A few months ago, I held an informal workshop with a group of young girls between the ages of 16 and 18. Our initial concerns were about gender equality… how restricting and frustrating it is to be judged and to constantly live under double standards. They felt given that they had more responsibilities at home as compared to boys their age, their every action was under scrutiny and this affected their sense of self esteem. But as we talked ,we realized there were other things that had taken more from them…. had in fact robbed them of their sense of self worth.Very important and untalked about events in their lives…child molestation …sexual abuse.
We had suddenly arrived at a very important space . Something that was crying out to be released poured out into the room that day. What followed was a series of revelations that were painful and often laden with shame.
After the initial anxiety and awkwardness of addressing such deeply personal and hidden secrets passed …they started sharing little and big stories… of being touched, of being spoken to inappropriately, of being molested.. Having been a victim of sexual abuse and molestation myself it was easy to identify with them and let the stories pour out…
Riya shared how she was inappropriately touched by a male acquaintance of the family. It was not like he touched her anywhere “significant” but she felt the touch was inappropriate and did not know how to deal with it. She said that it had happened a couple of times in the past when he had visited her family. A casual touch on the hand, a caress on the back or shoulder, which seemed harmless in itself but she just wasn’t comfortable … it did not feel right…yet she couldn’t trust her instincts. And she thought it was rude to walk away. Eventually when the touches became more frequent, she told her father who said “you must be imagining it … we know him very well”.
Sarah said her favorite teacher spoke to her inappropriately and kept finding excuses to be alone with her. When she had told him that she was not comfortable, and requested that he not speak to her in such a manner, he hadn’t been pleased. His entire demeanor had changed and he had begun to treat her differently in class, paying her less attention. Her grades had begun to drop. He had had made more attempts to cajole her as she constantly refused to be alone with him, she went from being favorite student to not being acknowledged in class at all. She was dealing with feelings of inadequacy …with no power to right the situation.
Maria’s uncle took her and her friends for a picnic in a park. Being the only adult around , he took the opportunity to touch her private parts . This was in a public place! When she tried to resist, to get up from his lap, he held her down firmly and continued to abuse her. This had happened when she was seven years old! She did not think of screaming. When she told her mother , she was told to just forget about it .. . don’t think about it !!! She discreetly avoided being alone with her uncle but otherwise maintained normal relationships with her abuser!
Susannah sat through a whole movie holding her father’s friend’s penis in her hand. Her parents sat alongside . She was eight! She knew it was wrong but didn’t know what to do. It was her father’s dear friend.
There was another horrifying story that one participant shared about her friend. Asma’s father came back an hour earlier before her mother so he could spend “quality time “ with her. It was only after being abused for almost three years that she realized what was going on .When she eventually tried to kill herself is when her mother realized her husband had been having sex with their daughter.
The common thread in all these stories is that, all these abusers were people, who the girls are already familiar with. Simply put… they are male adult family members like uncles, friends of parents, cousins, teachers and sometimes even servants or chauffeurs. In fact they are mostly people from the family’s trusted inner circle who are also playing roles as caretakers. I personally know a lot of women who were abused by teachers who came to teach them religious studies while they were young .This is a sickening abuse of trust.
Another common theme is that many of the girls had spoken to their parents or guardians about the incidents, and had not gotten any appropriate, responsible responses, that had made them feel heard or validated. Some insisted “you are imagining things”,while others shushed them and told them to ignore it and to move on as if nothing had happened and there are even a few who blamed the children for inviting this unwanted attention!
Which means no action was taken to remove them from the situation and that they probably had to go on interacting with their abusers as though nothing was really wrong.
The parents probably felt awkward or unsure about dealing with the situation as the abuser was known to them, and confronting would mean upsetting the equilibrium… a system (friendship, family, work) that is already in place so they felt safer believing that nothing happened, or even if it did, it was best to ignore it. And there was probably a lot of shame involved too.
I could go on and share more painful stories that I have heard over the years but I think my point is already made here. This is something that is happening more often than we think it is and it is more serious than we like to believe it to be. We are in denial .We bury our heads in the sand so that we don’t have to deal with the gravity of this issue.
Coming back to the conversation with the girls, the mere sharing of similar experiences was a big catharsis in itself. They realized everyone had suffered and had been silent. Now their suffering was shared. Also, the group sharing organically educated each other on how to set boundaries in similar situations.
We decided to go deeper into the issue of silence…why do most abused girls keep it a secret?
When you are abused you lose your sense of security. Something in your world is not right Did you cause it? By consenting to the act out of lack of understanding or fear, did you do something wrong? You are not old enough to judge. And when you have picked up your courage to tell your parents and have not been heard, you shut the incident out of your mind so your world is normal again…till you are abused again.
Some were threatened and so did not speak up. Sometimes, there was a fear of losing the love and attention of someone they loved, so they continued giving in to it even though they felt uncomfortable. And here the abuse had lasted over longer periods.
So how do we stop this happening? That was our next question.
How to say No! What is wrong? What feels wrong is wrong we decided. We human beings are born with an innate sense of right and wrong beyond individual cultural understandings. We need to hear ourselves… our inner voices. If a touch feels wrong…it is wrong.
We practiced voicing out how we would handle the situation if it happened again . It is one thing to recognize something as inappropriate and another to voice it out and set our boundaries with people. It was great to hear our own voices out loud, out of our bodies saying NO and even asking for help.We also did some role-play, enacted individual scenarios and changed our responses to them. Sometimes we decided it was better to move away from compromising situations at the sense of danger. We made a call to inform our parents and guardians and make ourselves heard. Sarah decided to tell her parents and to enlist their support to go to the principal, Leila to reiterate to her father her misgivings .
This turned out to be such a powerful conversation that I decided to share the experience so that even those who did not attend the workshop might benefit.
So that… Other silences can be broken.
What follows next is a series of messages with titles indicating the category/categories you might belong to. You may read only what is relevant to you, as it is a long read, but my hope and wish is that you take the time to read all of them.
If you are a molester/abuser
You have abused your power/position /status to violate another human being, even worse if it is a child, for your personal gratification. You might hide from the world because you haven’t been exposed yet , but you know who you are. Shame on you ! You are a coward! Through your actions you have taken the power away from another and even scarred them for life. You probably have a family you love. I wonder if is this an experience you want for your children or loved ones? There is no excuse for what you have done. My personal wish is that you get caught, confronted, shamed and punished to the extent that you don’t even dream of molesting another child/person. And at the same time my humanity urges you to get help. You were probably abused or molested early on in life and are doing the same thing to another in order to reclaim that sense of power that was taken away from you. Please get help !
If you are a parent or guardian
Do take this issue seriously. It is your responsibility as a parent to protect your children. When you stand up for children and show them that you will do your best to protect them, you empower them stand up for themselves. Your child needs to feel safe with you and trust that you’ve got their back.
Please educate your children early on, what kind of touch is okay and what is not, so that they are aware of it in advance and can catch it early. Teach them about body parts and what parts are not allowed to be touched by others. Be specific, don’t be vague.
Teach your children to set appropriate boundaries with people, physical space boundaries and body boundaries. Help them voice it out loud.
If they come to you sharing such experiences, don’t turn a blind eye to it, address it, do take them seriously.
If you are feeling uncomfortable about something or find yourself avoiding it, get curious, explore what is behind it. What is causing you to do that ?
Encourage your children to share their experiences without blaming or shaming them. No, they did not do anything to invite this experience, It is not because of something they said or did, or the clothes they wore. Please get that ! I have heard the story of a young boy who was forced by two older boys of the neighborhood to open and pull down his pants. He did not want to do it but they had threatened to hurt him if he did not, so he gave in. He was afraid to tell his parents about it because he thought that they would also find out about what he did and would be angry at him. We need to provide the space for our children to share anything, even things that they are ashamed of.
Encourage them to not keep body secrets with other adults, especially when they are told not to tell you about being touched or played with inappropriately.
It is important to play out different scenarios for your child, to explain the different kind of situations where it might happen (rather than just tell them, ‘don’t let anyone touch you’. A child might not be able to understand the intent of it, so expand it for them Besides being touched, warn your children also about being made to touch others.
Be vigilant about potential abusers and molesters even if they are close family and friends, especially people from the inner circle who have access to your children.
All of this is relevant for your sons as well, not just your daughters, they are equally vulnerable to molestation and sexual abuse.
Since most abusers of girls are men, fathers please get more involved and initiate conversations about this with your girls and boys. You play a very vital role here because you are a man.
Teach your boys to respect girls and treat them right. Model that for them, practice what you preach. They need to respect a woman’s physical space and not treat a woman like a piece of meat. I used that term consciously here because I recently heard a man refer to a woman passing by as a ‘beautiful piece of meat’. How derogatory is that ?
Finally, please don’t go so overboard with caution that you child starts building a wall against the opposite sex in the fear of molestation and abuse. They need to learn how to have healthy relationships, set healthy boundaries and not be on constant fear of danger.
We need to love our children and respect them so that they feel secure about who they are. We need to keep doing things that boost their self esteem and self worth. We need to encourage them to stand up for themselves in any situation.
Some Warning Signs
Grades starting to drop .
They refuse to go out or be alone with a particular person, it could be a care giver, someone you inherently trust.
Unnatural = unexplained bouts of emotion, moodiness.
Causing physical harm to themselves .
If you are a victim / potential victim of sexual abuse
I am really sorry that you had to go through this. I am sorry that you feel/felt powerless in the situation. I feel for you. I am here if you want help with this. It is not your fault, even if you couldn’t walk away from the situation or stop it. It did not happen because of something you said or did or because of the clothes you wore. Acknowledging the fact that you have been or are being abused is a brave enough step, now you can begin to address this by getting help.
You are good enough, perfect the way you are and you don’t need to do anything to win anyone’s attention/care/affection/love. Please reach out and get help. Speak to your parents, speak to anyone responsible, speak to a social worker, speak to the authorities. Speak up and get help. There is no shame in exposing someone violating you even if they are close to you. This is your fundamental right as a human being. Protect yourself !
Please know that any kind of touch or interaction that you are not comfortable with, however normal it looks on the outside can be categorized as inappropriate. And that is a good enough reason to set a boundary. It is as simple as that!
When you are young you might feel powerless against an adult and might find it hard to speak up and say No or confront the person openly. Thats okay. If thats the case with you, do the next best thing, make excuses to leave the situation without a confrontation. The key is to protect yourself and find anyway that works for you.
Sometimes you might not necessarily be physically forced, but be coerced into situations like this, which is even worse because there is emotional manipulation involved. These are hard ones to tackle if you are feeling vulnerable or emotionally fragile. Please watch out for that.
If you find yourself in a situation where you feel something is not right or someone is too close for comfort and yet you feel there is no tangible reason to question it, err on the side of caution, trust your gut and act on it. If you are not able to confront or be assertive, make excuses to leave the situation.
Sexual abusers and molesters are actually cowards on the inside, even though they might seem controlling or dominating on the outside. They take advantage of people who seem weak, vulnerable, timid.
Watch out for emotional manipulators, who manipulate you into believing that you owe them, for something (favor, help support ) they have done for you. They might make you feel guilty or ungrateful for not giving in to them You do not owe your body to anyone even if they have given you the moon. My friend Anna shared her experience of a helping professional who offered her marriage counseling sessions for the couple but used that opportunity to try and manipulate her into having sex with him. She managed to wriggle her way out of it, even though she couldn’t confront him.
Watch out for such situations with people in positions of power, who you look up to and respect. In such cases, your guards are automatically down and you might not even register or recognize something as sexual abuse until after something has happened.
Finally, my hope is that you do not let these events in your life bring you down, rather to use them as learning opportunities to discover ways to set clear boundaries.
If you are an adult survivor of child sexual abuse
I am really sorry that you had the experience. I have been there too. And I want to say this to you once again. It wasn’t your fault !
As an adult you might have worked through some of the impact this has had on you, or you can clearly see your struggles in life now (related to the abuse) and are getting help addressing them. Or you might be one of those people who feel that you were one of the lucky ones who did not get impacted by the abuse. And my response to that is, you are in complete denial. Sexual abuse can impact our psyche in so many different ways and we might not be even aware that it might be the root cause of some of the challenges in our lives.
When you are sexually abused as a child, you lose the sense to discern what kind of touch is appropriate and not. More so, when children are abused while they are really young, added to the fact that it was not addressed, they probably end up misinterpreting the experience as something normal.
One of the biggest challenges is that one loses one’s sense of boundaries. They were violated at such an impressionable age that their boundaries got created from their experience with the abusers or the response of their caregivers/parents. It wasn’t their personal boundary, so the ability to respond to violation is weakened.
When a child who has been abused is asked to ignore it and continue as through nothing has happened, he or she loses their capacity to react appropriately in similar situation in the future. Reaction time to violated boundaries might also be slow. One might know that they feel uncomfortable about something but delay or avoid reacting for the fear of creating trouble or being rude. And the response might also be meek and timid as opposed to being strong and assertive.
One might hold a warped and unhealthy perspective towards intimacy and sex, either in avoidance of it or over by obsessing about it. One might also struggle with creating intimacy in their life where there is lack of trust towards men, intimacy, relationships or anything that either triggers a past experience.A close friend recently told me the story of friend of hers, who was sexually molested for many years since she was 8 years old. As an adult now, she cannot be on her own, she is addicted to having relationships and using sex in order to feel good about oneself.
Lack of self esteem and self worth are the one of the biggest by-products of sexual abuse, One does not respect and value oneself enough to make healthy choices. One might also associate or identify one’s self worth by giving into another wants and needs, for validation of self, to be liked and appreciated even at the cost of themselves.
It is natural to shame/blame oneself, and feel guilty and unclean about the abuse and/or hold resentment towards the people who were supposed to protect us when we needed them the most.
And sometimes the victim himself/herself begins to sexually molest or abuse others, as a form of revenge for his/her experience or to reclaim sense of power and control that was taken away from them in the past.
And there are probably many more other ways it has impacted you, What I have done is compile all the information I have collected from the stories of women and children I have worked with over the last 6-8 years who had been sexually molested or abused. This is so that you can check to see if you resonated with them.
Yes, you were sexually abused and molested, it has had a deep impact on you where you feel like you lost a part of you. I want to remind you to not let your circumstances define you. Create from here, create your new present. It is a lot of work t it is possible to heal and move on. And you are going to be okay. Do trust that. Please get the help of a social worker, mental health professional or coach to help you process this so that you are able to life and healthy and peaceful life.
If you have never been sexually abused.
You are one of the lucky ones ! I am happy for you. And I sincerely wish that you do not have that experience. Because you do not know what is like you might not really know or understand the extent of the impact of it on someone who was abused. You might be immune to it all and end up being indifferent or judgmental towards victims of sexual abuse and molestation. They say that a person is the sum total of all their experiences. If hear of a friend/partner/family member/acquaintance/stranger who is/was being abused, do remember that you they are is also a result of their experience. Blaming and shaming a victim of sexual molestation is similar to blaming a victim of rape. They need your compassion and understanding. Being a bystander to sexual abuse, being aware of it and not taking action to protect the victim is equivalent to being party to the crime.
If you are a victim of sexual abuse and molestation looking to bring perspective and understanding to what happened so that you can reclaim your life, please feel free to contact me. I am a certified life coach accredited by The International Coach Federation. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.