Explained: The Complex Position Of Pleasure In Cases Of Child Sexual Abuse

The crowdsourced question-and-answer website Quora features a provocative question asked by an anonymous user – “Is it still sexual abuse/molestation if I enjoyed it?”

The most viewed and upvoted (the quora equivalent of a ‘like’) answer details an extremely personal experience by another anonymous user who mentions that she was non-consensually touched by her cousin brother on three occasions. But over time, she began to get over her discomfort and started to associate her cousin’s action with a kind of anticipation, intimacy and pleasure.

She says that the pleasure helped normalise the incidents, even cope with it but not without leaving an effect on her, her sexual desires, her relationships and her emotional and mental well-being.

In her reply, she confesses to being alienated and confused by ‘media and societal portrayals of survivors as being avoidant to sexual intimacy.’ Here, she touches upon what can be described as a taboo with a taboo.

If sexual abuse is covered up in a conspiracy of silence, ‘pleasure experienced by a survivor’ is all but rendered ‘unthinkable.’ So much so, that if a survivor confesses to experiencing pleasure or intimacy during an incident of abuse then common societal notions would question as to how much of a ‘victim’ such a person is.

As one of the other entries on the Quora thread puts it – “How would it sound in court if you said something like he molested me but I enjoyed it?”

Levin and Berlo (2004) mention that somewhere between 4–12% survivors (children and adults, male as well as female) experience arousal or even orgasms during incidents of sexual abuse. While Sipski (2001) suggests experiencing pleasure may just be a biological reflex response and is therefore not tantamount to giving consent. Just because society struggles to discern these ideas in its collective mind doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

Ramya (name changed) 27, a curator of an art museum spoke about her experience of being abused as a child and falling in love with her abuser, in her conversation with Aarambh India.

“I was 15 when it all started. I lived my childhood in a broken family. My parents used to fight so much that I eventually grew to have a toxic relationship with them. I did extremely bad during my Class 10 boards. So, my dad’s friend used to come to our house to help me with studies.

When we used to be alone he often tried to touch my hands or cheeks or even hug me in a very platonic way. If I am honest with myself, I really liked being touched by him. I felt at least somebody wants me. But his intensity was overwhelming, even scary.

And, of course, his intensity transformed. It turned sexual. The sexual relationship with him became a window to let go all my worries, sadness and void in life. The dopamine rush was magical and misleading. I remember feeling ambivalent.

Curious. Repelled. Excited. Aroused. And these feelings, combined with the constant feeling of shame, made it all feel like I am a dirty person. I knew I was sexually abused, but, yet I gave up to him every time he asked for it. I thought I loved him. Amidst all the chaos in my life, sex felt like an escape.”

In cases of child sexual abuse, the offender may groom the child to win their trust and love, before they abuse them. ‘Grooming’ may play like courtship, except one of the participants is a child and the power dynamics are absolutely skewed. However, from the perspective of the child, the abuse may appear as a relationship. In some cases of child sexual abuse, children fall in love with their abuser. They may get used to the touch but even demand and crave it.

Dr Sneha Rooh is a palliative doctor and runs a social organization called Orikalankini. She mentions how consent and pleasure become particularly tricky in cases of child sexual abuse. She explains how there were times when she did not consent to the sexual engagement with her abuser. There was a time when she was tolerant of it and a time when she sought it out. Over time, she realised experiencing pleasure did not always mean consent.

Consider the act of tickling – while tickling can be pleasurable, when it is done against someone’s wishes it can be very unpleasant experience. And during that unpleasant experience, amid calls to stop, the one being tickled will continue laughing. They just can’t help it.

Children are sexual beings and with puberty they have more agency on their body and physical pleasure. And just like bodies respond to any fear, shock, sadness, they also respond to sex.

Jenny Morber in the article What Science Says About Arousal During Rape says, “the mental and physical components of human sexuality often run in parallel and in agreement – but not always. In fact, sexual arousal and other forms of heightened sensation are so closely intertwined that as of 2010, psychologists were still arguing in the scientific journals about ‘the exact meaning of sexual arousal,’ or what, exactly, we should call it.”

Here are some examples she lists of the mental/physical disconnect in sexual arousal:

1)  Some people can be brought to orgasm by having their eyebrows stroked or by applying pressure to their teeth.

2) Some people can ‘think’ themselves into orgasm without any physical stimulus.

3) People with spinal cord injuries (a physical brain-body disconnection) can still experience orgasm. This may happen during an MRI.

4) Women and men can become sexually aroused without their knowledge. (Subliminal images, images of copulation in other species, and those reported as disgusting, boring, or not arousing can cause physical arousal.)

5) Consciousness is not required for orgasm. Both women and men can experience orgasm during sleep.

The guilt of experiencing pleasure, mistaking it as consent or love, and the fear of being shamed is evident among the survivors of child sexual abuse. Where families, societies are sceptical of talking about pleasure to children, the approach of larger legal bodies is also ambiguous while addressing the intersectionality of pleasure and child sexual abuse.

The fact that a child experiences pleasure or desire will be reason enough for the entire legal system to turn against the child. From the investigating police personnel who will regard the child were ‘wayward’ and ‘deviant’ to the defence in the courts who will use the fact to discredit the child.

Even esteemed judges like Judge Dharmesh Sharma was of the view that a strict interpretation of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 “would mean that the human body of every individual under 18 years of age is the property of State and no individual below 18 years of age can be allowed to have the pleasures associated with one’s [sic] body.”

An unscientific cultural framework and narrow legal interpretations results in the policing and condemning of children’s pleasure. This places the onus on the survivors to behave in an ideal manner, thus making room for the perpetrator to evade responsibility. Nothing could be more unfair.

One can find a note of this unfairness in the Quora replier’s last paragraph where she attempts to console the confused user who asked the question –  “What your partner did to you is wrong; it’s not your problem to bear the burden of his actions…. It’s hard to believe, but you’re not the problem, just unlucky.”

Featured image used for representative purposes only.
Featured image source: Pixabay.

If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at dial1098@childlineindia.org.in. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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