All through April, Indian bloggers from several countries have come together to raise awareness about child sexual abuse on the blogosphere; sharing survivor stories, debunking myths, listing red flags, answering questions and providing guidance from parents and individuals/organizations who work in the fields of mental health, child development and media.
Since we began 9 days ago, many, many stories and insights have been shared, along with pointers on how to shield future victims. If you hop over to the CSA-Awareness blog (and I strongly encourage you to do so), you’ll notice a large chunk of the material consists of survivor stories. CSA, you see, isn’t just about children who were/are abused. It is as much about children who grow into adults, carrying the scars and trauma with them for a lifetime. There’s guilt, there is anger, confusion, pain, vulnerability and shame. Some move past it and cope the best they can, others struggle with their emotions every day. But everyone, with the exception of those who have entirely repressed the experience or those not old enough to consciously remember, can recollect the denuding of themselves in meticulous detail. And I say this not as a victim/survivor, (for I am blessed to have been spared that horror), but as a therapist who has worked with sexually abused children. Therapy can help retrospectively, but prevention, without a doubt, is the option we’re looking to exercise.
Here are a few home truths that can help us all:
When it comes to child sexual abuse, there is no stereotype. Not for victims, not for perpetrators. You cannot look at a person and know. Destiny experienced vaginal penetration at 9 months from her mother’s then boyfriend. Christina at age 3, from her own mother, who in turn had been shared by her father’s friends at 13. A much-loved uncle groped his 12-year-old niece at family lunches every Sunday. A teenage cousin experimenting with his sexuality, the household help who saw his wife annually, the mother of an affluent classmate. It is true, however, that in a majority of CSA cases, the child/adolescent knows and trusts the perpetrator.
Abolish the culture of shame surrounding the victim. If a friend’s home were burgled, would you be ashamed and think s/he should hide the fact? Admittedly, sex is more complex than robbery. Which is why the sense of violation is that much deeper. This is a crime, a very serious one, and it’s terrible enough that a child has to be at the receiving end of it without having to process additional feelings of shame, mortification and blame. No child invites sexual abuse, no child asks for it, no matter how “well-developed” or “mature” s/he looks. I will interject with a disclaimer here: it is not unnatural for children to express curiosity about their bodies and feel flattered when showered with the physical attentions of an older person they like. That still does not justify touching their bodies inappropriately or making gestures, suggestions and/or remarks that are graphic and sexually inappropriate.
Children need to be given a sense of personal boundaries, even in a casual, everyone-is-an-uncle/aunty culture such as ours. Talking about good touch-bad touch, naming body parts appropriately and keeping channels of communication open without showing embarrassment or disgust will go a long way in helping your child say no or tell you if someone is making him/her uncomfortable. If this means you need to get comfortable with your own body and learn to talk about touching and anatomy, please do that right away. You don’t have to launch into the how-precisely-you-were-born spiel. Keep it simple, age-appropriate and positive. Your child needs to know you’re willing to listen and that s/he is strong and important enough to say no and have his/her decision respected. In the event that the abuse has already occurred and you are in the know, don’t gloss over it, ignore it or disregard your child’s feelings. Some children will talk. Others will act out. Some will wet their bed and still others will show you through play. Don’t expect them to spell it out. It may be as subtle as “Can X drop me to music practice today instead of Y? Y laughs at me/is mean/doesn’t listen.”
Pedophilia is typically not a one-off instance. People who use their power over children to gratify themselves sexually don’t do it just once for a lark. If it has happened to you or your child and even if you are absolutely certain you’ve done all you can to ensure your own/ child’s safety, remember the world has other vulnerable children and we’re responsible for each other to some degree. Raise an alarm, get help from appropriate authorities, but do not shove such an instance under the carpet no matter how much you want to forget about it and move on. Survivor stories frequently mention childhood victims confronting their abusers once they had children of their own to protect.
Know where your child is and with whom. If you feel more comfortable calling your child’s friends over rather than have him/her go to their home, go ahead and do that. Better paranoid than sorry in this case. Taking him/her with you is a better option if you don’t have a trusted person you can leave him/her home with. Even when your child is older (late childhood and adolescence), you still need to know the people in his/her orbit.
The fact that you’re reading this online should tell you what’s coming next. Predators don’t just come in the guise of sweet neighbors and favorite teachers. Monitor your child’s online activity and know what sites s/he is spending time on, the friends s/he is making via the internet and whether there is offline contact.
If you’re not sure, don’t ignore your doubts. Get professional help. Consult your pediatrician, ask for a referral to a therapist working with children, read up on the subject. (If you want a culture-relevant book, try ‘My Personal Safety Workbook’ by Tulir Publications. It costs Rs. 25 and is interactive and informative.) Share your suspicions and information with your partner/family and remain watchful. Even if an episode of abuse has occurred, if you deal with it appropriately, it will not hamper your child from having a full, happy and healthy life.
Yes, this is a murky topic, but know that there are many well-meaning folks out there, committed to keeping a watchful eye and spreading awareness. It’s not all bad, there is much love in this world and may you and/or your child be at its receiving end.
If you wish to discuss this subject further, I will be taking questions from readers/parents/anyone interested at CSA-Awareness’ tweetchat site: http://tweetchat.com/room/csaam on Wednesday, April 13, 10.30—11.30 pm Pacific Standard Time, which is Thursday, April 14th, 11 am—12 noon Indian Standard Time. You will need a twitter ID to log in. See you there.