Marital rape and the socialisation of sex – is there room for consent? 

The article below is the part 2 of a two-part series discussing the legal and social perspective on the rape and specifically marital rape. This article focuses on the social and medical aspect of marital rape.

TW: Rape, abuse.

During a conversation with her granddaughter, Lakshmi* had to answer some inquisitive questions that came up. Her granddaughter wanted to know more about her thatha (grandfather). Little did she know that she would reflect on what she now understands as a painful memory. “Back in the day, we weren’t allowed to even look at our husbands directly.. We were there to serve them and nothing else. I know thatha wanted to speak to me but he would always be bullied by his peers for doing so. We were never allowed to sleep in the same room. I would sleep in the kitchen with the rest of the women of the household and thatha on the porch. The nights he wanted to use me, he’d pick me up from the kitchen and take me to the backyard. It used to be painful but that was what ought to be done. I didn’t know anything more.” She tears as she goes back a little in time. Her granddaughter, a little confused at what she just heard, asks her paati about her thoughts on marital rape. Lakshmi by now knows that what happened to her was not okay. 

Lakshmi’s story is only one of several. Most women, especially older women don’t have the chance to reflect or understand what happened to them. To them, pain was normal. Tolerance made a good wife. It took me a while to understand that marital rape is barely spoken about and operates in disguise through multiple layers of culture and socialisation. As Bell Hooks says, being oppressed means the absence of choice. And that’s the unfortunate reality for many women, added with other layers of structural trauma and violence if that woman is in the margins of the society.  

Marital rape is often hard to comprehend because marriage is perceived to be a contract of permanent consent. Combined with the perception of sex as a source of procreation and not pleasure, it is considered the duty of the woman to procreate and hence adhere to the forces of the husband regardless of how painful it is. While speaking to women about their understanding of marital rape, it was seen that it was understood only in retrospect. Dutiful wives have never had the chance to even think of sex as a form of pleasure, as something that they can have a say on. Sex is normalized as unconsented and painful. It doesn’t help at all when the state doesn’t recognize it to be a problem as well. It is trauma that has been and still is silenced and carried over for generations. 

Vidhya Dinakaran, a mental health professional at International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) says, “The families, sometimes even the woman herself, feels so guilty for having felt uncomfortable that they don’t even want to recognize it as intrusion let alone rape. So ingrained is the notion of what a woman needs to be.” She further adds, “Marital rape is undermined due to shocking assumptions that in a marital relationship sex is a given and that it falls under the roles and duties of a being. It also reiterates the toxic notion that men are owed the sex they demand, if they are to become the ‘provider’ for the woman after marriage. By attaching no recognition to this, the ideas of ownership experienced by the perpetrator and the misogyny is only bolstered. Let alone laws, humiliation and family honour attached to this instills fear and provides no space for condemning this act. This presents as a disguised evil that strips a woman of her dignity hiding under the misconception that, marriage forever equals consensus and reinforces the socially constructed idea of roles and duties.”

Sexist socialisation that roots from patriarchy have clouded the way we understand sex and pleasure. Part of understanding patriarchy is also that it operates in several layers and multiple intersections. It is upheld by powerful cultural norms and is sustained by education, tradition and other systems. This seeps into how we have taught to understand romantic partnerships and our right to consent and determination.

Women have been conditioned to put love, selflessness and care before anything else. So when it comes to sexual intercourse within a marriage, tolerance is what is taught to young women. It is that pain is inevitable. So, rape within the structure of marriage in many contexts has been unfortunately normalized. It allows no room for dissent and no protection for the pained. I can’t help but wonder, if men were socialized to desire love as much as they were taught to desire sex, the cultural revolution we would witness. 


*Lakshmi is a fictionalised name

The writer of the article, Meera Viswanathan, a mental health professional, is part of the Board of Directors in the MSAAW Foundation.

Is it not rape?

TW: Rape, abuse

At the outset, it is helpful to remind ourselves of what is the definition of ‘Rape’ which is duly recognized by Indian law as an offence under Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) –

It says, “a man is said to have committed the offence of rape if he has sexual intercourse (of defined description) with a woman under the following 7 situations:

  • Against her will
  • Without her consent
  • With her consent, when her consent has been obtained by putting her in fear of death or of hurt of her/her loved ones
  • With her consent, when the man knows that he is not her husband, and that her consent is given because she believes that he is another man to whom she is or believes herself to be lawfully married.
  • With her consent, when, at the time of giving such consent, by reason of unsoundness of mind/intoxication or under influence of any stupefying or unwholesome substance, she is unable to understand the nature and consequences of that to which she gives consent.
  • With or without her consent, when she is under 18 years of age.
  • When she is unable to communicate consent.

On a simple reading of this provision, the use of the word ‘CONSENT’ is observed 10 times and is found to be so very explicit in every single line of the definition.

The conundrum that married women in India face is that even though a woman’s will and consent is given so much importance under the definition of Rape, how does the concept completely disintegrate when a woman is married?

This is seen in the exception defined under the same Section 375 which stipulates that sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife is not Rape. The only saving made under this exception is that it does not include any wives under 15 years of age. Pertinently, this has recently been judicially read down in 2017 to include all wives under 18 years of age through the Supreme Court’s ruling in Independent Thought v. Union of India.

This exception of sanctioned sexual intercourse (even against the will and without the consent of the wife aged above 18 years), is further elucidated when we look at the provision included into the IPC by amendment in 2013: it says that it shall be punishable if a man has “sexual intercourse with his own wife, who is living separately from him under a decree of separation or under any custom or usage without her consent.”

So, when a wife is living separately from her husband, the concept of her consent gets reinstated! Although this is a saving grace, it goes to highlight that the rape laws of India have completely taken away the concept of consent from a married woman who is not separated from her husband.

The reasoning can be found in the words of the Law Commission of India, which in its 42nd Report said:

Sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife against her will or without her consent be not called Rape even in a technical sense.” Their rationale was, “this may amount to excessive interference with the marital relationship.”

While citing the above observation by the Law Commission, Prof. K.I. Vibhute from the University of Pune explains this parochial and familial ideology of the rape laws as follows:

“It is believed that the husband’s immunity for marital rape is premised on the assumptions that a woman, on marriage, gives forever her consent to the husband for sexual intercourse. Her husband has the right to have sexual intercourse with her, whether she is willing or not, and she is under obligation to surrender or submit to his will and desire. It also aims at the preservation of family institution by ruling out the possibility of false, fabricated and motivated complaints of ‘rape’ by ‘wife’ against her ‘husband’ and the pragmatic procedural difficulties that might arise in such a legal proceeding.”

This reasoning by the Law Commission is definitely based on an expired thought process. Pitifully, similar reasoning has also been cited by the Supreme Court in the case of Bhupinder Singh Vs. Union Territory of Chandigarh. Here the court said that if a woman is in a void marriage with an already married man, then sexual intercourse by such man with her shall be considered Rape. This again highlights that only married women in valid marriages are not capable of being raped. So, a woman who finds out she is in a void marriage is in a better position to obtain remedy from the courts than a woman who is ‘validly’ married to a man who rapes her. How different is it from marry-your-rapist theory?

The Indian lawmakers have always buried the horror of marital rape under the ambit of sanctity in a marriage. If one must go into the debate of sanctity, how respectable and sanctimonious is a marriage if the husband’s actions strip the wife of every last bit of a her dignity? The preservation of the ‘family institution’ gives free reign to the husband and allows for incessant, unchecked and fully licensed sexual abuse of the validly married wife. This even allows grave violation of her fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution of India which grants even a validly married wife the right to life and personal liberty including the right to live with dignity and without harm.

It needs to be remembered that a marriage is essentially only a legally recognized union of two people as partners in a personal relationship which involves sexual activity and intercourse. What needs to be very clearly distinguished is that marriage is not another name for any kind of permanent and irrevocable consent by a wife to her husband for any and all sexual intercourse, and she definitely does not ‘surrender or submit to his will and desire’ in any blanket and all-encompassing manner for his whims and fancies. Merely because of the fact of marriage, a married woman does not lose her individuality and therefore cannot lose her right to give/revoke/refuse consent for sexual intercourse, even with her husband.

One of the biggest misconceptions which exist in the Indian mindset is that within the relationship of marriage, there is an unchecked license held by all men for having sex with their wives. The general population does not seem to comprehend the difference between the act of ‘sex’ (or sexual intercourse) and ‘rape’. We need to remind everyone that sex does not equate to rape, and rape does not equate to sex. Rape is the act of sex being done without the consent of the partner. So, the act of sex with a wife by a husband without HER CONSENT is Rape. This amounts to rape in every aspect of the offence and the Indian public as well as the lawmakers need to take note.

According to the latest report of National Crime Records Bureau in the year 2017, the total number of crimes committed against women in that year were 3,59,849. The total number of rape cases reported over the three year period from 2015 to 2017 were 34,651, 38,947 and 32,559 respectively. The total number of attempted rape cases reported were 4437, 5729 and 4154 respectively. However, we submit that these statistics provide a deceptive portrayal of the rape statistics in the country. This is because a huge population of married women who are being raped in the country have been completed avoided and rape crimes against these women are not even recognized.

When we do criminalise marital rape, it is reasonable to expect that there will be certain problems in implementation. However that is no reason to tolerate the continuance of horror and violence of rape against married women by their husbands. Some of the problems which can be foreseen include the difficulty in collection of necessary evidence, personal agendas for false complaints, misuse of the law for harassment etc.

However, these problems are no different from the problems encountered during the implementation of all laws in the country. Do we not find murder cases like Arushi Talwar where evidence collection and ambiguity of circumstances were a challenge? Do we not see cyber crimes which are nearly impossible to detect? Have we not come across personal agendas for false complaints in cases of political crimes and corruption? Do we not encounter the misuse of law for harassment of commercial sex workers and the LGBTQ+ community? Have these problems prevented us from enacting the necessary laws? NO.

Marital rape is similar. Awareness is a necessity and criminalization of this form of Rape is indispensable.

This post is Part 1 of our Day 6 of #16days of activism. The authors wish to remain anonymous.

How to be a friend during abuse.

TW: sexual abuse, trauma

When your friend confesses that her relationship has always been abusive, there are two instinctive emotions, at least for me. The first one was anger – anger that it had continued right under my very nose, anger that she had not told me sooner, anger that I had somehow not pieced the puzzle together when the evidence was before my eyes. The second one was an immediate desire to protect her – basically, to keep her from going back to that relationship no matter what. Over the next year, it dawned on me how misplaced both those feelings were. My anger was no help to her, and despite my desire to protect her, I watched as she went back to him over and over again in a vicious cycle. I soon realized that there was very little I could do to actually keep her from him – abuse is like an insidious drug, and I saw first hand how a cycle of dependence and trauma bonding kept bringing them back to each other. I soon realized that it was not my job to make her leave him, or shame her into doing so. I also realized that in several instances, my friend’s behavior was also unacceptable to me. This dichotomy between loving my friend, wanting her to leave her abuser, and simultaneously disliking the things she did almost drove me crazy.

I saw first hand how a cycle of dependence and trauma bonding kept bringing them back to each other

And then I came to see how abuse can totally break a person down, turn them into someone they themselves don’t want to be. I saw how abusers manipulate, lie and deceive, with the tacit support of their friends and society. My role was therefore, not to judge her or to compel her to take a particular course of action – my role was simply to keep her safe. This meant going home with her after drinking scenes so that she wouldn’t be alone with him. It meant listening to the same horrific stories over and over again. It meant getting into fights with her, because she would side with him over herself. It meant spending every minute with a person I was beginning to dislike. It meant standing up to him for her, when it mattered. It meant never lying to her about the truth of what was happening to her. It meant being ready with the joints and alcohol, ready to numb the pain, despite how unhealthy a coping mechanism it is. Now, we are both on the other side of it. I was the first and only person who knew the true extent of the horror she endured, and as a friend, there was very little I could do to stop it. All I could do was reaffirm in every way that she did not have to endure it alone. Now that it is all in the past, we are sometimes able to joke about it, which has been crucial to her recovery. Healing from abuse is a long, drawn out process. The triggers, the trauma and the anxiety are still with her – but so am I. At the end of the day, that’s all I can do.

This story was submitted to us my an anonymous writer for the StandAgainstRape campaign and has been published unedited.

What do you do when your loved one is abused?

Day 5 of the #16DaysofActivism

TW: Child sexual abuse, trauma

My significant other hid the fact he was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse for as long as he could hide it. When we became sexually active, the traumas of his past manifested physically into his body affecting our ability to be intimate. What I never expected was the emotional toil it would have on me. When he outlined the details of his traumas, I never could have imaged such evils in this world existed, it kept me up at night and caused me to retreat to the bathroom, turn the fan on, in hopes it would drown out my sporadic sobs. The details of his abuse still haunt me to this day (even 6 years after our relationship ended). At the time I felt an immense sense of responsibility to not only show him that sexual intimacy in our relationship is safe and I could be trusted, but that he pursued the professional counselling he so desperately required so he could live a life free of his past. Looking back, perhaps I persisted and pushed him too much, when he wasn’t ready. Would he have ever truly been “ready” to seek help? I firmly believed CBT exposure therapy would help him overcome the obstacles we were having in our intimate relationship. Instead of letting him guide me and tell me what he felt comfortable with or avoid these aspects of intimacy all together I initiated what I knew would make him uncomfortable.

Would he have ever truly been “ready” to seek help?

I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t seek professional advice, and was acting off of pure instinct for that reason I’m conflicted if I approached his recovery in the correct way. It was a dichotomy of feeling absolutely horrible and guilty for making him do something he was traumatised by, but normal in a healthy sexual relationship, and a sense of unwavering belief it would help him overcome his traumas. As he would physically recoil and sometimes cry we pushed through and eventually he physically overcame and we could have an enjoyable healthy intimate relationship. I hold a deep sense of pride for having trusted my gut instincts that helped him heal a portion of his past, but never knowing if I did the right thing, in the right timing, will haunt me just as often as his traumas.

This story was submitted to us by an anonymous writer for the StandAgainstRape campaign and has been published unedited.

Two stories, similar pain, and the promise of never again.

Trigger warning: Rape, child sexual abuse.

                          ‘I wish I had been raped’. I was sexually abused as a child, but never did he put his penis in my vagina. If he had done that, today as an adult I would have a very ‘accepted form’ of abuse; rape. It would have been easier for me to understand in my head (I am assuming). But it wasn’t. Our ‘relationship’ stretched over the years. It was pleasuring him, it was about watching him undress and it was also about video calling to get himself off. It was about keeping me so interested for his attention and making me feel like it’s a precious secret that was only for me. I remember my kid-self numbing these and being excited when he used to ask me about school and my day. I couldn’t have one without the other, so I ignored everything but normal conversations.

To give some perspective, I was around 14-15 years old, in school, the biggest bane in life being math. My whole life was my parents and the bubble I lived in. He was in his mid-late thirties, successful and sorted. He had a charming smile, a beautiful wife and a lovely daughter who was younger than me. He was a friendly neighbour. To anyone who knew me, I was a social-butterfly. It was normal to watch me sit with the car drivers and chat, play with the street dogs and it was ‘so me’ to be friends with a neighbour.

I wasn’t prepared to identify that the friendship was not really normal, because all my life I have been taught to be nice, to listen to elders and that men were always right. I grew up in a house where there was no television for most of my life, never been told what sex is about, no information about good and bad touch. I was the beacon of naivety. In my head everyone was amazing.

Now as an adult, I read the laws and I have a label for every incident. I have a distinct name to every single incident that happened to me. What am I supposed to do with it? Do I feel like a victim or a survivor? I feel neither. What I do feel is confusion and the constant debate in my head as to ‘but, I did do this and I did do that’. The shame and the guilt amplifies because reflecting upon child sexual abuse with a rational adult thinking is conflicting.

“The shame and the guilt amplifies because reflecting upon child sexual abuse with a rational adult thinking is conflicting.”

Can I ever explain how it feels exactly? Do people really understand how it feels? I am not so sure. I explained this story to my boyfriend once (obviously not every detail), he held me tight and comforted me. That night I had nightmares and couldn’t sleep at all. The next morning, he was grumpy that I didn’t let him sleep, he didn’t understand the trauma. Here is the thing, I wasn’t held down and violently raped. So it didn’t seem significant enough to him.

For a lot of friends and people in my generation, they have had sex for fun, pleasure and voluntarily since the age of 13. So it doesn’t make sense to them as to why this is abuse. On the contrary, cases of child marriage between a 15-year-old and a 40-year-old, is wrong.

‘It is not your fault’. I hate that sentence. How can I tell myself that it is not my fault when I have smiled at him and sent the first message and/or played with his wife and kid? You see, sexual violence is not always violent, aggressive nor is child sexual abuse for kids who are in their diapers or in primary school.  

“You see, sexual violence is not always violent, aggressive nor is child sexual abuse for kids who are in their diapers or in primary school. ” 

I have considered going to court and suing him. But I never did. I know it will be my life which is taken apart and it would be up to me to give the exact time and details of every incident. The abuse went on for years later, and even a year after I turned 18. I honestly don’t remember the exact flow of events nor do I have proof of anything at all. So why go through that humiliation? As an adult I feel more helpless than as a kid, because I know now, but my hands are still tied.

What did I do to help myself? I took therapy for years, I actively try to tell myself that it was abuse and I shouldn’t give excuses for him. I am still not at a place where I can confidently get on a stage and tell people about what I went through, because as an adult I know the society is not still at a point where they would agree that I was a child and I had no role to play in it. That has to change. I wish I knew back then about good touch and bad touch, but I will make sure my kids know about it, so they never have to live with that confusion and anxiety for the rest of their lives.

Do not shush me.

I never really knew what a ‘bad touch’ was. I still don’t think I have it figured out completely. When a relative of mine was making advances, I figured, ‘we’re related, he wouldn’t do anything that is wrong, besides, he is older.’ Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Even today, I am not sure when I was sexually offended for the first time. Is it when a relative loved kissing kids on the lips, or was it when another relative used a difficult time of mine to make advances, or was it when I was forced to read a pornographic book in school or was it when someone thought it was funny to read out a perverted version of a nursery rhyme to me? Every time one of this happened, I remained silent because I didn’t know when to shush, or when to scream for help. When I asked people who are older, they didn’t know either. I have had occasions where I was asked to ‘shush’ as it may create disturbances to the daily order of things. 

What has this done to me as a person?

I am always afraid. It’s getting better by the day, but yes, I am always afraid. I am scared that I will get molested or raped if I ever offend anyone. I am afraid that if I ever get married, I may be subject to domestic violence. I am afraid that no matter whom I chose to be my significant other, I would be making a wrong choice. What I am most afraid of is me being oblivious to an abusive relationship and never know that I am, in fact, being abused. I have encountered relationships where I did not know that I was being abused for almost 2 years. In fact, I am so terrified of losing myself again that I every time I use the word ‘love’ there is a sting. I am terrified of the fact that I still am not fully sure about what a good and a bad touch is. The concept of ‘consent’ is always the biggest debate in my head. 

“The concept of ‘consent’ is always the biggest debate in my head.”

Now that I am done with the trip, I must let you all know that despite everything, I have faith in the humanity. I have also moved on a great deal from my fears and I have started replacing them with happy thoughts and memories. On a separate note, one thing I have learnt is that the previous generation barely got any exposure and they were told to shush when things happened. Times were different. Unlike us, they didn’t know how to fight back, and even if they did, there were a very few who had the courage to fight back. I am sad that this happened to me, but I am glad that it will never happen to my kids because now, I know. I can to ensure that they know the importance of the word ‘no’. I also know that, I want to help every person who is going through this. What happened to me was horrifying and I want to aid in removing any stereotyping when it comes to abuse. I want to ensure that people are aware that there is no general threshold for determining what a bad touch is. I realise I cannot change what happened to me and a part of me will always be broken, but, I hope my story helps another one to not ‘shush’ when they encounter a ‘bad touch’.

A bad touch needn’t have bad intentions, if the child feels discomfort, then it is bad, for them.  

In conclusion:

A child is anyone under the age of 18, the sexual consent age differs in countries, but this article is not for a legal case. It is about prevention and for that start with a conversation. Ignorance is not bliss, if we shy away from having important conversations with our kids, they are going to unequipped to handle situations like these. Sex is not as scandalous as we have been led to believe, it is normal and we got to make sex education a normal thing too. Child sexual abuse manifests in different ways; it can be online, by a known person of the family. A lot of times children don’t realise until later that it was abuse and that affects them deeply. A simple way to help out is by keeping them informed and encouraging them to talk to someone if they feel like something is not right. A lot of sexual abuse cases are not black and white, not something which is articulate with symptoms. It is marred by confusion, guilt and shame. Education is the key to prevent, and for that to happen we need to let go of our preconceived notions.

This story is contributed by two people who would wish to remain anonymous. It has been submitted as part of the Stand Against Rape campaign.

Generation Equality: #OrangeTheWorld

16 Days of activism

The MSAAW Foundation is back!

And we begin with the United Nation’s campaign for Generation Equality! This year’s theme “Stand Against Rape” comes at the right time, to resuscitate the dwindling discussion the #MeToo movement had generated.

For 16 days from today, you can expect a wide variety of issues to be discussed on this platform. We are committed to raising awarenesses and changing the discourse when it comes to sexual violence.

So keep watching this space or follow us on Instagram and Facebook to find out more on how you can participate in this campaign!