The concept of dominance in sexual violence

The concept of dominance in sexual violence

Recently, we have witnessed a spike in the incidents of rape and also an increased commentary on our perception of it. One of the recent op-eds, published in this daily, was focused on rape of males and our (especially men’s) reluctance to accept the possibility that even men can become victims of rape. The focus of the piece solely addressed why men do not speak up about their experience of being sexually violated. The reason behind “male silence” was identified as patriarchy, which makes rape an especially shameful experience for men.

In my opinion, this reasoning is compelling; nonetheless, we have seen a response to that piece just a few days ago, which claimed “[…] there are more layers to peel off this metaphorical onion [the rape culture] than just one (patriarchal mandate).” Surprisingly we did not get a clear idea about the act of raping in the second op-ed piece published in this daily.

While trying to deconstruct our understanding of rape we should first try to understand what the victim supposedly loses, and the perpetrator gains, from the act. We will miss out on some insights if rape is regarded as only a “sexual act”.

Within a particular cultural context, rape inflicts the perceived loss of chastity. Thus, we can infer what a perpetrator gains through rape. Sexual pleasure is not the only objective; rather rape, from a perpetrator’s perspective, is an expression and exhibition of power. Within our value system, rape can be an intrusion in the most intimate sphere of a person or in some cases, of the family, clan, or even an entire nation. Thus, rape is often used as a weapon during wars to instil fear in victims along with their communities.

The emphasis on chastity, which rape is supposed to violate, can be clarified if we have a look at the history of evolution of marriage and the origins of family. As Friedrich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State has argued, monogamy was not practiced during the earliest times of humanity. Exclusive sexual right to a particular woman or man evolved historically. Sexuality of a person has become an exclusive right to be obtained. Thus, by rape only the individual person is not affected, it is a ploy that can be used to humiliate the entire nation as well.

There is no denying that rape provides the perpetrator a form of pervasive sexual pleasure, nonetheless, there is more to it. Cases of rape reveal that males of every socio-economic class are involved in raping. Women in power are also involved in rape or sexually assaulting males. What do these diverse cases imply? I believe rape is a way of establishing dominance—an unequal relationship between two persons, communities, or nations where the dominant has access to social, economic, or political resources.

A focus on dominance and rape as expression of power will not obscure the multiple facets of motives; rather it will facilitate our understanding. High-profile individuals like Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood producer, have been accused of rape of multiple women which indicates their need to impose their dominance over their victims.

The idea of dominance could also explain cases where perpetrators are from the disadvantaged part of the society. In many cases, women (also males in some instances) were raped in rented taxis, in public transports, or even at home by house helps. We could infer explanations from the fiction The Diary of a Rapist; here Evan S Connell describes a man who, scorned by his wife at home and superiors at work, becomes angry at everyone. The fiction indicates how social circumstances could lead to a person becoming extremely violent.

Thus, rape is not an act of violence over the weaker sex; rather over a person of weaker social position. Or the act of a person of weaker social position violating the women (or even men) of perceived higher social status, assuming a powerful position through the act. These crimes can be a reversal from the passive position generating a new symbolisation as psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan has claimed.

If we consider rape as an enforced sexual relation through dominance, we can then take in account the case of marital rape and could get away from presupposing about the existence of only male coercion and violence that the recent #MeToo movement was plagued with, as Slavoj Zizek has argued.

Through the lens of domination, we can uphold that women’s worth as humans cannot be diminished by the sexual act over her body. Rather both males and females are worthy beyond their human bodies. Nonetheless, violation of consent regarding sexual acts refers to violation of the control over one’s own body, the epitome of the modernist thought.

Rape is more than just a physical act—it is readily understandable from the case of a male rape victim from Gazipur who committed suicide not immediately after being raped, rather only after he was tormented by the possibility of the news of him being raped getting publicised. Therefore, beyond a gender lens to reflect on the myriad discernible motives, the concept of dominance could give a lead. Of course, more open discussion on individual liberty and consent could eliminate some of the shame that rape imparts on the victim and rather afflict the perpetrator.


Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.


Source: The Daily Star.