Vasu Primlani on Why Men Rape, and How India Can Fix Its ‘Rape Epidemic’

You may have seen Vasu Primlani’s video on solutions to India’s rape crisis. The five-minute clip has gone viral on WhatsApp groups and online especially after the horrific gang-rape of an eight-year-old child in Kathua, Jammu, besides news from elsewhere in India of minors being raped and murdered.

A child-rape survivor herself, Vasu is now one of the most prominent social entrepreneurs in the United States. She is also a somatic therapist, actor (her latest film was Badrinath ki Dulhaniya), environmentalist, professor (at institutions such as IIT, Xavier Institute of Management Bhubaneswar, University of Michigan among others), besides also a dedicated triathlete, environmentalist, and one of India’s leading standup comedians.

She has received over a dozen environmental and economic leadership awards globally, including India’s Nari Shakti Award 2017.

We ask her about India’s ‘rape epidemic’.

In light of the Kathua and Unnao rapes, what are your views on rapists? Why do men rape?

Unnao and Kathua are the shame of India. At the same time, you have to know what causes rape to fix it. No child is born a criminal or a rapist. They are MADE into one. Men who rape have been through a great deal of physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse as children. They have seen how violence operates. Who creates rapists? We do, as a society.

A  study on developmental experiences of child sexual abusers and rapists (Simons DAWurtele SKDurham RLChild Abuse Negl. 2008 May;32(5):549-60. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2007.03.027), which studied 269 sexual offenders (137 rapists and 132 child sexual abusers), found that compared to rapists, child sexual abusers reported more frequent experiences of child sexual abuse (73%) and early exposure to pornography (65% before age 10).

In contrast, rapists reported more frequent experiences of physical abuse (68%), parental violence (78%), and emotional abuse (70%). Both child sexual abusers and rapists (>93%) reported frequent exposure to violent media during their childhood. Most offenders (94%) described having insecure parental attachment bonds.

These children grow to be adults, and to lack empathy – because no one considered their feelings in the first place.

What about the rapes of girls from the weaker communities by those in positions of power? Doesn’t a sense of entitlement drive these men?

Yes, sense of entitlement, but I know enough young rich brats to whom it does not occur to rape a woman. Wealth and upper caste have nothing to do with the absence of violence. Even the most powerful actresses in India may have gone through abuse. Both Hitler and Charlie Chaplin had bad childhoods. What makes one man different from the other?

Some of our richest children go through neglect, having been raised by maids and nurses when the parents are busy being successful. Rape is an age-old weapon of war. If you have a son or a husband, can you imagine him raping someone as a soldier? For some men it is less possible than for others. Why?

So how can we stop rape?

You don’t have to talk to victims to stop rape. You can stop rape only by changing the rapists. By doing critical, immediate rehabilitation for rapists. Rapists know shame, humiliation, and violence. What they do not know is what safety feels like. Or what kindness is. They have to have their humanity restored.

When I did counselling for a rapist, I was told he has no feelings. They beat him and threw him out of the house, and not one tear from him. When I did somatic therapy for him, and caressed his forehead with kindness, he cried non-stop for three hours. He was raped himself as a boy (as was true of Nirbhaya’s rapist as well). Even if we can save one rapist’s life, it’s worth it.

Vasu Primlani-8.jpg
Vasu Primlani

Despite India being an ancient land that revered various devis and goddesses, what explains the rise in rapes and sexual assault in the modern day?

Indians don’t talk about what is hurting them; they don’t seek help because of ideas around ‘shame’. There is no shame in being raped. We need to start talking about these things as a society without blame, without judgement.

I think India hasn’t faced its history yet. There were invasions upon invasions of rape and pillaging, which imprinted violence and sexual assault upon Indians. This got passed on from generation to generation. From parent to child. We need to heal as a people.

Almost every second news item today in India is about sexual assault or gender violence. Is so much media attention helpful or is it aggravating the problem?

Exposure to violence of any kind does make an impact on the level of violence. Exposure to pornography at a young age has a similar deleterious effect, because the boys are not old enough to distinguish between what they watch and real women.

We need to talk about this stuff, yes, but without assigning blame, judgment, politicizing the issue. What solutions have been talked about?

And please don’t insult India by recommending the removal of dark windows on buses or draping girls in coats in Indian summers as a solution to rape. When you don’t know what caused it, you can’t solve it.

How can the media help in promoting respect towards women?

Showing images of true respect. Showing women as strong. And by promoting programmes of healing and education for boys and men. Indian men, by and large, don’t know how to talk to women, relate to them, or respect them.

Bollywood is full of disrespect toward women – from stalking women, not taking no for an answer, to messages that if you follow a woman around long enough, she will say yes, her no actually means a yes.

How can women in their various roles help to create a safer environment for themselves?

Raise your boys properly. A lot of women don’t know how to say no. It took my mother years before she could stop her husband from throwing me out of the house when I was four years old, then when I was 15. A lot of mothers have to protect their children from their own husbands.

If women refuse to get married when others ask them to, refuse to have children when they are told to, and do it only when they want to, we would have happier mothers, and therefore happier children.

Can a rapist ever be rehabilitated and learn to respect women?

For some, it’s too late. They are all monster and no man. But I conjecture (without an actual study) that most can – through dedicated and detailed work. And it’s very, very, hard work. My experience with a rapist tells me even though they seem happy on the surface, they carry as much trauma as a gang-rape victim.

I call upon all healers of society to stand by me in conducting a nation-wide program for this greatest of epidemics facing India right now.

Lead image credit: Alexas Fotos on Pixabay.com

This interview was first published in eShe magazine’s May 2018 issue.

Co-published on CNBC TV18