Role Models and Sexual Violence

An earlier version of this article was first posted by me on Ideas For India, and I have updated the material here with permission.

It doesn't stop, and at the rate we're going, it never will.
The latest (but not the latest by the time you blink) is the horrific rape of a journalist in Mumbai. Here is a brilliant, passionate article on it, which ends thus:
"To the police, the legal system, the political establishment, the men who think women are fair game for rape and the people who foster rapists: what will you do to make sure we’re not violated again and again and again?"
That is, indeed, the heart of the matter. I don't care if the American rape statistics look worse (who knows how to adjust the numbers for reporting anyway?), or if drunk Frenchmen molest Indian women, or if there are lots of decent Indian men. None of this crap matters. 

Here is what does matter: one out of n Indian men is a potential molester, a potential rapist. Is 1/n small? Assuredly. I can't imagine it is more than 1/100. I can easily believe that the same ratio is true of, say, Norway. But this heartening tidbit, that 99/100 Indian men are decent folk, offers no respite at all. The reason is simple. If you are a woman and walk through the Delhi streets at any time of the day or night, you will encounter literally thousands of people. In particular, you will have run into tens, maybe hundreds of potential rapists. By the time you are done with your walk, you will have been stared at, pushed, leered at, groped, catcalled. And if you deviate just a bit from your walk and go anywhere that is isolated or semi-isolated, you are in real danger. I kid you not. 

Why is that? The reason is simple, and this is what makes India different. It is the absolutely toxic nature of Indian "culture": the unquestioned belief that women are just there to be taken. That they are asking for it. That they are either "modest," or failing that, "immodest" and so fair game. Lots of "decent" Indian men, who would never molest a woman, share the very same beliefs. This "culture" is weaker in Calcutta or Madras, and there are more aggressive checks and balances against it. (In Calcutta you can get killed for trying to molest a woman; I have seen it happen myself. But if the locals hand you over to the police, you're probably ok.) But the beliefs are still there: all through the social and economic spectrum, all through the country. Now add to it poverty: the fact that many young men have little to lose even if someone were to take action against them, and the horrific nature of sexual violence in India isn't that hard to comprehend.

All of this is well known. There are hundreds of articles on the subject. But we need to press on. We need to ask the same question, and ask it over a million times: "what will you do to make sure we’re not violated again and again and again?"

Well, answers have been forthcoming, along two broad lines. 
One is that women should do more to stay out of harm’s way. These have run the gamut from caution in attire to appropriate times for women to be outdoors, and other even more outlandish suggestions, such as taking the hand of a potential rapist and calling him a brother. (Though the dude making the suggestion seems to be immune to brotherly invocations himself.) Stupid? Yes. Summarily dismissible? Yes. There is no civilized society in which women must obey any restrictions, other than the norms of conduct that apply equally to men and women. No exceptions.
The second, dominant reaction is a call for more severe punishments, ranging from the esoteric such as chemical castration all the way to the death penalty. These are unacceptable, not necessarily because they are outrageous (to some, they may well be) but for other reasons. For instance, castration presumes that the dominant impetus for rape is sexual. It is not. It is the desire to exert power over a woman in the only way a rapist knows, through unbridled violence. It is even possible (though not necessary) to argue that castration might heighten those urges, not diminish them. The death penalty is inappropriate (quite apart from fundamental ethical reservations that many might have) because it would lead to the widespread murder of rape victims, the extra punishment from rape to murder now having dropped to zero and the marginal gain being obviously positive.
Quite apart from these specific objections, it is entirely unclear that we would like to live in a society where transgressions are not committed just because there are severe penalties for doing so. That is not the way to build a just civil society.
What has been noticeably missing from the outcry is the fact that rape is committed—often but not exclusively—by young males who, reprehensible though their outlook may be, have their own role models in society. Who are these role models? I highlight two sets: cricketers and film stars. (There may be others.) Every young man looks up to these demigods of India. It is time to press the demigods into service via a concerted series of television and radio commercials, preferably played over and over again during the live broadcast of cricket matches. The government must buy the ad time, or TV channels must donate it. The demigods must be encouraged to donate their time, but failing that, the government should pay for their services.
What must these ads say? They must speak in no uncertain terms. I call upon the many cool advertising specialists in our country to design them.
Certainly, they would categorically reject sexual violence, but they must go one step further to shame the person who indulges in such violence: a man who touches a woman without her consent is a kutta, a dog who is only worthy of the demigod’s contempt (and that of civilized society, but never mind civilized society, as her contempt matters not an iota to a rapist). And they must take yet a second step, to say that a woman may go anywhere, at any time, in whatever clothing suits her pleasure and with whomever she wishes, or with no one.
This is social engineering, the quickest way of affecting the distorted beliefs and sexual tastes of an unfortunately significant section of India’s male society. But it is social engineering that not a single human being can find fault with. Accordingly, it should be tried and it is only to be hoped that it will have an enormous effect. I propose, also, that we measure such an effect, for possible use not just with sexual violence but in a variety of other social contexts, though in several of these contexts the universal merit of such social engineering will be correctly debated and called into question. (Consider, for instance, a similar campaign to denounce someone that steals. While accepting that there are laws against theft, I would oppose a campaign that vilifies stealing in a poor, unequal society.) But there is no debate with rape.
Let me return to my proposal that we measure such an effect. There is, first, the conveyer of the message: a demigod (cricketer or film star), or a local leader, or an NGO, or a politician. There is, next, the media: television, radio, billboards, or even non-standard media such as text messages. There are times of day and night, and there are events (such as cricket matches). I propose that we deliberately randomize a variety of such approaches over different regions of India: one would presumably target urban metropolitan areas to start with. Economists and scientists have developed rigorous methods to evaluate the outcomes of such randomization. Such randomized experiments have been debated in economics on several counts, but perhaps most often for their inability to convey “external validity,” or knowledge of outcomes beyond the immediate field of the experiment. No such issue of external validity need concern us here: the field of India is large enough. On the other hand, randomization on such a scale would call upon all of the expertise (and then some more) of the researchers who have pioneered such experiments in the social sciences. Deep questions of internal validity would arise. Such questions must not deter them.

Two examples: one an advantage, the other a difficulty. First, the percentages in the country who are aware of (or follow) discussions such as the one we are having now is low. That is lamentable in general, but in this context it is useful. It means that we can try different strategies: the same words spoken by different people, different words spoken by the same people, in different parts of India. The idea is to start a process and at the same time, to see what works. It is not as perfect as a controlled experiment because we know that statistically similar conditions across the districts of India are just not to be had. But if the campaign is well-designed, we have the econometric wherewithal to extract information from it.
A difficulty: a media blitz of the sort I am proposing will not just affect the “true” incidence of rape, it may alter the reporting of rape in ways that we need to think about. For instance, encouraged and emboldened by the media attention, more courageous women may come forward to report acts of violence committed against them. This would be a wonderful outcome, but because we cannot factor out “true incidence” from “reporting rates”, the effect of the campaign on rape might look smaller than it truly is. It is also possible that the opposite occurs: the relatively high-report rapes (such as those perpetrated by a stranger) may be discouraged by the campaign, leaving the low-report rapes (those committed by family members or husbands) to continue, and giving the impression that the campaign is more effective than it really is. We need to think about such issues, and in particular (to judge the relative efficiency of different measures: e.g., demigod vs. minister), how such effects might vary over the different districts that experience these campaigns.
By the way, reports of rape are not the only measure we can construct. For instance, attitudinal surveys before and after the intervention, could also have much to tell us.
Measurement is important. I’ve simply asserted that my proposed policy will have a huge effect. It may have none. But how are we to know that? After all, no policy has zero cost. So there is no escape from scientific analysis of the impact of a policy, and while we are about it, we may as well consider the relative efficiencies of demigods and (say) local leaders, and not just policy versus no policy at all. We need to try something like this. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.


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