Some years ago after giving a talk to judges at the National Judicial Academy, one of the judges called me aside and asked if he could discuss an issue that bothered him. He said that recently he had to pass sentence in a sexual assault case where there were several accused. In another similar case, there was one accused. In both the cases the girl was of same age, and the judge was not sure whether he should give the same punishment to all, or more in the gang rape case as he felt the girl would have suffered much more. Based on his perception, he had sentenced those accused in the gang rape far more than the solitary rapist. “Would not the girl suffer far more if she had many assailants?” he asked me. Yet “in your study it tells me the girl suffers the same in both the situation. How is that possible?”
“Any violation is a violation,” I told him. “Any single violation of your body can prove to be as traumatic whether it is a single one or when many men assault you. Trauma cannot be put in degrees or quantified. All such attempts are attempts to minimize a trauma.”
“I have seen women being molested who cry and act suicidal as much as women who have been sexually assaulted,” he said. “But I could never understand why and thought they were trying to dramatize it and trying to get attention. Now, I understand it a little more. That is the way we conceptualize about trauma and it is based on our own prejudices. In my case, they have not been based on what is the felt experience of the women but on my own projections.”
According to him, in law enforcement, the judiciary, police officers and judges often try to quantify trauma and the grief of people. Therefore, he and many others pass judgments that are often subjective. A single slap is often not considered a trauma, while a couple of slaps may be, particularly if they happen every day over a period of time leading to injuries. Violence is often equated or measured by how vicious a beating the victim had to go through, and this often meant she had to have a black eye or a broken bone for it to qualify as an assault. All violence is seen as relative, considered a matter of degree and emotions or trauma of a victim is no exception.
The impact of physical damage can be very different from the psychological scars we carry within ourselves which cannot be seen. The judge said once he had asked a woman who told him that her husband slapped her, how many times he had slapped her. When she said only once, he had dismissed the case saying it was making a mountain out of a molehill.
So, what had happened to make him discuss this issue with me? “It happened with my granddaughter,” he said. “While going to college, she was groped by an elderly man in public. She had kept quiet, come back home and locked herself in the room. Much later she told us what happened and said none of the men helped her. One of them had even smiled saying it was not a serious issue. She is not the same person anymore. She became a scared woman and has lost her vivaciousness. She smiles much less now and rarely goes out.” A single act can damage anyone for life. We cannot assign any degree to extent of suffering.
“This kind of thinking is widespread,” he said. “We men and women too try to quantify psychological scars in women forgetting how deep and traumatic are the scars they carry,” he said as he left.
Something similar seems to have happened where a judgment has been passed in which an elderly man who groped a twelve-year- old girl without removing her clothes was let off on the grounds that since he had not removing her clothes, he doesn’t deserve the same punishment. The implication is clear. The trauma of the girl must be far less because her clothes remained in place. In conclusion, according to the learned Milords, there are degrees of groping and they depend upon whether the woman’s clothes are in place or not.
So, what will gropers of the world feel now? Will they feel a victory? Or believe that they have got nothing to lose now as there would be no jail or punishment? It is surely the best gift of 2021 for them and definitely something to look forward to when the world comes to normal after the COVID pandemic is over. All they have to see is that the poor woman, in this case a child, is clothed. To be fair to them, most gropers don’t mess with clothes anyway. Gropers will heartily agree to this new rule. As any one of them, whether from Santa Cruz or San Francisco will tell you, it doesn’t make the least of difference to them. Their pleasure or ‘high’ as they call it comes not from the feeling the skin of the woman, in most cases a child, but her discomfort. In fact as any woman who travels in Delhi’s buses will tell you, gropers enjoy doing it more in public and rarely care for whether they are able to touch the skin or not. The excitement comes from the anxiety and humiliation the woman undergoes. Groping is an act of raw and brute power that reduces a woman to a state of utter helplessness, often transforming her for life because her body has been violated. Something she was told to see as a ‘mandir’ now lies desecrated. It is her uncertainty, her doubt as to what is happening within that tells him he has succeeded.
Skin plays a minimal role for gropers or molestors. It rarely provokes them sexually, and as studies show the cause for them lies in a fantasy to dominate, one equated with power. Not one of the hundreds of rapists, molesters, gropers ever interviewedver mentioned the woman’s body, her skin, her dress or physical attributes as the provocation or reason for rape. The skin is rarely a fetish in their fantasy of a woman, little girls included. It is the sheer domination over a helpless girl, in this case, a child that is the sole reason that matters. The man in Bombay tried doing so with a little girl fully clothed. Would his happiness or satisfaction be any less if it wasn’t so? Absolutely not. Most gropers find the body, the skin distasteful and everything associated with it ugly and prefer it to grope with clothes on. It is not the skin that stimulates, but the thought of the woman. An art where the fully clothed body is far more desirable than the non clothed one.
Does groping cause as much psychic pain as other sexual violations like molestation? The answer is that the difference is so small as to be considered negligible. The woman or child who has been groped feels unclean, dirty and used, and this feeling lasts a long time and remains repressed. It is something that one doesn’t talk about, and she remains in silence because of shame. Many children who go through it report it years later saying they hated themselves because they believed they had brought it upon themselves.
Making a woman’s trauma look relative is perhaps the most dangerous thing we can do, because it makes society even more unsafe for women and children. Many years ago while testifying in a case, the defense lawyer had argued that that the man while having sex had worn a condom and therefore, it showed that he has been considerate to her and could be given some plus points. Everyone had laughed except the woman. It made little difference to her. A violation doesn’t become any less because of a sheet of rubber. Similarly a piece of cloth doesn’t make it less of a trauma for women who will have to figure out for a long time why the feelings of being dirty and disgust keep on arising in her and how she will come to terms with those inner demons that don’t seem to go away.
A piece of cloth does not make a difference, My Lord.
(The author is professor of psychology, Amity University. Views expressed are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Outlook Magazine.)