The Psychology of a Gang Rape: Exploring Why Men Hunt in Groups

What goes on in the mind of a man who rapes in a group? We explore society’s murky depths to end gender violence.

Updated
Mind It
6 min read
There’s no one-size fit-all description of a rapist.
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(Today marks the 8th anniversary of the horrific Nirbhaya rape and murder. FIT is republishing this article to understand the psychology of men who rape, and how to prevent gendered violence.)

Why do men rape? This question has been pored over and debated time and time again.

The horrific rape and murder of the Hyderabad veterinary doctor and the rape and fatal burning of a woman in Unnao, has pushed us over the edge.

The dams of rage in our nation have burst forth and we want answers. And action.

Cases of violent gang rape, more than other crimes, incense and inspire ideas of revenge.

But let's break it down to its basics - what’s the psychology of a gang rape? And on the flip side, what goes on in our collective minds when we call for mob justice?

Decoded: The Profiles of Group Rapists

What is the difference between group sexual assault and a single sexual assault? To get some answers, FIT spoke to Dr Rajat Mitra, of Swanchetan Society for Mental Health, who specifically works with inmates and predators of sexual assault. (Note: He asked me to use the word sexual assault as it is more comprehensive of all the linked crimes, and more victim-centric than rape.)

  • Clear Leader and Followers

Dr Rajat says group dynamics are very different from single settings, “In a group, they have a shared ideology, a similar, negative worldview of women. It's a most heterogeneous group, by and large.”

Like in most friend groups, he explains that there is usually a clear leader and the followers. One person is usually a ‘resister’, who might have some slight sympathy. He may voice concern against some extreme acts, like killing, but his voice will be curtailed.

To illustrate, he says,

“There was a case in Delhi, in Dhaula Kuan, a couple of years ago, where there was a brutal group sexual assault. The survivor later said that the last person didnt want to do anything but was forced by the group. He also slipped some money in her clothes so she could go home.”

I wondered, is this a is part of our predatory hunter and pack animal make-up? Although humans have evolved, we are still social animals - the lines get blurred and base instincts get amped up in a group.

  • Organised attack, strategic planning

A gang rape is not usually spontaneous. “ People think oh, it just happened in the spur of the moment, but there is usually strategic planning involved where the victim is chosen,” says Dr Rajat. This is important because it means that stalking and previous, lesser forms of harassment may occur and need to be taken seriously.

“The group is organised in its action, and the final act is an execution of that fantasy that they had been planning for a while.” It is a premeditated act where all the men in the group collaborate, usually unlike a single assault case.

  • More vicious, higher chances for the victim to be murdered

The gang rapes that we hear of are usually much more brutal and horrific, why is this?

“A lot of the times, the brutality is directly connected to the guilt felt. When we asked some inmates why they were so brutal, they said, sir mushkil lag raha tha, so we had to pump ourselves and prove we’re macho.”
Dr Rajat Mitra

Toxic masculinity is amplified in group settings, with the resistor seen as a coward for not following through - ironically, this fear leads to more forced violence.

Sadaf Vidha, a therapist and researcher from Mumbai adds, “As a society, we’re normalized to smaller instances of violence. But gang rapes warrant more outrage because it shakes the general fabric of 'okayness', they can't be put under the radar easily.”

But Dr Rajat wants to make it clear, a violation is a violation. “It’s patriarchal thinking that says that the number of assailants matter to a woman’s trauma.

  • Youth and Sexual Assault

Another shocking factor in a lot of these cases is the age of the perpetrators. Most often they are young men, in their late teens to twenties. How does youth and gender play into the phenomenon of gang rape?

“The idea of relationships and intimacy is undeveloped here. These men relate to women through brute, aggressive power only, there is no humanising, no courtship, no romance. That's how they have seen the world and relationships around them.”

A common and very problematic fallacy that follows from this is the assumption that ‘these men’ are uneducated, from lower classes, rural areas. But Dr Rajat says, “This is not restricted to a specific class or anything,” as the culture of misogyny crosses all borders.

This has a lot to do with the culture and how boys are conditioned. Sadaf adds, “The socialization of boys means that apart from anger they are not allowed access to other emotions. Thus when they feel overwhelmed or scared the only way they feel in control is by getting in touch with anger and using violence to negate the threat. So yes, there is a gendered angle to this.”

(All) Rape is a Cultural Issue

The problem of sexual assault is more complex than angry mobs and sensational headlines; it stems from a culture that allows the violence of misogyny to go unchecked at every stage. Mob justice aims to remove ourselves from the picture, painting the rapists as the ‘others’, rogue elements who are not reflective of society.

But what does it really do to our collective mental health when we as a society hear about these constant cases of extreme gendered violence?

One of the most common responses: an immediate reaction of fear and suspicion.

“These cases put us in a reactive, often violent mode and stops us from sinking deeper into how we as a society are responsible and how there are various levels of rape culture. This can also lead to a lot of trigger happy reactions based on suspicions and lack of thought. And hardly any of this improves the justice system or implementation of laws, so it doesn’t do much for belief in the judiciary. Lastly, it’s still not driven by what the victim needs, so our culture is still away from empathy for the one who is suffering.”
Sadaf

Dr Rajat says that this is indicative of “the hidden feelings of a society.” He adds, “we are not just scared, but angry at the failure of the justice system and we demand mob justice. It’s a scary path.”

Another scary outcome? The demonising of a certain class of men. With knee-jerk reactions, we lack the space for nuance of this extremely complex issue. “On TV a few days ago, an army General called for raping Kashmiri women and there wasn't this level of outrage because he spoke of violating a group that is considered an out-group by the privileged. Thus, the call of violence was selective against 'these rotten poor men eyeing our women,” says Sadaf.

But all hope must not be lost. The conditioning that normalises gendered violence can be unlearnt, and rapists can be reformed.

How?

One way forward is to have honest, open conversations without demonising anyone. “We need to start a dialogue with our kids, when they’re young and understand their worldview. We need a lot of data collection to figure out the way forward,” says Dr Rajat.

So first, we find how deep the rot is and, “We need to introduce gender-sensitive training and policies at a mass level. The media must step in too,” he adds.

Sexual assault is learned behaviour, and often occurs at a familial level - NCRB data says that 95% of survivors have been assaulted by known people, family, friends or colleagues. We've got to think actively about how we can best equalise the genders, and ensure something horrific like this doesn't happen again. One the best ways is to ask better questions of the crimes and criminals themselves and solve the issue at its root - before it even begins to sprout.

(The air in Delhi is visibly toxic - how has the hazardous air #pollution impacted you? Write down your #PollutionKaSolution and send it to us at FIT@thequint.com. )

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