Women

Cancel Culture vs Rape Culture, and the Case for Repairing Harm

To tackle rape culture behaviours – especially when committed by those known to us – we need forms of justice that centre the victim’s healing. 

After the Harvey Weinstein investigation broke in 2017, I avoided the #MeToo stories for a while. One morning before work, I finally read Asia Argento’s account of her ‘relationship’ with and rape by Weinstein. I read it several times, suddenly nauseous. Then I texted my best friends on our group-chat.

Earlier that year, I had been trying to hold on to a dissolving relationship I hadn’t yet fully understood as abusive. My ex and I lived together. One night I woke up to my pyjamas being pulled off for what I described the next morning on the group-chat as ‘weird sex’. I added how empty I felt. Like I could have been anyone. A stranger. Or a thing. 

My friends confirmed that no, it didn’t sound consensual. That they’d been horrified at my account but were afraid to say so, given my fragile state. Their first priority was to get me out. A month ago, reading for this essay, I first described what happened to me as ‘rape’. 

I couldn’t just walk into a police station, two years after the incident, to report him. Even if I were taken seriously, I don’t believe his abusive tendencies would be reformed by jail, which only dehumanises people and increases their likelihood of committing violence.

What might actually have served me?

Perhaps his acknowledgement of the violation, followed by him taking full responsibility and committing to a form of reparation. 

Perhaps a meeting, including members of his family and our social circle, who would hold him and themselves accountable in the future instead of enabling and obscuring abusive behaviour, including smaller habits that lead to increasingly serious kinds of violence.

Some form of therapy and gender training for him. 

Crucially, some restitution to sponsor about six months of therapy for me. 

That would come closer to justice – which is not to say it would make things okay. The consequences of being abused and assaulted persist for me. I will never forgive this man. But if he could take responsibility for what he did, and for ensuring it never happened again, I would want that.

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There is a script we are handed as children: Rape is something Evil Men do to you. Here are the other lines of the mythical script: 

  • Sexual assault always involves violent physical struggle. 
  • No means no…so if you don’t say no, that means yes. 
  • If you comply, without threat to your life or intoxication, it means you consent. 
  • After a sexual assault, women immediately tell their family and make noise about it. 
  • After a sexual assault, women never have ties with the offender again. 

In the prevailing public narrative, we are sold the figure of a rapist who is an evil, usually poor, stranger. This figure is not only casteist and classist, it is wrong.

According to National Crime Records Bureau data from 2015, 95% of offenders in reported rape cases are known to the victim.

Beyond ‘cancel’ culture

Consider the #MeTooIndia excel sheet. The range of offenses and men called out have definitively busted the myth of the exceptional ‘rapist’. Still, it persists in our public conversation.

#MeToo made it easier for survivors to see through that narrative, share their stories and get support. The combination of social media platforms and public solidarity has enabled us to name, and shift the burden of shame back onto the offender. But #MeToo stumbles because instead of leading to reflection, it often ends at ‘canceling’ offenders, demanding that they “disappear forever”.

Also read | Backstory: #MeToo Is About an Individual’s Rights but Is Far Larger Than a Single Person

A year after #MeTooIndia , here are a few questions we’re left with:

How long and to what extent are offenders and those who enabled them ‘cancelled’? 

How do we transform workplace cultures, as opposed to just firing offenders? 

What does accountability mean, if it does not include survivors having their hurt meaningfully addressed, and amends made? 

How do we deal with the reality that cancel-culture, legal recourse and therapy are still largely reserved for the elite? 

The truth is we need to tackle rape culture behaviours committed by those intimately familiar to us, and even ourselves. 

Beyond carceral feminism 

Instead, we are still turning to an old belief – one that targets the already-marginalised and protects the powerful – that basically locking people up and throwing away the key will protect us. It underlies cathartic protest placards calling to ‘hang the rapists’. 

Carceral feminism is the idea that the solution to sexual violence is harsher sentences, like longer jail terms or the death penalty. But in real life, where we don’t report sexual assaults committed by those familiar to us — or where we report and are rewarded with more trauma – carceral feminism is not keeping us safer. 

The prison system has proven to be ineffective in offering a longterm solution. Photo: JoshuaDavisPhotography/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In real life, the penal system fails us – especially Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi communities, who are both targeted for sexual violence and for incarceration. From the difficult in registering FIRs, court cases that drag on for years, a dehumanising prison system that increases chances of recidivism, the system is broken. 

Also read | One in Every Three Under-Trial Prisoners in India Is Either SC or ST: Study

In our criminal justice system, crime in general is imagined as an offence against the State – which is addressed by the State punishing the criminal. Survivors lose control over their narrative, as well as the right to articulate what ‘justice’ might look like for them. 

Maybe it is time to speak up about alternatives. 

Justice as repairing harm

A victim might not want a jail term for an offender. She might desire an outcome that could range from apology to financial restitution, coupled with a sentence for the offender that could be community service or therapy.

This does not mean victims must forgive those who have harmed them. It’s also not about prioritising offenders’ futures, in the way that courts have historically exonerated men

It is about viewing assault as harm done to an individual by an offender — both of whom exist in a community – and asking how to repair the harm, and best reintegrate the victim and the offender into the community. 

This kind of process is described as restorative justice. Restorative processes involve those harmed by the offence in figuring out how to repair the harm. The aim is to hold the offender accountable in a meaningful way, and prevent reoffence and sexual violence in the long term. 

A crucial aspect of restorative justice is reintegration. For victims, this involves therapy and support to address the effects of trauma. For offenders too, successful reintegration (including counselling) cannot be overlooked if we aim for long-term reduction in crime. 

What might ‘justice’ look like if offenders known to us accept their offence instead of reacting with character assassination, denial or defamation cases? What role might friends and intimate circles play that would be constructive instead of ‘business as usual’? 

Therapy and support go a long way in helping the survivor overcome their trauma. Photo: nicdalic/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In centering the voices of survivors and articulating harm and repair, it takes the conversation several paces forward from where we appear to be stuck today.

Children as victims and offenders

Few things elicit as visceral a reaction as sexual violence against children. A few cases occupy national attention, as did the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Kathua in 2018. But similar to general trends in sexual assault, child sexual abuse is usually committed by those known to victims – sometimes the only earning member of the family.

If the offender is arrested, a lot of grief and anger is unleashed on the child. 

“Children have said that if I’d known this is what would happen, I’d never have reported it,” said Nimisha Srivastava, program director at the Counsel to Secure Justice (CSJ) in New Delhi. She turned to restorative justice after seeing too many cases which fell outside easy answers – especially those where the offender is also a minor. 

In India, restorative justice is gaining ground through organisations like CSJ working with children in conflict with the law. The juvenile justice system is a fruitful area, as it involves children not conceived of simply as criminals— yet.

When offenders who are minors are put into Observation Homes, they in particular need counselling and a strong process for reintegration into families and society after their release, if we want to prevent reoffence.

The Enfold Trust in Bengaluru works to bring restorative practices into child-care and educational settings. Swagata Raha, a consultant on legal affairs at Enfold, notes three potential entry-points to seeking restorative responses to sexual assault. 

(1) When the victim does not want to go through the criminal justice system, restorative justice can be an alternative. In Australia, SECASA does exactly this.

(2) If the offender is not sentenced, and is also willing to engage in a restorative process.

(3) After the offender has been sentenced, as part of the sentence. 

When sexual harassment occurs at the workplace or in universities, the space for restorative justice is especially apparent. Given a truly restorative internal complaints committee (ICC) survivors might come away with more than just the exhaustion of providing credible testimony?

Also read: Unnao Marks Yet Another Milestone in the Steady Decay of Law and Order in UP

According to V. Geetha, a feminist scholar and activist, Gender Sensitization Committees against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) at universities were meant to be restorative in nature. 

“Having been on committees myself, I know that our first impulse is to listen and arrange for conversations – not between victim and offender necessarily, but with say families even,” she said. “That helps place matters in a context that is not defined by the single and purported act of crime alone.”

Transformative justice and grassroots approaches

In case of especially vulnerable communities, it may be a stretch to expect restorative processes to be fairly incorporated in the justice system, Geetha said. But she recalls that, in the initial years of the women’s movement, case-work on violence against women often provided a space for the woman to speak. This culture of listening must underlie any restorative attempt, Geetha says. 

Women must be provided the space and opportunity to speak. Photo: Carla de Souza Campos/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Can it happen in and through civil groups?” she wondered. “Elected panchayats or some sort of citizen’s committee, informed by the notion of crime as socially determined?”

In Dalit and Bahujan communities, fighting for justice is a special ordeal: fact-finding, pushing for basic compensation, mobilising the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act if the police can even be convinced to put it in the FIR, then court if they can find a willing lawyer… or else ‘compromise’. If there is no food in your home and someone offers a lakh for your silence, how much choice do you really have?

Human rights defenders themselves are subjected to violence and intimidation, including by officials. Amid this turmoil, Asha Kowtal, the general secretary of All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM) has recently found herself beset by a nagging thought: This is not it, this cannot be it. 

Also read | The 2012 Delhi Gang Rape: Justice Does Not Stop at the Death Penalty

Increasingly, AIDMAM’s work on caste atrocity, sexual violence and access to justice for DBA women has gone beyond police stations and courts. It has focused also on survivors’ needs post-assault – nutrition, mental health, social support. 

They consistently call survivors on the phone or stay in touch with female family members. “We ask things like tumko kya karna hai? [What do you want to do?],” Kowtal says. “Some need clothes to be able to attend college. Some need medical care. Some just want to talk.”

Stepping back, this resembles the transformative justice approaches advanced by collectives like INCITE! in the United States. Transformative justice marries macro-analysis of the criminal-justice system (which in the US is primarily used to incarcerate men from minorities) to the private, interpersonal work of restorative justice. 

In India, it’s been one year since The Prison Project began to propel similar conversations around detention, prison, and carceral justice, and the damage it can do even to victims whom it is meant to be serving.  

What next?

“Criminalising social acts that are deplorable can render discussion about them impossible,” V. Geetha said. “And if the law does not deliver – as it usually does not – you are left with literally nothing.”

We need to be able to talk about sexual violence as widespread cultural behaviours – committed by ‘our own’ and propped up in our intimate circles in different ways – rather than simply as crimes, with dead-end solutions in the criminal justice system or in social ‘cancelling’. 

To take a step further, we need to stretch our imagination of justice toward the unexpected – toward joy and purpose for survivors. Not some wishy-washy feeling, but the firm ground of community, validation, support and healing. Only focusing on punishing offenders does not ensure survivors will move beyond their trauma. How can justice center survivors, and provide the foundation to healing? This has always needed to be the most important question.

Riddhi Dastidar is a writer and post-graduate student of Gender Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi. She tweets @gaachburi.