Conversations with Loriliai Biernacki – The Power of Restraint: Hinduism & Masculinity, America & Rape Culture

by Julia Woods, student staff


Sexual assaults are a hot topic on the CU Boulder campus, lately.

Outside of social-justice-minded circles, you don’t really hear much discussion about rape culture. But even if the words aren’t explicitly stated—even if it’s easy to turn a blind eye—we can’t deny that as a society, many of our dominant U.S. values support the domination of other people—and in doing so, we normalize sexual assault.

Rape culture is so alive and well that we do not expend any time or energy on the rapists themselves—after all, boys will be boys. Women make up the vast majority of sexual assault victims and only a tiny fraction of the perpetrators—and yet for some reason, we see fit to funnel our disdainful warnings upon women, and not the men who actually commit sexual assaults. As women, the message we get is always the same—“Rape is an inevitable danger, so don’t put yourself at risk. No one is going to protect you but you—don’t dress ‘provocatively,’ don’t walk by yourself late at night, stay sober, keep pepper spray in your purse, and invest in a self-defense class.”  Rarely do we ever hear, “Men, do not rape women. It is your responsibility to prevent yourself from sexually assaulting other people. If you rape someone, these are the legal and social consequences that will befall you.” Because, if we’re being honest, there aren’t too many legal or social consequences… we just accept rape as an awful thing that men do to women from time to time.

As a woman-identified student, this is extremely frustrating. Why is it that rape is so engrained in the booze and bass of college party life—and in life in the US, as a whole? I feel like I’m trapped in twisted time-warp universe, where our attitudes about sex and gender fail to discourage sexual violence—instead they endorse it. It’s 2013—why does our culture still insist on operating under that formula that man equals dominator, woman equals dominated? And what if we changed this paradigm—how would that affect rape culture?

The God Rama exemplifies the ideal of Hindu masculinity

The God Rama exemplifies the ideal of Hindu masculinity

I had CU’s rape culture in the back of mind as I was first reading Dr. Loriliai Biernacki’s Real Men Say No: Representations of Masculinity in Hinduism.

Dr. Biernacki’s paper itself has nothing to do with rape in the United States: as the title suggests, it is an exploration of Hindu masculinity and the power of self-control. ”The ideal [Hindu] man is a man of restraint,” Dr. Biernacki asserts. Virile males—men who are respected by their communities and emulated by other men—are extremely self-disciplined. In the US, men are encouraged to be John Wayne—but Hindu men strive to be like the God Rama. By abandoning desire (especially sexual desire) a man can be above that which is basal, mortal, and profane. Manhood is not intertwined with lust—in fact, it opposes it. At least in a prescriptive sense, Hindu masculinity also rejects the self-centered wielding of power: the ideal male holds his power humbly, rather than forcefully. Rama, and thus the normative Hindu conception of the ideal man, is both strong and passive at the same time. “Coded within an early and pervasive philosophical cosmological doctrine,” Dr. Biernacki explains, “in Samkhya… is this idea that the masculine is passive and the feminine is active.” Hindu masculinity is associated with inaction and spiritual knowledge—that is, transcending the world itself.

This is not to say that all Hindu men are perfectly enlightened beings, and no Hindu man has committed an act of atrocious violence against anyone ever in the history of the world— but there is value, at least, in holding this as a cultural ideal. This is a goal that people actively strive for, even if it isn’t always realized—and I would argue that, in many ways, in the United States we don’t really even aim for this. It’s not that we fail at restraint, it’s that it never occurred to us to try.

Given our Western point of view, it is important to make the distinction here between restraint and repression. Dr. Biernacki points out that in the West we have a “post-Freudian… post-Hobbesian… sensibility: we buy into the idea that we have these innate desires, but we can only maintain a civilization if we repress these desires.” It’s easy for a Westerner to look at the ideal self-restrained Indian man and assume that he is simply stuffing down his natural cravings—just repressing his drive for food, sex, and power. Indeed, when the British first arrived in India, a stereotype quickly developed that Indian men were neutered and effeminate, severed from everything that makes a man a man.

However, this is not necessarily the case—through the lens of Hindu philosophy, a person’s desires naturally fall in line with their level of spiritual development. Repression, therefore, is irrelevant. A spiritually enlightened person does not have to bottle up sinful desires; because they have transformed themselves, they simply do not have any sinful desires.

“So for people who have a desire to rape,” Biernacki says, “if you don’t have any other options, then of course you repress. But there are other ways to prevent rape. The better option is to holistically transform your ethical being so that you don’t repress and your desires naturally move away from things like [that].” From a dogmatic Hindu perspective, the fact that a rapist wants to dominate and violate another person means that they are severely spiritually underdeveloped; that is, the desire to rape is a direct result of being an unevolved person. Once a person becomes more spiritually enlightened, however, they do not need to repress the desire to rape; they simply do not have a desire to rape. The same goes for food, power, and sex in general—an ethically developed man does not feel the need to gorge himself on these things.


Real Men Say No also touches on the subject of Tantra, which incorporates a style of meditation that integrates the body into spiritual practice. Tantric practices are extremely diverse: the more extreme “left-handed” Tantra balances on the razor’s edge of taboo, incorporating things like ritualistic sex, consumption of alcohol, dead bodies, foul language, and other traditionally un-holy elements into meditation—while the more widespread “right handed” Tantric practices simply leverage the idea of this, without physically interacting with any profane elements. Tantrikas seek a higher level of spiritual enlightenment—paradoxically, this can be accomplished by embracing the very things that are normally considered to be spiritual obstacles.

Throughout the many different iterations of Tantric practice, there is a common theme of reclamation of the body. In India as well as the West, most people subconsciously associate spirit with masculine, body with feminine—men are valued for their minds, women for their bodies. Because the body is so heavily associated with the feminine, Tantric valorization of the body often also implicitly valorizes the feminine. By putting the body on the same level as the spirit and the mind, the gap is evened between feminine and masculine.  This is not to say that Tantric practices improve how women are treated in all cases all the time—but in general, the integration of the body with the spiritual does tend to elevate the status of women. Some Tantric practitioners even go so far as to worship women explicitly—by worshiping women, men can in turn transform themselves. Dr. Biernacki has literally written the book on this subject—it’s called Renowned Goddess of Desire: Women, Sex, and Speech in Tantra. Look it up, it’s at Norlin Library.

“That might evoke comparisons with ideas of sexuality in the 60’s,” Dr. Biernacki continues. Some scholars like Jeffrey Kripal have categorized the free love era in the United States as a fundamentally Tantric movement, obviously in that it embraced sex and the body and adopted a transgressive turn, but we can also keep in mind that it so greatly elevated the status of women. “Insofar as you have this sense of reclaiming the body, or even sexuality, which is associated with the body, it may inadvertently afford some sense toward gains for women.” Again, this is not cut-and-dry: valorizing sexuality will not always directly result in gains for women, and even when it does, “sometimes, those [gains] may repudiated or swept under the rug.” However, the general trend remains: by not shaming the body, we unconsciously stop shaming women (at least, we stop shaming women as much.) “It’s not an accident that the sexual revolution is connected to the human potential movement (which is also in itself a reclaiming of the body,)” Dr. Biernacki says. By valuing the body in general, we start to particularly women’s bodies—and then, maybe eventually, we can start to value the women themselves.



It is difficult for Westerners to imagine a man who is both powerful and passive, masculine but not destructively aggressive. In the United States, we equate masculinity with dominance. The virile Western man is a man of action; he takes what he wants, when he wants it. He embraces desire: it would never occur to him to give up food, sex, or authority.  This is a tricky riddle…we have a hard time conceiving a powerful, masculine man who does not fit into our Western paradigm—that is, until we remember Mahatma Gandhi. Arguably the most famous pacifist ever, Gandhi triumphed over one of the most powerful empires in the world without utilizing any Western-masculine chest-beating force whatsoever. In many ways, Gandhi is a modern example of Hindu masculine strength: he brought people to action and transformed a nation using a kind of spiritual power (which, again, is largely derived from restraint).

“So throughout India there has been this notion that priests are higher than kings,” Dr, Biernacki says. “And it’s because priests have a certain kind of spiritual connectivity. Gandhi overthrew the British Empire by appealing to this idea: the idea that one’s real strength comes from a kind of spiritual power, rather than a physical force power.” Sometimes, Westerners puzzle over how exactly he was able to do this: we see an old man in a dhoti protesting and giving up food… and somewhere along the line, somehow, that translates to the expulsion of the British. How is it that a person’s private restraint could ultimately inspire such radical change?

Dr. Biernacki explains, “When Gandhi fasted, he was not trying to restrain his own body. He was trying to generate (I mean it sounds New-Agey, but New Age came from this, not the other way around)…what he was trying to do was generate an energetic signature that would ripple out and affect the people around him.” Effectively, Gandhi’s private restraint built his spiritual power—which ultimately became political power that even the British had to recognize. Gandhi was a moral force in himself: using this ethical/spiritual sway, he was able to inspire and unite millions of people.


So, what if Gandhi were the masculine ideal in the United States?

What would rape culture look like, if power and influence were derived from restraint and ethical/spiritual development, and not from brute force?

I’m not suggesting that rape is nonexistent in India—if you read the news, you are already well aware of this. It’s impossible to even make the claim that it’s less common there—it’s not like there’s some universal database to which a scribe adds a neat little tally mark every time there is a sexual assault. Everywhere in the world, most sexual assaults go unreported. So it’s difficult to gage whether one culture has a higher rape rate than another—especially when comparing two countries as huge as the United States and India.

However, one can certainly argue that, given our general failure to promote self-control as a pillar of masculinity, Western culture is far more “in line” with rape culture than Indian culture is. When masculinity hinges on an individual’s ability to dominate others, it is easy for sexual assault to be normalized—it’s as if rape becomes a perverse and extremist expression of Western masculinity. In India, real men say no—but in the United States, we have this twisted idea that real men always say yes.

And that begs the question—what do women say?

In the midst of this American college rape culture, whether we say yes or no doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.




Loriliai Biernacki (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania) is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her research interests include Hinduism, the interface between religion and science, and gender. Her first book, Renowned Goddess of Desire: Women, Sex and Speech in Tantra (Oxford, 2007) won the Kayden Award in 2008. She is co-editor of God’s Body: Panentheism across World Religions coming out with Oxford University Press in 2013. She is currently working on a study of the 11th century Indian philosopher Abhinavagupta that addresses notions of selfhood, body and cosmology. She is also currently working on the interstices between religion, science and panentheism.


2 thoughts on “Conversations with Loriliai Biernacki – The Power of Restraint: Hinduism & Masculinity, America & Rape Culture

  1. Extremely interesting regarding “religious ideals” vs. “practice of religion by human beings”. Question: Assuming Western countries have lower incidences of rape, and assuming it is the law and, more so, enforcement of the law, that prevents rapes, what then is the point of having great “religious ideals”? Infact, I might say that, for the majority of the population, “great religious ideals” are like asking, take for example, Indian males, to “be perfect”, ultimately leading them to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”…the expectations are far too high.

    • Interesting question. I think I see what you’re saying–holding people to an unattainable absolute ideal of perfection doesn’t work in the real world. For example, the all-or-nothing “abstinence-only” mentality for sex, drugs, and just about anything else usually backfires– expecting all men to perfectly embody Rama all the time should be similarly ineffective. If the expectations are too high, people tend to disregard the whole thing altogether.

      However, there are a few other angles that it’s important to consider this from.
      One, refraining from raping other people not some lofty, unattainable goal that only a god could accomplish. Rape is about domination and violence, not about satis— it’s not something that men all instinctually want to do because that’s how we are as human beings. There is no rape-drive. It’s not like the need for sex or food or addiction– resisting the urge to rape another person is not working against a hard-wired human need. Therefore, at least on a person-by-person basis, it’s a realistic goal.
      Sometimes it doesn’t seem like a realistic expectation, but this, I think, is largely informed by sexism (and, frankly, it doesn’t give men enough credit, either.) You can see this in the differences between the way we look at rape vs the way we look at murder. In theory, both are heinous crimes of similar magnitude, but that’s not the way it plays out in our culture.
      We expect the men in our communities not to murder other community members– nobody questions this. When murders do occur, it’s a huge deal: it’s rare, very public, and usually nobody sympathizes with the murderer. This is not the case with rape. As I mentioned in the article, about 1 in 6 American women gets sexually assaulted at some point in their lives– rape is hardly an uncommon phenomenon, and needless to say it is much more prevalent than murder. When rapes occur, most of them go unreported due to social pressure to remain silent; and many times when they are reported, the community responds by trying to hush it up. And many, many times, when a sex assault does become public, it’s the rapist, not the victim, who the community, the press, and the law sympathize with.
      The press and the law, of course, follow the values of the values of the community– if we as Americans actually cared about the wellbeing of women, surely our policies would reflect that.

      That brings me to my second point– the enforcement of the law cannot possibly be preventing much rape in the United States because the legislation against sex assault in the US is almost always rather inadequate and poorly enforced. First of all, it depends upon the victim actually reporting the crime, which usually doesn’t happen because statistically speaking most rapes are committed by someone the victim knows and sees on a regular basis ie) family members, acquaintances, friends, teachers, so on– people who could easily intimidate the victim into keeping quiet. Second, in order to actually convict someone of rape, there usually needs to be either a couple of witnesses (who are usually lacking in sex assault cases, for obvious reasons) or an examination performed in a medical facility soon after the assault. Rape kits are not widely available in many cities (here in Boulder, CO, for example, the hospitals don’t have them– if I were to need one, I’d have to drive 45 minutes down to Denver. Depending on the circumstances of the assault, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be able to make it there in time.) Furthermore, a vaginal examination hours after being raped is incredibly traumatizing and not something the victim is emotionally able to do. Not to mention many people still don’t have access to health care/ don’t know they have to have an examination in order to be able to prosecute/ can’t physically get themselves to a hospital in time.
      Long story short, the laws here suck. And as a result, very few rapists in the United States ever actually serve time.

      My third point is that it’s not safe to assume that rape happens less often in the United States than it does in India.
      As I said in the blog post, the actual numbers are impossible to come by, so I can’t argue definitively one way or another. However, if I had to take a wild guess, I would not put my money on the United States having significantly less of a problem with sexual assault than India. It’s a common conception in Western countries to assume that men in non-Western countries (particularly poor men with brown skin) are somehow less civilized, more savage, and therefore more rapacious than American men. This, however, is largely informed by xenophobia/racism/classism and not those cultures’ actual values. Rape definitely happens in India, and it is definitely a huge problem– but I wouldn’t be surprised if their rates of sex assault were, in fact, lower than we have in the US. (And I would also hypothesize that rape rates in India increased when the British arrived and infused the culture with their Westernized definitions of masculinity, but again there’s no way to actually verify that.)

      So that’s why I think there’s value in Hindu religious ideals. Religious ideals become cultural ideals, and cultural ideals can then guide individual behavior. In the US, popular manhood is largely dependent on dominating other people (ie, colonialism, capitalism, rape, and so on become relatively “acceptable.”) In India, manhood is defined by restraint (a masculine man does not need to prove himself by belittling others.) Not everybody follows those ideals, and nobody will ever embody them perfectly, but many aspects of this ideal are attainable and practical.

      It would be super interesting, however, to further your initial question by looking at rape cases in India though and see if there was any difference between rapists’ general conception of Hindu ideals vs those of the general population. Do men who rape tend to come from very strict religious backgrounds that do not allow for any deviation for the ideal? Are some of these men reacting to unforgiving expectations and “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” by abandoning all moral codes? Are there any other trends in the religious/ cultural beliefs instilled in rapists? This would make for a very intriguing study. It could also potentially be replicated in the US– what makes rapists rape?

      What are your thoughts on this?

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