Getting Temptation Wrong: PM IK's Dangerous Misunderstandings About Sexual Violence

Getting Temptation Wrong: PM IK's Dangerous Misunderstandings About Sexual Violence
In a recent interview with an American journalist, Prime Minister Imran Khan made highly controversial remarks about the causes of rape, that provoked severe criticism from civil society groups. To analyse whether the reaction was justified, let’s look closely at what he said.

The PM first said that by 'purdah' he did not mean the veil, but avoiding temptations in society. As we don’t havenight clubs and the youth have nowhere to go, he argued, “raising temptations” will have consequences. He then said that if a woman wears very few clothes, it will have an impact on men, “unless they are robots.” When asked whether such dressing could lead to sexual violence, he said that it depends on the type of society. In a society where people have not seen such things, it will cause sexual violence, he argued, “but not in a society like yours (i.e. in the West) where people have seen such things.”

The most ironic thing about his comments, not picked by many viewers, is that he practically admits that temptation or 'obscenity' does not by itself lead to sexual violence, but only in the context of a culture where people have not seen such things and have no avenues to vent out their desires, like discos, etc. This, of course, is the long-held position of liberals that sexually repressed cultures like Pakistan’s lead to more sexual violence and that relaxing social mores around these issues can actually reduce sexual violence. So on this point at least, liberals should thank him profusely for making this admission and advertising it widely as strong support for their long-held views!

His overall position on rape is still problematic as it still ties rape primarily with lust and holds that women’s dress plays a role in provoking a desire for sexual violence among ordinary men. But if we accept the PM's argument that only robotic (impotent?) men won’t be affected, who hardly exist, why is it that the vast majority of men do not commit rape? Clearly, the view that rape is just the result of lust taking over individual men is highly problematic – because feelings of lust are present in most humans. Reducing rape to the act of individuals depoliticizes rape and disconnects it from the broader culture that subjugates women to the desires of men. Rape emerges mainly from such a culture and not mainly from the sex drive or lust of individual men.

Sex is a natural human need, a physical need along with the needs for air, water, warmth and food. Yet, unlike these other physical needs, its non-satisfaction does not lead to an immediate over-powering craving or physical damage or death – as in a few minutes or days from lack of air, water etc. Humans can live without sex for months without facing any physical or mental health issues. Furthermore, all cultures mainly tie its satisfaction with the satisfaction of the need for belonging. Thus, the ideal cultural form of sex satisfaction is within a romantic relationship where it also helps deepen human bonds and enjoyment depends on mutual positive emotions and responsiveness.

Rape is a crime in all societies and thus, in addition to being morally abhorrent, is also a very risky avenue for satisfying one’s sexual needs. It is also not a very enjoyable and relaxing avenue even for the aggressor, with the victim – since they are aware that their victim is not displaying mutual positive emotions and responsiveness. All societies provide much less violent and more enjoyable avenues for satisfying sexual need.

In Western societies, there is the easy option of having a steady partner. In more conservative societies, there is the institution of marriage. And paid sex is available in all societies. So why would a man aroused by 'obscenity' or women’s dress eschew all these easier options for satisfying the sexual need and opt for the highly condemned, risky and less sexually satisfying option of rape? That can only happen when a person is driven less by the sex need and more by the desire to dominate, overpower, hurt and even murder women and children.

These urges for violent subjugation of another person emerge from the dominant culture which subjugates women and children to the desires of men and also the individual backgrounds of men. Among a big chunk of men, they are expressed in the form of economic, social and political subjugation of women. In the case of some men, it leads to physical, non-sexual violence and finally in a smaller number of cases to rape. These variations reflect individual male differences, in the general context of a society where women are subjected to the will of men.

A recent article in a leading English Pakistani newspaper titled “Asking for it” provides some justification for Imran Khan’s views by merely calling them incomplete. But this view of his comments is excessively generous. His views are incomplete for sure, but they are so incomplete that they lead to dangerous misrepresentation and distortion of the issue of rape. By reducing it to the reactions of individual men and even there putting partial blame on women’s dress, Khan totally ignores the main causes of rape, which are tied to the subjugation of women and children in the culture created by conservative, dominant men. Of course, as a conservative, dominant man himself, it is understandable why the Prime Minister would prefer not to talk about that culture and its contribution to rape.

Linking sexual violence to women’s dressing also reflects his own preferred dress code for women, as reflected in the dress code of those very near and dear to him now. Thus, as with many other religious conservatives, his desire to create a link between rape and women’s dress, even in the absence of scientific evidence, is not a well-meaning desire to reduce rape but a malevolent desire to impose his own preferred women’s dress code on society. Pakistani women, even liberal ones, already dress very modestly due to fears about their physical safety and don’t need further lectures from the Prime Minister of the country

The Prime Minister should focus on the main causes of rape, which are rooted in the patriarchal culture created by men like him.


Dr. Niaz Murtaza is a Political Economist with a Ph.D. From the University of California, Berkeley