The silence of men

Why do Indian men stay ‘off the record’ when talking to the media about sexual violence?

Slowly stepping into light — recruiting “imperfect allies” by empowering them to not hide behind anonymity. Photo by Palash Jain on Unsplash

Over the past few months, India has been gripped by the #MeToo movement, with a wave of women outing powerful men. After years of systemic oppression, these women’s voices are finding strength in numbers. It is not just an imported “fad”, as some have called it, but an irresistible force that is holding up the proverbial mirror to perpetrators in vaunted spaces such as cinema, media, politics, judiciary, sport and education.

Yet, male voices have been conspicuously absent in India’s #MeToo movement, whether in “outrage, support or reflection”. Panels and op-eds are surprisingly devoid of male participation, except for reactions along the lines of, “Him too! Whoa I did not see that coming!” when someone is accused.

It is possible to view #MeToo as being less about individual cases and more about exposing an underlying societal framework that is deeply problematic. It is this framework that is now presenting the movement as one where men are the real victims. Retaliatory voices such as “not all men” arise from the same misguided understanding. This framework is what feminist scholars have long understood as rape culture — a normalisation of sexual violence that sees “violence as sexy and sexuality as violent” [1]. It manifests in various ways, ranging from rape jokes to victim-blaming and shaming. Instead of seeing rape as something that is done by a man, it chooses to see it as something that happens to a woman. When men understand this cultural construction and their position within it, they will be able to voice their responses without fearing backlash.

At NewsTracker, too, we’ve had some trouble with getting men to participate in the discourse on sexual violence.

‘Keep my name out of it’

Back in June, right before we were about to launch the I Think section of NewsTracker, we asked reporters to interview ordinary Indians about how they felt about the way rape was reported in the news media. The aim was to capture voices from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, across age groups. But the first bunch of interviews we got was all either women or men from privileged backgrounds.

When I urged a reporter to speak to a man from a disadvantaged background to restore the balance, he told me that this was easier said than done. He said, “They are reluctant to talk about rape to begin with, and even if they do agree, they back out the moment I tell them that we will use their name and photograph along with the story.”

THE ISSUE BOILS DOWN TO TWO THINGS — HOW PEOPLE VIEW NEWS MEDIA, AND HOW THE NEWS MEDIA TALKS ABOUT RAPE.

He went on trying though, and found a security guard who agreed to let us run his photograph, but who wanted to withhold his name. I was perplexed, but given the circumstances, decided to go ahead with it. I was realising that some people might be getting spooked because our project wasn’t clear enough to them. I figured that all they needed was to be reassured. So I decided to find people to talk to myself.

After spending many hours on a very hot day chasing potential interviewees, I realised the enormity of the problem. Men from underprivileged backgrounds were just not ready to talk about rape and take ownership of their opinions on record. Why, I was not sure. But in the months that have passed since that experience, I have come to the conclusion that the issue boils down to two things — how people view news media, and how the news media talks about rape.

Men, media and the ‘other India’

Many working class men seem to believe that they have nothing to gain — and indeed something to lose — by sharing their opinions on a topic as sensitive as rape, at least on record. Obviously, the need for anonymity arises primarily because people don’t want what they say to affect their lives personally or professionally, but realistically, any such scenario would be hard to imagine in this case — unless they believe that what they say will generate backlash because it will be somehow unacceptable to people at large. The media is often seen as the arbiter of what is “acceptable” to say, a function through which it shapes public opinion.

THESE MEN ARE SHAMED FOR NOT BEING PART OF THE DISCOURSE AROUND RAPE EVEN AS THEY HAVE BEEN SYSTEMICALLY EXCLUDED BECAUSE OF THEIR CLASS POSITION…

In the case of sexual violence, Shakuntala Rao argues that, “Indian news media’s portrayal and coverage of rape is narrowly focused on sexual violence against middle-class and upper-caste women and avoids discussing violence against poor, lower-class, lower-caste, and otherwise marginalised women”. [2] I believe that the media needs to take stock of this and realise that in the discourse around rape, its job is not merely reporting. The media clearly needs to do more — not just in urban, English-speaking India, but at large, in the other India where these men belong.

At this point, it is important to realise that the iThink interviews were going to be translated into English (which for obvious reasons is anxiety-inducing as they can be misrepresented) for a niche online publication with readership that is mutually exclusive from the other India. It is highly improbable that anything these men said would be traced back to their immediate surroundings. Yet to them, there was a perceptible danger of this happening. This might be because the media is seen as a monolithic entity. Newer, digital media platforms don’t yet have an identity of their own in this India. This suggests that any act of indiscretion by the news media (even in a limited capacity while covering rape) ends up tainting the media as a whole, further depleting trust.

IT IS NOT AS IF THEY CONDONE SEXUAL VIOLENCE BUT WHAT THEY FAIL TO COMPREHEND AND THEREFORE CONDEMN IS THE RAPE CULTURE THAT FACILITATES IT AND THEIR UNWILLING, UNCONSCIOUS POSITION WITHIN IT.

What is the state of existing discourse on rape in vernacular languages? How much of that responsibility falls squarely on news media in these languages? Deepa Fadnis asserts that, “The cultural devaluation of women is embedded into the minds of people in India which also includes the journalistic community. This could significantly affect the way news content is shaped and framed by journalists in India.” [3] Thus looking at journalistic discourse to underscore the value systems of reporters is key to understanding the current state of discourse around rape. “If inclusiveness, human dignity, and the ideal of providing space to multiple voices are to be considered as ethical precepts for global media, India’s television news media fail to be inclusive in its portrayal and reporting of sexual violence and therefore perpetuate a ‘pro-affluent bias’”. [4]

So, what does this tell us about rape culture in India? If the interviewees are worried that talking to the media about rape and how it is reported might affect them personally, that is a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the problem of rape and the culture that sustains it doesn’t affect them currently!

Turning spectators into allies

There appears to be a twofold rationale for why so many men want their anonymity guaranteed. One is the entrenched understanding of the power of the written word, but even more than that, it is an acceptance of a lack of awareness of the existing discourse. They feel as if what they say will likely be the wrong answer, and getting it wrong will call for a penalty, a price which they can’t foresee, let alone pay. A lack of understanding of a discourse understandably makes one feel hesitant to participate in it. I get the impression that when faced with a camera and a reporter’s questions, these men feel rather like students who haven’t done their assigned readings for a test. Perhaps, they feel like they have no place in the existing discourse surrounding rape.

Making men turn toward the discussion is a challenge. Photo: Ayush Rawat

But feeling excluded is one part of the equation. They may also have excluded themselves as they still think of rape as a women’s problem as long as it doesn’t happen to someone in their family, or an honour problem if it does. It is not as if they condone sexual violence but what they fail to comprehend and therefore condemn is the rape culture that facilitates it and their unwilling, unconscious position within it.

News media has to step in at this point to lead a much-needed discourse around rape culture in India — and not merely report it. The most glaring implication of this gap in discourse is that on one hand it denies people’s capacity to empathise with a rape victim/survivor, and on the other hand it allows them to see themselves as victims who are being cornered with questions that are outside the syllabus that they have been given.

I would argue that shame, which is intrinsic to rape culture, sometimes cuts both ways. These men are shamed for not being part of the discourse around rape even as they have been systemically excluded because of their class position, which is further stonewalled by language. These men are potential allies in the fight to dismantle rape culture. But in the current scenario, even the relatively progressive minded ones fall back on anachronistic solutions like forcing the rapist to marry the victim, thus making them imperfect allies.

IF THE DISCOURSE AROUND RAPE IN INDIA HAS TO BE MORE INCLUSIVE, THE MEDIA WILL HAVE TO LEAD THE WAY BY ACKNOWLEDGING ITS BIASES...

If the discourse around rape in India has to be more inclusive, the media will have to lead the way by acknowledging its biases and addressing them. Rao talks about the ‘Norms for Journalistic Conduct’ compiled by The Press Council of India which addresses rape reportage only in negative terms, of what you’re not supposed to do, such as disclosing the identity of the survivor (which in itself is a fractious issue that is not always followed). It’s time we address the issue positively, by empowering journalists to talk about rape culture so that they can empower the missing male voices to come out of exile.

We must give them a chance by talking about the cultural underpinnings of rape, and work towards a shift in mindset. That will take time. But until that happens, the media must not forego its responsibility to protect them while simultaneously building trust and allaying their fears. Remember that security guard? Our reporter went back to him and assured him that if he was uncomfortable, he could withhold not just his name, but also his face. That is the story of how we managed to add that missing voice to our collection of I Think stories. And I could see the balance beginning to be restored.

This is one of the articles that NewsTracker published from 25 November to 10 December as part of the #16Days activism, aligned with the UN’s International Day for Ending Violence Against Women. This piece appeared on Day 2.

Citations

[1] Buchwald, Emilie, Pamela R. Fletcher, and Martha Roth, eds. Transforming a rape culture. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 1993.

[2] Rao, Shakuntala. “Covering rape in shame culture: Studying journalism ethics in India’s new television news media.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 29.3 (2014): 153–167.

[3] Fadnis, Deepa. “Uncovering Rape Culture: Patriarchal values guide Indian media’s rape-related reporting.” Journalism Studies 19.12 (2018): 1750–1766.

[4] See [2]