In an India Rife With Sexual Assault, Too Many “Good Men” Look the Other Way

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 29 2013 11:26 AM

India’s Man Problem

In a country rife with sexual assault, too many “good men” look the other way.

Delhi, India
Good men?

Photo by Tanushree Punwani/Reuters

Earlier this month, responding to the wave of news about Indian men fatally gang-raping a 23-year-old student, of Indian children being lured with chocolate and then sexually assaulted, and of Western women in study-abroad programs suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after repeatedly being groped and harassed by Indian men, Lavanya Sankaran published an essay in the New York Times  titled “The Good Men of India.”

She writes:

Let me introduce the Common Indian Male, a category that deserves taxonomic recognition: committed, concerned, cautious; intellectually curious, linguistically witty; socially gregarious, endearingly awkward; quick to laugh, slow to anger. Frequently spotted in domestic circles, traveling in a family herd. He has been sighted in sari shops and handbag stores, engaged in debating his spouse’s selection with the sons and daughters who trail behind. There is, apparently, no domestic decision that is not worthy of his involvement.
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Thank you for the introduction, but was there ever a question that men in India are capable of good acts? Is Sankaran explaining to her audience, as an adult would to small children, that there are different kinds of people in the world and that yes, Virginia, Indians are people too?

Sankaran’s need to point out the sunny obvious is only slightly less offensive than her undercutting of the seriousness of India’s problems. At best, she writes of the Good Man’s doting domesticity, “the results, in women’s lives, speak for themselves.” But “[a]t its excessive worst, this sensibility can produce annoyances: a sentimentalized addiction to Mummy; concern that becomes judgmental and stifling; and a proud or oversensitive emotional landscape.”

If that’s the excessive worst, then Sankaran’s daddy kept her more sheltered than the rest of us. Because we know that the Common Indian Male is more flawed than this. True, he can be all the wonderful things Sankaran lists. But he also can be timid, and sometimes even craven.

To understand what I’m talking about, observe the Common Indian Male’s interaction with the Common Indian Child. It’s India’s dirty little not-so-secret: Fifty-three percent of children—boys and girls equally—are victims of sexual abuse, ranging from child grooming and forcible kissing to petting and penetration. That’s according to a 2007 study by the Indian Government of nearly 12,500 children from across India. Half the abused children in the study were preyed upon by “persons known to the child or in a position of trust and responsibility.”

Contrary to Sankaran’s classist argument, this is not an issue of lower classes skewing results. In a 2006 study conducted by the nongovernmental organizations Save the Children and Tulir on 2,211 schoolchildren from Chennai, “the prevalence of sexual abuse in upper and middle class was found to be proportionately higher than in lower and lower-middle class.”

Just how bad is it in the upper echelons of society? A 1998 study by RAHI (Recovery And Healing from Incest), a Delhi-based NGO, surveyed 600 English-speaking women from upper and middle classes and found that 76 percent of respondents had been sexually abused when they were children. Forty percent of those abuses were committed by a family member, typically an uncle, a cousin, or an older brother.

Indian men masquerading as trusted friends or relatives prey upon Common Indian Children. These men are not what Sankaran describes as “feral men, untethered from their distant villages, divorced from family and social structure … denied access to regular female companionship.”  These men are deep within a family’s framework.

I know this because I was once a Common Indian Child.

I was 12, on my first trip to India without my parents. A group of cousins and I were dutifully visiting some elders—summers in India are scorching, so I broke away from the group and went to the kitchen for a bottle of water. I crossed the living room, and there he was, lying on a bench swing, gently swaying, reading a newspaper. He saw me, pushed his reading glasses up on his head and his face lit up. He said my name, held out his hand. Thinking he wanted a handshake, I put my hand in his.

He said something then, something like how it was good to see me after so long, and how were my parents? He tugged my hand across his body until I was splayed on his chest. I remember thinking, is he trying to hug me? I started to answer. His hand cupped my breast through my thin kameez, his finger stroked over my nipple.

I froze. I’d been drilled to obey my elders, but this was wrong wrong wrong, and I knew it. I should have screamed bloody murder. I should have roused the whole family. I should have made a scene. Instead I made small talk for a while until the conversation faded and I could escape.

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