What makes for an abuser?

Posted: April 4, 2011

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By now, perhaps many of you have come across the CSA Awareness blog that is trying to raise awareness of child sexual abuse throughout this month. If you haven’t seen it yet – do check it out. Many heart-breaking survivor stories have been posted there and many bloggers have shared their stories/views too. In one such post, blogger Aneela Z asks, is it not time we ask what makes for an abuser?

True, it is time to ask what makes for an abuser. After all, no young victim can control the abuse, but every perpetrator knows fully what he is doing (and I use ‘he’ here, not because women never abuse, but because the majority of perps are male, which should also make us think why). There is evidence that shows that at least some abusers have themselves been abused as children; however, other studies claim that the majority of abused children do not themselves become abusers.

Whatever the exact percentage may be, it is important to note that it is not childhood abuse alone that is a predictor; instead, one thing that many studies point out consistently is the presence of violence in the abuser’s childhood. In other words, it is not necessary that someone should be ‘sexually’ abused for them to carry on the cycle. Children exposed to and suffering a lot of violence at home or in the immediate environment (and this can include emotional violence too) are more likely to violate the dignity of other children as they turn adults.

Commonsensical. If your rights have never been respected, if all you’ve been taught is that might is right, that the louder person gets his/her way, that children can be coerced into submission  – what would you ever know about respecting a child and not violating his or her innocence and trust?

This is not an excuse for abusers. But it is a pointer to us that we need to look at the violence in the world we live in. One hears of horror stories from boarding schools and residential colleges, for example, and these are treated as ‘just light ragging’. A male friend once told me about ragging in his college where the freshers had to play basketball at midnight – naked.

Men are expected to accustom themselves to such violence, to ‘take it in good spirit’, to not complain. But – this is violence too. Compelling a young man to strip is not ‘friendly’ ragging. Casual acceptance of such violence in many spheres breeds an atmosphere in which abusive tendencies can grow.

Which also brings me to the issue of the male abuser. Why are the majority of abusers male? No, it is not male libido. Libido has nothing to do it. It is simply because socially, violence is more acceptable for a man to indulge in. The image of a man who does anything to get the woman he wants (and whether she wants him or not) is glorified in our films. In this environment, does it really matter to the abuser if his victim is 21 or 14? Easier if she is younger and more confused! In some cases, it’s also because as the family’s breadwinner or more powerful person, the man knows that he can get away with it. 

So, while educating children and talking about the issue, it is important to look back at the larger culture of violence we live in. Some important things to do:

– Stop glorifying manliness as being about getting what one wants at any cost. Manliness is not about violence or power.

– Diss films or media that show women and children as people whose wishes can be ignored or ‘guided’ right. (Farfetched as this may sound, I hated Kal Ho Na Ho for this reason – why does Shahrukh get to make Preeti’s decision for her, and by using lies?) Mental pressure is often diguised as concern. A society/family/relationship that openly discusses issues, rather than one ‘mighty elder’ deciding for all, is more equitable. Lies and emotional coercion are a form of violence too. 

– Teach boys that in general, it is alright to cry, to complain, to talk about their feelings. Boys are taught too often to keep a stiff upper lip and botte up the bad things that happen to them. When children have a clear voice and are not silenced or shamed, they are more likely to bring up issues they have.

– Don’t accept that violence is ‘natural’ – we may be animals, but if we can wear clothes, live in houses and pilot aircraft, none of which other animals do, why take recourse to evolution to explain only our bad behaviour?

Violence and abuse may not be the only things that breed abusers, but surely, we can play a small rule in building a different sort of world around us.

Founder & Chief Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas

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  1. There is a lingering doubt in my mind. We hear of men in their sixties/seventies abusing young girls in their pre – teens. Could there be a medical reason for this? Or is it just a perverted mind? It shocks me when a grandpa figure cannot be trusted to provide guardianship to little girls.

  2. Harassment is less in the western countries than in India. Reason – harassment is punishable. You can’t say you attacked a girl, because she was wearing attractive clothes or something like that!! But in India, the first question goes to the victim as to what she was wearing.
    Children talk more openly to their parents in America about harassment, because they are educated about it. They know that they can call 911 if anyone abuses them. But most children are taught to fear parents. I see this trend changing, but there is still a long way to go.
    To sum up, lack to rights for women and children and lack of discipline for men can lead to a lot of trouble.

  3. @Hip Grandma – I am not sure if there are biological factors behind it; my belief is that “perversion” is closely linked to power. for e.g. would this 60/70 year old continue to prey on a teenager if she loudly proclaimed it and her parents reported it to the police? Unlikely – somehow, in such cases, libido magically wanes! So – perversion gets expressed when there is opportunity to do so – when a powerless child can be compelled/ cajoled into keeping his or her mouth shut.

    @Jyothsna – interesting; are there stats that compare levels of sexual harassment (of adults and children) across societies? We do know that in India, such cases are grossly under-reported for fear of ‘bringing shame’ to the family, and because of lack of support in the police and legal system.

    • I don’t know what stats say. Frankly this is what I see here. While harassment does exist here as well, you can see what happens if a policeman decides to ask women on what clothes she was wearing (see the link above). A mass protest! Also women here (unless its from a powerful thug group or something) don’t fear to report to the police. I’ve seen instances where girls/ women report if someone even touches them where they are not supposed to.
      Even at my own workplace when a guy got too touchy with a couple of girls, he was warned and immediately relocated!

  4. Thanks for your post Aparna. The politics behind the storylines we readily accept in our films, teleserials and advertisements are more than a little alarming. We don’t question them enough.

  5. I think this is an awesome post, you have hit the nail on the head.

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