From the time one suffers sexual abuse to when a report is lodged with the police (or the matter pursued in court), lies a vacuum.
A vacuum that begs to be filled.
Because most cases never get there. Only four percent of cases of sexual abuse are reported to the police.
The purpose of this paper is to discuss the vacuum.
I conducted research and collected data from sessions I attended on Prevention of Sexual Harassment (hereinafter ‘POSH’) training in Mauritius and elsewhere.
The work involved in filling this vacuum I realised, ought to begin with three simple words: “I am sorry.”
I am sorry.
Words that aren’t often uttered when the victim broaches the subject of abuse for the first time, be it with a friend, a colleague, a relative, a stranger. “I am sorry” is the first step towards validating the victim’s hurt. The abuse. The violence endured.
But much as this advice is trite, it appears that men and women resort to justifying perpetrator behaviour, finding excuses for their perpetrations, indulging in victim-blaming:
You shouldn’t have dressed the way you did.
You shouldn’t have spoken to him that way.
You shouldn’t have let him tickle you.
You’re a beautiful girl, that’s why it happened.
Never mind, he was a bit drunk, he didn’t know what he was doing.
He was desperate. His wife doesn’t give it to him.
You who’s suffered sexual abuse, you know what I mean. You’ve heard this before.
This is an old story. One of the versions being of the charming uncle, teacher, cousin, employer, the favourite of the family, or in a circle of friends because he is the party thrower, at the centre of all merrymaking, accounting for why accusations levelled at him are treated lightly if not dismissed, compounding victim distress.
How could he (or she) of all persons be guilty of conduct so egregious, everyone exclaims.
The Science of Perpetration
This is an old story because many like him (or her) exist, have existed, and will continue to do so. I recall the long list of novels, short stories, plays, movies, documentaries, poems, and other art forms that have told and retold the same story, so that by now it ought to be child’s play discerning characteristic traits of the perpetrator-archetype in cases of sexual abuse or harassment. (For instance the movie Monsoon Wedding manages this effectively, highlighting one of the types of perpetrators of sexual abuse, in this case a friend to the family of the victim, the quintessential sweet talker who gets away with his crime for a long time.) What I mean is that sufficient material exists to point us towards the identifying marks of a perpetrator, as well as signs of the perpetration. But sadly these admonitions seem to fall on deaf ears. We’ve reconciled ourselves to shrugging.
The vacuum I realised, after attending training sessions on POSH, is in urgent need to be filled. Because victims are being treated negligently, recklessly. They claim that friends, relatives, strangers blame them. They say they didn’t know what to do when it happened. They say they didn’t want to report it to the police for fear that it would turn into an unnecesary complication, and exacerbate their anguish; that they’d rather suffer it quietly. They say that anyway it (i.e. the harassment/abuse) has become very normal nowadays.
More normal than when? I wonder.
A notion of a better past based on sheer idealism.
I have come to believe that we accept the status quo because we think of the world as homogeneous.
I have learned that it isn’t. That in some countries, better enforcement and campaigns to raise awareness have shaped cultural mores accordingly, so that sexual abuse and harassment are tolerated much less than over here.
Therefore while much is beyond our control, and fair to conclude that there will inevitably be perpetrators and instances of perpetration, there is still room for some tidying up.
Not everyone’s given up, was another deduction. Many are enthusiastic about perpetuating much-needed change in our society. They just don’t know how, and their voices are muffled, their zeal tempered by cynics, shruggers who say of them: Ki li pou sanzer sa?
Shruggers. To shrug. The act of shrugging. A favourite new term.
I borrowed it from an interview of James Comey, former director of FBI on a talk show by Stephen Colbert. Comey discussed Donald Trump’s pesky tweets every morning, aimed at sullying his reputation. Comey said he realised one day something inherently wrong in his habit of showing indifference, of merely shrugging at the tweets. He said it was a sign that he was letting the reprehensible become normal. He had started tolerating what should not be tolerated.
It had to stop, he told himself. He had to stop shrugging.
Have we, civilians of Mauritius, largely become shruggers? Indifferent to the injustices perpetuated around us; limiting our focus to our relatively short existence, concerned solely with ensuring that we, at the exclusion of everyone else, are living satisfactorily; expecting everyone to let us be, having tacitly agreed in turn to refrain from meddling with matters that don’t bear upon us; reconciled to the thought that we can’t change anything.
I am reminded at this juncture of Hannah Arendt whose works formed the linchpin of my doctoral thesis some time ago. In an interview with Gunter Gaus, Arendt refused to be called a philosopher precisely because the notion of a philosopher denoted a resignation to reading, observing, concluding; resigning oneself to the thought that in the greater sphere of things, nothing could be done to alter how we behave; that fighting evil is futile, that good and evil are in truth wedded rather…harmoniously. No. Arendt resisted the label. She wanted to be a mover, an activist who started by reflecting deeply on issues and then worked on making things happen. She wanted to be known as a political scientist, a political theorist maybe, not a philosopher.
The Glitch in Trainings on POSH
The damage that follows abuse or harassment is not only fear, anxiety, depression, PTSD, or psychosomatic reactions suffered by the victim. It is more extensive. It’s in the way the episode of abuse estranges the victim from his/her parents, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, people in general, on realising that loved ones, trusted ones—human beings—can’t be trusted or loved. It’s in the way the victim of abuse stands disillusioned, having witnessed how the ones they confided in sought excuses for perpetrator behaviour, and indulged in victim-blaming.
My conclusion was that the POSH trainings I attended, save for a few exceptions, were largely inadequate. The vacuum was not being filled. Nobody addressed the crucial point of what to do from the point of the abuse. To borrow a well-known metaphor by AV Dicey from law textbooks (on constitutional conventions and their relationship to law), trainees were taught everything about the dry bones of law that exist to shield victims, but remained ignorant about the flesh that ought to clothe them.
Furthermore trainees who had never suffered abuse averred that in case of it, they would resort to reporting it to the police. They were oblivious to the reality that when abuse happens, many victims are repelled by the thought of taking action.
How a Perpetrator Chooses His/Her Victim
To a great extent much about us can be correlated to animal behaviour, and to the dynamics of the animal kingdom. Through my reading of primatology I found merit in how Yale professor Robert Sapolsky explains links between animal and human behaviour, noting that perpetrators have a knack of ‘sniffing out’ their victims from a large pool of other ‘candidates’. One victim of sexual abuse I interviewed related how she wondered why the perpetrator had chosen her, and not her similar aged cousin who lived in the same house.
Predators know instinctively, subconsciously, or consciously who is vulnerable—Quite like animal predators that select preys that are slower, injured or vulnerable among the herd. Similarly sexual predators can sense who suffers from insecurities. That’s why battered children, victims who suffer from insecurities because of domestic violence, or complexes regarding their physique, performance at school, rejection by parents and peers are usually primary targets.
The Way Forward
I am now working on a project to set up a one-hour-long online training session that mirrors a similar one I did in a university I enrolled in abroad.
In this session hypothetical scenarios will be presented where friends, relatives, classmates endure abuse, and discuss it with the trainee so that he/she in turn learns the appropriate behaviour to adopt. The training session will also comprise real-life examples, followed by means to understand the spirit and intent of legal terms in laws on POSH such as ‘academic abuse’, ‘inappropriate behaviour’, ‘consent’, ‘coercion’, among others. It will include a series of videos depicting scenes of abuse to raise awareness about when they occur. Finally the multiple choice questions that follow, with an explanation of why the trainee’s answer is right or wrong, will ensure a minimum level of personal involvement with the subject matter.
These online training sessions should be simple, use-friendly, mandatory, and available to everyone, with scenarios à la Mauricienne in order to provide the connect. (For example, a common incident recounted in the sessions I attended in Mauritius were of men who sexually abuse women through inappropriate contact on buses—Interviewees were unsure of what to do in these cases. Public shaming, I shared, is a ‘soft approach’ and nevertheless effective, since the ‘hard approach’ of lodging a police report, as mentioned earlier, is hardly resorted to.)
In sum, it’s high time we changed our approach to dispensing POSH training sessions, and moved beyond reading out legal definitions and statutory provisions from powerpoint slides. It’s high time we made the training compulsory for students and employees across the board. It’s high time we set up institutions that didn’t merely take note of complaints of sexual abuse (as is currently the case), but were equipped to proceed to the next level of dispensing counselling or therapy. It’s high time we popularised the need to say “I am sorry” on hearing a friend, relative, stranger relate an episode of abuse.