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Sexual violence against women: Understanding cross-cultural intersections


Interpersonal violence whether it is sexual or nonsexual, remains a major problem in large parts of the world. Sexual violence against children and women brings with it long-term sequelae, both psychiatrically and socially. Apart from sexual gratification itself, sexual violence against women is often a result of unequal power equations both real and perceived between men and women and is also strongly influenced by cultural factors and values. Within sociocentric and ego-centric cultures, the roles and representations of genders, and attitudes toward sexual violence differ. Cultures which are described as feminist, provide equal power to both men and women. Sexual violence is likely to occur more commonly in cultures that foster beliefs of perceived male superiority and social and cultural inferiority of women. Although culture is an important factor to understand sexual violence in its entirety, we need to look at, as well as beyond cultural structures, their strengths and weaknesses.


Interpersonal violence against perceived or real weaker partner is a widespread phenomenon. Sexual violence is a profoundly negative and traumatic life event with widespread psychological and sociological effects on the victim irrespective of their gender. It often gives rise to a wide range of negative emotions, embarrassment, and existential questions such as “Why me?” It increases feelings of helplessness and powerlessness in the victim affecting their self-esteem and producing feelings which suggest that they may be vulnerable to further violence. It is likely that the fear of sexual violence in women will restrict their freedom and occupational opportunities and affect their long-term psychological well-being. Sexual violence is rarely discussed within professional circles partly because of ignorance and partly due to inexperience in asking serious personal sexual questions as well as associated social stigma and shame for the victim and those related to the victim. It is both a health and a social concern with patriarchal, misogynist, and gender-shaming undertones.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines sexual violence as “any sexual act or an attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments, or advances, acts to traffic or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.”[1] Sexual violence happens in all cultures[2,3] with varying definitions of what constitutes sexual violence.[4]

In this paper, we look at the cross-cultural aspects of gender-related sexual violence against women. Although there are different forms of sexual violence (for example, male-male sexual violence, male-transgender sexual violence), we focus on the male-female sexual violence in this paper.

Much of what an individual is today is shaped by the culture that he or she is born in and lives through, acquiring cultural values, attitudes, and behaviors. Culture determines definitions and descriptions of normality and psychopathology. Culture plays an important role in how certain populations and societies view, perceive, and process sexual acts as well as sexual violence.

An important element in the WHO definition of sexual violence is use of “coercion” or force and there is a high possibility that there are cultural differences with respect to what is labelled as “forced” sexual intercourse.[5] Various cultures describe certain forms of sexual violence that are condemned and other forms that may be tolerated to a degree, the culturally legitimized forms of violence[6] thus giving rise to a continuum with transgressive coercion at one end to tolerated coercion at the other.[4] For example, in South Africa, only the rape of white women was prosecuted under an apartheid system, while sexual violence against black women was accepted as a part of life.[7] Childhood marriages in certain parts of rural India involve marriage and sexual relationship with a girl who is not yet an adult. It, thus, amounts to sexual coercion and is considered illegal. However, the entire issue is sanctioned by personal laws defined by individuals who partake in such marriages[8] as condoned by Khap Panchayats who decide on marriage partners in certain parts of North India. Similarly, sexual violence is considered legitimate by young men in South Africa who also believe that mental health is negatively affected by lack of sex.[7]

Cultural aspects of sexual violence can be understood from observations and literature on interpersonal violence (IPV) in the context of sexual acts. Higher rates of sexual violence are expected to be more prevalent in cultures that encourage objectification of women, thus making them appear inferior to men.[9] However, not all cases are reported to the respective authorities and as high as 67%-84% of cases of sexual violence may go unreported[10] due to the sensitivity of the issue,[11] thereby making it difficult to gather exact figures and true sense of the problem. It has been postulated that the rates of unreported sexual offences are higher in some Asian cultures where virginity is highly valued and a woman’s modesty is of utmost importance that gives her family the much required respect.[12]

There have been suggestions that sex ratio may contribute to prevalence of sexual violence. The male-female sex ratio (ratio of men to women in the population) in India has been “historically negative”[13] ranging from 930 females per 1000 males in 1971 to 940 per 1000 males in 2011,[14] reflecting a dismal situation. A sex ratio of 940 in 2011 represents a male population of about 623.7 million and a female population of 586.4 million that amounts to a difference of around 37.3 million in the two genders.[14] In parallel, the incidence of sexual violence cases has also risen, but it is difficult to ascertain correlation between the two. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the number of registered rape cases in India increased by 873.3% from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011.[15] The cases of sexual violence on children in India have also increased by almost 336% from 2,113 cases reported in 2001 to 7,112 cases in 2011.[16]

Within the evolutionary psychology framework, a higher male-female sex ratio (more men than women) gives rise to competition among males for female mates. This may lead to sexual jealousy and frustration among men contributing to sexual violence.[17] This theoretical framework looks at sexual violence as a method used by men to ensure the sexual fidelity of their female mates.[18] However, this may also mean that this theory is applicable only to intrarelationship sexual violence as it refers to fidelity, which occurs within the context of a relationship. This hypothesis may, thus, not explain the rise in cases of child sexual abuse where there is no question of fidelity. It is, of course, entirely possible that this rise is likely with better and accurate reporting.

A paradoxical hypothesis by Guttentag and Secord[19] argues that a high sex ratio with fewer women compared to men raises the value that men give to women thus reducing the chances of him resorting to intimate partner violence including sexual violence,


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Vinod Oswal
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