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Myth of the ‘bad touch’

The assumption that all children and adolescents experience guilt, shame, and fear, when abused, is not true

Educating children to help them protect themselves from sexual abuse uses the ‘good touch bad touch’ paradigm. The basic assumption of such nomenclature is that children feel scared, ashamed, and even guilty when they are touched in their sexual parts by an abuser. Educators teach them that they must resist anyone touching themselves in their genitalia, chests or buttocks, and report attempts of such acts immediately to their parents or trusted guardians or authorities. However, the assumption that all children and adolescents experience guilt, shame, and fear, when abused, is not true. While recounting their experiences, many survivors of child sexual abuse speak about stimulation, arousal, excitement, thrill, pleasure, as well as feelings of being loved, accepted and gratification at the time when they were abused—especially in stages of grooming or the initial stages of abuse.

Seema (all names changed)is a 28-year-old woman now, who was abused between the age of 9 and 13 by two of her older cousins, who were aged 19 and 22 at the time. They all lived in a joint family. “I was very close to them; I looked up to them, and one of them—the younger of the two offenders—took me under his wing and was very affectionate towards me,” she said. “It began quite innocuously in the initial stages, with them caressing my cheeks, fondling my hair, planting seemingly innocent kisses on my cheeks—often even in front of elders. I enjoyed the physical intimacy and show of affection. Gradually, it became more aggressive, with them touching my nipples. I remember, we were travelling and I was in the car, sitting on their laps, and throughout the journey, they played with my nipples, my vagina, with my hair…I felt stimulated and aroused and cannot describe those feelings. It felt very exciting and thrilling.”

Many years later, when Seema sought help for her problems of rage and depression and recounted the experiences with her therapist, she found it difficult to recall feelings of guilt, shame or fear. While on one hand, she cognitively understood that she was abused by the cousins, her own memories of “positive feelings” made it difficult for her to absolve herself of the abuse and made her feel that she had participated in the abuse—and enjoyed it.

SEDUCTION PROCESS
Sexual abuse involves stimulation that is not only physical or sexual, but also emotional and psychological. Sex offenders who abuse children or adolescents seduce their victims emotionally by making them feel loved by giving them attention, as well as make them feel valued and loved. The victims believe that they have an exclusive relationship with the abuser and that they are important to the abuser; that the abusers love them, care for them, and need them. This seduction process—also known as grooming—is critical to the process of entrapment. Even in the case of adults, adult victims may have experienced the same process of entrapment. For example, victims of domestic violence take time to recognise abuse by their husbands or partners because they feel that while their partners may be violent, they also love them, need them and that the violence is an aberration.

So, in the case of children, the emotional seduction is very real, very potent, and makes the child or adolescent feel like a “willing participant” in the abuse. This is what makes it very difficult for them to recognise abuse, let alone resist and report it.

At the age of 14, Rizwan was abused by his football coach, whom he had known for a year before the abuse began. In that year, Rizwan had grown very close to him; the coach would look out for him, ask him how he was doing, offer to help him with his studies, listen to him attentively and provide emotional support to him when he had fights with his parents or friends. He would hug him, fondle his hair or pat him on the back —all “good touches”—and their physical comfort levels grew. Rizwan looked up to this man and admired his athletic body, while the coach would encourage him to exercise and even train him (Rizwan). He would take him out to the movies, give him the occasional treats and on some occasions, Rizwan would even ride pillion on his bike and hold him tight. “I cannot even remember the precise time when it had turned sexual,” recounted Rizwan in a session where he was working with me as his facilitator. “I cannot remember whether he made the first move or got me stimulated. I cannot remember whether I asked for it.”

EMOTIONAL NEEDS
Rizwan seemingly came from a perfectly functional family. He was the youngest of three brothers and lived with his parents and grandparents. The mother took care of him and his siblings by providing an infrastructure; the father was the provider and asked after their studies. Conversations at home were regular and functional. His relationship with his parents, particularly his father, was not emotionally very intimate, but this is not unlike many of his peers or other families that he knows of. However, he does remember that the coach was the first man who offered him an emotional intimacy that he had never experienced from any other man. “Maybe, I hungered for that. But, there are so many other questions: why did I fall into such a situation and others did not? That’s what makes me feel that I needed it as well,” he said while sharing his dilemma.

Most survivors of sexual abuse recount a stage of confusion, when—in the course of abuse—they feel a range of feelings that are contradictory at best, and never very clear. At times, they feel entrapped, depressed and angry, but at the same time also feel needed, desired, and hence, powerful.

“I would make him buy me things, spend on me, I would make demands and coerce him to fulfil my whims,” recounts another survivor. “I felt he owed me that. It made me feel powerful. Now when I look back, I can see how angry I felt with him when I began to understand his manipulations and his perversions. By then, I was 15 and began to understand things that I could not when I was younger. Then again, I also felt that I had much greater control and power in his life than even his wife or his own children. He would do things for me that he would not do even for his children. I felt that somewhere deep down, he loved me, so when he would tell me that he could not do without me, I believed him. I was so confused,” recounts one survivor.

STORIES OF SURVIVORS
Survivors of sexual abuse, more so the ones who suffered abuse as children, experienced rage and anger that were disconnected and displaced. The displaced anger could be at parents, teachers or even peers.

Sex offenders sense deprivation. One often wonders how sex offenders target their victims. It seems that when a person has a need to abuse any other person, they learn to spot vulnerability—emotional vulnerability in particular. They are sensitive to spot deprivation in others, perhaps because they suffer from extreme deprivation themselves.

Being able to sense this deprivation, when they are able to touch that ‘nerve’ and stimulate it with a display of interest, attention and concern, the victim responds and this gives them a sense of power. Hereon, it becomes a game, a chase. The sexual seduction may come at a much later stage once the victim has become an emotional captive of the predator.

Child Sexual Abuse prevention programmes need to use a different nomenclature and approach in enabling children’s resistance to manipulations of predators. It has to go beyond the staple education of touch, and beyond building cognitive skills in detecting abuse and seeking help.

Education on abuse needs to use a mental health framework to help children understand the dynamic between vulnerability and manipulation between an abuser and a victim. Even if it sounds conceptually heavy, skilled therapists and mental health professionals, particularly those who have an expertise in training and teaching children on psychology, are often able to build modules that are effective. It is perhaps much more effective to teach children holistically on abuse in relationships, power and vulnerability, and not restrict it to sexual abuse only.

Learning on the subject cannot be textbook based—it can only be cognitive in nature. There are facilitators who are professionals in applied behavioural science, psychologists, and therapists who have done some small-scale interesting work. Sophie Christopher, a therapist and facilitator based in Bangalore, works with adolescents in groups—and uses puppetry—to enable adolescents to work on issues of identity, relationships, power and agency. Vandana Menon has worked with children on issues of power, control, bullying and trust.

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