Why Survivors of Sexual Assault Might Have Trouble Cutting Ties With Their Abusers
Tara Kaushal, the author of Why Indian Men Rape, was 22, fresh out of college, and excited to make her mark in the world of media when she was assaulted by a family friend, the then-editor of DNA, Gautam Adhikari. While Kaushal has intermittently spoken about the incident, detailing how Adhikari, a man her father’s age, and a close friend of her parents’ friends, suddenly grabbed her during a job interview, it’s only now that she’s finally named him, after two other journalists, Sandhya Menon and Sonora Jha, accused him of similar behavior.
“He shut the door and pushed me against the door and kissed me, thrusting his tongue in my mouth. I was shocked. I asked him angrily, ‘What are you doing?’ and he mumbled something about being in a happy marriage, but becoming wild with desire once in a while. Bizarrely, we continued the interview as if nothing had happened. He reverted to playing the polite uncle and mentor part and promised to put me in touch with other editors. Later, back home, I howled.”
For someone who hasn’t undergone the dehumanizing experience of being targeted by a sexual predator, it might be difficult to understand why survivors would stay friends, or even cordial acquaintances, with their assaulter. We often wonder why sexual assault survivors don’t immediately leave the situation or environment. Three of the most widely used arguments by sexual abuse skeptics are — why the sexual assault survivor didn’t speak up earlier, why they didn’t report the matter, and why they continued interacting with their abuser. While each question seems pertinent, even obvious, the answers are varied, and complex.
Trauma is rarely immediate or linear. It can take a while for a survivor to even comprehend that what they experienced was abuse. Not to mention the shock, which can paralyze a survivor in the immediate aftermath of the experience. “His switch from assaulter to concerned mentor was so abrupt, it was a shock. I sat through the rest of the interview, even though I was very quiet,” says Kaushal.
Delhi-based journalist, Adrija Bose, too, has spoken up about being assaulted by a colleague. In a detailed account published on Facebook, she writes about two incidents in 2015, when a senior colleague from NDTV forced her to perform oral sex on him. According to Bose, she gave in on one occasion, but walked out on the other, and quit the company a few weeks later. “He was my reporting manager’s darling. I was constantly told how good it would be for my career to learn from him. I was scared of the professional fall-out. I was in a new city and he was my only friend at work. I wanted him to like me.”
Sam, a UAE-based banker, still grapples with confusion and anger. “I still don’t know for sure what happened,” he says. “We were fooling around. I was scared because I hadn’t quite accepted I was gay, then. At one point, I remember thinking, I don’t want to do this. I remember trying to push him off. But he was bigger and stronger. Eventually, I stopped struggling. I still wonder if it was sex or rape.”
Palak Agrawal*, a Delhi-based business analyst, tells me about a date with a senior colleague that turned creepy within minutes. “We matched on Tinder,” she says. “He knew we worked for the same firm, albeit in completely different departments, but that didn’t stop him from trying to feel me up. I made excuses and left quickly. But I’ve thought about it often. I was too scared to file a complaint with the ICC because he outranks me and is quite senior. How come he wasn’t too scared to pull a stunt like that with a colleague who could report him? Wasn’t he scared at all?”
Kaushal says she stayed in touch with Adhikari for a few years, exchanging work-related platonic texts once in a while. Bose severed direct contact with her abuser, but the person remained part of her extended circle. Sam is still friends with the man who, ostensibly, raped him. And Agrawal has to watch, every day, as her assaulter zooms in and out of office, completely unperturbed, while she fights off panic attacks every time she thinks of the incident.
To varying degrees, each of the four know what happened to them was abuse, and yet, most have spent months, even years soaked in self-doubt, and even self-blame. Sam’s confusion, coupled with his abuser’s confident, unrepentant demeanor around him, has kept him from ever confronting the man. Agrawal wonders sometimes if she led her colleague on. It has taken Bose years of therapy to understand that she is not to be blamed for believing that her friends wouldn’t sexually violate her. Even Kaushal found herself unable to confront her abuser beyond the initial, shocked, “What are you doing?”
“I was a broke writer, new to the city. He was one of the biggest names in journalism. Even though I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, and he had grossly abused his power, at 22, I didn’t know if I could take on a fight,” she says. “Besides, all the messages we exchanged until he quit DNA were so benign and strictly work-related, it was as if the incident had never happened. But I know it did.”
According to clinical psychologist and trauma therapist Seema Hingorrany, the effects of sexual assault on a survivor often include an inability to identify and process the experience as abuse, in part for fear of shame. “For many women [or men], the experience of abuse is still loading in their brains, years after it actually took place, in the form of maladaptive memory networks that manifest themselves in the form of physiological or behavioral problems. When your abuser is someone you know or trust, it becomes that much more difficult to accept that they could do this to you,” she says. “Sometimes it takes intensive therapy for them to even acknowledge it happened. In many cases there is so much shame and fear that they bury their memories, but still feel its effects, without knowing why they feel and behave the way they do. Often, as therapists, we have to advise [survivors] against sharing their stories because, if these women are subjected to cruel opinions, disbelief, or shaming, it can lead to serious negative repercussions for their mental health.”
The imbalance of power between the survivor and the abuser is almost a given, whether it is physical, or social and professional, clout that is used to bully survivors into compliance or silence, or both. “The threat is always implied,” says Agrawal. “He didn’t have to tell me to stay quiet, he knew I would. He’s friends with all my bosses. Most corporate offices function like old boys’ clubs, despite their zero-tolerance policies. The gender disparity only increases as we go up the ladder. He knows I won’t complain because there is no one to complain to.”
And finally, there is the question of why survivors don’t report abuse, if it is so rampant. Apart from the stigma associated with sex crimes, and the very real fear of victim-blaming, the numbers tell a sobering tale. According to a 2015 survey, 97% of organizations are not aware about the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 and its implementation. According to a 2017 survey of 6,047 respondents by Indian Bar Association, 70% women said they did not report sexual harassment by superiors due to fear of repercussions. An analysis of National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data from 2015-16 by Livemint revealed that 99% cases of sexual assault go unreported. The conviction rate for crimes against women stands at 19% across India, according to The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data from 2016.
In such a hostile environment, with survivors scared to speak up for fear of being shamed and damage to their professional and personal lives, companies whose legally mandated committees work to protect the company itself more than the survivors, and a legal framework that leaves little hope of ever receiving justice, survivors have little option other than to silently carry the burden of abuse, while using whisper networks to warn others about predators.
Perhaps, instead of asking survivors why they didn’t speak up, leave, or report their abuse, the question we really should be asking is: why people cannot afford to place their trust in the systems and networks meant to offer support, recourse and justice when they’ve been harmed.
*Name changed to protect privacy.