The One Which Cannot Be Named

Teaching children to know their bodies and name the private parts is essential to protect them from child abuse.

Abhilasha Purwar is an engineer by vocation and a traveler by avocation. Of late, her engineering is merging with economics and her travelling is merging with writing. She is passionate about dance, music, movies and most of all- about books. She is a liberal-radical feminist heavily invested in individual’s freedom and rights.

In the article ‘Mommy, What’s a vagina’,Katherine Ozment talked about a situation that I am sure is one of the most embarrassing, troublesome and difficult situation for mothers around the globe and especially India–‘How to talk about stuff with their kids?’

An excerpt from Katherine’s article about her kids in her own words:

Katherine’s kids William (6) and Jessie (3) had been taking baths together, when one fine day little Jessie reached for her brother’s member which had been floating beneath the surface of the water like a mystery to be unraveled and then she did it again and again. As per the parenting manuals Katherine had read, this stunt was normal. These incursions would send William into a tizzy of giggling, squirming and positioning himself so that Jesse would do it again. One fine day, Katherine heard a more joyful than normal laughter from the bathroom and yelled “What’s going on?” knowing full well what was going on.

sad_childWilliam yelled“Jessie’s grabbing my penis!”. She rushed to the tub and told Jessie she shouldn’t touch William’s privates because they were, well, his privates and instructed William that “He should discourage her from touching him, or she might start grabbing the penises of all the boys in her preschool class and then she wouldn’t have any friends”. Over time her interest in his penis ebbed, eventually dying down altogether. At least she thought so.

Till one fine day, Jessie looked down at herself and said, “I wish I had a penis.”Thoughts of Jessie’s feelings of inadequacy, of penis envy, of adolescent confusion and despair flooded Katherine’s mind in a tangle of maternal angst. Finally, she took a deep breath and said, in an upbeat mom voice, “Well, you don’t have one of those, but you do have something verrry special.”Jessie asked -“I do? Where?”Katherine replied – “There” nodding to her nether region.“What is it?” she asked, with the anticipation one usually reserves for the opening of a much-touted gift.Katherine stiffened her spine, looked Jessie in the eye, and said, “You, Jessie Joan, have a vagina.” The next moment, Jessie put her hands on her hips and, swaying back and forth sang to the tune of nana-nana-boo-boo: “I have a vagina! I have a vagina!”. She had done it! She had her first sex talk with her daughter and hadn’t flubbed it. Jesse was buoyant as ever in her body, could name her private parts without shame or hesitation, and her strong sense of self had remained intact.

After reading this one scene article, my thoughts were revolving around this article for many days to come. I was imagining the same scenarios in the thousands of household in my society and wondering at how our mothers, how my mother or rather how I would tackle the same situation.

I think, some mothers would give a couple of nice slaps either to their Williams for positioning himself comfortably or at Jesses for doing the unspeakable act, or maybe some would slap both for a combined fear-effect to stop them from doing so. Some mothers will ban their kids from bathing together. Some mothers will allow the bath only in their supervision.

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Also, one more thing to notice is, what if the mother is slightly aware and yells like Katherine at her William and Jesse, but the William doesn’t yell back: “Jessie’s grabbing my penis!”

In India, beneath the whole fabric of our society–beneath the loves, friendships, sicknesses or marriages, flows a strong current of “not talking about things”. It takes a kidsome amount of courage to just go up to their parents and say ‘It is itching there’ because ‘there’ is a forbidden land and we don’t talk about its existence. I really wonder, will the typical middle-class 5 year old Vaibhav yell back to his mother that Janhavi is grabbing his penis,because somehow through the undercurrent, the 5 year old knows, ‘You don’t talk about it’ and that ‘It’s wrong’ and ‘that mommy will get angry’.

One example I can cite from my life is that the day the first drop of blood dropped from my vagina, I was scared to death, I contemplated and cried for an hour before going up to my mother, who gave some non-biological, non-sciency explanation of ‘it happens to all the women after a certain age’. I had a million questions of ‘How do you know it happens to all’, ‘Why does it happen at all’, ‘Will it happen forever’, ‘Will it drain all the blood out of me’, ‘Will I die out of the drainage one fine night when I am menstruating’, but the undercurrent of not talking about any of it was so strong that I didn’t ask any doubts. My classmates also didn’t know anything about it, except that “It happens to every woman” and that “Now, you are a woman”; they would whine about ‘Why it doesn’t happen to boys’ and even that ‘why’ was less of a curious and more of a submissive ‘why’.

In our society, we do not consider vagina, penis, breasts, buttocks as body parts that exist but as ‘one which cannot be named’. We can’t say the words ‘menstruation’ or ‘menstrual cycle’ or ‘sanitary napkins’. Half the seven-year-olds in the country are curious to death about ‘What is Whisper-ultra or Stayfree-Secure?’,‘What is it that allows these women to wear white pants on those days?’,‘Oh! It’s not just these women, it’s my sister also, What is this whisper-ultra doing in her bag?’,‘What is this blue ink?’, ’They look similar to chotu’s nappies. Does my sister pee in her sleep like chotu?’

Katherine Ozment realized that as mother and daughter, she and Jesse had many more miles to travel, and some would be rocky. But, our parents and we don’t acknowledge that, we don’t foresee these miles, and we don’t travel on them together. If we get a red spot on our jeans in a classroom we feel embarrassed. If a young boy gets a boner, he feels embarrassed. If a young girl gets wet dreams, she feels embarrassed. If a young boy has night-falls, he is embarrassed. The only explanation parents give, if some brave kid actually reports any of it to them is that ‘It’s normal’. But, the feeling that is radiated by the society to kids is that ‘It’s icky, It’s dirty, It’s wrong, Mom will get angry.”

I am talking about this attitude because, I feel it is responsible for most of the sexual abuse children face, for a lot of weird experimentation that the children do with each other and themselves, and for a somewhat weird sense of love and sex in our lives.

How do we really expect a child who can’t say the biological name of his/her privates to report the first incidence when someone touched them inappropriately? We question the validity and appropriateness of the ‘inappropriately’, but the fact is that children do have a good evolutionary sixth sense. We are built to sense risks, friends, enemies, etc. at every moment, evaluate them and thus make decisions. But the issue here is that given the undercurrent banning us from not speaking about topics which ‘one cannot name’,at the first or any instance of an inappropriate touch, ‘Will the kid report it?’

Certain facts to child abuse are that 1) In India, many of them are abused, 2) It is perpetrated by the known ones rather than strangers, 3) It is not gender specific but rather is gender neutral.

Now, my point is that, if at the first or any instance of “inappropriate” touch the child reports it to his/her parent in the same way as William who yelled “Jessie’s grabbing my penis!”, probably the parent will stop the other Jesse from abusing the child.

After I heard the news of the rape of 5 year old minor in North Delhi, I researched extensively on,‘How could one’,‘Where were the parents’, ‘How many such incidents’, ‘Was that incident the first time that child was molested’, ‘How could two men get a crazy idea to do something like that on one fine day, if they were not doing some other such minor offences on a regular basis’, ‘Were they molesting the same child or other children in the neighborhood’, If they were, then why did no one know, why didn’t any child report, why couldn’t any child report, would the 5 year old me have reported anything like this had it been done to me’.

It was then when I found this constant background of ‘not naming the things’ in our society. The hardcore molestations that we hear of in the news are mostly a final stage of many minor previous episodes of exploitation, which were never reported. Even when the hardcore incidents are the first-go episodes, for every single hardcore incident a thousand minor violation exists.What we should or what we must understand for these minor violations is that, the kid is already naturally programmed to not say that out loud (even if he/she is feeling very, very bad).

And, the final point is that if we just talked about stuff and acknowledged this current flowing so strongly beneath our feet and sweeping us into the depths of a deep dark vile sea, we can think about swimming together across it to reach the safe golden sun kissed shore.

Just, if we talked about it.

Photo credit: Mario Gonzaga.


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