Friday, October 18, 2013
My article on Child Sexual Abuse in Viewpoint Online. I explore the social construction of sexual behavior and how it creates room for violence.
Cases which would have been lost as cries in an empty classroom, a mosque, or a relative’s house are now being heard
Pakistan is scared, yet again. There have been bombs, there have been killings and there have been frequent interruptions of governance. But nothing has appalled, frightened and shocked the Pakistanis more than the recent outpour of sexual attacks on children; their own children.
They don’t get it! How can this happen? How can someone stoop so low that an ‘’object of innocence’’ be their impetus for aggression? How can a ‘’powerless’’ child be the cause for lust? And in their mental disarray a barrage of accusation, justifications and rationales spreads out. Media, the West, the USA, deviance from Islam, absence of Sharia, deteriorating law and order situation, mental disorder; In short, every villain (or lack of a heroic) known to the Pakistani mindset is brought out, questioned and held responsible for ‘’somehow’’ causing this sudden rise in attacks on children.
But they still don’t get it. And they won’t either. This is because sex is a subject never publicly or openly broached in Pakistan while rape continues to be a taboo topic. The TV channels are hurriedly changed when news of child victims of sexual violence is aired. However, despite the bid to avoid the topic, we it seems have reluctantly come a long way in any case. Are we not finally exploring the taboo subject?
To comprehend the problem better, we need to go beyond the questions such as pedophilia or child sexual abuse as an individual act. We need to focus more on the social construction of sex. I will examine three perspectives in this piece and show how these three perspectives in an interlocking way explain our understanding of sexuality, sexual behavior, and sex. This will in turn explain how room is created for rampant sexual violence.
For the first, our understandings is that ‘’sex is genital’’. It can be linked back to our ‘informal history’, describing sex as an act of reproduction, hence a ‘’genital act’’. Through this focus on the genitals, male desire became associated with erections and ‘’active sex’’, and was expressed in terms of penetration. Female sexuality as a result was seen as ‘’hidden’’, ‘’passive’’ and ‘’receptive’’. This social understanding creates a gendered expression of human sexuality where masculinity is seen as active and penetrative, while passivity is seen as non-masculine or worse, emasculated.
Secondly, as in social sciences, the ‘’issues of power’’ have traditionally been addressed through ‘’structuralist’’ perspectives. Structuralism sees how social institutions and social orders generate social phenomena instead of creative human activity. Hence, our culture moulds human sexuality through various social institutions: religion, family, media, the criminal justice system and schools. There is enough research to prove that sexual beliefs, practices and identities are ‘’learnt’’ through social institutions.
The final perspective that we’ll examine is a very recent foray into understanding sexuality. The ‘’interactionist’’ perspective looks at how categorization and labels are ascribed to sexual behaviors. For example, where structuralists would ask ‘’What makes people homosexual?” interactionists would question ‘’What makes people respond as they do to homosexuality?’’.
So keeping this in mind, what causes certain forms of sexual behaviors is not what we will assess. Rather we’ll look at why some sexual behaviors are given particular meanings, and what effects these meanings have on people in terms of how they organize their sexual lives. This makes us realize that a person engaging in a certain sexual activity may indeed be a ‘’role’’ that he is acting out; a role generated by attaching a label with a certain form of sexual activity.
Schools and colleges have long been associated with harboring same-sex activity. It has often been documented and recorded. In a previous article I have examined how same-sex behaviors are commonly present and understood in all-boys colleges. Boys associated with passivity are often bullied, or else labeled as effeminate. Simultaneously, they are also looked at as sexually available and as objects of lust and desire. Should we assume that in this context it is a ‘’role’’ deigned upon them as a result of their activity being labeled? And boys or men in a position of power can use or abuse others as this a part of them playing their manly, assertive role? Yes.
Of the many cases of child abuse reported, family acquaintances or trust-worthy people at different levels of social institutions (religious leaders, teachers, principals) are found guilty.
Unhealthy, cruel and unsafe, yes. But masked by our judgments we forget to realize the hard-truth that sexual activity with children lies at the heart of our social structure. Its presence in the core social institution, ‘’the family’’, is tantamount to it being a form of sexual behavior that we ‘’learn’’ along the way. No wonder many child molesters have themselves been abused as children. Many children, especially the ones on streets, have often been abused by people, mostly police-men, on the pretext that the child is mischievous. This justification isn’t given to the parents of the child, or the society. It is the child who is told that as he/she is being mischievous, ‘’he/she has it coming’’. So are we ‘’learning’’ that forced-sex is a form of corrective punishment? And when the child grows up will he have learnt that even he can perform an act of forced-sex on children who are being unruly? If the answer is no, then why is ‘’I will fuck you!” such a common abuse meted out when we are frustrated with how someone is acting? And why are unattractive and manly prisoners subjected to sexual and penetrative abuse at police stations?
The act of penetration is a role, a role of power. And our everyday language, wearing words and sexual slang are testament enough to the fact. Sex is seen as an act of the man, and penetration his weapon. A man penetrating a ‘’powerless, object of innocence’’ isn’t actually that big a surprise when you look at it this way. And I believe this the reason why so many cases are surfacing now that parents and media are on the alert. Cases which would have been lost as cries in an empty classroom, a mosque, or a relative’s house are now being heard. As we stand ready to legislate (which might again be a long way in coming given the speed at which our Islamic Ideology Council acts on matters pertaining to sex), the way we look at sex also needs to be questioned. Consent and its importance needs to be stressed upon; as well as an understanding that a child’s consent is no consent at all! And that forced sex without consent or with a child is not a sign of manliness but cowardice. Parents need to be told that all is not gold within the family. Schools and colleges need to adopt measures to understand how power dynamics translate in sexual behaviors. And at some point we might even have to stand and look into the mirror to see the molester within; created at the hands of social institutions, power dynamics and role-playing.
End note: Pedophiles and child molesters will celebrate if the Islamic Republic of Pakistan goes to the Taliban. They will have a lot in common to celebrate.