When young girls become victims of sexual violence, the debate often becomes about why they were given ‘too much freedom’ – this is wrong and counterproductive.

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Voices Sexuality Friday, June 10, 2022 - 14:15

The gangrape of a 17-year-old girl in Hyderabad has once again resulted in boundaries shrinking for girls and young women. The teenager was sexually assaulted by six people, including five minors and an 18-year-old. Even as the case has attracted political attention because of the alleged involvement of the son and nephew of an AIMIM (All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen) MLA, questions are being asked on the survivor’s conduct: why did she go to the party? Why did she get into the car with the accused? Did she kiss the accused? Did she allow it to be filmed? Such reactions are common whenever the survivor in a case does not fit the bill of an ‘ideal victim’.

When young people are involved, the conversation also becomes about how the present generation is “corrupt” and girls, especially, need to know their “limits”. In 2019, when the Pollachi sexual assault case came to light, several people argued that the fault lay with the girls who got into romantic relationships, and that they should not be given access to the internet or smartphones. The parents of the survivors also got blamed for giving them “too much freedom”.

There is no denying that navigating adolescence is difficult for parents and children alike. It is the time when children become more assertive of their identity, conscious of their sexuality,  and crave adult-like independence. They are impatient to take charge of their lives and resent the control exerted on them by adults. For parents, this is a time of turmoil – how much freedom is “too much freedom”? What if the price for loosening the strings is too much to bear? How are they to reconcile the image of the baby they once held with the idea of a teenager who is exploring their sexuality?

When do children become sexually active?

If adults are honest about their childhood, they will stop making statements like, “We only thought of our studies at that age.” It is normal for children as young as two years to be curious about their own bodies and those of others. They do not yet associate their genitals with sex, shame or guilt, like older children and adults do. They may touch their genitals and experience pleasure in doing so. They may try to imitate adult behaviour and express a special liking for another child. As they grow older, they become more conscious of their behaviour in public and at the same time, increasingly curious about sex.

Most children approach puberty around the age of 10, and this means that their bodies and minds too are changing. They develop ‘crushes’ on children in their peer group or on older kids. They may start expressing their feelings sexually – holding hands, fondling and what is known as “making out”. They become aware of social norms around sex and associate it with secretive behaviour. This means that they tend to hide their interest in the issue from adults. Many adults, unfortunately, discourage any conversation on sexuality, fearing that they will plant the “wrong” ideas in the child’s mind. They would rather believe the illusion that their child is still “innocent” like a newborn and does not think about “such things”.

Also read: Hyderabad Jubilee Hills gangrape: When is a minor tried as an adult?

Again, such ideas can be easily dismantled if only the parent were to think back to their own growing up years with candour. When did they first develop romantic feelings towards someone? When did they first masturbate? When did they first explore their sexuality with another person? When did they first make out in public? The answer is unlikely to be 18 for all these questions. Eighteen is the legal age for adulthood but biologically, a child does not become an adult overnight. It is a process, and the process does not happen at the same pace for everyone.

Dealing with children’s sexuality

In a patriarchal and conservative society like India, a lot of adults would rather not address the child’s changing world. If they attempt to do so, it mostly happens as an information dump on sex education, an awkward conversation to tick that parenting box. Yes, it is important to teach children the various body parts and their functions, but the textbook diagrams of the reproductive system don’t necessarily throw light on how sexual expressions unfold in real life.

Exposing them to books, films and other accessible material that have characters their age undergoing similar feelings can help to a great extent to normalise these thoughts. But what is vital is that the parent keeps the line of communication open with their child. For that to happen, they need to earn their child’s trust. The child must believe that the parent will not judge them poorly for speaking about such issues or confessing that they have sexual feelings. This means that the parent needs to start having these conversations early and in a sustained manner – if a three-year-old wants to know where babies come from, use the opportunity to give age appropriate information (“from the mother’s uterus/tummy” rather than “the stork brought you home” or “the hospital gave you to us”); if an eight-year-old wants to know how the baby got there, tell them about eggs and sperm rather than ask them to keep quiet.

Too often, parents end up speaking a language of worry when they’re discussing their child’s sexuality. For instance, only speaking of sexually transmitted diseases [STDs], unwanted pregnancy or sexual violence. It is, of course, extremely important to speak about all this, but  framing the conversation as “advice” only succeeds in putting the child off. What will help is to acknowledge that sexual feelings are normal, and even speak about their own experiences of growing up. Whom did you have a crush on in middle school? What did you do about it? You don’t have to go into explicit details about all that you did in your growing up years if you’re uncomfortable with it or don’t know how best to convey it; simply making it clear that everyone has experienced such things, including yourself, may make the child more willing to open up to you. Personal stories from your past are a great way of building a bridge between your adulthood and their childhood. It also makes you less intimidating and more approachable.

Understanding consent

A lot of adults themselves seem to be confused about what consent means, so it’s not surprising that children may not understand it. First, educate yourself. Legally, a minor cannot ‘consent’ to a sexual act even if it is with another minor because a minor’s consent is considered to be invalid in courts. This means any sexual act between children becomes criminal in the eyes of the law. Such a view, of course, turns a blind eye to the biological urges and sexual experiences that children have.

You can, however, explain what consent means as a concept. And this should start from the time your child is a toddler, and is able to express it when they are uncomfortable about another person’s touch or attention. This also means that you respect their right to give or withdraw consent. For instance, if they tell you that they don’t want to be carried by someone or don’t enjoy being tickled, don’t force them to participate. Intervene. Consent isn’t only about sexual activities; it is about your child’s right to decide what happens to their body. It is also important to make them respect another person’s right to give and withdraw consent too.

Your child will come across pornography at some point while growing up. Even if you have put in all the filters and precautionary measures necessary, they will watch it somewhere. At a friend’s place, through a cousin, accidentally while working on someone else’s device. They may be repulsed by it or enjoy it. They may want to watch more of it. Acknowledge that this will happen, especially in a day and age when children’s access to technology is unprecedented. But don’t stop with blaming technology, deal with it.

A lot of pornography caters to cis heterosexual male fantasies. Much of it may involve girls and women enjoying humiliation, subordination and even pain. Young people to whom this may be a first exposure to sex and what it’s like may come to believe that pornography is the real deal. They may not understand that pornographic acts are staged for the camera, and that these are actors (many of whom may have surgically altered bodies) playing out assigned roles. They may equate sex with violence, and find it difficult to distinguish between what they’re watching on screen and reality.

As a parent, you may snoop around on their devices and become upset about the browser history (most teens are clever enough to clear evidence anyway - as were we). But instead of shaming them for what you found or ignoring it altogether, speak to them about it. You don’t have to connect it to what you found (that only gives the impression that they’re somehow guilty since you ‘caught’ them at it); instead, initiate the conversation with something else as the peg. Perhaps a show you watched or a news item you came across on internet use. Talk to them as you would to an equal and don’t make the mistake of lecturing. Gently guide them into opening up. If they don’t, that’s fine too. You’ve put the information out in the air, and can hope that they remember it.

Risky behaviour

Let’s face it. Your child will indulge in risky behaviour despite your best efforts. They will do things that you expressly forbade them from doing. They will lie to you even if you have deluded yourself into thinking you’re their best friend. They will do foolish things that you warned them against. They will trust the wrong people and get their hearts broken. They will do things that seem so obviously self-destructive to you. They will refuse to learn from your mistakes. They will make their own mistakes.

Because it’s their life and you cannot lead it on their behalf.

You cannot protect them from it all. If you hover around all the time, they will just get better at hiding things from you. Clipping their wings and infantilising them will only make them act out even more or lead to deeply internalised psychological problems. They will grow into adulthood without feeling like an adult, constantly requiring approval and asking for permission.

As a parent, you have to do the extremely scary act of setting your child free and standing below to catch them if they fall. You have to assure them that when things go terribly wrong, you will have their back. You have to acknowledge that it could also be your child who was the reason for things going terribly wrong and causing hurt to another. You have to find the strength to set things right and ensure that they understand what they have done.

None of this is simple. But who said parenting is an easy job? Good luck, you’ll need it.

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture and cinema. She’s also an award-winning author of children’s books, including a nonfiction book on gender, Big Hero Size Zero: Gender Talk.

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