Until we embrace the idea of consent in all relationships, including marriage, there can be no gender equality. Its absence makes discussions on sexual abuse meaningless
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. I didn’t know the term “child sexual abuse,” and had no words with which to describe my discomfort with the “games” he played — but I sensed there was something wrong 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.
Fierce, protective barrier
At 17, I knew now 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 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 nine was still invited to my wedding, because we were all keeping secrets, trying to protect one family member or another. (He was married, with grown children of his own.)
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 would not forget, even if forgiveness was possible. The silence around the abuse festered and caused damage for years, until finally, in my thirties, the difficult, liberating process of healing began.
If this story saddens you, please think about this: my story 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 per cent of Indian children have experienced some form of sexual abuse — a slightly higher percentage of boys than girls. I am only one of many.
As I learned to cope with the fallout from the childhood abuse, I made unexpected connections, found good friends, found strong mentors, found help, found my voice again and built a happier, more free life. If I bring up the abuse today, it’s to make a point about the importance of consent in the debate over gender equality in India.
Child abuse survivors are experts in two areas: we’ve taken a masterclass in the toxicity of silence and secret-keeping, and we have doctorates in our understanding of the importance of consent. It can take survivors, like rape survivors of either gender, years to reclaim a sense of ownership over their own 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. Children subjected to abuse learn one harsh lesson — their bodies are not their own.
Right to offer or withhold
Over years, those of us who are fortunate enough to find counsellors and healers learn to reclaim our bodies. We learn as adults what children are supposed to know by instinct: we learn that we can be safe in our bodies, we learn to allow ourselves pleasure, to take care of ourselves, and most of all, we learn that we have the right to offer or withhold permission to other people, when they want access to our bodies, our selves.
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 last few months in India on rape, violence against women, we have not discussed consent as much as we need to. When we talk about rape, women’s bodies are often discussed as though they were property: how much freedom should the Indian family allow its daughters, wives, sisters, mothers?
Recently, rejecting the Verma Committee’s strong appeal that marital rape be made an offence under the law, the Standing Committee on Home said that (a) the Indian family system would be disturbed (b) there were practical difficulties and (c) marriage presumes consent.
These assumptions expose the toxicity at the heart of a certain view of the Indian family. For marriage to “presume consent,” you must assume that a woman gives up all rights to her body, to her very self, once she goes through the ceremony of marriage. You must also presume that a man is granted the legally sanctified right to access over his wife’s body, regardless of whether she finds sex unwelcome, frightening, painful, violent or simply doesn’t feel like it that day.
This diminishes both genders, in its assumption that men are little more than lustful beasts, unable to restrain their libidos, that women are passive receptacles without desires of their own, forced to submit to demands for sex regardless of what they want. This is a medieval view of marriage and sex, and it is dismaying that Parliament appears to subscribe to it.
What is missing is the key question of consent — the consent of the woman, of any person in a sexual contract. All people — children, women, men — have a right to their own bodies.
In any equal partnership, the only possible basis for sex is on the mutual understanding that consent is an active process — to be offered freely and gladly, to be withdrawn just as freely. Underlying the principle of consent is the equally strong principle of respect; respect for one’s self, as much as for one’s partner. No one should be forced to share their bodies against their will.
On an active, day-to-day basis, consent embraces the idea that any woman or man is free to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a sexual encounter, inside or outside marriage, regardless of whether they are, in the ugly phrase of the courts and police stations, “habituated to sex.”
Child abuse survivors and sexual violence survivors understand instinctively that true respect includes giving all people the right to say ‘no,’ the right to choose when they will be touched, and by whom.
If it is hard for Indian society to understand why everyone should have this right, then perhaps we should start with the basics.
You own your own body. Everyone has the right to live without their bodies being violated. Everyone has the right to demand that you ask for permission before you touch their bodies.
Perhaps in time, Parliament and the government might understand this. Justice Verma Committee and thousands of women trapped in marriages where they do not have the right to refuse sex certainly do understand. (For those who believe that marriage in India is a perfect, unsullied institution, read the statistics: over 40 per cent of women in marriages have reported domestic violence. That’s reported, not experienced. In addition, we rarely discuss the experiences of men who have gone through childhood sexual abuse — currently, the percentage is slightly higher for boys than girls, but men are doubly silenced, by shame and the demands of masculinity.)
From victim to survivor
My own journey from victim to survivor and then to a kind of freedom, took years. Even so, I had less to deal with than many whose stories are reported in Human Rights Watch’s recent study of child sexual abuse in India — no institutionalised abuse, no caste abuse, no extreme violence. In time, I became a writer, a listener, and a collector of stories. The shared stories of survivors allowed me to let go of shame — child abuse was too common and too widespread for that. I also learned that your memories, however dark, will not kill you, or prevent you from creating a better life.
Reclamation happened slowly, sometimes painfully. I was lucky to have the support of my partner, friends and great counsellors. But that journey started with believing that I did have the right to say ‘no,’ that my body did belong to me.
The debate in India over rape laws, particularly marital rape, is about such a simple thing: acknowledging that women (and men, and children) have a right over their own bodies. Why is this being treated as though it were a dangerous or radical idea? In a country that calls itself modern, as India does, it’s time we embraced the idea of consent, in all relationships.
Even though it’s so common — more than half of all adults in my generation of Indians have experienced some form of childhood sexual abuse — few survivors speak about their experiences because of the Indian family’s insistence on silence. That silence transferred the shame of the abuser’s act on to the child, and on to the family; it is powerful and crippling, and it actively enables abuse.
The silence around marital rape is strengthened when the Indian social and legal system refuses even to acknowledge that it exists; for an abuser, and for a rapist, these silences are frighteningly empowering.
Just as children have the right to ask that their bodies remain unviolated by the people they should be able to trust, a woman has the right to say, no, she does not give her consent. Even, and perhaps especially in, a relationship as intimate as marriage.
(Nilanjana S. Roy is a New Delhi-based writer)