Public harassment of women in India is known as ‘Eve teasing’. I’m using this as a case study to highlight the ‘Western’ media’s divergent constructions of sexual harassment at home and abroad.
In Australia and in Western countries such as the USA, the mainstream media tend to portray sexual violence and gender oppression as a barbaric practice that are culturally entrenched in developing countries. Gender violence is the stuff of others – it is something that members of ‘less civilised’, less enlightened societies do. In comparison, the Western media depict sexual harassment and rape in their own societies as fear-mongering events involving individuals, rather thananindictment of an entire culture. (See my discussion of the sociology of crime reporting in an earlier post.)
Today’s post begins with a case study of Eve teasing in India before moving on to discuss sexual violence on a global scale, including the ‘Slutwalk’ movement. I provide more detail on the USA and Australia to illustrate that gender violence against women is widespread in advanced, liberal democracies, as it is in other parts of the world. As today’s discussion is focused on women, I talk only briefly about sexual violence against men but I will return to this issue in the near future. Here, I will argue that the situation in India is one public expression of broader global patterns of sexual assault.
‘Eve Teasing’ and Sexual Harassment in India
India is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and levels of technology and education are rising rapidly (as reported by UNESCO, p. 19). Despite India’s socio-economic advances, the public harassment of women by men is pervasive. This practice is apparently so routine that it has a special name: ‘Eve teasing‘.
The BBC reports that two young men recently died in Mumbai trying to defend their friends from Eve Teasing. Only now is the law adopting a ‘zero tolerance approach’ to the problem. The death of these men is a very sad loss for these men’s families and their communities which cannot be understated. The tragedy is compounded given that it should not have happened in the first place if social policies and law enforcement had been more proactive.
The Delhi Government’s Department of Women and Child Development already had compelling data that Indian women faced daily sexual harassment, as it had commissioned the UN and other non-government organisations to carry out a study on this topic in 2010. Last year, the BBC reported that the findings from this study ‘confirm what the people of Delhi have known for a long time – that the city is unsafe for women’.
A ‘Slutwalk’ protest (also known as Besharmi Morcha) was held in Delhi at the end of July this year to highlight the daily violence and abuse that Indian women experience. Slutwalk protests began in April, in Toronto Canada. They were in response to the sexist comments that a police constable made to a group of students at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School during a health safety seminar in late January. The constable said to the students:
You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here… I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised. (Via The Guardian).
These remarks sparked a series of protests in various cities around the world. The Slutwalk Toronto website mobilised the global action. The organising group explained in late February:
We are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming; of being judged by our sexuality and feeling unsafe as a result. Being in charge of our sexual lives should not mean that we are opening ourselves to an expectation of violence, regardless if we participate in sex for pleasure or work. No one should equate enjoying sex with attracting sexual assault.
The Slutwalk movement is not without its controversies, especially in Delhi (see the suggested readings below). Nevertheless, the idea behind this social movement goes to the heart of Eve teasing and its hidden sociological causes. Sexual harassment betrays a simmering culture of sexual violence. Whether it is in the form of a careless joke, a sexist comment or a public taunt, sexual harassment perpetuates a sense of fear. Public harassment requires urgent social intervention because it can be a precursor to escalated violence.
Specifically, there is a connection between public forms of harassment and rape. The BBC reports that the National Crime Records Bureau in India recorded around 22,000 rape cases in 2008, which was 18 percent higher than four years prior. As one of the Slutwalk Delhi protesters told the BBC:
There are a lot of problems for women in Delhi because a lot of women do face sexual harassment and just a couple of weeks ago the chief of police of Delhi said that if a women was out after 0200 she was responsible for what happens to her, and I don’t think that’s the right attitude.
Eve teasing may seem extreme and it may even play into stereotypes that people in advanced nations have about gender violence: that it is something that happens in countries that have a highly traditional gender structure. For example, Australians hear and read stories about rape, torture and imprisonment of women in other countries, but these travesties of justice evoke pity or indignation for other women in distant lands, rather than reflection about sexual violence everywhere.
The United Nations reports that half a million women were raped during the 1994 Rwandan genocide; 5,000 women are victims of so-called ‘honour killings’ annually; and 140 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation. Women are jailed for speaking out about rape, such as in Afghanistan. Since 1999, over 3,000 women have been attacked with acid in Bangladesh alone, with thousands more cases in other South Asian countries.
These examples are rightful cause for international outrage and political action. The violation of women’s freedom and safety needs to remain in the spotlight as an international human rights issue that requires collective lobbing and support.
At the same time, as the media sensationalises sexual violence and gender oppression in other countries, harassment and abuse seem like something that other people do in other distant places. International data suggests otherwise. Sexual harassment and sexual violence is pervasive all over the world.
Brief Overview of Sexual Harassment Around the World
As I previously reported on Sociology at Work, the United Nations finds that up to 70% of women and girls around the world will be beaten, coerced into sex or abused in their lifetime. The UN also finds that women aged 15 to 44 are more likely to experience rape or domestic violence than they are at risk of developing cancer, being in a traffic accident or contracting malaria – one of the world’s deadliest diseases.
Yesterday, The New York Times reported on an American study which finds that sexual violence is widespread in the USA. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey was conducted by the National Centre for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP). The study surveyed a nationally representative sample of 16,507 adults. It found that around 20 percent of the women reported that they had been raped or that they had experienced an attempted rape. A quarter of the women had also been beaten by an intimate partner, and another 16 percent had been stalked.
In Australia, the latest figures by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) find that there were almost 17,800 victims of sexual assault reported to the police in the year 2000 alone. The overwhelming majority of recorded victims are women (85%) and a quarter of these victims were children aged 10 to 14 years. (To read more on combating child abuse, see my post on Sociology at Work.)
Governments and law enforcement agencies rely on population surveys rather than simply on official statistics in order to gauge a more representative estimation of the number of people who are assaulted. This is because violence and abuse often go unreported via official channels. The ABS reports on the Australian component of the International Violence Against Women Survey. The study was conducted during 2002 and 2003. It included 6,677 women aged between 18 and 69 years. The study found that close to 60 percent of these women had experienced at least one sexual or violent crime. Around a third the women had experienced sexual violence by a former or current partner (34%), a third by close family or friends (27%), and one fifth was attacked by an adult figure during their childhoods (16%), or by a parent (2%). One percent of these women were raped by a stranger. Only 14 percent of the women who experienced violence by an intimate partner reported it to the police and 16 percent of those who experienced violence by a non-partner reported the crime to the police.
Men are also victims of rape, sexual and domestic abuse. The CDCP study finds that one in seven men report experiencing severe violence by an intimate partner and up to two percent report being been raped, predominantly as children aged under 11 years. The ABS data show that 15 percent of sexual assault victims in 2010 were male. Male are less likely to report sexual violence due to added social stigma attached to male rape victims, so official figures underestimate its prevalence. As mentioned, I will tackle this issue separately in a later post. For the time being, I’ll address the simple ways in which the average person can tackle sexual harassment, and how sociologists can progress broader social change.
How Does Sexual Harassment End? How Can Sociology Help?
Clearly, the Delhi data from 2010 and the Slutwalk protest in India earlier this year should have been taken more seriously by the Indian Government. It’s shameful that it has taken the death of two men for officials to take the sexual harassment of Indian women more seriously.
Speaking from Australia, media images and stories such as this makes it seem as if violence against women is a bigger problem in ‘other’, ‘less civilised’ parts of the world. Yes, class and caste inequalities are deeply embedded in Indian society, but class inequality is an issue all over the world. Poverty is not an adequate explanation for sexual harassment. Rape and public assaults on women happen in India’s largest cosmopolitan cities where affluence, technology and education are rising. Public shaming, name calling and harassment may seem to be out of control in India, but Eve teasing is actually indicative of global gender practices. Law enforcement officials and researchers in America, Australia and elsewhere agree that sexual assault and domestic violence crimes are alarmingly high, and yet we know that many of these crimes go unreported.
Sociology can help in the first instance by making the data I’ve discussed part of an ongoing public dialogue about the reality of sexual violence. The main way sexual assault permeates the public’s consciousness is with respect to extreme gender oppression ‘overseas’ (that is, anywhere but ‘here’). In Australia, America and elsewhere, the media regularly depicts rape and sexual harassment as something perpetrated by strangers, but the scientific evidence shows that sexual violence is a familiar part of many people’s lives that goes unrecorded and unacknowledged.
One percent of women who are raped in Australia are attacked by strangers – that means that 99 percent of women who are raped, beaten or abused are assaulted primarily by their partners, family members, friends or by someone they already know. The travesty is that these figures are not getting through to people. Instead, these crimes are silenced – in up to 60 percent of cases, as inferred by the data I discussed. People continue fearing strangers while victims are forced to live with feelings of shame and fear alone.
It is a cliché for sociology to suggest education is the answer, but this is a truism for good reason. I don’t simply mean by focusing on the next generation going to school, although sexual education in schools should most definitely cover sexual violence. I also mean expanding the boundaries of public discussion through information, honesty and compassion. Media images make sexual violence into something exotic: it happens in ‘bad homes’, to ‘other’ women who are too afraid to leave their partners – but it doesn’t happen to men… or so we are led to believe. It happens, ‘somewhere else’ – in other countries, where people are poor and less educated. Now you know this is not true. Yes, sexual violence occurs in developing nations and some of these gender crimes seem especially horrific (rape, genocide, unjust imprisonment, and mutilation). Sexual crimes in Australia may not seem so extreme by comparison but this is not a useful way to think about the problem. To view some forms of gender violence as more or less severe than others does further violence to victims of sexual crimes everywhere. Culturally moralistic comparisons ensure that sexual crimes become normalised, rationalised and accepted.
Sexual violence and harassment are just as common in advanced nations as they are everywhere else. Sexual crimes happen in blossoming economies, like in India, where technology and general levels of education are growing, and it happens in homes all around Australia and all over America. It happens to men. It happens to children, it happens to adults. Individuals and societies need to move away from the way we view, excuse and silence sexual harassment and violence.
Public education on this issue means working with law enforcement officials to support their work with local communities, to help them establish empathy and rapport, so that victims might feel more confident in coming forward. Sociologists can also work to connect community support groups, government agencies, police, schools and workplaces. Applied sociologists are especially adept at facilitating social exchange between different publics and professional bodies. We are in a prime position to shape social policy through considered engagement with decision-makers. Everyone would agree that sexual and violent crimes should be brought to justice, but this can’t happen when official processes prevent victims from speaking up for themselves, or where rape and violence are constructed as some isolated, foreign event, making survivors too afraid to report their experiences to the police.
Sexual harassment and sexual violence are not simply something that happens in faraway places. The shame and stigma heaped upon victims of Eve teasing in India is but one manifestation of the sexual and physical abuse that women, men and children live with every day all over the world. Thinking that some forms of gender or sexual violence is more or less barbaric than another doesn’t help. Talking about sexual harassment, assault and rape in an open, respectful and honest way does help.
This is the first of many future contributions that I will make towards breaking down the ‘otherness’ of sexual violence. (By otherness, I mean the negative attribution of difference and the marginalisation of minority or less powerful groups). I’ve got a couple of posts lined up about youth sexuality and pornography, which I hope will further demystify the shame that societies heap upon sexual behaviour and the misinformation about sexual coercion. I hope that if you read this – even if you disagree with me in any way – that you will tell at least one other person and get a conversation started. The next time you see a media report that drums up the gravity of gender violence in another country, have a chat with someone about it. When a crime report focuses on perpetuating a fear of rape solely directed at strangers, remember this post. Then have another conversation with someone else. And keep that conversation going because sexual harassment and violence doesn’t go away by pretending it’s not happening right here, right now.
Learn more on:
- The United Nations Say No To Violence Campaign
- Eve Teasing
- Slutwalk Toronto
- Slutwalk Delhi/Arthaat Besharmi Morcha
The United Nations Say No To Violence Campaign
- Read my overview of the actions you can take against violence or check out the United Nations Say No/Unite page.
- Watch and share the United Nations video: Youth Voices on Ending Violence against Women.
- For a different perspective than the one I’ve presented, read a passionate piece on Eve teasing by young bloggers on Critical Thinkers.
- Explore the Slutwalk Toronto link I referred to above and read how the organisers conceived the re-appropriation of the word ‘slut’ for their social movement. The rest of the blog is worth reading to see how they’ve expanded their focus to other issues such as bullying, religious condemnation of queer sexualities, and a wonderful reflection on the meaning of social ‘privilege‘ and how it affects various marginalised groups.
- Lisa Wade provides another useful analysis of the Slutwalk movement in North America on Sociological Images.
Slutwalk Delhi/Arthaat Besharmi Morcha
- Check out the Facebook page used by organisers of the event and he Facebook video that promoted it – note that the focus of the campaign was not just on women, but also on men who support the cause.
- Blogger Nandita Saikia provides a thoughtful analysis of Slutwalk on Cold Snap Dragon, arguing against social critiques that it is a movement for privileged women.
- Global Voices covered the Slutwalk Delhi in great detail. I recommend their media hype wash-up.
- Watch Trishla Singh, Media Coordinator for Slut Walk Delhi, discuss the idea behind the event and the appropriation of the word ‘slut’ in an Indian context. (via Global Voices).