Sexual violence and the concept of consent

How communication and linguistics play a major role when it comes to consent


Credits: tacticalprojectmanager.com

Vaidehi Dhakate

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in the year 2019-2020, the number of rape cases registered across the country was 32,033, making rape the most common crime against women in our country. Rape is the fourth most committed crime in India. In 2020, an average of 77 rape cases were reported daily, according to National Crime Records Bureau.

However, the number of cases reported is far less than the actual rape cases. According to data from the National Family Health Survey in the year 2021, 99% of rape cases still go unreported. And there are many reasons for it. Some victims are scared about what can happen to them in the long run while some just feel that it’s better to keep mum since it might harm their image in society.

Though some victims tend to keep quiet, they do not realise they are harming their physical and mental health at the same time. And victims’ silence also serves as an encouragement for perpetrators of the crime to continue their heinous acts.

To overcome this problem in India, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducts surveys covering almost 700,000 women in India. They ask detailed questions about sexual and physical violence/abuse. The Government of India designated the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) and decided that integrated NFHS would be conducted every three years. It is a collaborative project of the IIPS Mumbai, Maryland (USA), and Hawaii.

Rapes still continue to happen in our country and every day there is at least one woman or girl who is raped. And every woman or girl tries to stop that from happening in her own way. She might use verbal communication or physical force to prevent any untoward incident. Let us look at how linguistics plays a role in consent. Linguistics is the scientific study of human language but at the same time, it is also a system of systems. It includes verbal cues as well as non-verbal cues.

Even today, whatever discussions take place on sexual consent, they have all been unbalanced and unequal. We tend to forget that the victim is the one who has been traumatised both physically and mentally and is also blamed in a patriarchal society. However, the victims are the ones who should be protected, helped with counselling, and ensure that the perpetrator is punished. New laws are to be introduced to ensure such crimes are stopped. “NO!” This might just be a two-letter word but holds immense power in itself as in when someone says “no”, it’s a sign of total refusal. This is the most basic requirement that signals consent. The word “no” is totally unambiguous and very clear that the perpetrator should stop in his tracks immediately.

Sometimes these cues can be seen as a failure or not received by the perpetrator. The victim is blamed for how she was not able to stop the perpetrator. Many in society including family members jump to lecture the victim on how she should have been more direct and forceful.

In a study conducted by Susan Ehrlich, a linguist, she called this “the deficiency model of miscommunication”. But some researchers do not agree with this. A few researchers feel that it is not miscommunication that leads to such cases. Consent has many perceptions and there are factors that are based outside of consent communication. These factors can include victims who might be patients of any cognitive disability, low IQ and other disabilities.

A graph showing reported rate of sexual violence (per million females) Credits: NCRB

Sexual violence, especially rape, is a public health concern. Survivors of rape face many psychological issues that create psychological barriers that can obstruct communication.

Often, rape victims blame themselves for not realising they are hurting themselves in the process. Anxiety, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are some of the major disorders among survivors.

Since victims of sexual violence go through a lot, they often disconnect themselves from society. Or in many cases, society tends to ignore and disregard them. This has an adverse effect on their mental health.

Thus, it is our responsibility as a society to make the victims feel comfortable and safe. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network’s (RAINN) National Sexual Assault Hotline staff has recommended a few sentences like “You are not alone”, “I care for you”, “It’s not your fault”, “I am here for you”, that can make victims feel better.

Since we deal with communication every day, the way we try to support the victim during their healing process is important. We must remember to be more compassionate and communicate the right way.

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