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On Rape And Violation
Between 'Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi' and 'I May Destroy You', the idea and implication of rape became both clearer and more contentious.
The first time I was made aware of rape was through television. Perhaps I had known of the concept then, having lurked around the morning newspapers that gave voice to our violent world, but the word ‘rape’, that merely lingered without fixation, now struck. It was an episode on Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, the long running television soap of mother-in-laws, daughter-in-laws, mutating rebirths, and miraculous face lifts.
On the show, it was the festival of Holi, and Krishna Tulsi having consumed the celebratory cannabis drink, bhang, was loose-footed, and then taken to a room, and violated. But since this was popular “family-friendly” television, the camera instead, if I remember the details correctly, lingered on a fishbowl, lit a deep, sinister blue, with goldfish racing around, while the violent act took place on the bed in the blurred background. The word and the act was sinister, violent, and the aftermath was a destroyed woman. That was how, over the years, I had internalized the concept of rape. I don’t remember much of how the show reacted to the rape, but it’s been more than a decade, and that visual of the fishbowl remains.
Later, in college rape was often, if not exclusively, discussed by my circle of friends in terms of the institutional failures in dealing with it, and punishments that should be meted out to rapists. (There were the odd discussions of false rape allegations, which was disturbing because it seemed to those arguing it, that a false rape allegation seemed more threatening and violative than an actual instance of rape. This might be a commonly held idea- in the recently released Zee5 film Nailpolish, when a lawyer is fighting for his client against allegations of child rape he says, “Kisi bhi nirdosh insaan ke pratishta ka katl karna utna hi sangheen jurm hai, jitna kisi ka murder ya khoon karna.” To murder one’s reputation through false allegation is just as serious as murdering someone- the implication being that punishment should meted out just the same.)
Punishment was often a contentious point. People who demanded death or castration became the object of intellectual inquiry, because it sat at odds with a forgiving world we wanted for ourselves. Restorative justice was the world we wanted to work towards, where the violator and violated can sit in the same room, discuss, and heal- a word that is as nebulous, and negotiable as it ideal.
I loved how Martha Nussbaum, the moral philosopher, used Aristotle to explain why revenge is a pointless emotion. I used to bring it up when arguing with those who had vague sympathies for the death penalty, and harsh punishments, apart from the empirics that showed that harsher punishments, like the death penalty, had no impact on the frequency of the crime.
If we think closely about anger, we can begin to see why it is a stupid way to run one’s life… Aristotle says that anger is a response to a significant damage to something or someone one cares about, and a damage that the angry person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted. He adds that although anger is painful, it also contains within itself a hope for payback.
The central puzzle is this: the payback idea does not make sense. Whatever the wrongful act was – a murder, a rape, a betrayal – inflicting pain on the wrongdoer does not help restore the thing that was lost. We think about payback all the time, and it is a deeply human tendency to think that proportionality between punishment and offence somehow makes good the offence. Only it doesn’t.
Let’s say my friend has been raped. I urgently want the offender to be arrested, convicted, and punished. But really, what good will that do? Looking to the future, I might want many things: to restore my friend’s life, to prevent and deter future rapes. But harsh treatment of this particular wrongdoer might or might not achieve the latter goal. It’s an empirical matter. And usually people do not treat it as an empirical matter: they are in the grip of an idea of cosmic fitness that makes them think that blood for blood, pain for pain is the right way to go. The payback idea is deeply human, but fatally flawed as a way of making sense of the world.
Implicit in all this was that rape was often discussed in terms of its violence and its impact- both in deep extremes. Never in terms of what rape as an act actually constituted, which seemed to me pretty straightforward.
Then, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You did something very few things have done under the guise of art- educate, horrify, and force an introspection, while still tethered to entertain. The show, described as a consent-drama on the aftermath of a rape that one wasn’t entirely conscious to, but subconsciously impaled by, certainly wasn’t constructed to be binge-able, and had structural screenplay issues- like the vagrant episode in Italy, or the climactic episode, which privileged closure over catharsis- an unsteady neatness that was at odds with the language of the show i.e. a self-conscious mess. (But I must also note that this isn’t an entirely grim show- it has both birdsong and brutality, the latter of which isn’t designed to make you squirm.)
It was a show that left me with lingering self-doubt. I was introduced to the phrase ‘rape-adjacent’ to describe acts that while in some legal contexts, won’t be considered rape, could be punishable in other legal contexts. Like stealthing- removing a condom before sex, without your sexual partner knowing, when consent was granted only for sex with a condom- which is considered rape in the UK, but not elsewhere.
Or even marital rape for example, which isn’t even considered rape in India. (I guess here marital isn’t as much an adjective describing a type of rape, as much as a modifier, modifying even what rape is and isn’t. Isn’t that sad?)
Right after Michaela Coel’s character Arabella outs a man in the midst of a public function as a rapist for stealthing her, she and her friend are shown seated at a bar, scrolling through their news feeds to see how this confession blew up online, and how they were made into GIFs and hashtags- a moment of celebration by someone who had just, moments earlier, made a full public proclamation of being raped. This shouldn’t have struck me as odd, but it did. It reminded me of the viral tweet when the Aziz Ansari #MeToo allegation came to the fore. Someone wrote about how they had overheard the writers of babe.net, who published the allegation, discussing it over drinks at a brunch, having fun. The author of the tweet thought clearly what most of us felt only vaguely, something articulated by Jia Tolentino in her masterful essay on sexual assault on campus- “For people to believe you deserve justice, you have to be destroyed.” The idea was that if you were indeed a survivor of rape, why aren’t you weeping, with vibrating, angry fists in the air, all the time?
What made me even more aware of my biases, and my assumptions, was that I had refused, until recently, to consider anything that wasn’t entirely destructive as rape. I refused to believe that rape, as a word, could have shades to it. (Anyone who has watched the brilliantly laid out Delhi Crime, or sat through some of the “rape-revenge-dramas” which is, sadly, a genre in Indian cinema, can attest to the blood-curdling reaction to just hearing the word rape that such films engender.)
The shades to rape comes with a more expansive discussion on consent. The moment consent stopped being just about saying “Yes” and “No” clearly before sex, but about it being enthusiastic, and revocable, rape too, as a concept, became clouded, because we often thought of ‘rape’ and ‘consent’ as a legal idea, and legal ideas, by definition have limits.
The idea here was that while the sex was pleasurable, it had taken place under false pretext of safety i.e. a condom. (I can hear detractors saying, “So now rape can be pleasurable, huh?” Again, this requires one to look at life as both a product of how it is lived, and how it is remembered.)
Afterwards I spoke to a few friends about this - that if we open up the definition of rape, and make it more broad, aren’t we in danger of watering down instances of violent rape? There is no definitive answer, but one thing kept popping up- by refusing to call it rape, we are letting behaviour like stealthing get away. (There are proper forums, where men exchange notes on how to stealth, and what to say after, when the partner realizes the condom was removed, to deflect blame. A friend told me of forums discussing the “condom test”, where they push a woman to the point of penetration, at which point they say they don’t have a condom. If the woman is aroused enough to let it go, then she’s a slut and … The implications of such behaviour is terrifying.)
Rape, until I May Destroy You seemed like something you could look at, and hear about and say, “Yes, that’s rape.” I was averse to the muddying of it. For example the recent episode in Bridgerton where Daphne while riding her man, refused to get off of him as he climaxed, knowing fully well he doesn’t want to climax in her, and thus impregnate her (because he doesn't want to be a father), was called rape by some blogs. I am not sure of how to slot this behaviour. It was awful, there’s no question of that. But rape? (Again betraying my visceral inability to grasp something pleasure-giving in-the-moment as rape. And my fear of this leading to such viral clickbait articles that refuse to distinguish between assault and rape.)
What about the implications of this broad definition? In I May Destroy You, Arabella takes help from the same guy she outed as a rapist. That would strike some people as odd, even, perhaps Arabella. Sohaila Abdulali in her wonderful collection of essays What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, writes "The fact that you have confused feelings about the person who hurt you doesn't make you guilty, it makes you human."
In a survivor’s support group in I May Destroy You, a woman explains how a man, Bob, had looked at her like she was crazy when she confronted him to stop doing an unspecified thing he was doing, saying he won’t talk to her again because it is safer. Michaela Coel who plays Arabella, also present at the support group, interjects at this point:
Well, Bob probably does think you’re crazy. He thinks this is all a little uncalled for, and this ‘personal space’ thing is all going a bit too far. And he’s very confident in his view because he’s gone exploring to see for himself what ‘boundaries’ and ‘violations’ these women might be banging on about because Bob’s thorough. On these explorations, Bob found the line that separated him from everything else. Well within crossing it, he tiptoed on it, and he experienced this feeling of being on the boundary, on the border, right on the line of being neither in one place nor another, and so how in this grey area where nothing was quite clear, no one could be clear.
We can’t articulate, we fuddle our words, we couldn’t pinpoint exactly what he did that we felt was so wrong. So yeah Bob thinks you’re crazy, that he’s the smartest man in the room, who knoweth all the things, because Bob has observed the detail. We have to start observing Bob, telling him, “We do see the detail. We see you, Bob. And if we see you, that means we are right there with you, tiptoeing in line right behind you. And in that place, where rules, clarity, law and separation cease to exist, we will show you exactly what we mean by violation.
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