Academic journal article Indian Journal of Psychiatry

Sexual Violence against Women: Understanding Cross-Cultural Intersections

Academic journal article Indian Journal of Psychiatry

Sexual Violence against Women: Understanding Cross-Cultural Intersections

Article excerpt

Byline: Gurvinder. Kalra, Dinesh. Bhugra

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." [sup][1] Sexual violence happens in all cultures [sup][2],[3] with varying definitions of what constitutes sexual violence. [sup][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.

Culture and Sexual Violence: The Intersections

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. [sup][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 [sup][6] thus giving rise to a continuum with transgressive coercion at one end to tolerated coercion at the other. [sup][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. …

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