Why we need to disrupt gendered perceptions of sexual crime

Posted on: 1 March 2021 by Deana Heath in 2021 posts

Illustration of two Indian women in the 19th century
Illustration of women in India, circa 19th century. Getty images.

When it comes to an event such as Women’s History Month, we rightly celebrate women’s achievements and the historical contributions that they have made, in addition to exploring women’s lives and experiences.

Such acts are a means of bringing into history the one half of the population whose lives and experiences continue, in many ways, to be relegated to the side-lines, as bit players in a drama dominated by men.

My research on police torture in colonial India includes a forthcoming book, 'Colonial Terror - Torture and State Violence in Colonial India'. This focuses on the role of what I refer to as the state’s ‘violence workers’, most notably the Indian police, in perpetuating torture for the maintenance of the British colonial regime. It suggests that some of the ways in which ‘do’ women’s history can hinder our attempts to understand their pasts. 

I am referring specifically, here, to the ways in which historians tend to approach sexual violence.

Sexual violence, gender and history

As I discovered during my research, sexual violence was ubiquitous when it came to the police torture of both women and men in colonial India, particularly when the victims were low-caste or otherwise marginal.

Yet although sexual violence against men has historically been, and remains, both pervasive and unexceptional, it is generally hidden behind terms such as ‘abuse’, ‘mistreatment’ or, as was the case in colonial India, ‘torture’. Men rarely speak out, in addition, about the sexual violence to which they have been subject, and legal systems have, until relatively recently, offered little recourse for those who wished to.

Since acts of sexual violence are inherently gendered – in the case of men, they are used to emasculate and humiliate men and their communities – sexual violence against men, as in the case of women, serves to empower male perpetrators of such violence as masculine, dominant, as well as, perhaps surprisingly, heterosexual. 

The gendered binaries through which sexual violence tends to be approached, however, with men as perpetrators and women as victims, serve not only to reify existing hierarchies of victimhood, but to normalize sexual violence against women by reinforcing perceptions of women as inherently violable.

Elucidating the history of sexual violence against women while ignoring that against men (or solely against girls while disregarding the experiences of boys), limits the potential scope, moreover, of historical understanding – of, in this case, not just the interrelationships between the sexual violation of both women and men, and what this reveals about the nature of sexual violence, but the nature of colonialism and its impact on the colonised. 

Colonialism and sexual violence

Colonialism and sexual violence are intimately entwined. Not only did hierarchical relations between the colonisers and colonised facilitate sexual expectations and demands, but since colonial relationships were inherently gendered and sexualized, with the body a key trope between which the purported differences between the colonisers and the colonised were discursively constructed, sexual violence became a tool through which peoples whose bodies were engendered as degenerate, deviant, impure, and barbarous were marked as inherently violable.

Although such violence was, moreover, often perpetrated by the colonised against each other, as in the torture cases I have examined, it should nonetheless be regarded as a form of colonial violence due to the ways in which, as Frantz Fanon has argued, colonialism produces a self-hatred in the colonised that manifests in what he terms ‘collective auto-destruction’. 

When it comes to sexual violence, therefore, doing justice to the history of women, not to mention the contexts in which such violence was particularly manifest, necessitates that we interrogate their experiences in relation to those of men.

Discover more

Deana's book, 'Colonial Terror - Torture and State Violence in Colonial India' will be available from 23 March 2021.

Find out more about history research at Liverpool.