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Opinion | Changing the costs for the rational sexual predator

To process the #metoo movement, we need to think about sexual predation as a rational choice instead of some kind of male disease over which men have little control. Photo: iStockPremium
To process the #metoo movement, we need to think about sexual predation as a rational choice instead of some kind of male disease over which men have little control. Photo: iStock

The legal system, patriarchy created an environment for men to prey on women and for victims to remain silent. The situation is changing and civil society action must follow to make it too costly to be a sexual predator

The dam was finally broken over the last couple of weeks by incredibly brave women from all walks of life. The #metoo movement has finally found its feet in India. There is disbelief, especially from men, that sexual harassment and predation was this rampant, and shock over the seemingly decent men outed as sexual predators. To process the #metoo movement, we need to think about sexual predation as a rational choice instead of some kind of male disease over which men have little control. And economists have a lot to say about rational choice in all areas, especially crime.

The economics of crime was initiated by the late Nobel laureate Gary Becker while running late for a doctoral defence. With no time to find a parking space, he quickly weighed the cost of paying for parking against the risks of being caught and fined for parking illegally. A potential criminal rationally weighs the expected costs and expected benefits of breaking a rule, he argued. The expected cost is the cost of breaking the rule (i.e. the punishment/fine) multiplied by the probability of getting caught. If the punishment or the probability of getting caught is too low, then expected costs might be relatively low compared to the expected benefits from breaking the rule.

Viewed through this lens, it is clear why we have had so many sexual predators hiding in plain sight for so long. The Indian legal system gives non-trivial punishments for sexual assault. It is completely broken and almost never actually punishes the perpetrators. Most cases don’t get reported. The investigation is abysmal, the process takes too long, the demands made from the victims are prohibitive and, in the end, there is rarely any legal punishment. Consequently, the probability that predators will be caught and punished is extremely low. Therefore, the expected costs of predation are so low that they are insignificant to most sexual predators. The expected benefits, quite clearly, aren’t. Sexual predators are rational beings, simply responding to the extremely perverse incentives set up by society and the legal system.

Similarly, in this environment, it is rational for the victims to stay silent. If women raise the “small transgressions"—a leer, a grope, an inappropriate remark, an uneasy feeling—they are lectured by other men and women to let it go and not ruin a man’s reputation or career over something so “small". Even if one complains, men are rarely shamed by others in society and go about their business as usual. Only women are asked why they were alone in a hotel room, or wore a skirt, or worked late. If this escalates from the leer to assault, women quietly change jobs, change industries, or even change cities—and hope for the best in the new place. This is the rational response, because as costly as it is to switch jobs and cities, it is nothing compared to the costs imposed on a woman who reports sexual assault. The police do not cooperate and instead shame and berate the victim, while society turns its back on the woman and her family. Reporting can also mean the loss of freedom; most families tell the victim to just stay home and not work. The legal system will make her and her family relive the trauma over and over for years. And if the case becomes high-profile with any chance of attention and justice, she will forever be known for the sexual assault and not her other accomplishments. And so, victims are rationally silent.

This is the perfect recipe for creating serial sexual predators and a culture of sexual harassment and violence against women. Then how do we respond to the rational sexual predator? The answer is in changing the incentives.

The #metoo movement has changed the incentives for the victim. The biggest fear—that no one will believe her—has reduced, though not been eliminated. The costs of reporting have reduced and the benefits from raising her voice have increased because social media helps women find solidarity from a much broader group than the immediate family, workplace, and neighbourhood. Retweets are powerful because they lower the cost for an impartial spectator to lend a voice in solidarity. But what about the incentives for the predators?

Getting exposed as a sexual predator before the country should be costly, but Indian society is so patriarchal, and the news cycle so fickle, that many predators believe it will blow over quickly. They need to face more costly and long-term consequences. They should lose their jobs and be in a vulnerable position where no one will hire them. They should be dropped from projects, boards, panels, guilds, committees and positions of power. Those in a position of power, especially men, must distance and publicly shame the predators. Institutionally, each workplace or industry association or guild must create guidelines and procedures for reporting and punishing sexual predators with not just legal but economic punishments. Legal consequences require due process—a requirement that cannot and should not be waived—but the standards for firing are lower for internal committee hearings at the workplace. Social media exposure has changed the incentives for predators in a small way, but unless there are greater costs imposed by economic loss and social boycott, nothing will change in a meaningful way.

For too long, the Indian legal system and patriarchy created an environment for rational men to prey on women and for victims to rationally remain silent. The #metoo movement is changing that, but civil society action must follow to make it too costly to be a sexual predator.

Shruti Rajagopalan is an assistant professor of economics at Purchase College, State University of New York, and a fellow at the Classical Liberal Institute, New York University School of Law.

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