When gender blinded the media to (an alleged) rape

The news coverage of the Pinki Pramanik case revealed media biases about who can be a victim and who can be an offender

The rape charge against athlete Pinki Pramanik was overshadowed by speculation about her gender and sympathy for her struggles. Image is representative. Photo: Public Domain Pictures (CC0 1.0)

On September 6, 2018, the Supreme Court of India decriminalised gay sex between consenting adults, much to the relief of the country’s LGBTQ+ population. However, the landmark judgment also prompted another question: what about non-consensual gay sex?

The law as it stands does not explicitly recognise that sexual assault can take place by men against men, by women against women, or by women against men. Rape is still widely understood as unwanted penile penetration of a woman by a man. This definition ignores two things — that sexual assault can take multiple forms, and that gender falls along a continuum.

It is in this confluence of grey areas that the Pinki Pramanik case unfolded in 2012. And it is here that the media revealed a problematic inability to conceive of sexual assault as anything other than something that a man does to a woman, and in so doing perpetuated a narrative that rendered an ‘unlikely victim’ invisible.

Until June 14 2012, Pinki Pramanik was India’s golden girl of athletics, celebrated for bringing honour to the nation at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and beyond. And then came her arrest: she was accused of gender fraud and sexual assault by her live-in partner, a woman.

ONE MAJOR ASPECT OF THE STORY ESCAPED MEDIA SCRUTINY: THE QUESTION OF WHETHER PRAMANIK HAD SEXUALLY VIOLATED ANOTHER INDIVIDUAL OR NOT. THE ASSUMPTION SEEMED TO BE THAT IF SHE WASN’T CONCLUSIVELY A MAN, SHE COULDN’T HAVE DONE IT

Soon after the allegations were made, Pramanik was subjected to a humiliating and very public ordeal. Given that Indian law recognises rape as something that is perpetrated by a man against a woman, Pramanik was forced to undergo three “gender-verification” tests that yielded “inconclusive results”. To add insult to injury, a leaked clip of her undergoing a medical examination went viral. She lost her job. The media covered every development, and outrage began to build up over this treatment of a national heroine.

Yet one major aspect of the story escaped media scrutiny: the question of whether Pramanik had sexually violated another individual or not. The assumption seemed to be that if she wasn’t conclusively a man, she couldn’t have done it.

To gain greater insight into how the news media treated the sexual allegations against Pramanik, I analysed the reportage of the case by four English dailies — the Times of India, the Telegraph, the Hindustan Times and the Indian Express — from June 15 to August 31, 2012.

Overall, I found 28 articles in the Times of India and 24 in the Indian Express; and through a Google search, eight in the Telegraph and seven in the Hindustan Times. Out of the total of 67 stories that I looked at, only five made explicit mention of the rape charges — Pinki Pramanik incapable of rape, gets bail said one, while another noted, Rape charge: Pinki Pramanik gets bail after 25 days in custody. On the other hand, 14 stories focused on the ‘gender controversy’ and what any deception regarding Pramanik’s gender would mean for her sports career. The day the story broke (June 15, 2012), the Times of India, the Telegraph, and the Indian Express ran stories that treated the rape allegations as secondary to the possibility of gender fraud.

SPECULATION OVER [PRAMANIK’S] GENDER DOMINATED REPORTS, ESTABLISHING THE SEXUAL ASSAULT CHARGES AS A MATTER OF SECONDARY IMPORTANCE

In an article titled Was Pinki Pramanik asked to quit athletics? The Times of India drew a parallel between Pramanik and the former middle-distance runner Santhi Soundarajan, who had been stripped of an international silver medal after failing a gender determination test in 2006. There was much consternation over another athlete losing international recognition, but there was little concern over the serious sexual assault allegations against Pramanik. The complainant was rendered almost irrelevant, even as speculative quotes about Pramanik’s gendered attributes were published.

Another article in the Indian Express mentioned the rape charge in the headline — Gender bender: Asian champion Pramanik charged with rape — but neglected to meaningfully address the subject of assault. The story established the “glory” Pramanik had brought to the nation and said that her “gender and womanhood” being questioned cast “a shadow on her achievements. This story, too, quoted acquaintances who spoke of her “masculine features”. Thus, speculation over her gender dominated reports, establishing the sexual assault charges as a matter of secondary importance.

In the days that followed, the rape charges receded even further into the background in the media coverage and the story was treated more like a sports scandal. In Gender controversy: Run, Pinki Pramanik run, the Times of India mentioned the rape charges several paragraphs into the article, and then too to quote a psychiatrist (“If there is a serious charge as rape, it is important to establish gender”) and a lawyer (“Pinki may ultimately be adjudged by doctors as a female and may be cleared of the charges of rape”) who also clearly considered rape as definable in only heteronormative terms.

THE COMPLAINANT’S VERSION OF EVENTS WAS BARELY CONSIDERED. IT DID NOT FIT INTO THE MEDIA NARRATIVE BEING CREATED ABOUT A NATIONAL HERO’S UNWARRANTED FALL FROM GRACE. INDEED, THE ‘VICTIM’ IN THIS STORY WAS NOW PINKI PRAMANIK.

Another aspect of the reportage in this case was overt media sympathy for the indignities that Pramanik had to suffer as she was forced to undergo one gender test after another. Journalists rushed to Tilkadi, a small village tucked in the Maoist-ridden pockets of Purulia, to capture the emotions of her family and neighbours. Articles quoting her mother and about her heart-rending journey to prove her daughter’s innocence were par for the course.

She is my daughter, not son: Pinki’s mother read the headline of one TOI story. The fact that the mother was trying to defend her daughter’s gender over her character went unnoticed. Pinki Pramanik became the tragic heroine being hit by a torrent of misfortune. Pinki’s railways job fate hinges on court order said the TOI (June 17, 2012) and After questions on gender, Pinki Pramanik now faces MMS ordeal rued the Indian Express (July 3, 2012). It was openly insinuated in some headlines — such as She’s-a-he & rape slur on sprinter — Framed, former golden girl cries (The Telegraph, June 15 2012) — that Pramanik was being unjustly targeted.

Within this coverage, the complainant’s version of events was barely considered. It did not fit into the media narrative being created about a national hero’s unwarranted fall from grace. Indeed, the ‘victim’ in this story was now Pinki Pramanik. She had lost her livelihood, she was manhandled by the police, she was kept in a men’s jail. However, while her trauma was undeniable, it did not automatically absolve her of the crime that she had been accused of committing, and it certainly wasn’t reason enough to undermine the voice of the complainant.

Only one article, in the Times of India (Pinki had bribed medical board, alleges ‘victim’), quoted the complainant, albeit briefly (“Pinki tortured me when I refused to give her money. I was forced to sell my ornaments to give her money”). Even in this article, the use of scare quotes around the word ‘victim’ urged the reader to view her with scepticism. There was also no attempt to round out her personality or to throw light on her frame of context. This, as mentioned earlier, was in stark contrast to the ‘human interest’ elements added to stories about Pramanik. In one Times of India article, for example, her friends and neighbours spoke of her being a “good child” and a former MLA spoke in glowing terms about Pramanik’s campaign against child marriage.

WHILE PRAMANIK’S TRAUMA WAS UNDENIABLE, IT DID NOT AUTOMATICALLY ABSOLVE HER OF THE CRIME THAT SHE HAD BEEN ACCUSED OF COMMITTING, AND IT CERTAINLY WASN’T REASON ENOUGH TO UNDERMINE THE VOICE OF THE COMPLAINANT.

However, while the media showed a conspicuous lack of objectivity in reporting this case, can it be held solely responsible for the focus on Pramanik’s gender?

The trajectory of the case was set into place by the Indian legal system, which narrowly defines rape as the penile penetration of the vagina. Therefore, it became necessary to first prove that Pramanik had genitalia that “made her capable of rape”. The precondition for a bodily requirement to try an accused on the count of sexual violence allowed the court to intertwine the two distinct charges of gender fraud and rape such that if she stood through the test of proving her ‘femaleness’, it would automatically expunge all possibilities of her having harmed the complainant.

The media coverage did have some redeeming features. For one, the case did trigger a meaningful debate on consent when a judge observed that in “cohabiting” with Pinki, the complainant had given consent. The fact that this judgment, which granted Pramanik bail after 25 days in custody, failed to distinguish between consenting to a relationship and consenting to physical intimacy was not missed by the media.

What also correctly came into focus was the systemic disregard for Pramanik’s bodily integrity. In an interview after her release, she disclosed that she was drugged and tied up so that she would not resist a medical test. Not only that, her privacy was violated and a video clip of her undergoing a test, unclothed, was circulated on the internet. She was groped brazenly by policemen (a picture of a cop pressing his hand against her chest was published widely), perhaps because she categorised as not ‘quite’ being a woman. What was thrown into relief was how appallingly those who do not fall into neat gender categories are treated by the Indian system.

So, what did become of the all-consuming gender mystery? In 2014, medical experts concluded that Pramanik is a male pseudohermaphrodite, meaning that “she is genetically male but anatomically not, bearing both male and female characteristics”.

As for the rape case, the complainant in July 2012 said that she had been pressurised by the husband of another athlete to “frame” and discredit Pramanik so that he could gain an advantage in a land dispute.

These details, however, do not detract from the fact that the media’s coverage was biased. It is never not problematic when the media glorifies an accused party before an investigation is concluded and invisiblises another, regardless of the alleged perpetrator’s status as national hero.

This is one in a series of 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 16.