I am quite discontent about the responses I’ve received on speaking about sexual abuse. Let me jot down my experience.
Nearly one and a half years ago, my friends and I were traveling on a train, and one of my female friends had worn a blue cold shoulder top (a women’s top where her shoulders are exposed) and black jeans. A guy in a respectable position from the same compartment shamelessly touched her shoulders without her consent, while conversing with her. I’m not sure if he had groped her but one thing was apparent, she had not seen that coming, she was shocked and she froze for a moment, trying to realize what had happened.
Later that evening,
” I heard someone tried to touch your shoulders, What happened? Are you ok? ” I asked her with concern,
” This guy (name undisclosed) came and touched my shoulders while talking to me” She replied,
” What did you do? ” I inquired,
” Nothing…” she said with a heavy heart,
” Why didn’t you react? You should’ve slapped him on his face, then and there itself,” I wailed,
” I did not know how to act at that moment,” she shrugged.
I was disgusted with his abusive behavior and far worse, I became worried that she could not react and protect herself. In my eyes, the latter was a bigger problem we need to heed to. ‘ Why hasn’t she reacted? Why hasn’t she done anything but stood like a statue?’ questions wreathed my mind. I wanted her to react, I wanted her to protect herself, and I wanted her to stand her ground to fight for herself, but nothing had happened, some idiot can touch you where ever he wants and disappear into thin air? He can slink away without being confronted? I could not digest this.
I tried to walk in her shoes and understand why she had let this horrible thing happen to her, to my realization, it is the normalization of inappropriate behavior towards women, which made her feel “This is normal for girls”. This has had a significant influence on me and it got me pondering over it. I wanted this to change, so I decided to speak about sexual abuse, the trauma associated, and the devastating repercussions it can have on a victim.
Fortunately, A few weeks ago, I got a chance to brief this at my college. We had an extra-curricular activity class which provided me the opportunity to do just that. I had a single-minded motive, I wanted to sprawl awareness and I was hoping to etch in people’s mind that it is not even mildly acceptable to tolerate uninvited sexual advances, anywhere by anyone. I wanted them to perceive mental health as a real issue. But, to deliberately discuss such taboo things in the class, I had to take the teacher’s permission.
” Ma’am I would like to speak on a topic,” I put forward my request to the teacher,
” What do you want to speak about? ” She asked inquisitively,
” Sexual abuse,” I intoned,
she took a pause to think, ” Okay, you can do that, but make sure you speak sensitively,” she added.
” Definitely,” I reassured.
I hopped onto the dais and I started reckoning some figures about sexual abuses in India. I’d be lying if I don’t say, it was intimidating and challenging. When you are a typical South Indian, like me, you will understand that such topics are never spoken of publicly, or in the presence of the elderly, not even in your wildest and weirdest dreams. So, to speak about this meant making myself vulnerable to judgment. I summoned courage and I started explaining what sexual abuse is, why rape isn’t the only form of abuse, to give them a clear idea that abuse need not necessarily be rape, it can be an attempt to rape, inappropriate touching, unwelcomed groping, a trial to start a sexual conversation, an attempt to persuade, gestures, sounds, touching your shoulders without your permission, etc.
As I continued to speak, pin-drop silence prevailed across the classroom, no one budged, it was a class of complete quietness, it was so tranquil that I could hear my heart racing like a horse. I went on talking about the disparity between rape and other facets of sexual abuse,
” Wait for a second,” the teacher interrupted my speech,
” Is anyone feeling uncomfortable?” She asked, especially the girls in my class. No one let out a sigh, there was absolute stillness, and stiffness in their bodies,
” If anyone is feeling uncomfortable, I will not continue this discussion,” I assured discontinuity in case of discomfort,
” If any of you is not comfortable about this please raise your hands,” the teacher insisted,
Not the slightest form of response, not a yes, not a no, not a nod, not an indication of how they were feeling, I could sense fear and shame in them. It was difficult for me to understand if they wanted me to continue or not.
Anyway, I continued and I spoke about the psychological aspects like power play, consent violation, denial, insensitive and over-sensitive parenting, body-image issues, self-esteem issues, anxiety, so on and so forth.
In the due course of time, “What you wear is completely your choice and no one has anything to do about it, it is none of anyone’s business,” I voiced my opinion on a judgment about a person’s attire.
” NO, YOU CANNOT WEAR WHATEVER YOU WANT, THERE SHOULD BE SOME DECENCY IN THE WAY YOU DRESS! YOU DON’T TAKE OFF YOUR DHUPATTA AND REVEAL YOUR CLEAVAGE RIGHT? ” the teacher purposefully said in a stern voice, and derailed the discussion.
” I’m not asking you to dress in a particular way, I’m saying it is your choice to dress the way you want and the abuser uses it as an excuse to shift the blame onto you,” I re-established my point.
Soon enough I’d realized that, right from the beginning, it was not the students who were feeling uncomfortable, it was the teacher, she couldn’t afford such open talks on sexuality.
“This is where the problem lies,” I told to myself.
Sexual abuse trauma is insidious, and when society around you will not let you talk about such grave things, because ,these niches are not openly spoken since your parents and surroundings have taught you to keep your mouths zipped up “. If you are talking about sexuality, you are off the limits, you are talking more than your age, you are spreading sinful culture, you lack character (especially when a girl talks about it, she is slut-shamed), and if you don’t talk about it, you are decent, well-mannered, learned and a good human being, even if you are raped, abused, assaulted, suppressed, gaslighted, depressed, and devastated, you should not talk about it because you will be judged for something that isn’t your fault !!!
Whatsoever, I couldn’t deliver what I had to say, the teacher kept continuously interrupting me because what I spoke was against her opinions and belief system. This is how parents, teachers, and society are instilling shame into us by saying ” It is a bad thing”, without describing why.
The bell rang, and the class ended mid-discussion, I’d to wrap up for the day.
I was keen to know if the girls in my class were feeling uncomfortable, so after college, I asked a couple of my friends what they have felt when I spoke about abuse, no one reported feeling uncomfortable, in fact, they were eager to listen.
“It was evident that the teacher did not want this discussion to go on, she was not ok with talking about sexual abuse,” I thought to myself.
The next day, the same teacher came again and inquired “Where has yesterday’s discussion arrived?”
” It has not arrived anywhere, the discussion is at a halt, can I continue today and end this?” I requested,
“IT IS AN OPEN SECRET, YOU DON’T HAVE TO SAY ANYTHING ABOUT IT SPECIFICALLY, EVERYONE KNOWS IT ALREADY, let’s talk about something else today,” she turned a deaf ear.
I was taken aback, this incident left me debilitated, discouraged, and demotivated. Moreover, I expected the teacher (since she is a woman) to encourage such awareness spreading motives, but quite the opposite has happened.
How the hell is it an open secret? When you don’t create a safe space for youngsters to discuss societal stigmas, they will grow up to be ignorant, prejudiced, and stereotyped minds. It is within the power of parents, teachers, and elders to create a nurturing environment that can dive into the roots and fight these incessant cycles of abuse. Sexual abuse is a generational trauma, when you are asking women to not share about their abusive, traumatic, suppressing, and dehumanizing moments, you are not only staking their empowerment but also invalidating their pain. A place where a sexual abuse victim/survivor can’t share her/his traumatic experiences is no place for empowerment.
GROW UP, GUYS!! IT ISN’T AN OPEN SECRET, IT IS A CREATED SECRECY WHICH IS NOT BEING SPOKEN OPENLY!!!