You Weren’t Sexually Harassed, You Had ‘Protective’ Clothing on: A Note to My 10-Yr-Old Self

Trigger warning: This piece contains details about sexual assault and harassment which may be triggering to survivors.

I often think of writing a book about all my experiences of being sexually harassed. Maybe a podcast, where I will narrate one experience of sexual abuse in every episode,. I could categorise it on the continuum of sexual violence that Liz Kelly describes in her book Surviving Sexual Violence. I could talk about being winked at, flashed, groped, felt up, pushed up against, kissed against my will, forced to touch someone etc – presenting the whole range up to the extreme end of the continuum.

I don’t have a count of how many times some of these incidents took place when I was a child. It’s tough to put a number on the times I have felt erections pressed against my butt in a crowded bus or train. I could feel those erections through the layers of my salwar, kameez and dupatta. I have safely suppressed countless incidents like these, with strangers and boys I knew, deep into my subconscious. I was conditioned to believe that ‘boys were being boys’ and engaging in some normalised habitual sexual harassment well within their social role.

Also read: Our Bodies Are Political

Some of those incidents stand out. I clearly remember the time this ‘uncle’, a family friend, was chaperoning me to a friend’s house as I was too young to walk alone on the roads of Delhi back in the late nineties. It was a long walk and he didn’t hold my hand like most older people usually did. Instead, he had clapped his hand on my shoulder, kept trying to grope me and went as far as to rest his hand on one breast. I felt very uncomfortable and disgusted, but never told anyone.

I convinced myself that was no point of speaking up since people would say there was ‘nothing to grab’. I thought people would think of me as a flat-chested girl making up imaginary stories about being molested.

Now, thanks to the Bombay high court, I can tell my childhood self that I wasn’t molested. My thin cotton frock, the only layer of clothing on me during the peak Delhi summer heat, acted as a barrier between his intentions and my breast – it wasn’t sexual assault.

A couple of years later, I was at a friend’s house waiting for her while trying to load some wallpapers on her computer. Her brother stood behind me, kept hands on both my shoulders and moved slowly to grope me as I talked. I screamed when his grip tightened. His sister, who didn’t seem surprised, rushed in and took me to another room. It was winter, I was definitely wearing at least three layers of ‘protective’ clothing.

There was no ‘skin to skin’ contact. According to one judge at the Bombay high court, it wasn’t sexual assault.

Also read: Bombay HC Judgement: The Question of Childhood, Intent and Sexual Abuse

That same year, an old man asked me for a lift as I was returning from tuition classes one evening. He pretended to be unwell, needed to get home, and said he could ride my bike with me sitting behind.

I was in a protected defence (military) campus, so I wasn’t very worried. He insisted I hold his waist to not fall from the bike, and I kept refusing. He finally tugged my hand, shoved it into his trousers – he had already pulled his zip down – and made me hold his erect penis. That was my introduction to a penis as a young girl.

I think this last incident must surely be considered valid as a sexual offence by the Bombay high court, as proper ‘skin-to-skin’ contact was established.

I remember obsessively washing my hands a number of times that evening. Was it sexual assault or did I reverse it with my incessant hand washing?

I feel disgusted at the mention of the term ‘skin-to-skin’ these days. It is not surprising that the Bombay high court arrived at this unacceptable judgement citing the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. It is a way of reducing the severity of sexual offences against children by changing the definition. It normalises sexual assault, which I did anyway growing up, by telling myself it didn’t happen or wasn’t as bad, every time I was sexually abused. For me it was a coping mechanism, and in a way I was avoiding the stigma of being blamed ‘for letting it happen to me’.

But now we know that the law of the land formally normalises sexual assault against children. With that clarity, I am sure many of you need to go and buy the thickest protective clothing for your daughters, as our country is full of thick-skinned policymakers who are turning a legal blind-eye when our children are being sexually assaulted.

Kaveri Mayra has qualifications in midwifery, nursing and public health and she is currently a doctoral researcher at the University of Southampton, researching on obstetric violence in India.

Featured image credit: Aperture Adventures