Sexual violence and the fear of sexual abuse can have a profound and devastating effect on not only individuals but entire communities. When approaching the subject of criminality, the easiest way to look at criminals is from the hero and villain duality, wherein criminals are simply the "bad guys". The idea of a criminal brings to mind someone who is essentially flawed with a deviant nature. It helps create the idea of "us"—the law-abiding do-gooders and "them"—the wicked lot, and through this division, individuals (in the "us" group) find an easy way to blame all that is wrong in society on "them" without having to ever look inwards. In an article for The Daily Star, Shuprova Tasneem argues: "And finally, once you figure out the laws of the land do not apply to you and you can abuse your power in the most monstrous of ways—by violating another human being's body without facing any consequences—then who will answer for creating monsters like you?"
The same sentiment was also seen during the nationwide protests following the 2012 Delhi gang-rape case, with politicians and authorities labelling the rapists as "monsters" who, according to them, did not represent the majority of the Indian populace. But is it really that straightforward? It is often difficult to "describe" who is a rapist, particularly outside of the legal definition. So, let's look at who is not. In some scriptures such as Deuteronomy, it is outlined that he's not a rapist if the woman didn't scream. Many judicial systems, including the one in Bangladesh, will say he's not a rapist if he's your husband (a national survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics in 2015 found that at least 27 percent of the 20,000 married women surveyed had experienced sexual violence by their husbands). While only a handful, many also say that he's not a rapist if he marries you soon after and protects your honour. Many people who are an integral part of the criminal justice system such as police officers and judges may also have a myriad of rape myths that assist them in deciding who is not a rapist: perhaps well-educated men, famous men, rich men, men who have never raped before, men who didn't commit any physical violence or had any weapons, men who claim they had had previous consensual sex with the victim… the list is never ending.
But here's the interesting thing: when Dr Samuel D Smithyman in 1976 sent a personal ad in the newspaper throughout Los Angeles that he wants to interview rapists anonymously over the phone, he was surprised to see how normal they sounded and how diverse their backgrounds were. This became the foundation of his thesis titled, "The Undetected Rapist". In my own research, for which I interviewed 100 convicted rapists in Delhi's Tihar Jail, it was found that traditional gender roles in India had led to the formation of negative and oppressive societal attitudes towards women, which continue to persist till today and their extreme manifestation can be witnessed in the form of sexual violence. Furthermore, there is a widespread perception that rapists as a group tend to hold more oppressive attitudes towards women. However, comparative findings from the interviews of convicted rapists and convicted murderers revealed no significant differences in the way gender was socialised.
In my sample of convicted offenders, home was the main gender socialisation site and the mother was central to this process. At the same time, both groups of offenders differed with respect to their self-perceptions of offending. Rapists referred to themselves as "inmates" and non-sex offenders referred to themselves as "offenders". Non-sex offenders accepted responsibility for their actions but attempted to justify their intent, whereas rapists denied responsibility and attributed blame to the victim. Rapists also used various identity-management mechanisms to reject the label of "rapist". The increased debates about sexual violence in South Asia, coupled with the lack of research on convicted sex offenders (particularly rapists), has demonised this group of offenders and accorded them a somewhat "extraordinary" status. These men are not special. They are not different. They are not sick or mad.
Fast forward to the present and the same reality is reflected even today. Women have voiced their harrowing stories in light of the #MeToo movement and the profiles of the accused are so varied that it is difficult to generate a prototype. Therefore, we must first and foremost accept this existential truth that most rapists look and behave like everyone else. In a patriarchal society, men are learning to have false ideas about masculinity and sexual privilege, and women also learn to be submissive. It is easy to think that there's something inherently wrong with the rapists. However, it is important to note that these men are not aliens who've been brought in from another world. They are also a part of our society and have developed through the same gender and sexuality norms. Therefore, challenging concepts of patriarchy and traditional masculinity does not only benefit women but also men. When we think about gender equality, we straightaway think about women's empowerment but we often forget that in our fight for gender equality, men need to play a very important role.
Public outrage often leads to more punitive measures towards combatting sexual violence where keeping convicted sex offenders in prison for longer may seem appealing but in reality, this doesn't contribute towards reducing the risk of reoffending. There are many factors associated with reoffending such as social and emotional isolation, unemployment or not having something meaningful to do in life. While it is a bitter pill to swallow for the public when it comes to rehabilitating sex offenders, the hardest fact that we must face is that the vast majority of sex offenders will one day be released and we need to provide support for their reintegration in order to avoid reoffending and reduce future victimisation.
If you think about the recent public and policy responses to rape in Bangladesh, you will find that there is a strong call for stricter/harsher punishments and that's about it. This means that a strong response in the pre-conviction stage for harsher punishments will ultimately lead to more convicts in already overcrowded prisons which will make it harder to develop and implement rehabilitation programmes. And once released, men with previous sexual convictions would once again have no support or training to manage their misplaced sexual and gendered notions, making way for reoffending. Promoting prison reform remains challenging in Bangladesh as the function of imprisonment in the Bangladeshi justice system is exclusion from society, and prisoners are almost totally isolated from the outside world. However, the answer to combatting sexual violence—rape, in particular—is to develop programmes that can utilise an offender's conviction time effectively by challenging gender myths and stereotypes, addressing their misplaced notions of masculinity and providing them with a safe environment to not only speak about their crimes but also reflect on them.
Effective rehabilitation of offenders is also an important human rights issue and should be acknowledged and incorporated into treatments and programmes especially when we know that there is no empirical evidence to show that death penalty deters perpetration of sexual violence.
An excellent example of community reintegration and rehabilitation of sex offenders is The Corbett Centre based in Nottingham Trent University, UK along with their Sexual Offences, Crime and Misconduct Research Unit (SOCAMRU). In 2018, the main sex offender treatment programme for England and Wales was scrapped by the Ministry of Justice after a report revealed it led to more reoffending. Now, more than ever, there is a strong need for programmes like the Corbett Centre for Prisoner Reintegration, the world's first holistic approach to fully integrating sex offenders back into society, and universities can play a vital role in this approach. Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have been working with men with previous sexual convictions in order to develop community hubs. Below is a first-hand account from Bob (pseudonym) who is sharing his experience of having a sexual conviction and the importance of reintegration of men who commit sex offences back into society in order to combat future victimisation:
In everyday, normal, non-Covid, life, a person who commits a sexual offence against a child or young person or an adult (whether this is an internet or contact offence) rarely receives any support or awareness of deeper issues before conviction. Putting aside, for a moment, the many reasons why anyone commits any crime (even those more serious and socially taboo), this experience can destroy one's world in an instant; the loss of work, family, friends, identity, reputation, freedom (and much more) can lead to harrowing custodial ordeals or equally traumatic, ongoing, social judgement.
This, while at the same time as taking responsibility, understanding victimisation, psychological processing and rehabilitation to understand behaviours, coping strategies and the dangers of re-offending (in tandem with safeguarding the wider public) can also lead to isolation, less support, less confidence, huge challenges finding work or opportunity, a sense of self, community and re-designing one's place in society. This can lead to mental health issues, re-offending, self-harm and other self-destructive behaviours, as well as suicide—a further strain on services already struggling to deal with increases of this crime, an added trauma for family or friends struggling to support these offenders, as well as every single person left impacted by these events.
This area of crime is a hidden public health crisis, one that the police admit they cannot arrest their way out of. Outlined above are just a few examples of the everyday barriers that sexual offenders face to basic sustainable necessities. Some will always argue this is fair, considering the severity and taboo of this crime. But, if we expect to limit recidivism, rebuilding and redesigning every offender's sense of self, sense of purpose and sense of identity, in more supportively navigating those barriers to sustainable work, genuine social rehabilitation and valuable re-contribution to society, we have to stop hiding away, stubbornly refusing to debate, while the crisis only deepens.
I do not share the same views in the matter of death penalty. I am a strong believer in reform and rehabilitation. Retribution is not a very helpful starting position, instead we should direct our attention towards structural societal change that addresses the asymmetric power relationship between men and women in Bangladesh.
Dr Madhumita Pandey is Lecturer in Criminology, Sheffield Hallam University. Her doctoral research explored gender socialisation and perceptions of culpability in the narratives of convicted violent offenders from Delhi prison based on interviews with over 100 convicts.