Some reflections on sexual violence and the struggles against it - Kavita Krishnan

The following article was written in April 2012, before the recent anti-rape protests of December 2012 in India. Though we may take issue with some of its political conclusions and general orientation, it nevertheless provides some useful analysis and context for gender relations and the function of rape in Indian society. It also gives an indication of the thinking of a section of the Indian feminist left.

Submitted by Red Marriott on December 29, 2012

Following a series of instances of rape in West Bengal, the Chief Minister first denied the rapes, cast aspersions on the morals and veracity of the complainants, and then announced restrictions on timings of bars, nightclubs etc.

In Gurgaon, following the gang rape of a woman employee of a nightclub, the Haryana Government first announced a ban on women’s employment in late-night jobs. When this diktat was faced with outrage, the Government clarified that it was not seeking to ban women working late, but it would monitor women’s employment in such jobs to ensure their safety.

The Delhi Police Chief recently said that women who chose to go out, unescorted by a brother or husband, at 2 am should not complain of rape.

The DGP of Andhra Pradesh said recently women ‘provoked’ men to rape them by wearing ‘fashionable’ clothing.

Mamata Sharma, Chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW) said in a recent interview about violence on women, that women should “take their Indian culture along with them when they leave their homes,” in order to protect themselves. (It is a little difficult to fathom her reasoning, since she was commenting on the fact that most rapes are perpetrated by family members.)

These instances (which are not aberrations but part of a persistent pattern) raise questions about the State’s and society’s response to sexual violence, and about how sexual violence, and violence on women, is understood. This article is an activist’s attempt to think out loud about some of these issues, and their implications for the women’s movement and struggles for social transformation.

Why is Rape Taboo, While Other Acts of Violence Against Women Are Not?

Rape is taboo in society. There is a widely shared moral disgust and outrage at the idea of rape.

However, other forms of violence against women are not taboo in the same way. For instance, in India, domestic violence continues to enjoy a great deal of social sanction, as does sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, mental and physical torture by in-laws, dowry harassment and killings, coercion and violence against women making self-choice marriages, and so on.

Why, then, do other forms of violence on women not generate the kind of moral outrage that rape does? What is the social meaning and connotation of ‘rape’?

Rape is, of course, understood as sex by force (as indicated by the Hindi word for rape, ‘balatkar’). But I would argue that there is a slippage between the word ‘rape’ and the social connotations it conjures up. There is a fundamental misrecognition or misdirection that is at work every time we talk about rape. Rape is widely understood as illegitimate sex. Not as sex against the will of another, but as taking what is not yours, as sex with a woman to whose sexual and reproductive labour you are not entitled. Therefore, ‘rape’ is seen as a soiling or spoilage of a woman’s worth as an asset to be enjoyed by her legitimate sexual partner.

Isn’t this why marital rape is considered a contradiction in terms in Indian law? According to India’s rape law, sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under eighteen years of age, is not sexual assault. Even as the rape law is being sought to be expanded now to cover other forms of sexual assault beyond penis penetration, the draft Amendment Bill retains the marital exception.

This also explains the tendency to suggest marriage with the rapist as a just resolution to a rape complaint. The reasoning is that by raping an unmarried woman, the rapist has soiled her. She is ‘used’ and therefore unmarriageable. And so, the rapist can redress matters by offering to marry her, thereby acquiring sexual rights over her, and undoing the harm done to her chastity and moral worth. If the rapist marries his victim, his sexual usage of her no longer counts as rape.

How rape is understood socially, also sheds light on the tendency to question the morals of women who complain of rape. Rape evokes moral outrage – as long as the victim is ‘innocent,’ sexually ‘unspoiled’, chaste. If the complainant herself does not conform to the dominant norms of sexual morality, then she, rather than the rapist, invites the moral disgust of society. In fact, women’s sexual autonomy invites nearly as much social discomfort and disgust as does rape! If, by having sexual relations before or outside marriage, she has destroyed her own chastity, then she cannot be raped. If she has worn immodest clothing or ventured out to a nightclub or bar, then clearly she is not mindful and protective of her own chastity, and the rapist can be absolved of his crime.

Rape is not understood only as a crime against women. Rather, it is understood as a crime against women’s chastity and ‘honour’ – and by extension, against the ‘honour’ of her male kin-folk. Women are a sexual and reproductive asset, and a woman’s natal family has the burden of passing on this asset, this paraya dhan, intact to her husband and his family. Failure to protect this asset brings ‘dishonour’, both for the woman herself and for her male kin-folk. Again, it is immaterial if the source of the ‘dishonour’ is the rape of their female ward or her own exercise of sexual autonomy. Either way, ‘dishonour’ must be avenged.

Rape as an Assertion of Patriarchal Power

For the women’s movement, the struggle is not just to fight rape and sexual violence. The fight is at the same time over the way rape and sexual violence is understood. If one is to reject and question the easy conflation of ‘rape’ and ‘sex,’ how do we understand rape?

Rape is generally an act of violence targeted against the socially subordinate and vulnerable: women, women from the oppressed castes and minority communities, and hijras. Rape and other forms of sexual violence are an assertion of patriarchal dominance and power. Other centres of power – caste, religion, and State – also draw upon this form of patriarchal violence to assert their own dominance, and so we have rapes as part of caste and communal violence, and custodial rapes by police or army.

Rape is not an attack on women’s chastity or honour: it is an assault on their bodily integrity. Rape invariably involves humiliation and pain for the victim. Rapes are not isolated acts of violence, unexplained aberrations, or aberrations explained by sexual provocation, urges, needs, or even by psychological deviance alone. Rapes are part of a larger web of violence and subjugation of women.

Fear of sexual violence has a disciplinary effect on women. Sexual violence, and the disciplining of women, complement each other. It is routine for acts of rape or sexual harassment to be followed by increased restrictions on women’s movement. ‘Safety’ for women invariably means restrictions on their freedom: curfews in hostels, policing of women who work at night, visit bars, for instance.

The women’s movement needs to demystify rape. Rather than building on the emotional outrage that society attaches to rape, we need to assert the nature of rape as a crime of power rather than as a crime against innocence, chastity, or property.

Rethinking Strategies of Struggle

The women’s movement in India has, over the years, forced the State to make many changes in laws relating to rape, sexual violence, and sexual harassment. And this process is ongoing. In particular, there is an ongoing effort to widen the definition of rape and sexual assault, and to bring in legislation on sexual harassment at the workplace. The Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Bill 2010 and Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment Bill at Workplace Bill 2010 have been drafted as a result of the efforts of women’s groups, but these Bills are still inadequate and continue to retain problematic provisions (such as the refusal to recognize marital rape, and the punitive provisions for ‘false complaints’ of sexual harassment.) The struggle for better and more gender-sensitive laws, for timely arrest and conviction of perpetrators of sexual violence, and against bias in police stations and courtrooms continue.

However, the women’s movement and other left/democratic movements need to reflect on the terms on which these struggles are conducted. In the course of these struggles, how far are our demands, our slogans, able to challenge dominant ways of thinking about rape, sexual violence, and gender? How far are we able to assert and expand women’s autonomy?

To take an instance, movements against sexual violence often raise the demand/slogan of ‘suraksha’ (safety/security/protection). If a number of rapes have occurred, the Government of the day is often accused of a failure to provide ‘suraksha’ for women.

When the women’s movement demands ‘suraksha’, we are asserting that women have an equal right with men to access public spaces without fear, and that the State has an obligation to ensure this. We are also asserting that women’s economic and social security ought not to be contingent on marriage or their relations with men (husband/father/son).

However, what is connoted by the term ‘suraksha’ (safety/security/protection) when used by the State, or the hegemonic common sense connotations of the term in society may be very different. Authorities (not just representatives of the State, but other authority figures both in the family and in public institutions such as colleges, hostels.etc), tend to define protection and safety for women, in terms of increased restrictions on women’s mobility and freedom.

Also, ‘safety’ is often tied up with the patriarchal ideology of masculine guardianship and protection of women. A recent Delhi Police ad campaign against violence on women has a popular actor saying, “Make Delhi safer for women. Are you man enough to join me? Don’t sit back and allow violence against women. Fight it. Report it.” Another ad that the Delhi Police has been using for several years (see below) uses a photograph of a woman at a bus stop being harassed by some men, while a man and a woman look on passively. The ad copy says, “There are no men in this picture…Or this would not happen…Surely you can’t let a woman be teased in front of you? You are a real man. You know how humiliating and embarrassing it is for her. So protect her. And help her. Escort her away from the scene. …Save her from shame and hurt…Protect women from eve teasers.”

The women’s movement has always critiqued the lack of support from bystanders for women resisting sexual harassment in public places. Women who express their anger and protest at sexual harassment rarely receive any public encouragement or support. The Delhi Police ad acknowledges the issue raised by women: but in terms that subtly render it less threatening and challenging to patriarchy. Instead of the women’s movement’s critique of sexual violence, the Delhi Police couches its reproach of sexual harassers in terms that appease and boost, rather than discomfit, men’s sense of masculine power. In the very act of campaigning against sexual violence, these ads are reproducing the patriarchal notions about the perpetrator (not a real man), protector (real man) and victim of sexual violence (helpless woman). Women are helpless victims, ‘shamed’ by ‘eve-teasing’ (the English rendering of the Hindi ‘chhed-khani’, a term that replaces, and trivializes, ‘sexual harassment’). Women wait for a ‘real man’ to rescue them from their male harassers (who, the ad suggests, are not ‘real men’, since ‘real men’ - asli mard – are those who protect women). The spontaneous anger and protest that women commonly express at sexual harassment, has been eased out of the image. If women were shown to be angry, it would be difficult to sustain the notion that she was experiencing ‘shame’. While her ‘shame’ is reassuring to patriarchal masculinity, conveying vulnerability and need for protection, women’s publicly displayed anger, or violent self-defence, is deeply discomfiting and unnerving.

Since such official acknowledgement and support for an issue raised by the women’s movement is hard to come by, it is tempting to avoid looking the gift horse in the mouth. One can almost hear the protesting cry of ennui and frustration: “Why do you feminists have to split hairs and be suspicious of every little thing? Is it such a big deal that the Delhi Police’s well-meaning ad uses popular, rather than politically correct, imagery and terminology to enlist public support against sexual harassment? After all, if you were actually resisting sexual harassment on the street, and a man came to your defence offering solicitous protection rather than comradely support, would you take his help, or would you stop to chide him for his paternalism?!”

Well, there are real and pressing reasons to challenge the terms in which these ads treat sexual violence. These ads refuse to recognize that the very machismo and masculine ‘protectiveness’ they are invoking against violence on women, is in many instances responsible for the violence that women face! As the Hindi proverb has it, ‘jis laung se bhoot bhaga rahe the, bhoot usi laung mein tha’ (the sense of which can be roughly rendered as: ‘the disease lurks in the very pill that’s prescribed as a panacea’). After all, aren’t the men who seek to control their sisters’ or daughters’ friendships, relationships and mobility; who ask their wives to avoid wearing jeans; who commit ‘honour’ crimes, ‘real men,’ acting in a socially-sanctioned way, as guardians and protectors of women? If a woman is ‘indecently’ dressed, or if she was out late at night or at a pub/nightclub, and therefore failing to display the ‘shame’ that is expected of her, doesn’t she fall outside the protective circle of masculine guardianship? Isn’t she, in other words, less than a ‘real woman,’ and therefore, fair game? Isn’t it possible that ‘real men,’ forgivably, mistook her for a ‘slut’, a woman without chastity and shame and therefore, neither needing nor deserving masculine protectiveness? Aren’t such apologias for rape commonly offered by the police and other public figures and private persons?

In a recent press conference, the Delhi Police Chief referred to the latest NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) data which revealed that 97% of rapes were committed by family members, friends, and neighbours. If this was the case, he argued, the police could only be held responsible for curbing the remaining 3% of rapes committed by strangers. He went on to say, in the same press conference, that women who venture outdoors at 2 am ought to be accompanied by a brother or male family member, and if she went out alone, she had only herself to blame if she was raped. His specious reasoning illustrates the limitations of the logic of ‘protection’: the police can’t be expected to ensure safety of public spaces if women will insist on risking these spaces without providing themselves with a protective male family member. But what if male family members (those ‘real men’ socially entrusted with the task of protecting their female kin) themselves pose a predominant risk of sexual violence? Well then, according to the Delhi Police Chief, that absolves the police of its obligations. One can guess at the reasons he might offer: one, policing and protection of women within the family is privatized and entrusted to male family members; and two, since the police cannot encroach into the private space of the family.

It can be no one’s case that the police are somehow supposed to miraculously anticipate and prevent violence against women, whether in public spaces or in homes. But the police is certainly obligated to ensure arrests and convictions of perpetrators – and in cases where the crime has occurred within a known circle of family/friends/neighbours, surely it narrows the field of investigation for the police? Why, even when the offender in 97% cases is known rather than a faceless stranger, is the conviction rate so low, as the NCRB data establishes?!

The problem is that the police, sharing the same ideological ground as the perpetrator of violence (be it ‘honour’ crimes, domestic violence, or sexual violence), tends to be sympathetic to the perpetrator, and biased against the victim. The police discourages the complainant and witnesses, suppresses evidence, and the result is the failure to convict the offender.

It isn’t only the State machinery that invokes the patriarchal ideology of authentic (protective) masculinity in its treatment of violence against women. Women’s struggles, too, tend to do so, unless they are consciously informed by a critique of patriarchy. For instance, there are several instances of women protesters against sexual violence, presenting police or administrative authorities with bangles; such gestures of protest work by ‘shaming’ male authority figures for their effeminacy and failure to perform their masculine duty of protecting women and avenging rape.

The ideology of masculine protectiveness of their women-folk, especially sisters, has deep cultural roots and emotive power. Take the North Indian festival of ‘raksha bandhan,’ where the sister ties a ‘rakhi’ (a band or string signifying the bond between sister and brother) to her brother, who in return for her sacred gesture of sisterly love, pledges to protect her. Brotherly protectiveness of sisters, invariably, involves avenging her sexual violation – a notion that stretches to include ‘protecting’ her from unwanted emotional and sexual entanglements. The brother derives status, prestige and ‘honour’ from his ability to protect his sister. This ‘honour’ is both personal and also shared and reinforced by the family/community. And the sister owes her brother a duty to safeguard her own chastity, on which rests his honour. If she compromises her chastity (and his honour, which in turn is linked to the collective masculine honour of the family/community) by exercising her autonomous choice of husband, or marrying outside prescribed caste/community norms, he is socially sanctioned, even expected, to forcibly prevent or avenge this loss of honour.

The bond between brothers and sisters, or the filial duties of daughters towards fathers, are not always experienced as coercive. The ‘raksha bandhan’ ceremony is one in which many women take great pride. The brother ‘needs’ a sister to protect, as much as the sister needs his protection. This bond of benign patriarchy is strained only when the sister exercises sexual and/or economic autonomy: making self-choice marriages or marrying outside prescribed norms, or demanding her legal share in land and ancestral property. In most Indian cultures, across castes and communities, the young adult woman is viewed as a ward, an asset (paraya dhan – wealth that belongs to another) kept in trust for a future owner, that must be handed over sexually un-violated and ‘innocent’ to her husband. Therefore the daughter/sister is loved, adored, in her natal family, but hedged about by anxiety about her chastity, innocence, and sexual purity.

Why does this anxiety about control of the daughter’s sexuality prevail to a large degree even in the labouring classes and castes, even where transfer of property around a legitimate line may not be a big factor? One answer is that marriage strictures (laying down the prescriptions and prohibitions for who you can and cannot marry) are also crucial to maintaining caste purity, and for maintaining control over the smooth transfer of community assets and caste identity. Rape and violation of women of the oppressed castes by the upper castes is one of the many forms of caste domination and privilege. When these communities resist oppression and assert their identity, fighting feudal sexual exploitation is central to such struggles. But this sense of identity can also bring with it an assertion of a sense of patriarchal ‘honour’, and a need to control women when they seek to forge sexual relationships outside these oppressed castes.

For the women’s movements against sexual violence, consciously rejecting and challenging this ideology of patriarchal protection is not just a discursive gesture, or a nod to political correctness. It reflects the very necessary understanding of the fact that the same ideological framework and sexual politics underwrites sexual violence as well as everyday social subjugation of and violence against women. If we continue to raise the slogan of ‘suraksha’, we have to take pains to inscribe, and popularize, radical interpretations of this term, rather than fall back on its common sense connotations.

One way to do so might be to assert women’s demand for ‘suraksha’ (security – economic and social) in her own right, rather than as a female dependant on a masculine provider/protector. We could demand steps to ensure that woman’s security is not contingent on marriage (i.e the exchange of women’s sexual and reproductive labour for survival). The State, therefore has an obligation to ensure that women have access to remunerative work, equality and rights at the workplace, crèche facilities, as well as rights over land, and other resources, in order to create a material environment that promotes and nurtures women’s autonomy and assertion. If this were done, women would also be better placed to resist the multi-faceted coercion and violence they face in daily lives.

It is important to distinguish such measures from what passes for ‘empowerment’ in the neoliberal framework. Avenues of employment and survival promoted by the State exploit, rather than challenge, the existing social subordination of women. For instance, women employed in the ASHA/anganwadi rural health schemes run by the Government and World Bank, are paid a mere ‘honorarium’; women’s unpaid labour in the household is being extended to the workplace, similarly masked by the patriarchal ideology of women’s selfless service to family/society. Microfinance schemes, too, exploit the notion that women make more reliable candidates for loans, because they are less mobile and therefore less likely to abscond, and are more vulnerable to peer pressure and ‘shaming’ tactics in case of failure to repay loans.

The State’s job cannot begin and end with policing, either. It must be obligated to provide truly effective shelters that provide support for the survivor of violence. At present, there is a great paucity for any shelters, and existing shelters at best treat the survivor like a jail inmate, and at worst, are themselves places where women are vulnerable to systematic abuse (as the Arya Orphanage case and the case of baby Falak and her teenage companion tragically indicate). A sojourn in such shelters would only reinforce a survivor’s sense of helplessness and lack of options, rather than providing any effective possibility of autonomy from the household which in many cases has been one of the sites of abuse and violence.

A similar self-reflexivity is called for when the women’s movement demands ‘samman’, or ‘izzat’; whereby we have to find ways to distinguish our demand that women’s dignity and sense of equality and individuality be acknowledged, from the common sense notions of ‘respect’ and ‘honour’ (closely linked to notions of female chastity and virtue) that are hegemonic in society. ‘Respect’ for women, as defined in the terms of hegemonic patriarchy, is not a respect for women as equal being enjoying rights as individuals on par with men. Instead, it is contingent on women’s embrace of the norms of ‘good womanhood’ as defined by patriarchy.

In many cases of sexual violence, women’s protests will find a degree of public sympathy and support. If the victim is of an oppressed caste and the perpetrator from a dominant caste, for instance, while police, courts, and the dominant sections might be biased towards the victim, she would be likely to find support and solidarity from her own community. In other cases too, where it is relatively easy to see the woman as a victim, there is likely to be a degree of spontaneous sympathy for the rape victim. But the women’s movement needs to recognize that such sympathy is contingent on the sexual ‘innocence’ of the victim.

Such sympathy unravels fast in cases where the woman is seen to be sexually aware. The recent case of the murder of auxiliary nurse and midwife (ANM) Bhanwari Devi in Rajasthan is a good instance. In this case, this dalit rural health worker was murdered at the behest of two Ministers in the State Government. But in the media and in dominant representations of the crime, the fact of the murder was overlaid by the fact that Bhanwari, a married woman with two children, was said to have received money from the Ministers in exchange for sexual relations, and the murder seems to have been triggered by her threats to blackmail one of them with a clandestinely filmed CD of him in a sexual encounter with her. In spite of the fact that Bhanwari was unarguably a victim of murder, these facts about her sexual and economic transactions with the men accused of the murder, complicated her status as ‘victim’.

Although Bhanwari Devi was the victim of a violent crime, her own sexual transactions generated more moral outrage than her murder did. Bhanwari’s transactions with her killers create discomfort for patriarchal common sense, because she openly acknowledged, and sought to leverage the fact that women’s sexuality has exchange value. It emerged that she, a humble rural health worker, first met these powerful Ministers in a bid to avert a transfer to a remote area. We can surmise that in exchange for a stay on the transfer, she was asked to provide sexual favours: a clear-cut case of sexual harassment at the workplace. But in this field where the relations of exchange (determined by class, caste, and gender) were so deeply unequal, Bhanwari made a bid to reassert some measure of control over the terms of exchange. In her bid to leverage her sexuality for somewhat more than the ‘minimum wage’ of her job and survival, she played a dangerous game, and eventually lost her life in the gamble.

The patriarchal double standard lies in the fact that sexuality invariably has exchange value, not only for the ‘sluts’ and other women of ‘questionable virtue’ like Bhanwari, but equally within the marriage relation. In one Bengali marriage ceremony I witnessed, one of the rituals involved the husband presenting the wife with a symbolic set of clothes and a handful of rice, pledging to bear the burden of feeding and clothing her (bhat kapoder bhar). Marriage is an affective relation, enjoying sacramental sanction and conferring social approval. But it is also an exchange of women’s sexual and reproductive labour, and continuity of patrilineal inheritance to the legitimate heir, in return for protection and security. The terms of exchange are more beneficial to the man, however, and outside marriage too, the relations of exchange are deeply unequal, with men commanding the terms of exchange. Men who demand sexual favours at the workplace do not face much social stigma, but women who bring the demand out into the open, either by protesting, or by acquiescing to it and seeking to leverage it for a better bargain, have everything to lose.

The recent film The Dirty Picture(1) has been hailed by some for its supposed ‘celebration’ of female sexuality. Rather than ‘celebration of female sexuality,’ I think that one of the achievements of the film is that it is a rare sympathetic portrayal of a professional woman who acknowledges the exchange value of raunchiness in the film world and in society. Where other female stars are leveraging their portrayal of demure sexuality, she seeks to leverage raunchiness for a bid at stardom. The protagonist, far from celebrating her own sexual desire or self-expression, is remarkably self-aware of the unequal field of sexual exchange, within and without marriage, and the sexual double standard that operates there.

I have on several occasions commented on the unfortunate fact that leading lights of a major Left party like the CPIM have often reproduced patriarchal ideology, especially in denigrating rape complainants and in running down female political rivals. The latest instance was when the Kerala CPIM stalwart VS Achutanandan commented on a former SFI leader Sindhu Joy who joined the Congress, saying she was like an ‘abhisarika’ (courtesans) who has been dumped by the Congress after use. No doubt, the CPIM has to answer for its endless tolerance of such statements by its topmost leaders. But the point I would like to make in this article goes beyond the culpability of a particular Left party alone.

As I have noted before, it is the Left parties alone, among political forces in India, which have a radical critique of patriarchy and gender ideology. Left-led women’s groups in India have, historically, drawn in masses of women, especially of the labouring classes, poor peasantry and adivasis. But to what extent does this Left critique of patriarchy grip the masses and become a ‘material force’?

Left movements cannot assume that radicalization of gender relations and critique of gender ideology will follow as an inevitable ‘side-effect’ once women are mobilized in struggles. Of course, when women become politically active, especially in radical Left politics, or even when she enters the labour market, a disturbance of the prevailing balance of forces in her household and her social environment usually follows. And this process is usually encouraged by Left forces. But I feel that a radical Left agenda must seek to challenge and destabilise prevailing gender relations and patriarchal ideology as a goal in its own right, and not just as a welcome but inevitable effect of women’s entering the labour market or political activism. We have to find more effective ways of creating social and political movements that pose a challenge, not only to actual acts of violence on women, but the material and ideological arrangements that underwrite such violence: including caste endogamy, women’s sexual and reproductive labour arrangements within and outside marriage and the household, control of women’s sexual and personal autonomy, and the culture of patriarchal ‘guardianship’ of women, however seemingly benign. These issues cannot remain confined largely to theoretical discussions and party schools – they must inform the day to day praxis of radical Left movements.

One has had many occasions to express anger at the outrageous statements by authority figures and those in responsible positions, questioning women’s ‘character’ to deflect the issue of sexual violence. This article has been a welcome occasion to think through some of the issues relating to how we in the women’s movement and the Left movement conceptualise struggles against sexual violence.

(Kavita Krishnan is the National Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association – AIPWA)


1) A recent Indian film drama portraying the rise and decline of a movie actress famed for her erotic roles.




11 years 6 months ago

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Submitted by Soapy on December 30, 2012

Thx, most interesting!


11 years 6 months ago

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Submitted by subprole on December 31, 2012