The predators in our homes: class-based narratives in sexual violence

It’s easy to blame “backward” communities when it comes to rape and assault, though the majority of sexual violence happens in our homes and neighbourhoods.

WrittenBy:Sanjana Pegu
Article image

On July 25, New Zealand became the second country in the world, after the Philippines, to pass legislation that grants paid leave to domestic violence (DV) victims. Back home in India, the after effects of #MeToo have mostly been in the world of academia, with some backlash from prominent feminists. While current discourses on sexual violence against women have been analysed across multiple dimensions and through varied lenses, the dominant narratives fuelled by the media continue to be limited to transgressions against middle- and upper-class women, mostly in big cities.


Support Independent Media

The media must be free and fair, uninfluenced by corporate or state interests. That's why you, the public, need to pay to keep news free.


Rape and sexual assault in poor, working class areas, or in the rural hinterlands, are rarely accorded much column inches or ticker mentions—unless the barbarism is beyond human comprehension. One reason is that they are seen as commonplace in “backward, regressive” communities that aren’t enlightened, unlike their modern, better-off counterparts.

That caste and class blindspots transcend all sections of Indian society is stating an aphorism. But such perspectives have been missing from discussions on #MeToo, which has taken down mostly powerful, privileged men. This is where a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Marketing Management titled “The Precarity of Respectable Consumption: Normalizing Sexual Violence Against Women” by Rohit Varman, Paromita Goswami, and Devi Vijay got me thinking about sexual assault and class aspects. Among its many interesting observations is the false notion held by privileged women that the main perpetrators of sexual violence are unknown to the victim and, not coincidentally, from lower classes.

Separating facts from popular fiction

That this assumption is false and not predicated on actual facts is supported by irrefutable data. As per the 2015 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, in 95.5 per cent of the total 34,651 rape cases, the offenders were known to the victims. In 2012, this figure was an astonishing 98 per cent. As per the 2015 data, 27 per cent of rapes are committed by neighbours, nine per cent by immediate family members and relatives, and 22 per cent by men who promised marriage.

What this data unequivocally proves is that much as women are right to be wary of strange men (the highly problematic cat-calling, leering and groping), the perpetrators of the most violent of sexual acts are men whom we know, and some whom we love and respect.

This is in line with global statistics on sexual violence. In the US, seven out of 10 rapes are committed by someone whom the victim already knows, as per RAINN data. In Australia, in 70 per cent of sexual assaults, the offender is known to the woman while strangers are the perpetrators in less than one per cent of such cases. Similar data can be found in the UK and the European Union.

This is consistent with feminist readings of violence against women and specifically, intimate partner violence (IPV). Global estimates suggest that almost on-third of women who have been in a relationship have experienced IPV. Victims are twice as likely to have an abortion and experience depression and, in some regions, 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV.

In India, research shows that four in 10 Indian women have been victims of DV in their lifetime. A 2005-06 India National Family Health Survey revealed that 40 per cent of women reported having experienced IPV. Another 2014 ICRW survey pegged this number at 52 per cent.

The fear of the unknown predator

Despite the plethora of evidence that proves otherwise, the myth of the working class assailant in a dark alley still prevails. This kind of class-based caricature of sexual offenders has much to do with the inherent class biases of the great Indian middle class. It helps to think of men from lower classes as beastly, uncouth, unintelligent degenerates. With his regressive worldview, resentment towards the modern women, shabby outward appearance, and a sexual virility whose virulence he is unable to control, the image presented is that of a subhuman who is incapable of containing his animalistic, barbaric urges (the Nirbhaya case exemplifies this profile of a rapist). Such sexually deviant behaviour is assumed to inhere in his very nature.

The fear of this working class man has partly to do with the actual lived experiences of women while navigating through public spaces. Women are hyper-aware of the constant, perverted male gaze that cares not for basic decency, the persistent vulnerability, the looming spectre of a probable transgressive act, and the negotiation that must be done to avoid the worst possible instances of everyday misogyny.

However, this doesn’t excuse our discriminating and dismissive attitudes towards those who are worse-off than us, and demonising them as rapists when chances are that the actual ones are waiting for us in our homes. Women can be equally guilty of class blinkers, especially those who see themselves as the manifestation of the modern, empowered Indian woman.

Defending the honour of the known assaulter

This kind of unwarranted belief makes sense when we consider the patriarchal order in our society that prioritises family (read, male) honour over a woman’s dignity and agency. Transgressions by strangers can be acknowledged, more so in cases where the stranger fits the stereotypical working-class profile. But when those crimes and misdemeanours occur within the respectable environs of the family and workplace, the onus is on the woman to preserve the hegemony of this male-centric order. Socialised to protect the inviolable reputations of these “honourable” men, women continue to suffer quietly, while referring to such assaults in a discreet, oblique manner with their girlfriends. The shame and fear of being disbelieved makes it difficult for them to identify as victims. Many remain in self-denial for most of their lives.

Family members and relatives (read, enablers) rarely accord much help. Saving the marriage, safeguarding the family’s reputation, protecting the children from a potential divorce—these are some of the many justifications given to encourage silence, tolerance and reconciliation on the woman’s part. The dignity and autonomy of the woman is considered to be fair game in this fight to uphold the sanctity of that which has already been befouled. In this melee, the abuser gets acquitted with a light slap on the wrist, and the cycle of violence continues.

Crimes care not for the perpetrator, and it is time women start thinking on those same lines. Non-consensual sex doesn’t become less “rapey” with your partner, and a relative groping you is no less of an offence than when a stranger does it in a crowded bus. While it is necessary to remain vigilant in public spaces, accusing those from lower socio-economic backgrounds as the primary threats to our safety is not grounded in facts or actual experiences. #MeToo has shaken up the boardrooms, it now needs to clean out the predators in our bedrooms as well.


Power NL-TNM Election Fund

General elections are around the corner, and Newslaundry and The News Minute have ambitious plans together to focus on the issues that really matter to the voter. From political funding to battleground states, media coverage to 10 years of Modi, choose a project you would like to support and power our journalism.

Ground reportage is central to public interest journalism. Only readers like you can make it possible. Will you?

Support now


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like