Millennium Post

Sleeping with the enemy

Few women, in their early teens, would have not sighed with happy longing, as Rhett Butler sweeps wife Scarlett off her feet, literally, forcing kisses on her, as he carries her towards their bedroom, in Gone With the Wind. Fewer still would remember to blame the hero of having forceful sex with his wife against her wishes, when a blushing Scarlett wakes up in happy confusion the next morning – ‘she tried to make herself hate him, tried to be indignant, she could not.  He had humbled her, hurt her, used her brutally through a wild mad night and she had gloried in it’.

It is the stuff of wild, Mills and Boon
romances – the strong, dashing hero ravishing the unwilling maid and making her fall in love with him. It is the idea that society thrives on, the idea that helps maintain the balance – no matter how unfair or outdated – where the man demands and the woman surrenders, even takes pleasure in that surrender. Romance fiction and films have glorified and helped preserve this stereotype. Not till years afterwards, till she is really with a man, would any girl realise the brutal pain of having him force himself on her. If you are in India however, there is little that you can do about the pain, or the humiliation of having a man use your body to show off his manhood, if that man happens to be your husband.

The dictionary definies marital rape or spousal rape, as non-consensual sex, where the perpetrator is the victim’s spouse. In December 1993, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights published the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This establishes marital rape as a human rights violation. But a UNICEF report in 1997 stated that just 17 States had criminalised marital rape till then. A study conducted in 2003 reported that more than 50 states had done so. In 2006, the UN secretary general found that ‘Marital rape may be prosecuted in at least 104 states. Of these 32 have made marital rape a specific criminal offence, while the remaining don’t exempt marital rape from general rape provisions. But more than six years later, the right to say ‘no’ to sex continues to be denied to the Indian married woman. Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) considers the forced sex in marriages as a crime only when the wife is below 15 - an irony in itself since the legal age for marriage for girls is 18. The Domestic Violence Act covers sexual abuse as part of violence on women. But it is a civil and not a criminal Act. And even the 23-year-old gang rape victim, who with her suffering forced the Indian authorities to take a stronger view of crime against women, couldn’t help the cause of married victims. Justice JS Verma Committee recommended deletion of IPC’s Section 376A (Intercourse by a man with his wife during separation) under which currently maximum punishment is two years. Implied in that was the view that marital rape should also be brought under the definition of rape. However, in a recently passed ordinance, the government has decided to retain it but enhanced the punishment for the crime - from two years to maximum seven years of imprisonment.

The idea of marital rape is not alien to India. But to view it as unnatural is. ‘If a couple is married, sex cannot be called rape,’ says a lawyer in the capital, adding, ‘if we have a law against marital rape, we would get 100 cases every day. The sanctity of a marriage will be lost. Any day a husband and wife fight and the wife doesn’t feel like getting intimate with the husband, she will accuse him of raping her.’ Another says, ‘if the couple is married how will you prove that it was rape. It’s just the woman’s word against the man’s.’

There is scope for misuse in any rule, but has that stopped the system from passing laws? These lawyers, as men, voice the fear of all men–the fear of a woman with the power to say ‘no’.  The humiliation, helplessness and self-loathing that follows the act of violation, remains for the woman to bear. Poet and activist Meena Kandasamy describes sex in abusive marriage in these words, ‘Soon, in my loveless marriage, sex begins to replicate the model of a market economy: he demands, I supply. Never mind that my response does not matter, never mind that I bleed every single time, never mind that he derives his pleasure from my pain.’ She adds, ‘As fear seeps into my body, sex becomes submission, and in this role-play of being a wife, I remember nothing except the relief of being let go, being let off after being used up.’

Sex becomes an expression of love or an act of bonding only when willingly entered into. But in cases of forced sex, conjugal or otherwise, sex becomes another way of subjugating the woman, of making her aware of her physical weakness and just as in any othercase of sexual violation, marital rape too has far reaching physical and psychological implications, say counsellors, depending on the kind of force employed.

Articles on marital rape divide it into various categores. It can be a ‘battering rape’ or that which uses both physical and sexual violence or ‘force-only rape’ where the husband uses only as much force as is necessary to coerce his wife into submission. A third and terrifying kind of martial rape is defined by experts as ‘obsessive rape’ which involves torture and perverse sexual acts .

The physical impacts of marital rape includes internal injuries, lacerations, soreness, bruising, fatigue and vomiting. Since rape is often accompanied by physical abuse, injuries may also include fractures and knife wounds, say experts.There have been examples of other gynaecological consequences too, such as miscarriages, still births, and bladder infections. Since forced sex in marriage is often unprotected sex, there is also the danger of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, feel doctors.

Often the psychological implications are deeper, because the Indian woman, especially in lower income groups and rural areas, where marital rape is rampant, are taught from an early age to put their desires as secondary to their husband’s. So inability to willingly give in to sex often makes the woman feel guilty. And it may be years, if ever, before she finds the courage to talk about her problems. Often, she might not herself have the awareness to know that what she is facing is unnatural.

A worker in a woman’s organisation in the national capital says, ‘Only about 10-15 women in 300 complain outright of forced sex when they come to us. During subsequent conversations, however, we find that most of them have had to face it at some point in their marriage.’ The UN Population Fund states that more than two-thirds of married women in India, aged between 15 to 49 have been beaten, raped or forced to provide sex. A city organisation which works to provide social and legal counselling to victims of violence says that in the present scenario there is no point in even bringing up marital rape while seeking separation or legal aid.’ Marital rape by itself is not even a ground for divorce in our country.

The govertnment has said that the recommendations of the Justice JS Verma panel have not been rejected, but marital rape a difficult issue in which more consultations are needed. That’s little reassurance for women, given the time that the authorities have taken to even bring up the subject for discussion.

Poulomi Banerjee is assistant editor at Millennium Post
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