It’s an emotion which Sonal Kellogg, an outspoken activist against child sexual abuse, is all too familiar with.
A survivor of child sexual abuse as well as sexual assault as an adult, she was 15 the first time she told her mother about the abuse she had been going through at the hands of her aunt's husband for years.
Her mother asked her, “Are you trying to break your aunt’s house?” After that, he was only reprimanded, and nothing more.
It made her very angry, when her mother first didn’t believe her, and then blamed her. But through it all, shame was the most overwhelming factor which kept her quiet for years on end. It was only through her writing, support from her daughters, and her religion that Sonal found the strength, years later, to talk about it.
One of the first questions asked to survivors of sexual violence, who come out with their stories after some time has passed, is why they took so long to tell their story. It is used to question the legitimacy of their experience.
TNM spoke to three women who came to terms with the sexual violence and harassment that they were subjected to much after the incident, about why it took them time to come out with their stories.
Guilt and lack of support
Sonal is also one of the people who contributed a former professor’s name to Raya Sarkar’s list of alleged sexual harassers in the Indian academia.
Between 1986 and 1988, when Sonal was doing her Masters from Gujarat University in Ahmedabad, a professor allegedly tried to sexually assault her on multiple occasions. He reportedly tried to kiss her and said things like, “I can’t have sex with my wife, why won’t you be nice to me, you are such a broadminded girl.”
The 55-year-old did not think she could do anything about it at the time, given that she was a student. So, Sonal kept her distance from him as much as possible, and tried to ensure she wasn’t alone with him.
It was in March 2016 finally that Sonal filed a complaint against the professor, after another former student of his accused him of attempting to sexually assault her.
Sonal tells TNM what compelled her to keep quiet for decades: “When you haven’t been taught to set boundaries since when you were a child, you cannot process the assault when it happens because it is normalised to a large extent,” she says.
“You have so much shame, guilt and anger, you feel like something is wrong with you,” she says.
Self-loathing and internalised misogyny
Another argument many present to survivors is this – you could have done this, and done that, but you didn’t, so you must be lying. Or maybe you wanted it too!
However, as another sexual assault survivor, Sonam Mittal, admin of popular feminist Facebook page The Spoilt Modern Indian Woman, told TNM, “You’re just so shocked that this (sexual assault) is happening to you. Your brain is unable to process it at that point.” She called it the point between ‘fight’ and ‘flight’, where your body simply freezes out of fear and shock.
Earlier in January, Neerja Dasani wrote for TNM on how Raya Sarkar’s list helped her come to terms with her own experience of sexual harassment at the hands of someone she saw as a mentor, years after it happened.
When the incident took place, like Sonam, Neerja felt numb. “‘What’s happening to me? Why the hell is this happening? How can he be doing this?’ All sorts of thoughts raced through my head but all I could do in the moment was to awkwardly push him away, feeling more embarrassed for him that he should have done something so reprehensible,” Neerja wrote.
When she finally came to terms with it about seven months ago, she experienced the same sense of self-loathing that has made women feel responsible for what happened to them world over. “Why hadn’t I slapped him across his face that day? Why didn’t I raise the issue later and do something about it? How could I have continued to work with him?” Neerja questioned herself.
While Neerja and Sonam were eventually able to come out with their stories publicly, internalised misogyny and consequent self-blame stops many others from even confiding in those close to them.
A number of survivors of sexual harassment and/or assault take time to process what they have been through.
Sonal for instance, realised during the conversations around ‘Me Too’ last year that she was a rape survivor as well.
Freelance writer Roshni* remembers the first time she realised she had been sexually assaulted. A family friend had sexually abused the 32-year-old when she was a child.
“I told my friend for the first time about two years ago. When she told me I had been sexually assaulted, I was taken aback,” Roshni says. “I didn’t even think of it as child sexual abuse, until I read it about it and another friend recounted his experience.”
“I think I never talked about it because I'd never heard about it,” she adds after a pause.
Chennai-based Ramya*, an art director, meanwhile, did not realise she had been harassed until she listened to the experiences of two other women who worked with the same team as her.
The 23-year-old was working in a major Kollywood film in 2016, and was also the only woman in her crew. During her four-month stint there, she remembers being spoken to condescendingly by the crew, and feeling uncomfortable in the company of one senior art assistant.
He would place his hand on her shoulders and walk, despite her apparent discomfort. “I would shrug his hand off and move away, but he kept doing it anyway. He would also ensure that I would sit next to him on some pretext or another. I even stopped wearing distressed jeans because of the staring and comments about it,” she says.
Ramya tried to work around the mistreatment and discomfort she felt for a while but quit in four months. It was only when she heard about the other two women’s experiences that she realised that this was workplace harassment, and in some instances, sexual harassment.
“I used to keep second guessing myself, brushing off my discomfort, thinking that they are well meaning people,” Ramya says.
‘Who will believe me?’
Even when survivors come out with their stories, there is no guarantee that they will be believed, which in turn reinforces the silence around sexual violence.
Referring to her mother’s remark about trying to wreck her aunt’s home, Sonal observes, “First people don’t believe you and half of them try to blame you. In trying to prove yourself, you relive the abuse all over again, which is just painful. Perhaps it is easier to try and bury it.”
Even when survivors try to seek help, they are met with dismissive responses, even from mental health professionals. Sonal had a dismissive therapist for three years until she started going to another one.
There are others who state that survivors speaking up proves nothing and that they must go through ‘due process’ of the law. However, Sonal argues that it is unfair to expect this of each survivor when the justice system itself is slow and often re-traumatising for survivors.
It is even more difficult when the perpetrators are in the position of power, and can adversely affect one’s livelihood. Ramya for instance, says that she does not wish to make an official complaint because she fears for the effect it would have on her career.
Why they decided to speak up
Speaking up is difficult, but has been a cathartic experience for the sexual assault survivors TNM spoke to. For some, it also comes with a sense of responsibility.
For Roshni, speaking up about it came from hearing the experience of others, and ultimately coming to terms with her identity as a survivor.
Sonal meanwhile, wanted to share her story when she realised that there are hundreds of children, and women who are abused, and she could help them by speaking up. Her writing also helped her heal and put down her experience and thoughts.
“I realised I was not alone,” she says. “I also realised talking about it was important to shift the blame from survivors to abusers,” Sonal asserts.
(*Names changed on request)