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Friday, 8 March 2013

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are no different from anyone who has survived sexual violence, in terms of what we do to rebuild ourselves. But we are experts in two areas: We’ve taken a master class in the toxicity of silence and secret-keeping, and we have doctorates in our understanding of the importance of consent. It can take abuse survivors, like rape survivors of either gender, years to reclaim a sense of ownership over their bodies. The body is the site of so many violations, starting with the chief one: Our abusers did not ask us for permission to use our bodies as they pleased.

The man who was my abuser was a fine host, a good husband, a caring father, a respected elder whose generosity and kindness were as genuine as the fact of the abuse. These qualities were important, because they helped him conceal the abuse he carried out over a period of four years.

As a much-loved older relative, a close friend of my parents, he had unrestricted access to our house, and we visited him often. It was only at 12 that I began to feel uncomfortable. Not about the abuse — I didn’t know the term “child sexual abuse” at 9 or at 12, and had no words with which to describe my discomfort with the “games” he played — but about the silence that he demanded. When I was 13, I left Delhi for Calcutta, to study in that city, and left my abuser behind. But he didn’t forget, and when I came back to Delhi as a 17-year-old, he was there.

At 17, I knew that he had no right to do this to me. When he sent poems, said that despite the four decades that separated us, we were supposed to “be together,” I finally broke my own silence — but only partly. I told my mother and my sister, and they formed a fierce, protective barrier between me and my abuser.

But the man who had started his abuse when I was a 9-year-old was still invited to my wedding, because we were keeping secrets, trying to protect one family member or another.

Years later, when my abuser was dying of old age and diabetes, I visited him. There was no space for a long conversation, but I did tell him that I could not forget what he had done, even if forgiveness was possible. The silence around the abuse, as much as the abuse itself, festered and caused damage for years, until finally, in my thirties, the difficult but ultimately liberating process of healing began.

In December 2012, a violent gang rape in Delhi took the life of a young woman and set off a raging debate over women’s freedoms and rape laws. In all the complex arguments we’ve heard in the past few months in India on rape, violence against women and the even less often discussed experiences of men who have gone through either sexual violence or childhood sexual abuse, we have not discussed consent as much as we need to. In the area of rape, women’s bodies in particular are often discussed as though they were property: How much freedom should the Indian family allow its daughters, wives, sisters, mothers?

This way of thinking almost always reinforces curbs on women’s freedoms, by heightening the idea that a woman’s honor — rather than her well-being — must be safeguarded, because she is someone else’s possession. This used to be, until very recently, underlined by most Indian government and legal documents, in which we were asked for the name of the father (not the mother), the husband (not the wife), as though the terms “parent” and “partner” were alien to the notion of the Indian family.

If my story saddens you, please think about this: It is neither new nor rare, nor was the man who abused me a monster, or in any way out of the ordinary. According to a 2007 survey (the largest of its kind in India) conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare, over 53 percent of Indian children have experienced some form of sexual abuse — including a slightly higher percentage of boys than girls.

I am only one of many. And I was luckier than most; my abuser was not excessively violent. As I learned to acknowledge the abuse and to cope with the fallout, I made some unexpected connections, found good friends, found strong mentors, found help, found my voice again and built a happier, more free life. I’m breaking my silence today to make a point, not about abuse, but about the importance of consent in the present debate over women’s rights and gender equality in India.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are no different from anyone who has survived sexual violence, in terms of what we do to rebuild ourselves. But we are experts in two areas: We’ve taken a master class in the toxicity of silence and secret-keeping, and we have doctorates in our understanding of the importance of consent. It can take abuse survivors, like rape survivors of either gender, years to reclaim a sense of ownership over their bodies. The body is the site of so many violations, starting with the chief one: Our abusers did not ask us for permission to use our bodies as they pleased.

PLEASE READ THE ENTIRE OP-ED ARTICLE:
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/08/opinion/global/saying-yes-matters-as-much-as-no.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&_r=1&

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