How Does a Country Develop a 60 Percent Rape Rate?

How Does a Country Develop a 60 Percent Rape Rate?

The shocking findings of a study on sexual assault in Asia, published Tuesday in the Lancet Global Health journal, have been generating a lot of buzz, particularly the figures on Papua New Guinea, where 59 percent — yes, more than a majority — of men admitted to raping sexual partners.

The researchers involved in the study, which is part of a wider United Nations campaign to track and study sexual violence in the Asia-Pacific region, interviewed men aged 18 to 49 in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Sri Lanka. To control for some variation, the investigators used only male interviewers and did not use the word "rape" explicitly, asking instead if the subjects had "forced a woman who was not your wife or girlfriend at the time to have sex." 

By any measure, the numbers are unsettling. Across the region, 10 percent of men said they had raped a non-partner, and almost one in four — 24 percent — admitted to raping a partner. But one of the most striking parts of the study — the largest of its kind ever conducted — is the variation in frequency of sexual assault across countries. Percentages of non-partner rape, for instance, jump from 5.4 percent in rural Bangladesh to 23 percent in Jayapura, Indonesia to a staggering 41 percent in Papua New Guinea. All of which raises a question: What could possibly account for such a huge disparity in cultural propensities toward rape?

It’s an incredibly complex question to tackle — and far from a new one. In the late 1970s, anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday emerged as a pioneering scholar on the socio-cultural context of rape, taking on academics who studied the subject from an evolutionary and socio-biological perspective and found it to be, as a New York Times review put it, a "reproductive strategy for sexual losers."

Sanday dissected the cultural variables that made societies more or less prone to rape, arguing that ideologies of male toughness, traditions of violence, and a lack of female participation in politics were key factors in "rape-prone" societies.

Some of these variables appear to be at play in the Lancet study as well. Sanday, for instance, has observed traditions of "raiding other groups for wives" in the groups she studies; the Lancet study, similarly, hypothesizes that "the high prevalence of rape in Bougainville (Papua New Guinea) and Jayapura (Indonesia) could be related to previous conflict in these settings."

Sanday’s studies also find a correlation between low rates of female political participation and high rates of rape — a link that is echoed by the Lancet study’s findings. In the U.N. study, the country with the worst rape statistics by far was Papua New Guinea, which also happens to have the lowest rate of female parliamentary representation of the countries studied, with female MPs making up a mere 2.7 percent of Parliament.

Sanday’s scholarship has also focused on the variables that discourage sexual violence, and she claims to have found an almost rape-free society in the Minangkabau culture in West Sumatra — a matrilineal society where women make many major decisions, including those relating to marriage (in stark contrast to traditions like arranged marriages and bride prices, which some scholars believe have contributed to gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea). In the Minangkabau culture, women also wield considerable control over land and home ownership, with men moving into their wives’ homes after marriage. It’s a fundamental reversal of the dynamics that academics have criticized in countries like Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, where women’s reliance on men often often acts as a deterrent in reporting abuse and rape (which, in turn, only encourages gender-based violence).

Sanday has her fair share of critics, and her work on the societal factors behind rape is by no means exhaustive — she doesn’t discuss the role of laws and severe legal sentencing in the rates of sexual assault, for example. But the most distinctive characteristic of her scholarship — and the root of most of the criticism directed at her — is its focus on rape primarily as an expression of social forces. The U.N. effort to track sexual violence, which was partly initiated in response to the fatal gang-rape of a student in Delhi in 2012, is part of an international push to explore that same idea. And if the findings so far are any indication, the campaign could have a real impact on discussions of how to combat sexual violence worldwide.