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 Table of Contents    
Year : 2013  |  Volume : 55  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 244-249
Sexual violence against women: Understanding cross-cultural intersections

1 Department of Psychiatry, Mahatma Gandhi Mission Medical College and Hospital, Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
2 Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, De Crespigny Park, London, United Kingdom

Click here for correspondence address and email

Date of Web Publication28-Aug-2013


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.

Keywords: Culture, gender, sexual violence, women

How to cite this article:
Kalra G, Bhugra D. Sexual violence against women: Understanding cross-cultural intersections. Indian J Psychiatry 2013;55:244-9

How to cite this URL:
Kalra G, Bhugra D. Sexual violence against women: Understanding cross-cultural intersections. Indian J Psychiatry [serial online] 2013 [cited 2021 Oct 19];55:244-9. Available from:

   Introduction Top

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

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. [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 [6] thus giving rise to a continuum with transgressive coercion at one end to tolerated coercion at the other. [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. [7] Childhood marriages in certain parts of rural India involve marriage and sexual relationship with a girl who is not yet an adult. It, thus, amounts to sexual coercion and is considered illegal. However, the entire issue is sanctioned by personal laws defined by individuals who partake in such marriages [8] as condoned by Khap Panchayats who decide on marriage partners in certain parts of North India. Similarly, sexual violence is considered legitimate by young men in South Africa who also believe that mental health is negatively affected by lack of sex. [7]


Cultural aspects of sexual violence can be understood from observations and literature on interpersonal violence (IPV) in the context of sexual acts. Higher rates of sexual violence are expected to be more prevalent in cultures that encourage objectification of women, thus making them appear inferior to men. [9] However, not all cases are reported to the respective authorities and as high as 67%-84% of cases of sexual violence may go unreported [10] due to the sensitivity of the issue, [11] thereby making it difficult to gather exact figures and true sense of the problem. It has been postulated that the rates of unreported sexual offences are higher in some Asian cultures where virginity is highly valued and a woman's modesty is of utmost importance that gives her family the much required respect. [12]

There have been suggestions that sex ratio may contribute to prevalence of sexual violence. The male-female sex ratio (ratio of men to women in the population) in India has been "historically negative" [13] ranging from 930 females per 1000 males in 1971 to 940 per 1000 males in 2011, [14] reflecting a dismal situation. A sex ratio of 940 in 2011 represents a male population of about 623.7 million and a female population of 586.4 million that amounts to a difference of around 37.3 million in the two genders. [14] In parallel, the incidence of sexual violence cases has also risen, but it is difficult to ascertain correlation between the two. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the number of registered rape cases in India increased by 873.3% from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011. [15] The cases of sexual violence on children in India have also increased by almost 336% from 2,113 cases reported in 2001 to 7,112 cases in 2011. [16]

Within the evolutionary psychology framework, a higher male-female sex ratio (more men than women) gives rise to competition among males for female mates. This may lead to sexual jealousy and frustration among men contributing to sexual violence. [17] This theoretical framework looks at sexual violence as a method used by men to ensure the sexual fidelity of their female mates. [18] However, this may also mean that this theory is applicable only to intrarelationship sexual violence as it refers to fidelity, which occurs within the context of a relationship. This hypothesis may, thus, not explain the rise in cases of child sexual abuse where there is no question of fidelity. It is, of course, entirely possible that this rise is likely with better and accurate reporting.

A paradoxical hypothesis by Guttentag and Secord [19] argues that a high sex ratio with fewer women compared to men raises the value that men give to women thus reducing the chances of him resorting to intimate partner violence including sexual violence.

Meanings attributed to gender

Within any sociocultural setting, the meaning of being a man/woman and manhood/womanhood may vary [20] with masculine identity being associated with experiences and feelings of power. [21] Paternalistic cultural models encourage the view that men protect women from harm, thus giving the impression that women are largely incapable of protecting themselves.

In addition to violence, the incident of sexual violence involves elements of control, power, domination, and humiliation. [12] In order to gain power and control over their victims, perpetrators of sexual violence resort to practices such as abduction, isolation, manipulation, coercion, threats, and sexual abuse. [22] Offenders may not necessarily find the act sexually gratifying but it is the meaning attributed to power for men that may override sexual goals in such acts. This is very well exemplified in sexual violence against children, which is fundamentally an expression of power over a child's life. [23] Resisting the offender's attempts is unlikely especially so in the case of children since they do not always have the cognitive maturity to understand the wrong-ness of the act.

It has also been postulated that gender equality may increase sexual violence in the form of male backlash, [24] with men being more commonly known to commit sexual violence across different cultures. [25] The Indian society is at present witnessing a shift from being male-dominating to being gender equal; it is thus possible that the recent increase in the number of sexual violence cases in India is a result of the male backlash for the growing gender equality. It is also entirely possible that increased media attention may attract some individuals to perform these acts so that they gain a degree of infamy.


Across cultures, attitudes toward gender are likely to affect how male-female relationships are viewed, and subsequently how the sexual offenders and the victims are viewed. In her seminal work on cross-cultural aspects of heterosexual rape, Sanday [26] studied 156 societal structures and found that rape is a vital part of a sociocultural configuration that revolved around IPV, male dominance, and an "ideology of toughness" in men and weakness in women. Carrying Sanday's work forward, Briere and Malamuth [27] explored if sexuality variables (sexual experience, importance of sex, relationships with women, use of pornography) and attitudes that encouraged violence toward women were associated with self-reported likelihood of raping or using sexual coercion. They assessed 352 male introductory psychology students at the University of Manitoba and found that the likelihood of raping or likelihood of using force could be predicted on the basis of rape-supportive attitudes and a combination of attitude and sexuality variables but not on the basis of sexuality variables alone. Thus, personality traits seem to have a more important role in the ''construction'' of rape.

It is possible that cultures which have more sexually liberal attitudes may have higher rates of sexual violence but equally in less liberal societies same attitudes may apply. Jaffee and Straus [28] indicated that there is no relationship between sexually liberal attitudes and sexual violence, but instead posited a significant association between urbanization, poverty, high percentage of divorced men, and incidence of reported sexual violence.


Burt [29] described rape as the psychological extension of a dominant-submissive sex-role stereotyped culture. Socioculturally transmitted attitudes toward women, rape, and rapists can predict sexual violence. [30] Such stereotypes are often internalized from the male dominated sociocultural milieu. Sexual violence can result from a misogynist attitude prevalent in a culture. It has been pointed that cows are treated better than women in India. [31] In rural India, for example, girls have no independent control of their sexuality. They are expected to get married and produce children, thus shifting the control of their sexuality from one man (the father) to the other (the husband). [31] A man, thus, plays the most important role in a woman's life in India as he does in many other cultures which may have traditional patriarchal attitudes.

It is possible that in cultures where man and his manly role are prized better, additional perceived or real power may encourage them to think of their ''rights.'' [9] If a woman resists sexual intercourse, it may be perceived as a direct threat by men to their masculinity, triggering a crisis of male identity and contributing to sexual control and violence as it is seen as a way of resolving this crisis. It has been reported that victims who attempt resistance or escape from the situation are more likely to be brutalized by the offender, [32] thereby giving an inflated sense of power to the abuser as was seen in the New Delhi gang rape case of Nirbhaya in December 2012. It is likely that in patriarchal cultures, any resistance from the woman victim is perceived by the offender as an insult to his ''manhood'' further provoking him to resort to more violent means to control the victim.

A largely prevalent and clichéd but incorrect stereotyped belief is that sexual violence is often provoked by an attractive, scantily, and seductively dressed woman who is out alone at night; this situation influences a man who then goes on to commit sexual violence on the woman. [12] This belief falsely puts the complete onus of the act on the victim, further victimizing her in the process. Given the facts that acquaintance rape is more common than stranger rape and that even a girl child is often a victim of sexual violence; it is thus merely a myth that only the young, attractive, and seductively dressed women are raped. [12] Perceived or real vulnerability of the victim is a far more important factor compared to attire or attractiveness. [30]

Consequences of sexual violence

Sexual violence can have widespread consequences not only violating its immediate victims but also the wider meaning of freedom and basic human rights. [33] The perceived consequences of sexual violence vary across cultures. In sociocentric societies where shame is a more prevalent emotion, the victims of sexual violence may not open up about their trauma and hence may not report it. This not only affects the victim negatively but also affects an understanding of the true nature of trauma and rates of these acts, thereby influencing policy-making. In sociocentric cultures, relations between people are at the core and individual identity is subsumed in the family or kinship. Comparatively in ego-centric cultures, relations with the ''self'' are at the core with ''independence'' being given more importance than ''interdependence.'' Socio- and ego-centric cultures are said to have different emotional expressions and experiences in terms of shame and guilt, respectively. [34] These different emotional experiences are due to the very basic tenet of these cultures: Sociocentric cultures being more socialized tend to give rise to a more social feeling of shame which cannot be felt in the absence of social relations. In contrast, egocentric cultures are more individualistic and give rise to a more private feeling of guilt. [34] Thus, the emotions in a victim of sexual violence are shaped by the culture of the victim. In sociocentric cultures, where the dignity of the family (izzat) comes before that of the individual member, the notion about harm resulting from sexual violence is shared more by the family members. On the contrary, in ego-centric cultures, this harm from sexual violence is much concentrated around the dignity and identity of the individual member. Thus, concepts of self also vary. Hofstede [35] has also divided a cultural dimension on masculinity and femininity of cultures where gender roles are different.

Victims of sexual violence face the danger of suffering negative reactions upon disclosing their trauma, the most traumatizing of which includes being blamed for the assault. [36] Studies have indicated a relationship between high levels of gender prejudice and stereotyping and high levels of victim blame. [37],[38] The social stigma resulting from sexual abuse is higher in Asian cultures where anything with sexual connotations is highly stigmatized. [12]

Understanding of socio-sexual processes

Cultural variations in gender roles and permitted gender behaviors may play an important role in cases of sexual violence by men from one culture on women from a different culture. Sexual bargaining is a social process by which potential partners communicate interest/disinterest in pursuing a sexual relationship with each other. [39] This process may be largely influenced by the way genders are seen across cultures. There is a high possibility that men from a sexually conservative culture may interpret nonsexual behaviors or platonic interests of women from sexually open cultures, as sexual in nature resulting in sexual violence. Overall, several studies have reported that men are more likely to misinterpret and make errors in decoding women's platonic interests as sexual signals. [40],[41],[42],[43] This could result from a higher likelihood in men to perceive the world in sexualized terms [39] or due to men's bias to perceive sexual interest. [44] There is a possibility that such errors in decoding are more likely to occur in men from sexually conservative cultures, although this would need further exploration.

Biology versus culture

Sexuality like various other biological processes is said to be controlled by genetic factors. However our knowledge, understanding and expression of sexuality are also influenced by our cultural background. [33] Scholars have often debated that biology plays a role in sexual violence. However, it needs further exploration whether the act of rape is biologically coded or is culturally determined.

The biological or evolutionary theory of sexual violence emphasizes that evolution applies to sexual violence just as it does to any other aspect of life [45] and that it reflects adaptations constructed over evolutionary time, [46] but this remains a controversial idea. It views sexual violence as a result of a man's "natural" sexual urge, which is different from that of a woman. This difference in sexual urges is said to be a result of early evolutionary changes and adaptation for successful sexual reproduction. Due to sexual selection, men use the reproductive strategy (including sexual violence) of impregnating as many women as they can to spread their sperm and to maximize the number of female eggs that can be fertilized. This theory looks at sexual violence as a natural behavior resulting from a biological propensity to reproduce and have a net positive effect on the person's (resorting to sexual violence) reproductive success. [45],[47] This theory, thus, accepts the act of sexual violence resulting from a man's aggression as a natural thing but has thus been challenged. [48] Agreeing to this theory would mean that every man has an innate propensity for sexual aggression and inflicting sexual violence. This theory, thus, searches roots of sexual violence in one's genes and completely ignores other factors that may come into play later on in life.

Another theory attempts to describe sexual violence in terms of cultural explanations, claiming that sexual violence is socioculturally constructed. It, thus, negates biological underpinnings for a man's sexual urges, claimed by the biological theory. This theory looks at other important factors such as gender power equations, moral values, attitudes toward violence, and so on to be contributing toward sexual violence. Based on these, Sanday [26] divided cultures into two types: Rape-free and rape-prone cultures which are moulded by sociocultural values; the former are more balanced in gender equality and have low rates of rape, whereas the latter have high rates where women are excluded from positions of power while restricting their freedom and objectifying them. Sanday [26] pointed out the widespread existence of rape-prone societies but absence of rape-free societies. On similar lines, Otterbein [49] examined 17 cultures and reported that cultures with rigid sex-role systems showed higher sexual violence. The sociocultural theory, thus, explains sexual violence in terms of social expression of male power or patriarchy. If one agrees with this hypothesis, it would mean that patriarchal societies will witness more sexual violence compared to the gender-equal societies. Thornhill and Palmer [50] collate these two hypotheses, arguing that the socially learned behaviors known as culture are largely biological and hence an overlap of biological and cultural factors occurs in sexual violence.

Cultural sanction of violence also may encourage sexual violence. For example, higher rates of rape were observed by Le Vine [51] in the Gusii or Kisii tribe of Kenya. In Gusii marriages, sexual aggression is a sanctioned behavior, wherein men are encouraged by other society members to use pain and be sexually aggressive on their wives during sexual intercourse. This is done in order to show one's power. It is argued that the higher rates of rape among the Gusii occur when marital sexual aggression overflows into the premarital or extramarital area. [51]

Whether sexual violence is influenced by biological or cultural factors, it has major influence on the mental health and functioning of the victim especially due to the social responses to the violence. [52] Negative social reactions lead to higher levels of mental health issues in the victims.

   Conclusion Top

Although the issue of sexual violence has remained largely ignored until now, ignoring it further is no longer acceptable. It, thus, becomes crucial to acknowledge that sexual violence transcends national and cultural boundaries. In the absence of such acknowledgment, sexual violence may continue to grow. The causes of sexual violence are complex and like many other crimes, sexual violence may not be completely understood and explained by a single factor; culture is one of the many factors that may be important in our understanding of sexual violence. It is an important research question as to what causes variation in the incidence of sexual violence in different cultures. Cross-cultural aspect of sexual violence is a highly under-investigated and under-researched area. An important step toward understanding sexual violence and its victims would be to re-phrase and re-understand various models of patriarchy/matriarchy and various gender roles and gender expectations. It is high time we start understanding barriers and cultural strengths that are responsible for higher or lower rates of sexual violence cases in different cultures.

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Correspondence Address:
Gurvinder Kalra
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Mahatma Gandhi Mission Medical College and Hospital, Sector 18, Kamothe, Navi Mumbai 410 209, Maharashtra
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0019-5545.117139

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