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Into the mind of the rapist

Last updated on: October 26, 2012 16:58 IST


Why makes rapists do what they do? Abhishek Mande speaks to psychologists to try and profile them


Illustrations by Dominic Xavier

The brutal gang rape of a young student of the National Law College in Bengaluru as also the shocking figures of rapes in Haryana -- 17 in the last month alone -- has brought into question the safety of women in India, yet again.

However, what goes on in the minds of the men who impose themselves upon unsuspecting women -- young, old, comatose or infant -- is one question that has exercised many. 

There may never be a definite answer to the question. Some experts offer their perspectives to Abhishek Mande:

He shuffles into the dimly-lit room of the police station, almost tentatively, and stands in one corner. Unsure of what is expected of him, he looks around before deciding to squat on the floor.

Shaken and handcuffed, he offers a namaste to the police officer sitting behind a table almost as if his greeting would bring about change of heart in the officer and he'd be let off. In spite of the lack of bright lights in the room, you could see that the man had fear written all over his face.

Had we not been told, we'd probably never have figured that less than 24 hours ago, the meek man sitting before us was a different animal. He'd forced himself upon an acquaintance's wife, raped and then murdered her. His motive? To seek revenge upon her family and her husband.

And yet here he was -- miserable, afraid and powerless -- hoping that by some miracle the handcuffs would be taken off and he'd be asked to walk away.

When the officer asked him to narrate what happened, he described in some detail how he entered the house and then mumbled away.

The officer insisted: "Phir kya kiya (What did you do next)?" 

He begged to be excused.

"Kartey huey sharam nahi aya to batate huey kyun… (You weren't ashamed when you did it, why are you ashamed to speak of it now…)?"

He hesitated. Somehow he just couldn't get down to saying that he had raped a woman.

The case didn't receive a lot of publicity at the time because the summer of 2005 was practically dedicated to the sensational Marine Drive rape case which involved a constable, Sunil More, and a 17-year-old who he raped inside the outpost he was manning.

At the time of committing the act, More was said to have been under the influence of liquor and was a textbook example of what an ordinary man drunk on power could do.

What goes on in the mind of a rapist while committing the act is perhaps a mystery even to the man who commits the crime yet it is clear that in most cases, the act itself isn't always an outcome of lust. Revenge figures really high on the list of reasons why men rape women.

"Women are often soft targets for men," Dr Sanjay Kumawat, a consulting psychiatrist and the former superintendent of the Thane Mental Hospital tells me over the phone.

"They are considered as objects to be used rather than individuals to be respected. A man who's been brought up with such a mindset will never have any regard for the woman and when there is no respect, rape is inevitable," he says.

Dr Vijay Raghavan agrees. He says that rape is an act of power and the man committing it almost often is trying to "subjugate the victim through a process of exercising his domination over her."

Raghavan is an associate professor and chairperson of the Centre for Criminology and Justice, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and is also associated with a field action project of TISS called Prayas which works with youth offenders towards their rehabilitation, among other issues. 

He suggests that the desire to commit the act in the first place stems from a patriarchal structure of society that looks at women's bodies as commodities and stresses on the fact that rapists must not be 'otherised' or looked at as outsiders to society. To him they are a segment of society, very much part of it. Anyone, he says, could be a rapist.

The theory stands, as according to the 2007 figures from the National Crime Records Bureau over 92.5 per cent of the victims knew the offender. Within it, 36 per cent were neighbours.

"In many cases it is a way of taking revenge on the woman and teaching her a lesson. The idea is to assault a woman where it hurts her the most socially. The intention is to also destroy not just her self image, but also stigmatise the woman within and outside her community," Raghavan says.

The sexual abuse and accidental murder of Mumbai-based law student Pallavi Purkayastha at the hands of a watchman she had reprimanded is a classic case in point.

While Purkayastha's assailant was driven by lust and had no intention of killing his victim, Dr Kumawat points out that men seeking out revenge are capable of causing further harm to the victim. "They derive sadistic satisfaction by inflicting injury upon the other person and can murder their victim," he says.

Like Dr Raghavan and Dr Kumawat, Dr Yusuf Matcheswala, a renowned psychiatrist practising at Mumbai's JJ Hospital also underlines the point that a rapist need not necessarily be the guy with an ugly mole on his cheek nor does he always have to be someone lurking around in the dark alleys waiting for unsuspecting women to walk into his trap. 

"He could be you," he says animatedly sitting a few feet away and pointing at me, "Or he could be me!"

Matcheswala, who specialises in the fields of addiction and sexual disorders, points to alcohol and other hallucinogenic substances as being the other major factors that play a role in reducing inhibitions in people.

He talks about Sigmund Freud's structural model id, ego and super-ego -- where the id is the unorganised instinctual part of the psyche, the ego being the co-ordinated, realistic part and the super-ego that is the critical and moralising one.

"When you have one too many to drink, your super-ego and ego vanish, leaving the id in charge. In such cases you begin to think that you rule the world and everything belongs to you. Once the carnal instinct takes over there is no stopping it. Your thoughts become vivid and your virtual reality takes over," Matcheswala says, adding, "How often have you seen or heard of respectable officers engaging in activities you wouldn't otherwise expect of them? Once inhibitions are lost there's really nothing to stop you."

Rapists are not wired very differently from us, Matcheswala says. And while he agrees that some do indeed face psychological problems, many others see the act as an expression of their need to dominate women -- the two cases in the summer of 2005 mentioned earlier are perfect cases in point.

This desire to dominate can also stem from their own childhood experiences. "If you are growing up in an environment where you are taken for granted or have been abused regularly, it isn't unusual for you to do the same when you're in a position of power because you do not know any other way to be," Dr Raghavan of TISS says.

The figures of a study conducted by Sanchetan, a Delhi-based NGO, with 242 inmates of Delhi's Tihar jail over five years substantiate what Raghavan says. Over 68 per cent of the rapists had had difficult childhoods. Moreover most of them harboured hatred towards women in general and often referred to them abusively. 

"There are cases when all a rapist looks for is a feeling of gratification," Dr Sanjay Kumawat says, "In such cases he rarely ever bothers about the outcome of his actions. These people are nymphomaniacs, obsessed with sexual thoughts, they are unable to postpone their need to be satisfied."

Even so, visiting a sex worker is not an option for such men. 

"For him the sadistic pleasure of snatching away something is far higher than receiving it from someone giving it to him willingly," Dr Kumawat says. "Obsession is the main feeling with nymphomaniacs. And it isn't always satisfied by sex workers."

Then there are the cases of who Dr Kumawat likes to call "my darlings", having worked with them for year at the mental hospital in Thane.

"What most of us don't realise is that a mentally challenged person has feelings quite like you and me. S/he too hits puberty like us but given the state of their mental development, they are unable to direct it in ways we do. A young mentally challenged boy will not know how to direct his feelings or restrict it, nor will he have any inhibitions. In such cases the person performs the act indiscriminately never once believing that he is doing something wrong. And having done it, he wouldn't even try to conceal the evidence," he says, recounting the incident of a 20-something boy raping a 10-year-old in his family. 

The same applies to the elderly suffering from dementia, those whose inhibitions are low and cannot differentiate right from wrong.

Speaking about one of his current patients, Dr Matcheswala says, "You would think him to be a doting grandfather, except that he is not." The unnamed patient has been under treatment for a while now and sees his actions as being harmless. "He told me all he likes to do is hug little kids but it isn't always as innocent as that which is why he has been on medication." 

Both doctors I spoke to agreed that such instincts can be controlled if not cured; however, the greater help must come from the relatives who also need to be counselled and the family which needs to be convinced about the medical issues surrounding such a person. As Dr Kumawat says, "It is always tricky."

In any case, most rapists exhibit psychopathic tendencies -- over 70 per cent according to the Sanchetan study -- and often plan their action well in advance before making their move. 

Earlier this year, Reddit, a US-based social news website saw a rather unusual thread of comments from users telling stories from the point of view of the rapists, offering mindboggling insights into the psyche of the perpetrators.

Some of them knew rapists first hand -- one user talks about his brother who is serving time for sexually assaulting his underage daughters. He says that the man has no remorse. The user writes: "He blames his ex-wife and his daughters for 'doing this to him.' He will get out in 2015 and he is totally convinced he is a victim.'"

Another one reads: "I ignored her and did it. She realised what was happening and tried to clamp her legs shut, but it was too late and I was much stronger than her."

Even another one describes the moment itself: "I remember pulling off her and she kept crying... I then do remember doing something I'm probably most ashamed of -- asking her to finish me off, more begging for it… I hate to say it but after it was done I went to bed, she stayed up crying."

But perhaps the most chilling one is by an anonymous man, now married, describing in cold details his conquests in college when he invited girls over to his place and surreptitiously forced himself upon them. 

"Having her come over to my place also made it seem less predatory, as she came into my domain, and 'could leave at any time", he writes adding in retrospect and in shocking honesty: "I'm somewhat remorseful for what I did to those girls, but I don't think I could ever face them to apologise. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I had this certain insatiable thirst that brought me to do what I did. I didn't know how to stop, and just when I thought maybe I could, I'd find myself back in my pattern, back on the hunt."

There is, however, no single profile that can describe all rapists. It isn't always possible to look at a man and tell if he is a rapist.

However, Dr Wendel Abel, a consultant psychiatrist and head, Section of Psychiatry, Department Of Community Health and Psychiatry, University of the West Indies, puts it best in an article in the Jamaican newspaper, The Gleaner: 'Men rape for different reasons and they commit rape in different ways... any man or group of men who could commit such a heinous act on women cannot be normal and must be psychologically disturbed and would have a serious personality disorder.'

Abhishek Mande in Mumbai