Although I lived and worked in India for two years, and spent much of that time paying attention, I never became an “expert” on anything. India was a magnificent country, populated by wonderfully vibrant and generous people, but as a foreigner, I had no illusions as to my status. I knew I would always be on the outside looking in.
Which is why, when I get asked today about India’s recent and well-publicized outbreak of brutal rapes, I have little to say. Are these rapes anomalies? Very possibly. Are they a sign of the times? Could be. Are they symptomatic of something deeper and more disturbing? I honestly don’t know.
But there was one topic on which the Indians did consider me an expert. That topic was sex. Good, old-fashioned American-style sex. Indeed, when it came to the sexual customs and practices of the USA, I was everybody’s go-to guy. This was many years ago, mind you, before the Internet, before cable, and before the proliferation of pornography.
As soon as a group of men were comfortable speaking freely (occasionally lubricated by alcohol), they would very casually divert the conversation to a discussion of sex, usually initiating it by asking me if I were married, and then proceeding incrementally from there. This was true of college professors, engineers, bureaucrats, students and farmers. Everyone was interested in sex.
Well, not quite everyone. I still recall a conversation I had with a college student at a local tea stall in Punjab. A timid young man approached my table and politely asked if I were an American. When I answered affirmatively, he asked if he could pose a question. Believing I knew exactly where he was headed, I smiled knowingly, invited him to sit, and assured him he could ask me anything he liked.
He then said, “Your country has the Electoral College. What is that?” I was caught completely off-guard and horrified. But instead of confessing that I had no idea how the nuts and bolts of the Electoral College worked, I panicked and began talking gibberish. Big mistake. My subsequent explanation was so shallow and preposterous, I crept away in embarrassment.
The two phenomena that most surprised my Indian hosts: (1) Premarital sex in the U.S. was so common, no one even thought about it, and (2) American men generally don’t require their wives to be virgins. That second one was the real mind-blower. In fact, it was so alien to these Indians, I had the feeling they were unable to fully process it.
The thing to remember about rural and small-town India is that virginity is a given. There is no such thing as courtship. There is no dating. Virtually all the marriages are arranged by the respective parents. While that custom has changed a bit over the years (especially in the big cities), it’s still the norm. The majority of Indians still live in villages, which means the majority of their marriages are still arranged.
An arranged marriage is a difficult concept for Westerners to understand, much less embrace. Here’s an analogy. A man’s wife is expecting a baby. If the man were to go around telling people he hoped the kid turned out to be good-looking because he couldn’t love a homely child, we would all think he was an immature jerk (or worse). The Indians take a similar view in regard to marriage.
They believe that because people are inherently “lovable,” if you place two strangers together as husband and wife, they will eventually fall in love, especially when the woman becomes the mother of the man’s child. While some observers have called this view “primitive and sexist,” others have labeled it “enlightened and sophisticated.” In any event, to us Westerners steeped in personal liberty, it’s patently absurd.
It’s said that rape is not a sexual act so much as a violent one—a brutal act of physical domination and degradation. This explanation makes sense because, in truth, it’s hard to imagine a man raping a woman purely out of lust or frustration or sexual repression. Horny men don’t rape women; sociopaths rape women.
One difference between U.S. and Indian rapes is that Indian rapes are infinitely more shaming and determinative. While the trauma and humiliation of a rape may be the same for women of all cultures, the social implications for an Indian woman are poison. A woman in rural India who’s been raped is spoken of as having been “ruined.” No one is going to marry her. She’ll become a charity case, destined to live with relatives who resent her.
On the rare occasion a rural rape is reported to the authorities, it’s not unusual for the police to suggest the victim and rapist get married. They urge them to become man and wife to spare the woman the shame. Even acknowledging that East is East and West is West, and making allowances for cultural differences, could anything be sadder?