The horrifying incidents of mass molestation from Bengaluru's New Year's Eve are all over the media. You cannot watch the news without encountering opinions that range from outrage to plain misogyny. Social media, too, is rife with images and videos from the night.
As a parent, though, how are you supposed to deal with it when your child expresses curiosity to know more about what happened? Do you avoid the subject, change the channel to something innocuous? Or do you use it as a conversation opener about a very important subject – consent?
Vidya Reddy of Tulir, an organisation that helps prevent child sexual abuse and heal those affected, says:
This is a teachable moment. It’s all over the news and children are going to ask. Someone I know said that her niece was asking what was going on in Bangalore after watching it on TV and that she just changed the channel because she didn’t know what to say. That’s a ridiculous response.
How Early Can You Begin?
Many parents believe that subjects like 'consent' are too complex for a young child – say under six of years of age – to understand. They decided to wait for the "right" age before having the talk. But just as a child does not grow into an adult overnight, there is no reason to wait for one big day in future when you can suddenly unleash a whole lot of information on him/her.
As a parent, don’t give in to the temptation to pour some shudh desi ghee and burn up all images from Bengaluru and other parts of the world in order to prevent your child from becoming “corrupted”.
Whether your child is a boy or a girl, take the opportunity to have a conversation about what happened. You can be sure that they’re discussing it with their friends irrespective of what you think about it. Indians are great at ignoring the elephant in the room, but the time has come for us (it came a long time ago actually) to acknowledge it – how else do you think we're going to get out of the jungle that we find ourselves in?
If your child has watched the Bengaluru molestation video and has questions about it, tell him or her that the behaviour of the people in the video is not okay.
That s/he has complete autonomy over their bodies is something which should be taught even before you talk about child sexual abuse or other instances of violence to them. Tell your child that every person (adult or child) has full autonomy over their body and that the video shows people who don’t respect that autonomy.
In India, we seldom respect a child’s space – we’d rather force a four-year-old to kiss an adult even if s/he doesn’t want to than risk offending the doting grandpa or a random stranger on the train.
If your child is uncomfortable with someone pinching their cheeks, hugging them or tickling them, respect the child’s unwillingness and do not force them to go along. This is their first lesson in understanding consent – their right over their own body. Do not pick the adult’s side out of a misplaced sense of politeness.
The adult can handle their emotions of "rejection"; it's your child who needs your support in that situation, even if the adult in question is NOT an abuser.
The Right to Dress the Way They Wish To
Young children can often be fastidious about clothes. They want to wear only that pair of purple pants or this Disney T-shirt for the party. Allow them to express themselves creatively through clothing.
Do not police their fashion sense or force your ideas about what looks good on them. As long as the clothes are clean and your child isn’t breaking any rule by wearing them (as in, s/he cannot obviously wear a Barbie frock to school if there’s a uniform rule in place), let them be. Reinforce the thought that they have the right to decide what they should wear and how they should look.
Older children are more likely to be conditioned somewhat by clothes and adult views of morality. They learn this from casual comments made around them ("Chi, look at how short her skirt is!), from popular culture and how adults around them react to it (you think they don't notice when you quickly flip the channel when an item number comes on?), and the views of their peers.
It's a good idea to reiterate whenever possible that clothes are a matter of choice and that judging a person's character or intentions by what they are wearing is a stupid thing to do.
Draw their attention to how we view the male and the female bodies so differently – one as neutral and the other as sexual. Tell them that these ideas are not "natural" as everyone thinks, they are the result of centuries of conditioning. Expose them to different cultures and how people dress differently across the world – the Scottish man who wears the kilt, the Jarawa woman who doesn't cover her breasts.
The Business of Sex
As your child nears puberty, s/he starts exploring their own body and develops feelings of attraction towards others around them.
Indeed, even very small children derive pleasure out of playing with their sexual organs which quite often horrifies the adults around them. But this curiosity and the pleasure that it generates are perfectly normal. Acting scandalised about it only makes the child think that sexual pleasure is something dirty or shameful.
Use the proper names of genitals when you teach your child the names of body parts. Don't "puppy shame" them for their nakedness – while you can teach them rules about who is allowed to see them naked or dress them, do not associate shame with their bodies. This can make them internalise a certain discomfort and shame about their own bodies – something sexual predators bank on to silence their victims.
Recollect your own childhood with honesty and permit them to make these discoveries with responsible information that you can provide as a supportive parent.
Talk to Them About Power
Molestation, harassment, rape... all of these is about power. In a patriarchal society, boys and men are encouraged to occupy positions of power while women are encouraged to be submissive and docile.
Vidya Reddy points out that such representations are common even in school textbooks where the mother is shown to be in the kitchen while the father is reading the newspaper.
Children discover power early – tantrum throwing, playground bullying and so on are instances when they are testing out the extent of power they hold on the other person.
It's important to talk to them about this in the sexual context, too. Many children learn about sex through exposure to pornography, a fictional representation of the act. Mainstream porn tends to be male-centric and bordering on the degradation of the female partner.
A young person with no real-world experience or authentic information can become conditioned by these images to believe that wielding power, even at the cost of hurting someone, is desirable. And since these representations are also manipulated to show the submissive partner enjoying the degradation, it can be hard for a young person to understand that this is not reality and may be far from the truth in many an instance.
Disconcertingly, it's very much possible for people to watch real life videos of sexual violence and find it titillating. This happens because power is aspirational and we see the person who is deprived of it to be the "loser". We automatically root for the one who wins, the one who "conquers".
The representations of romance and love we see in movies, sitcoms, and advertisements, too, mostly have an aggressive man pursuing a shy or resisting woman and ultimately “winning” her over, whether or not she has consented to it.
Vidya Reddy says that young people tend to emulate what they see on screen because that becomes their reference point. She recounts an instance when she was having a discussion on consent with a young boy who'd assaulted a seven-year-old girl. The boy gave the example of a movie where the heroine had consistently rebuffed the hero but had, in the end, decided to fall in love with him, to justify why such behaviour was all right.
Vidya says that it took considerable effort to disabuse him of this idea and to drill home the point that it didn't matter how good the man's intentions were if the woman had said a no to him. The solution to such problematic representations, however, is not to ban popular culture in your drawing room but to discuss it.
Changing the channel changes nothing. As a parent, you have the responsibility to talk to your child about the world around them, however, uncomfortable you might be with the idea.