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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.