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Do victims of sexual abuse turn into abusers?

There is a widespread belief that people who are sexually abused in their childhood can turn into perpetrators as adults. But does it stand to reason?

Tara Kaushal's book is based on her extensive reportage on sexual violence in India.

It is a widespread belief that people who were sexually abused in childhood often participate in abusive relationships as adults— either as victimizers of children and adults, or as victims. Some people call this a dangerous myth, which can be used to explain or excuse the behaviour of those who sexually abuse children. It is offensive and unhelpful to demonize adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, the vast majority of who will never perpetrate sexual violence against others. There is, however, some empirical evidence for belief in this ‘cycle’, and the results of the few studies that explore this issue support this hypothesis. In an incisive study called ‘Cycle of Child Sexual Abuse: Links Between Being a Victim and Becoming a Perpetrator’, the authors found that, among 747 men studied, “the risk of being a perpetrator was positively correlated with reported sexual abuse victim experiences. The overall rate of having been a victim was 35 per cent for perpetrators and 11 per cent for non-perpetrators. A high percentage of male subjects abused in childhood by a female relative became perpetrators. Having been a victim was a strong predictor of becoming a perpetrator…” Other studies on sexually abused boys have shown that around one in five continue in later life to molest children themselves.

This stands to reason. If physical violence violates a child’s rights and autonomy, child sexual abuse (CSA) and incest is infinitely worse for the layers of psychological scarring. In ‘The Cycle of Sexual Abuse and Abusive Adult Relationships’, the noted psychologist Elizabeth Hartney proposes some of the reasons why victims become victimizers. In an attempt to heal, and reclaim power and control, they take the opposite, seemingly more powerful, position of abuser. Or they feel grandiose to counteract the feelings of inadequacy, strange though it may seem, and, therefore, “may have a hard time respecting other people as equals.” They may be sexually aroused by abusive behaviour and the intensity of emotions evoked by forbidden contact.

It is offensive and unhelpful to demonize adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, the vast majority of who will never perpetrate sexual violence against others

Having said that, an idea that has stayed with me for a long time (the origin of which eludes me) is that, for those who live an examined life, childhood experiences serve as a pivot. To illustrate—the child of an alcoholic can be an alcoholic, claiming nurture or even nature; or a teetotaller, having seen the havoc the parent’s habit wreaked. In this vein, my subject Chandran positioned himself as a modern, woke, global Indian; against the stereotype of the patriarchal and violent Indian man that his father represented. He loved his mother, who had worked all her life; his sister, friends and girlfriends were independent workingwomen too. “There are very few things, that we know of, that have such a clear effect on gender inequality as being raised by a working mother,” summarizes Kathleen McGinn of the Harvard Business School, who led a ten- year study on the subject. As a survivor of abuse, Chandran had all the right answers, made all the right noises. And yet…

In a macro sense, Chandran and I are part of the same social circles of arty liberal upper-class Indians. Evenings out in Bengaluru, to house parties, gigs and events, are of the fluid, hopping variety so familiar to us in Mumbai and Delhi. You arrive with friends and/or a date. As expected, you meet others you know there. You get high. Some drift off for one place or after party or another. You get higher. Repeat. Hook up. Until you’re too high or it’s seven/eight/nine a.m., whichever comes first (or you decide to proceed to breakfast). You go home or crash at a friend’s. It was on one such drunken night, six-odd years prior, when a young woman—a platonic friend; a former colleague from a content creation company where he had, typically, worked for a flash—and another man had ended up in Chandran’s house, where they all slept in different rooms. She had woken up to find herself naked, his tongue in her vagina.

Why Men Rape: An Indian Undercover Investigation, published by HarperCollins,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399.00
Why Men Rape: An Indian Undercover Investigation, published by HarperCollins, 399.00

That night, drugs and alcohol were both involved, for both parties. (I only mention her state to classify this as ‘drug facilitated sexual assault’ aka ‘predator rape’, where the survivor is incapacitated due to intoxication, though she was only mildly so. As I’ve said before, survivors’ vulnerabilities cannot excuse abuse. And, we cannot blame women for putting themselves in ‘bad situations’ when it is the men that make the situations ‘bad’ to begin with!) Chandran rolled joints as we spoke. Those from the ‘haaaaw, drrrruuuugggs!’ school of thought will be shocked at the extent of his drug use; I was not, though it was a little more than your average functioning drug user. Weed, first at eighteen, now every other day, was his clichéd gateway drug; a little acid here, microdosing even; a little MDMA there; psychedelic mushrooms from Kodaikanal. In college, there was even a three-month phase of ‘chasing the dragon’, as inhaling brown sugar vapour is known, but he had given up before he became hooked. Usually a social drinker (a lot, when others were paying), it was only occasionally that he drank alone.

Most research indicates that addiction—compulsive drug taking or drinking—is hereditary. The burgeoning self-help industry, though, has contributed to the idea that it’s all about finding and exorcizing demons from early childhood, discipline and willpower

Many experts have documented the correlation between substance abuse and violent behaviour, from many perspectives. The studies have ranged from the biological—the effects on brain and body chemistry and functioning—to the social; from law and order—the fallouts of the drug trade—to the psychological.

Most research indicates that addiction—compulsive drug taking or drinking—is hereditary. The burgeoning self-help industry, though, has contributed to the idea that it’s all about finding and exorcizing demons from early childhood, discipline and willpower. Either way, substance abuse is known to weaken self-control, and if you look at it from the latter point of view, it is seen as a further weakening of self-control.

And much violent behaviour is seen as a consequence of a loss of control. “It’s Criminology 101 that many crimes are committed under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and that people who assault, rape and murder show less impulse control in other aspects of their lives as well. In the heat of passion, the moral enormity of the violent action loses its purchase,” writes Professor Paul Bloom in ‘Beastly’.

The woman had screamed, shoved Chandran off and fled his house as he tried to pacify her. “I don’t even remember how I got myself home or that I collapsed into my flatmate’s arms when she opened the door. I only have snippets of memories—of crying hysterically, of shocked listlessness, of friends coming over, of going to work on Monday … The next few days are all a blur, and maybe it’s best for my psychological health that it stays that way,” she said to me after all these years. A few days later, her then-boyfriend would land up at his doorstep and confront him, where he would justify it as ‘misread social cues’.

Excerpted from Why Men Rape with permission from HarperCollins India.

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