In My Skin: Moving Past Sexual Abuse
One of the issues effecting children in India, that is rarely addressed, is child sexual abuse. In a 2007 survey conducted by the Government of India, 53.22% of children in India said they had experienced some form of sexual abuse, and 22% of them extreme forms of sexual abuse or violence. However, as horrifying as these statistics are, even this is still assumed to be a conservative estimate. In 1997, in a research survey of adults across 5 major cities in India, 76% of adult women respondents said that they had been sexually abused as children. India’s conservative stance on sex and sex-related issues not only creates a permissive environment for child sexual abuse, but it also makes it extremely hard for survivors to overcome the trauma of their abuse even as adults.
So one can well imagine the courage it took for one Indian woman to share her story with The 50 Million Missing Campaign. We admire her immensely for doing so and share her story below. We’ve withheld her name on request. We hope her sharing her story on this forum will give courage and inspiration to other survivors of childhood sexual abuse in India and elsewhere.
I have a very complicated relationship with my body. It is like this: I have never truly felt that this skin I walk in is mine. So bear with me as I try to explain.
For the first few years of my life I don’t remember feeling any special connection to my body. That is to say, I wasn’t conscious of it or its place in anything. In fact, my introduction to it first happened when I was 4 years old. It was the year I was molested.
My molester would tell me not to tell my parents as they would be very angry with me. Even when I didn’t really understand what those acts meant, I had a sense that it was forbidden and wrong, and all the more I felt I couldn’t really tell my parents. The episodes would take place in utter secrecy and isolation. And somehow, in my child’s mind, I too had to take on the responsibility for maintaining that secrecy. Maybe this was because I thought I was an equal participant in those “games”, and therefore guilty. But the thing is, I also didn’t want to miss out on what had become a pleasurable “game” – a physical sensation, that I as a child felt and yet had no comprehension of.
It was not till many years later, that I realized that this is not unusual, and that it was really not my fault. On one of her shows on child sexual abuse, Oprah Winfrey talked about, how child sexual abuse is not necessarily always a process that uses physical force or intimidation. Often the molestation of children is through ‘seduction’ where the child is introduced to physical sensations which are a natural biological response, and can feel pleasurable. Yet, the child is not aware of that, or in control of it, and so it is used by molesters to control the child through manipulation and exploitation. That I understand now. By the time I was 5 and it had ended, I had been exposed to various sexual acts. This premature exposure to something that I barely understood, yet experienced, later complicated things for me immensely.
When my parents found out about it, their reaction was not very comforting to me. They were angry — very angry. They said they could not believe I would do such things. My mother gave me an ultimatum, “Stay away from boys or I will chop off your vagina!” In those defining moments the seeds of shame were sown. It is the kind of shame that gets under your skin and stays there. Overtime, it sometimes fades but never washes off completely. The shame manifested into little rituals. It manifested into how I interacted with boys and girls, and later men and women. It manifested into these constantly nagging and undefined fears when I looked at my body and tried to understand what it meant to me. My mother’s anger had made me feel shameful in a way that I didn’t feel when I was “playing games.” Till I experienced her anger, the molestation was just a forbidden game. But afterwards that became an unwashable sin.
Puberty was a particularly frightening experience for me. I clearly remember the day I got my first period. When I was 12 years old, I woke up one morning and was terrified to find stains in my panty. But there were no cuts or bruises anywhere. I wondered many things: Had I hurt myself while riding my bicycle? But wouldn’t it hurt if that was so? Was this some strange disease that I had suddenly got? Did it mean I was dying? I didn’t want to tell my mother at first because I thought it would upset her. Later in the evening, I went to play in the park with other children pretending that it would be o.k. Fortunately I got no stains on my dress, but by night when the bleeding wouldn’t stop, I had to tell my mother. I was surprised that she didn’t seem upset or angry. In fact, she didn’t really show any emotion. She just gave me the pads to use and told me that my periods would come every month. And then she told me, that if I got too close to boys I would get pregnant. That was the extent of the ‘sex advice’ I got from her, and it left me feeling confused, scared and somehow ashamed of myself.
At first I wondered, is my mother so angry with me, that she is saying this to me to scare me, to punish me for having been a “bad” girl? I did wonder if my periods, and the other changes that were happening in my body with puberty – like the development of my breasts and pubic hair, had something to do with my childhood sexual molestation. It felt like another “bad” thing I could not stop! For the longest time, I felt my periods were something to hide from others, and I’d hope that no one would know or find out. It was not till much later in my teens, that I got some of my very basic information about sex: about how a girl can get pregnant (I had thought perhaps a boy just touching me could get me pregnant) and where babies come out from (I had thought they came out from the stomach).
I grew embarrassed of my breasts. I constantly fretted with my clothes – was the top too tight? Too short? Was the neckline too deep? Should I change out of this pink top which I love? Do I walk in an unladylike manner? Would this somehow tempt a man to squeeze my breasts? Or pinch my butt? I used to spend a lot of time in front of the mirror trying to look nice in this body which was so alien to me. But I did not want to look too nice (didn’t want to get pinched now did I?) Just nice enough. But of course, none of that really works- does it? I was still teased for my weight and for wearing glasses at school, and I still got touched and pinched on the roads. I remember when I was around 12 years old, there was this incident when I was playing with colors during the Holi festival with other kids in the neighbourhood. A man of about 20, riding on a bike with his friend, came by and squeezed my right breast hard before riding off. It happened so fast that I just stood there shocked, unable to move, and it was some time before I even felt the pain. When I went back home, and took off my clothes to have a bath, I spent a long time looking at my breasts first, trying to figure out if I could have done something differently to avoid this? Were my breasts some sort of an invitation that I did not know about? I came to a startling conclusion at the end of my speculation. It was simply this: Maybe people can see it, when they see me – that I am unclean, that I have been touched. So maybe they are entitled to do this stuff.
As a child, when I so needed to understand why someone would do this even when I was not asking for it, that was the best explanation I could figure out for myself. Now, looking back, I realize that I had simply picked up on the idea from people around me. It was what everyone always said – at home, in school, in the community. How many times had we girls been told that only “bad” girls got treated like this? You were dressed wrong! Why did you have to stand so close to the road? Didn’t you know during the Holi festival, men always act like this? No, I didn’t know. I was 12. I didn’t know.
Later, as an adult I’d find, much to my confusion, that I was repulsed by and attracted to men at the same time. I weaved romantic dramas in my head about them but feared them too. It was their eyes, the way they looked. Sometimes I could almost hear them licking their lips in anticipation at being able to touch me. That was not the image of the men in my head; not the image I desired. Like I said it was very complicated. In my mind I was the perfect little creature with love stories that could be the envy of all fairytale princesses. In reality I was dirty. I was a shy child; and later in my teen and young adult years I went even further into my cocoon. It would take me years to come out of it – even to a small extent. With my female friends, I was fairly comfortable. But with men it was a different experience. It was because I constantly sensed and feared that they could harm me. I would go on the defensive when interacting with them. It was a sort of sweaty palmed, timid, defensive stance of a scared girl who would react at any real or imagined danger. The reaction could be anything–from being scared stiff–to being embarrassed–to silent tears–to irrational arguments. Later as a young adult, I was abused by someone I loved and who I thought loved me back. It devastated me and further shattered my trust in men.
I am older now; I have met many men and women who have gone through similar pain. I now understand with a certain relief and sense of freedom that it was not my fault. I think for my sake more than any one else’s I also need to put out that my mother, who I love very much, was really was out of her depths and specially so at that time, before internet, before the information age reached India (even now child sexual abuse is barely talked about in India). I understand that she had reacted the only way she knew how. If she knew how much her anger would affect me–she would not have said any of those things. My mother has since passed on, and it gives me immense peace that I found my resolution with her before she went. Later, as I grew she had become a very different person from the woman who had scolded me, and she learned to understand and love me just as I am. But the journey towards claiming my skin is not yet complete. It is still far from it.
There are other issues I still struggle with. How much of my life and my past do I share with the men I date or the man I might marry some day? I am not ashamed of my life anymore, but can I change this notion of a virgin bride that Indian men have engrained in their brains? Perhaps some may understand my circumstances, but I live in a culture, where men so easily categorize women like objects bought in a store: There are those that are “cheap.” Not like we are humans – a sum total of choices we’ve made and circumstances we’ve endured. Incidentally the person who had abused my trust and my body had known about my childhood abuse and I had thought I could share those things with him and he would understand and respect me as a human being. But what I learned from him was that some people are not able to empathize with another person’s trauma and experience, and instead exploit it as your vulnerability and prey on you for it.
Indeed, I have faced abuse from other people as well, and what I’ve learnt is that not all abuse is physically or sexually violent. Men in relationships can be emotionally and psychologically abusive too. Doctors and other professionals who are supposed to help, are no better, at least here in India. On two occasions, I had gone to two different female gynaecological doctors for tests. Instead of getting help, I faced utter disrespect from them because I shared my history with them. They raised moral objections to my past. While examining me, they handled my body with total insensitivity and with no regards to my pain, or objections. They hurt me again in the way they addressed me and talked down to me with this thinly veiled contempt. So there are so many forms in which my body has been objectified and abused. It has hurt me badly and shaken my self confidence. And it’s not always easy to pick one self up, to reclaim self respect and the ownership of one’s own body.
I realize there will be times when I will have to relive some very painful moments from my past, to overcome them, and sometimes I am afraid of the anticipation of pain of reliving them. I believe though, I will overcome them, and I always remind myself that it’s only a matter of time and perseverance. What matters most for me is what I see when I look back onto my past, and compare it to my present. The one thing I can clearly see is that for me the process of healing has begun!
The World Health Organization defines child sexual abuse as the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violate the laws or social taboos of society.
To get more information about child sexual abuse or if you are a sexual abuse survivor and are not comfortable approaching local facilities directly for help, then you could get anonymous help and support at this international online site for sexual abuse/ rape survivors, called Pandora’s Aquarium. For advice and peer support, consider joining their online support group, message board, and chat room. There are forums for different geographic areas and countries. However you don’t have to stick to your country or region. Feel free to explore and join in whichever forum you feel most comfortable in. If you are the parent of a rape or sexual abuse survivor, you also can join the Pandora’s Aquarium community as a secondary survivor. Additional information for parents and friends of surviors located here.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHERS: The photographers whose pictures are featured in this post are members of The 50 Million Missing Campaign’s Photographers’ Group which is supported by more than 2400 photographers. To see more of Luigi Fedele’s works click here. To see more of Ron Harmon’s works click here.