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Capital Punishment and Rape Culture – An Essay

The following essay is written as part of Weekly Essay Challenge by Mr. Amudhan.

Capital Punishment and Rape Culture


Rape is and never was solely about sex. Rape is an act of violence with the intent of domination of an individual. A discourse on rape or rape culture must recognize it as a constituent of a larger ‘Culture of Violence’. Such a culture would be divided other differentia such as economic strata, skin color, caste, religion or region. However we will restrict ourselves to the Male/female binary and consider its impact on society. Furthermore we will consider the behavioral and structural constructs that uphold rape culture and consider the impact of the death penalty on rape culture.

Rape culture is the validation, naturalization and perpetuation of rape. Its essence lies in accepting rape as the norm and fails to recognize it a severe societal problem that needs to be addressed. Furthermore it may even purport rape as an inevitable evil of society; which cannot be eradicated. The naturalization of rape in India can be seen in its frequency of reported crimes in the media. Seldom has anyone made it through a week without hearing about a rape committed against women. It is prevalent and depicted in the movies. Author Arunadhati Roy noted depiction in the Malayam movies were so prevalent that she feared it would happen to her (“rape is an entertainer for people”)

Rape is validated in a rape culture. Societal values legitimate the domination of women by men. It’s in our history, the movies and one does not need to look beyond our street. The legitimacy of male domination is the fertile ground upon which the rationale for victim blaming emerges, wherein the ‘desires of men’ are established as involuntary so it’s up-to-women to not get raped leading naturally to the conclusion that women engender their own rape; reasons for which include a lack of clothing, lack of a male companion or the wrong place at the wrong time. The outpour after the Delhi rape case happened precisely because there was no room for victim blaming. The heroine came back from watching a movie, wearing appropriate clothing with a male companion at an appropriate time on public transportation.

Rape culture perpetuates rape. Conviction rates for rape cases are abysmally low in India. Lack of evidences, unreported cases and victim badgering in the courtroom are among it causes. Police men refusing to file FIR’s upon the statement by a victim was recognized by the Verma committee. These characteristic in a milieu of shame surrounding rape victims ensures that justice never reaches the victims or the perpetrators. This lack of justice dispensed to the perpetrators emboldened the juvenile rapist in the Delhi case to say “don’t worry, nothing will happen” to becalm the others.

The keystone of a rape culture is the commoditization of a women’s body and lack of control that women have over it. The laws of the land and constitution provide adequate safeguards for women e.g. dowry laws, domestic violence laws with non-compoundable offences etc. However they are non-implementable. This dissonance is product of a conflict between our societal values and the values upon which laws of the land are founded. This has doomed them to have no impact. Other legislation have fallen prey to this contradiction including PCPNDT, Women’s reservation Bill and Manual Scavengers Bill. It is in this context that we must consider the efficacy of the death penalty in challenging rape culture.

It can be stated at the onset that the death penalty will have minimal or no impact in the medium to long-term without a simultaneous change in societal values. It may have a short-term impact due to shock value. Studies have shown that the death penalty has failed to have a significant impact on crime rates in countries that still conduct them. The experiments of the Behaviorist Skinner shed some light as to why it may not have such impact. In the Pigeon experiment conducted by Skinner within the behaviorist model has concluded the following:

it is not the severity of the punishment that effectively modifies behavior but the certainty and speed with which the punishments will be dispensed after particular action has been committed. The dispensation must extend a period of time to be a modifier

If we expand this experiment to law and order, the death penalty would correlate with severity of punishment which will have little significant impact in behavior modification unless certainty and speed of justice in also improved. In light of Skinner’s experiments we may appreciate the sagacity of the Verma committee report. It did not advocate for the death penalty but rather chose to make recommendations that improve conviction rates (certainty) such as mandatory filing of FIR, broadening of the definition of sexual assault and removal of protection under AFSPA. Furthermore it recommended establishing fast track courts for improve the speed.

The death penalty is not only ineffective in stopping rape but not the address the fundamental problem that creates rapists. It is a Band-Aid to a gaping wound. The philosophical underpinning of punishment within a modern society is not retributive but corrective justice. The point of jail, corrective facilities, is to give enough time for the individual to correct his behavior so that he may rejoin society. The rationale for a death penalty extends to cases where correction is no longer feasible or is detrimental to society. In such cases the individual is permanently removed from society.

In other words, a farmer (the government) who finds infected livestock (the criminals) does not kill it (death penalty) to stop it from infecting the others but rather attempts to cure it (corrective facility)and in the process of curing finds its source. He removes the source (initiate changes in societal values, institutions and individuals) to protect the rest of his livestock. Simply killing an infected livestock may work in the short term but it will merely put the farmer in another position to kill his own again since the source has not been eradicated. Therefore Rape culture in India is unlikely to be challenged with the imposition of the death penalty in India.