social reality. In reality, certain positions and identities are subsumed into others, even though they may not appear to be subsumable, or do not appear to have been subsumed. This is not to argue that everything can be reduced to class and is about class, but to show (as is clearly reflected in the conditions surrounding us) that other experiences, identities, social phenomenon, etc. exist in relation to class/are in negotiation with class for their articulation. One is aware of Laclau’s and Mouffe’s critique of the notion of “objective interests”. See Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards A Radical Democratic Politics, p. 76-77. However a convincing defence has been provided by E.M. Wood in “The Autonomization of Ideology and Politics”, The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism.

[39] For a fuller critique of this view, see Craig, T. Palmer (1988), “Twelve Reasons Why Rape is Not Sexually Motivated: A Skeptical Examination”, The Journal of Sex Research, vol. 25 (4): 512-30.

[40] Chafetz, Janet Saltzman (1990), Gender Equity: An Integrated Theory of Stability and Change (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications).

[41] See ‘National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), a 2010 survey by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in USA. It was reported that in America, rape was more common than smoking. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_report2010-a.pdf

[42] See, Freund, K., H. Scher and S.J. Hucker (1983), “The Courtship Disorders”, Archives of Sexual Behavior  vol. 12: 769‑779; Michael T. Dreznick (2003),  “Heterosocial Competence of Rapists and Child Molesters: A Meta-analysis”, Journal of Sex Research, vol. 40 (2): 170-08; Marshall, W. L. and Eccles, A. (1991), “Issues in Clinical Practice with Sex Offenders”, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, vol. 6: 79–79.

[43] Praveen Swami (2013), “The Rapist in the Mirror”, The Hindu, lead article, 11 January. Sexual violence by men is not just unleashed on women but also on children. As a consequence, men also rape boys. In 2007, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India surveyed 12,477 children to learn of their experience of abuse. Of these, 68.99 per cent children, over half of them boys, reported that were victims of physical violence. One in 12 children, a majority being boys, reported that were suffering under sexual violence. It is, indeed, a staggering fact that half of our Indian population has encountered abuse before becoming adults.

[44] Op. cit., endnote 9

[45]  It is necessary to account for rapes that occur on a day to day basis, and thus, constitute what the average or lay people experience as rape. As argued above, these constitute the majority of rapes in our society, and have a definitive sexual content because the average perpetrator of this assault is looking for sexual gratification. But what of rapes which can be easily identified as ‘power rapes’, i.e. rapes which occur in the context of military conquests, forceful occupation, insurgency, counter-insurgency, civil war, racial/casteist backlash, etc.? The first point to note here is that within such contexts, rape is occurring in conditions which are unlike the average conditions prevailing in society, and hence, these rapes constitute only a particular component of total rapes in our society. More importantly, even in such cases, rape is about sex because it is an act which is not merely an expression of hostility and revenge, but is also a product of the extreme vulnerability of the captive/politically and socially subjugated women, as well as of the impunities offered to men during war/conflict.

[46] By failing to present a cultural critique of capitalism and its influence on human behavior, the Left has allowed the space for right-wing forces to consolidate support amongst the masses. The right-wing discourse on ‘westernization’, ‘consumerism’, etc., which is based on a reified notion of modern culture that is detached from prevailing class stratification in society, has successfully touched a raw nerve amongst the majority who are otherwise disoriented by socio-economic inequality and by the hedonism of the rich. In reality, this (oppressed) majority which is easily influenced by the right-wing, stands in opposition to the (protesting) middle class which is influenced by certain feminist views. The challenge for the Left is that it must present a critique of the cultural, sexual and social impact of capitalism so as to, on the one hand, wean away the majority from the clutches of the right-wing, and on the other, prevent the consolidation of feminist politics within the middle class.

[47] Amongst these so-called Left organizations are the “new” socialists who have recently resolved to “change the language of Left”. See the leaflet released by New Socialist Initiative on the occasion of their Founding Conference, 22-24 February, 2013. It is precisely in tune with such visions of (class-eliding, eclectic) politics that some have been recently propagating a “new” (pub)socialism, whereby, pubs are sought to be made affordable for poor people, who can use the space, now and then, to stop feeling poor all the time. See, Amrapali Basumatary (2013), ‘Come Frolic with Me in the Streets of Delhi’, www.kafila.org, 5 January, accessed on 3 February 2013. The piece was republished in ‘Critique’, March 2013 which was released by New Socialist Initiative (NSI) Delhi University. Amrapali Basumatary suggested that massively subsidized pubs to which all classes will have access, can be a truly emancipatory project as it will allow the poor to let down their hair “once in a while without feeling poor”. Her argument was based on eliding, altogether, the issue of class divisions and resulting equalities. To this effect, note her assertion that, “freedom cannot be and is not limited to the issue of ‘national shame/pride’ or class” (emphasis added). Clearly, it is assumed here that by uniting all classes on the issue of fighting the taboo associated with drinking, the sharp contradictions in their interests will resolve themselves and lead to a better life for all. In other words, poor men and women can then stop feeling denied and agitated about their social, sexual and economic inequalities vis-à-vis the upper classes; leading, presumably to less barbaric desires to assault women who enjoy a better lifestyle (!)

[48] Certain writers who have been closely observing the feminist movement have come with certain terms, which according to them encapsulate some of the worrying trends in feminism. See, Melody Hoffman (2010), “Teaching with Feminist Contradictions: The Debate of Dress in Theory and Practice”, http://www.academia.edu/632987/Teaching with_Feminist_Contradictions_The_Debate_of_Dress_in_Theory_and_Practice, accessed on 29 January 2013. Hoffman coins the terms “girlie” feminists for those who resort explicitly to hyper-feminine dressing and behavior as an expression of ‘feminist’ action. Also see Ariel Levy (2005), Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and Launch of Raunch Culture (New York: Free Press). Levy has coined terms like “female chauvinists” and “raunch” culture to explain the growing trend of ‘power’ feminism.

[49]  Nancy Fraser (2009), “Feminism, Capitalism and The Cunning Of History,” New Left Review, vol. 56: 110.

[50] The feminist movement has been continuously critiqued across the world for such a reading of social reality and its concomitant mobilizations. Much of this criticism has come from marginalized groups of women (Afro-American women, Hispanic women, Dalit women, etc.) or from Marxist organizations that have questioned the predominance of gender as a rallying point. Communists, in particular, point out that the problem with feminism is not that it talks of men-women equality – something which even communists are committed to – but that it particularizes this aspiration which leads to parcelization of society between men and women. See Clara Zetkin (1896), Only in Conjunction With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious, http://www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/1896/10/women.htm. Also see Alexandria Kollantai (1909), The Social Basis of the Woman Question, http://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1909/social-basis.htm

[51] See, Rachel P. Maines (1989), The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria”, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press).

[52] Ariel Levy (2005), Op. Cit., endnote 48

[53] See, Naomi Wolf (1993), Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How to Use It (New York: Random House). Wolf propagates that “enough money buys a woman out of a lot of sex-oppression”, but in actual terms her ‘grow rich’ line simply caters to the needs of upward mobile middle-class women.

[54] See, Sreenanti Banerjee (2013), “Sexual Violence, Consumer Culture and Feminist Politics – Rethinking the Critique of Commodification,” 03 FEBRUARY, www.kafila.org, accessed on 11 March 2013.

[55] See, Sheila Jeffreys (2005), Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West (New York and India: Routledge). Here Jeffreys argues how a cultural imperialism spearheaded by the international beauty industry has imposed harmful practices which are popular amongst wealthy women of developed and developing countries, on non-elite sections of women across the world.

[56] Audre Lorde (2000), “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Women,” in Wendy Komar and Frances Bartkowski, eds., Feminist Theory: A Reader, p. 292.

[57] See, Lynn Phillips (2000), Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and Domination (New York: NYU Press). Many of the young women interviewed during this research revealed that most of their sexual encounters were for men’s sexual pleasure rather than meeting any desire of their own.

[58] How capitalism is influencing our lives, including the most intimate part of it is well documented in Arlie Hochschild (2003), The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feelings (Berkeley: University of California Press). Also see A. Hochschild (2003), The Commercialisation of Intimate Life (Berkeley: University of California Press).

[59] As captured uncensored in many of the slogans which erupted during the anti-rape protests, such as pub jaane ki azaadi (freedom to go to pubs), marji ke kapde pehenne ki ya na pehenne ki azaadi (freedom to wear what one wants or not wear anything), disc jaane ki azaadi (freedom to go to discos), and piney ki bhi azaadi (freedom to drink whenever, wherever).

Comments

  1. NICE ..THANKS

  2. Promila says:

    A serious effort surely. I congratulate the author for
    dealing with such a complicated issue in
    relatively simple language and without using jargons. A long awaited
    intervention. The author did well by sticking to the materialist
    analysis, without succumbing to the temptation of mixing it with
    post-modern terminology. The section on bourgeois law was insightful. It is important to
    go beyond just the content of the law and look at its overall
    structure. So can there really be a feminist jurisprudence?

  3. Sunil Kumar says:

    I would like to thank the author for this wonderful effort. “Historicize everything”,
    should be the first rule of every materialist critique. However, when it comes to rape, we see
    it being treated like an eternal phenomenon. The author did well by convincingly bringing out
    how rape too has a history and that it’s meaning changes from era to era. The author did well
    by bringing out the specificities of urban rapes. I feel that the organized left has not been able so far to tackle the anti-rape movement in Delhi in an effective manner because it lacks a clear perspective on the differences between rapes that happen in a feudal set up and the ones that have been happening in Delhi lately.

  4. Kumari Ritu says:

    A very good article. Dense and polemical. I particularly liked the section in which the author shows how there is no universal women question and that class division means that there is a woman question specific to every class .It seems the organized left has become trapped in a middle class outlook. Good article. Left one with much to introspect about.

  5. Kavita Krishnan has offered a head-on critique of your arguments in her article “Capitalism, Sexual Violence, and Sexism”. What would be your response to her critique?

  6. Tarun Bhartiya says:

    Lovely… One of the first pieces post Nirbhaya which atleast asks questions rather than offering politically correct plaitudes.

  7. Reblogged this on Journal de Salavin.

  8. Your scholarship not withstanding, the conclusion” It is only when gender equality has come to manifest itself through an equality of a larger kind, wherein, distinct classes, castes and races have been obliterated, that the sexual revolution can be set to begin” leaves me disheartened. Will we ever begin ? How about immediate measures like deterrent punishments for all offenders, well lit streets, considerate citizenry,education and emphasis on a culture which helps you see the divinity in a “provocatively dressed” girl….

  9. Hi, I followed the link to your article from http://www.libcom.org and I’m sorry to say this but you sound like a victim-blaming rape-apologist to me. Let me explain why.

    Firstly, your article demonizes all rural and working-class men as rapists and perpetuates the stereotype that men are driven to ‘bad sex’ because middle-class women are frigid and unable to satisfy men’s sexual desires. While your article is opposed to the judicial or legal conception of rape, your article still relies on the distinction between ‘bad’ sex and ‘good’ sex, which implies that some forms of sex are more acceptable than others, while others like prostitution are deviant, but without giving an alternative explanation why this might be so.

    Secondly, you rightly point out that the legal conception of rape involving consent or lack thereof is difficult to determine as rape occurs in a situation where one party is in a dominant position of power over the other. However, your suggestion to downplay the non-physical aspects (such as the emotional impact) of rape to focus purely on ‘physical harm’ to allow the definition of rape to cover ‘prostitutes’ and ‘wives’ assumes precisely that certain classes of women cannot legally and factually be ‘violated’ any more because they have already given their consent to be ‘violated’ at some previous point in time. In doing so, you merely reproduce the inalienable property rights men as a class have over women in the legal definition that you criticize and expose the bourgeoisie class privilege that allows you to determine some women as more ‘rape-able’ than others.

    Lastly, your assertion that Bollywood, Priyanka Chopra and scantily-clad middle-class women are the real cause of the rape of working-class women rather than the rapists themselves seems to me like a misguided attempt at transmuting gendered violence into ‘class violence’ and naturalizing men’s claims to women’s bodies in a way that goes far beyond the legal conception of rape. The historical connection between rape and capitalism is far from established and the attempt to reduce ‘patriarchy’ to yet another facet of capitalism is not any more satisfactory than to elude class differences in the analysis of patriarchy. The point simply is: Rapists are to be blamed for rape and not some nebulous super-structure called ‘capitalism’. The physical and social displacements that result from different stages in the development of a capitalist economy may contribute to the rise in the incidence of rape, but men who take their anger at economic circumstances out on women are hardly heroes engaged in class struggle, but are simply cowards.

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