By Sayani Basak:
It has been three years since I have been working with survivors of child sexual abuse. Being a survivor myself, I realised how women’s bodies get moulded by traumatic experiences that may have happened in their childhood. Their body and bodily expressions are influenced by the abusive memories that are attached to the body and the body parts.
This often affects their notions of ‘consent’. They tend to look at consent with a moralistic approach. This re-victimises the person every time she wants to stand for herself or take a risk in her life.
During my fieldwork in Kolkata, I met a girl, *Brishti. She was working in the private sector and agreed to be a respondent for my study. In my conversation with her, she talked about her discomfort with her body. She went on to share how she often engages in making fun of her own body.
On asking why she does it, she said that,
‘I prefer not to look good. I don’t like my breasts because my abuser used to press them, and sometimes, unknowingly, I also enjoyed it. But today, if you ask me, I feel my breasts are bulging, and I don’t like it. I know this is due to my experience in childhood, but still, I do not like my body.’
*Alpana, another survivor who works as a Social Worker in a Kolkata-based NGO now, shared her experiences of being uncomfortable with her body.
‘The backstage is my favourite place. I never like to apply make-up or look good for anybody. I like to be hidden in the crowd. I prefer wearing loose clothes so that my body parts are not prominent. I am afraid that I might be abused again.’
Judith Butler, a renowned gender theorist, explains in her book ‘Undoing Gender’ that the body which functions through spoken words is attached to our psychic mind. Speaking through language is a bodily act, and the spoken words are bodily offerings. Therefore, speaking is a performative action that is associated with representing oneself through the body.
Thus, in cases of adult survivors of child sexual abuse, as they are going through emotions like guilt and self-blame, they often make efforts to hide their bodily selves from others, (i.e. performative action in representing oneself), due to their memories of past abuse. The idea that “it is my fault” makes them blame themselves for the abuse (i.e. attached to our psychic mind). As a result, they indulge in behaviours that are supposed to be submissive and tender (bodily offerings or actions). As these thoughts shape their language as well, they often find it difficult to say “No” to people. This leads to further violations of consent and re-victimisation in the later years of growing up.
Alpana shared her childhood memories with her intimate partner. In the beginning, she felt that her partner had accepted her while knowing her history of abuse. But later, she understood how he used that knowledge as an advantage to mentally and emotionally abuse her. During the interview, she said, ‘He used to make me feel that he has accepted me with my flaws, and for that, I should be thankful to him. There was a time when I wanted to come out of the relationship. When I asked for a breakup, he told me, ‘how dare you even mention it!’
‘He made me feel that I had no right to make decisions for myself because I am a victim of sexual abuse. I felt the fact of my abuse was being used to take away my agency to have a say in my present situations, relationships, and choices. This gaslighting resulted in self-doubt. I used to think as to – who am I to ask for a breakup! I don’t deserve better anyway. I am already a victim of sexual abuse, I should be happy that at least this man is willing to love me, so what if it is without my consent.”
Another survivor, *Urmi was abused by her cousin brother when she was only seven. They used to live under the same roof. Later, she would fall in love with a person and elope from her home. She felt that her new husband would make her pure as her abusive past had made her ‘impure’.
In her conversation with me, she said,
“I remember he always used to bring my past abuse into every conflict between us and then rage upon me. I also remember before marriage, when I disclosed my abuse to him, he said that I am impure and he will make me pure by being with him. He tells me how to be a good wife, a good daughter, and a good mother. I have always been very obedient to him. After marriage, I put on my ghomta, prepared food for him all day, and did not even venture outside the home without his permission. I would do every possible thing to make him happy. Maybe, as he said, I can be pure by doing all these activities.’
Consent often takes backstage when one blames themselves for their childhood abuse. Here, most of the survivors felt that it was their responsibility to make things morally correct, as they believed purity lay in their virginity, and being obedient to their ‘saviours’. Thus, making compromises, settling for less, and seeking for acceptance by others, often becomes the only way to cope in the adulthood years.
Letting the notion that – “I am responsible for being abused” out of the body, becomes essential. The little girl inside every victim who was abused needs to have access to recovery.
Thordis Elva, a rape survivor, who came forward in collaboration with her perpetrator on the same platform to discuss critical issues in healing, said that regret doesn’t remind us that we are bad; instead, it states that we can perform better (Elva & Stranger, 2016). She says making peace with oneself is very important. It can be done by acknowledging the past. Healing is not a linear process that has a definite beginning, middle or end. It is an ongoing process that eventually makes considerable progress (Davis, 1990).
Butler, J. (2004). Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge.
Davis, L. (1990). The Courage to Heal Workbook: For Women and Men Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Elva, T., & Stranger, T. (2016, October). Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger: Our story of Rape and Reconciliation. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/thordis_elva_tom_stranger_our_story_of_rape_and_reconciliation
Roy, M. (1992). Bengali Women. University of Chicago Press.
*Names are changed to protect the identity of the survivors
– The author is a PhD Student from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati Campus. She is trained in Psychology but has found new love in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She loves dancing and painting and has a keen interest in graphology.