Saturday, October 18, 2014

The simple-difficult task of breaking the silence – part II: Child Sexual Abuse

When one begins to talk, write or think about sexual violence (as i decided to do HERE), it can be a massive undertaking. There are so many forms of sexual violence women (often men, and frequently all other genders as well) have to face everyday, that a comprehensive analysis is a gargantuan project. I have no illusions that i can analyse it all in any kind of complete way. I just want to examine my thoughts, opinions, experiences and emotions on the range of sexual violence that people have to face everyday. The only way i can even imagine trying to do this is piece by piece, facet by facet.

The earliest, longest lasting, most pervasive form of sexual violence most humans face is Child Sexual Abuse (CSA). And yes, boys face as much of it, are as much as risk from it, as girls, and non conforming kids of all genders, trans kids, are all at high risk. It's not something we like to think or talk about. The idea of children at risk, coming to harm, being permanently and deeply scarred and damaged, is not something any parent, or sensitive human being, would like to face. And when we do talk about it, as we have just started doing, thanks to TV talk shows, exposure to global news and current affairs, and “human interest” pieces in the print media – we still think of it as something to protect girls from. Yes, girls need protection, but so do boys, and transkids and other gender variant kids, or queer kids (but then recognising that anything other than boys and girls even exist is a whole different struggle in the making in our country).

We persistently shy away from the thought that "boys" might be at risk too. It goes against everything conditioned into us by patriarchy. Boys/men are never weak enough to be victimised after all. And they shouldn't be, right? Men as abusers of boys is also something we dont like to think about, bringing, as it does, the whole “homosexual” spectre to the forefront of our minds (another myth – that all gay men are potential abusers or that all male abusers are gay. They are not. Abusers are a category by themselves. They are either on a power trip, or are pedophiles, or both.) As for a woman as abuser? That's possibly an even worse and more uncomfortable thought to get our minds around. Women are supposed to be weak, the victims, the pairon ki jooti, in patriarchy. Alternatively they are supposed to be the maa, the devi, or other backhhanded ways of keeping her subservient and without real power. Being an abuser assigns some agency, some power, some authority to the it or not... and we don't like the thought of that.

We also persistently warn our children (when we do so at all) to “not speak to/take sweets from strangers”. Yet, statistics show that most of the perpetrators of CSA are people known to the child, trusted by the child and the family. They are people who are so much a part of the family or social circle that they are trusted to be alone with the kid for various lengths of time. They are uncles, aunts, neighbours, tutors, teachers, family friends, caregivers, domestic help, doctors, and so many other people. And this in itself makes CSA such a devastating thing for the child. The child's entire world view is threatened and destroyed when someone who is supposed to keep it safe, protect it from “strangers”, take care of it, actually abuses and tortures the child. These are people with authority over the child, people the child is taught to respect and obey, which makes the situation worse. No matter how much discomfort or guilt or shame or disgust the child feels over what is happening, he/she/ze feels the pressure of that conditioning to obey, to do what they are told, to silently bear the abuse. This leads to further lifelong guilt at their own inability to prevent the abuse, or stop it, a sense of having deserved such treatment, shame, and a total destruction of self esteem.

Telling is the toughest thing for any survivor of sexual abuse. Given the personal, intimate nature of the crime, and our glaring taboos with regard to anything to do with our bodies or sex, it can be almost impossible to comprehend the abuse as abuse, and even if they do recognise that, it is not easy to talk. In a society where a child cannot ask – or get a clear answer for – where it came from, where girls routinely have hysterics at school at first menstruation because no one told them anything and they think they are hurt, seriously ill, or dying, where the TV channel is switched every time there is an ad for a feminine hygiene product or a kiss on screen, where we NEVER use the correct words to name body parts that have anything to do with sex, childbirth, feeding, and so on, how is the child supposed to get up the courage to tell its parents of sexual abuse? Where is the child supposed to even find the language to understand what is happening to him/her/ze, let alone tell someone?

If the child does manage to tell someone, somehow, chances are they will not be believed. I have seen and counselled so many survivors who did tell, and who were punished for it, or simply disbelieved, told not to make up such horrible stories about such-and-such uncle/aunty/bhaiya. They were scolded, threatened, told not to be such bad children. Imagine what that does to the child. Not only do they have to live through a nightmare they will carry with them lifelong, not only do they have to find ways to survive and deal with things that will scar them forever, they also have to deal with the disbelief, the lack of trust, from other adults that they trusted enough to tell.

Society and the predators also take advantage of our basic sqeamishness and discomfort with these topics to deflect blame from where it lies. So organisations like NAMBLA can claim that some boys want/need to be sexual with adult men, while judges of one of the foremost justice systems in the world assign ridiculous sentences to abusers because the girl was “older than her chronological age” and supposedly tempted/seduced a man 30 years her senior, an adult. Or repeated rapists of teenagers get away with no prison time because they need to be “rehabilitated” after a “light” crime.

We forget one basic fact. The adult is the person with power, in authority, and therefore with responsibility. The child may not know enough to resist, the child may even instigate or enjoy sexual acts, it is still abuse, because the child does not know the full implications and repercussions – physical, emotional, and mental – it is the responsibility of the adult to not go there, to put a stop to it. We do not allow a child under our care to eat as much ice cream as he/she/ze wants, even though it loves the ice-cream, wants it, begs for it. Why? Because we know what the child doesn't – it will harm them, make them sick. Precisely the same logic of responsibility applies to sexual acts (not comparing CSA to too much ice cream in any way). The adult MUST take the responsibility for the power imbalance.

And yet, society looks the other way, or actually blames the child! When it comes to sex, we are all massive hypocrites, and nowhere is it more evident than in the way we handle cases of sexual violence, and our attitude towards it. No wonder it comes to light so rarely. Children hardly ever tell, and even as adults, most never acknowledge or talk about their abuse. It takes years and years for even an adult to be able to discuss abuse in anything more than vague and general terms. It even takes someone like me – so bold, open, frank, brutally straight forward, never mincing words, writing about so many taboo things – years and years to write about it. It takes months of trepidation even after i make the decision, it takes shying away every time i sit down to write, it takes avoidance – doing anything else to avoid actually writing, and in the end i am still uncomfortable getting too personal.

It is not surprising then, that as many as an estimated 90% of child sexual abuse cases are never reported, never brought to light. The children just continue to be abused, often by a series of abusers, often over a long period of time, sometimes even years. These children just survive the experience in any way they can manage, and go on to live whatever type and quality of life they can manage as grown ups. They are forced to deal with their demons and their trauma on their own. From my own experiences, from my friend circles, and from the large number of people i have informally counselled over 20 something years, i am forced to think that 60-70 percent of adults, including men, and all other genders (the proportion is higher in gender/orientation variant people often as PUNISHMENT for their variance) have endured some form and duration of abuse, or at least an attempt at sexual abuse, as children. Worldwide statistics support this estimate too.

These are NOT isolated incidents, they are not RARE, they are NOT too few to be talked about. I dont know of many people who HAVEN'T faced it, and i know a lot of people. On the contrary, it is ESSENTIAL and IMPERATIVE that we talk about it, that we face the reality, that we recognise the truths of Child Sexual Abuse. Only then can we have any hope of protecting our children from it.

CSA is not isolated. It is happening all around us, all the time.
CSA does not happen only to girls, boys are equally at risk, all genders are at risk.
Abusers are not monster-like strangers who can be recognised at a glance. They are freindly, nice, amiable, seemingly trustworthy. They are friends, relatives, caregivers, authority figures.
Abusers are not all men. Although a majority are male, there are many women abusers too.

No matter what the perpetrator says, the child IS the victim, and it IS a crime

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