Celebrating Anti-Child Sexual Abuse Movements

Posted: April 12, 2012

It is unbelievably difficult to write about one’s childhood or even speak about it within safe environments. There seems a blank divide between the two worlds that often seems to make the very existence of childhood and adulthood into polar experiences.

When we speak of childhood, we speak of what we think of it as adults, what we think happened to us as children. There is already a layer of interpretation, memory, correction, fear and shame added to it. This shame is important, because when we incorporate it into childhood memories like injections, we change its colour in order to make our stories more acceptable within adult trajectories.

But reality is different. Reality is a perceived chain of events during one’s childhood, to which one develops feelings, not immediately (apart from numbness) but gradually over time as one learns about articulation, love and relationships. It is only then that one can speak of  childhood violence and overcome one’s shame that had been held against one to create silence and complicity in the past.

Children are helpless to counter adults, especially when they experience abandonment or are regularly punished by parental figures or have to participate in whatever acts initiated by seniors as a result of peer pressure, when they lack actual peers. But even as adults, one doesn’t really believe that children are helpless, simply since they are capable of demanding so much pleasure in an ego centric manner. Many an adult has turned to a dumbfounded child to ask: why didn’t you tell me earlier?

I remember a project I had once made as a child: of pictures cut out from newspapers and magazines about child abuse. One of the pictures showed a doctor giving an injection to a crying baby. That is what abuse meant for me even at age 6 or 7. Who is so say what happens to a child, when an adult is loving or positive in intent about what feels like an abusive, painful and physically invasive act, such as an injection? A child knows only pleasure and pain and seeks the former blindly, while trying to escape the latter. It is basic survivalism. Yes, the sensation of a ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ is often overrated. Most children, used to having their bodies and genitals handled by adults in joint families for purposes of cleaning cannot necessarily decipher such a touch.

Most children, used to having their bodies and genitals handled by adults in joint families for purposes of cleaning cannot necessarily decipher such a touch.

Child sexual abuse is special and I have always found it the most difficult to accept. It is a situation in which an adult (feeling as helpless as a child himself, especially when confronted with adult women) treats an adult-like child as an adult by willfully exploiting its loneliness and perversely feeling powerful with the child, attracted to its defenselessness and innocence, which is simultaneously denied. Women learn helplessness as strategy even when they self consciously deploy it to gain protection and love later on even as adults.

It is far more difficult to take responsibility for a ‘childhood’ rather than children. It is also far easier to blame the abuser and create victims out of children, when supporting movements against CSA. Blaming an abuser is one way of escaping responsibility for the kind of childhood one is able to secure for one’s child. It is one way of avoiding questions about why a child finds love elsewhere (‘love’ as perceived by some child victims) even at the expense of shame, guilt, silence and torture and this denial reaches its peak as parents blame their own children for attention seeking or exhibitionism.

Blaming a child for an abuse is an effort to avoid naval gazing, an act far more important than ‘othering’ the entire situation. The answer to CSA lies closer to the bone than most parents would really want to understand and accept. Statistics demonstrate somewhat overwhelmingly the manner in which many survivors of CSA belong to disturbed families. This is not to shift the blame from abusers and survivors to parents, but to draw parents as adults into the ambit of responsibility, when CSA takes place. Many parents blame children for trusting ‘outsiders’ when they are the first to entrust children to ‘insiders’ , a strata which statistics again overwhelmingly demonstrates, to be the  origin of a maximum number of abusers.

Many parents blame children for trusting ‘outsiders’ when they are the first to entrust children to ‘insiders’ , a strata which statistics again overwhelmingly demonstrates, to be the  origin of a maximum number of abusers.

Further, creating children as victims denies them healthy sexual development. Seeking sexual and physical pleasure is completely normal for children and  even very young babies, something local infancy rearing techniques takes cognizance of it, when children are sought to be massaged in a way that  even includes genitalia. Pleasure, both seeking and providing, bestows children with growth giving sleep, appetite and vitality. But the touch disappears for the child in the pre-pubertal years, as if in preparation of puberty, when actual physical affection goes missing from a child’s life till she is suddenly plunged into marriage. Any physical relationship that is sexually pleasurable suddenly become ‘bad’ violent and full of guilt and shame for the child. It is not wrong for children to seek physical and sexual pleasure as they play with each other in very physical ways.

Further responsible is the introduction of the ‘gray’ zone. Most parents impose growing up on their children by gradually treating them as adults, especially in their pre-pubertal years, without any cognizance of the fact that puberty no longer heralds sexuality (and rightly so). In the light of the fact that we all understand how sexually mature girls may not be emotionally, intellectually or biologically prepared to deal with ‘relationships’ of sexual love, with the opposite sex, why do we impose ‘maturity’ on them at all, without going by their own pace in the matter. Many parents treat the childhood of their children in managerial ways so that their children can become helpful and self sufficient in the home, without caring that these children lack attention, physical love and sexual pleasure.

This untimely growing up plunges children into the gray zone where mummy-papa treat them as adults and yet debar them from pleasure that suddenly becomes an ‘adult’ enterprise. Why on earth would this be relevant for a child, who remains an adult and a child simultaneously that suits parents oh so much in terms of a managerial output within their homes. Suddenly all pleasures become taboo, while 99% of children forced to grow up before their time are told that pleasure would be allowed only to adults. For them pleasure is dangerous, because it has something to do with their virginity. Are children then, supposed to live lives empty of pleasure for a period sometimes longer than 10 years, to be suddenly plunged into marriage and cohabit like rabbits because it automatically has to become correct after what seems like a life long journey of internalizing that pleasure is wrong. The sexual suppression of children in their pre-marital ‘gray’ years that open them up to enjoying abusive relationships for pleasure conveniently denied and the urgency with which they are married off and expected to enjoy sex and reproduction can either be an act of sexual oppression in a hypocrical patriarchal society or it can be a mindset that accepts and encourages CSA by making it invisible. Can adults live without pleasure for 10 years? So why impose it on our children? Pleasure is a universal human and animal need, like food, that helps us all to rest, de-stress ourselves, concentrate on work and attain growth.

I am aware that these are harsh words, but are parents exposing children to abusers, by clamping down on what is healthy sexual curiosity for them by not taking responsibility for the childhood of their children? Does this venture of how pleasure is bad, rob women even after they are married, from claiming pleasure from their partners, being shamed by them if they do so? Is this venture what defines inequality between women and men in social relationships? Are we stunting the growth of our women by denying them pleasure since childhood, selectively terming it CSA in pre-marital years and domestic violence in post-marital? Or do we realize what emotional vulnerability entails in unequal relationships between men and women in general? I raise too many questions.

If allowed, children play and seek pleasure. A healthy childhood does not have space for an abuser at all, which is not to say that unprecedented abusive events don’t take place. It is to say that silence and shame around abuse don’t necessarily become ingrained and extend itself to domestic violence suffered in silence in later years. Shame is something that is not just given by abusers alone. Abusers mostly build upon what has already been taught by parents to children taking advantage of the rift of silence between the two, something abusive partners come to practice later.

Shame is something that is not just given by abusers alone. Abusers mostly build upon what has already been taught by parents to children taking advantage of the rift of silence between the two, something abusive partners come to practice later.

A huge majority of children seek sexual pleasure due to this gray zone as they seek paramours for themselves, playing at relationships to gain sexual pleasure right since middle school. Sexually active children, who behave like adults but remain emotionally vulnerable and subject to being easily duped are soon spotted by abusers. It is easy to blame children for being sexual before their time but difficult to point at how parents are also complicit in imposing adulthood before its time on them. Its easy to blame abusers but difficult to understand why children remain in love with their abusers for more than 10 years at one time.

It is because of this that Margaux Fragoso’s Tiger Tiger brought tears to my eyes. She has  gone back into her childhood, while squarely remaining consciously adult. She has spoken of her reality as a chain of events; painful and dispassionate to the last detail, while exploring her emotions for Peter as a child, who abused and loved her from the time she was 7. She loved Peter in continuation of a deep, unconditional and non-disputed love and desire for pleasure that only children are capable of feeling even as adults. At the same time, she felt angry revulsion for the man, who robbed her of her childhood, pitting her into deep chasms of depression, that could feel like being in continuation to Margaux’s already deeply traumatic family history of mental illness and violence initiated by her parents. She escaped from her home into Peter’s arms.

I was surprised by some reviews of Tiger Tiger that I read thereafter. Reviewers were shocked by the explicit descriptions of sex,  never mind their own consumption of it, which they denounced as soft porn. One reviewer commented on the way in which mileage could be gained from sensational memoirs that comes close to depressing reality TV shows and confession magazines. Another said that realistic stories from a victimhood point of view (in contradiction to Nabokov’s “Lolita”) always gained more prominence than books such as the pedophile’s guidebook. The point of Tiger Tiger has been lost on these reviewers. They mostly felt angry about being grossed out by Margaux’s childhood and this is hardly her responsibility. Some thought of her as a liar, since so many adults around her also seemed to be ‘complicit’ participants to the act. What were these critics afraid of, I wonder? Their own complicit involvement in violence perpetrated on others in their life? These reviews, especially after the ice-cold bomb of the book puzzled me.

Margaux wrote down a child’s experience. She wrote of herself as a child. Critics speak of her book as a therapeutic experience that she should not have  shared publicly. I state the opposite. This is the childhood narrative of a person, who has dealt with her pain, fear and shame courageously. Her narrative clarifies the reason for its writing. It states that child sexual abuse is not a simple matter, wherein an abuser, who abuses a child for 15 years remains insidious within a love narrative that creates life-dependence, almost parental dependence for a child on her abuser, due to emotional neglect from her own parents.

I wondered, whether in India, abuse was more contiguous with surveillance. A friend doing fieldwork in a working class neighbourhood in Pune told me of how young girls from age 3 to about age 8 were paired off with boys from the same neighbourhood about double their age. Little girls were already thought of as being future fiances of these men, till the time these boys actually got married. These mock alliances broke off then as the girls, already sexually mature would begin to look for real ‘suitors’, sometimes on lines similar to these childhood boyfriends. These boys often took special care of these little girls and taught them the man-woman relationship that mixed sexuality with surveillance from infancy.

My friend squirmed as she watched these men  pick up these little girsl and cuddle them in a manner that seemed as rightful as ‘partners’. These men also kept an eye on these girls and became an husband idol that was quite different from the father or brother figure. These girls learned jealousy, sexuality, acceptance to surveillance and love with these men, approved by their families. She and I often wondered whether this was violence, since these men were adults in comparison to the girls, laying the scene for domestic sexual relationships much before its time, as these girls seem born to the given ‘grays’ of adulthood subjectivities, even while rewarding them for internalizing this subjectivity, with physical and sexual pleasure. Sexuality, especially concerns about CSA and questions about children’s needs for sexual pleasure are exceedingly complex.

We might celebrate anti-child abuse movements as parents. But it is not enough to simply feel satisfied about preventing an outsider from approaching one’s child. It is more important to not abandon one’s child to now behaving like an adult for managerial purposes and thwart its normal need for sexual pleasure in terms of play with other peers. It is important that a child feels accepted for wanting and enjoying sexual pleasure till a time when she gradually feels capable of taking responsibility for adult relationships; till a point she can understand sexual love and can be empowered enough to seek and stand ground for her own rights within loving relationships.

And here, I don’t speak only of the girl child when I say ‘she’. I mean the boy child as well, feminized and humiliated as he is by his abuser/s.

Deepra Dandekar is a feminist historian working on narratives of religion, community and violence in

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