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Let boys have free expression

Lalita Panicker

The images of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chief K Sivan breaking down when he heard that the Chandrayaan-2 mission had not gone off as planned set off a flutter on social media. Many sympathised with the brilliant scientist and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to console him. But there were many who were critical, saying his display of emotion was unprofessional. Men, they said, should not be so undignified as to cry in public. It struck me that it is this attitude, which has helped keep both the abuse and psychological problems that young boys and men suffer, suppressed.

This starts in childhood where the boy is expected to be different in articulating his emotions from the girl. Even though the child sexual abuse law is gender neutral, this is still seen as a problem that affects girls. The last time any government research on this subject was done was in 2007. Around 53.2 per cent children had suffered sexual abuse of various sorts, out of which 52.9 per cent were boys. In fact, despite this, there has been no serious study of male sexual abuse survivors. The boy is conditioned to think that this is something he can and should deal with on his own, and that speaking about it is somehow not manly. The survivor feels guilt, confusion, shame and fear. In some cases, he normalises violence to the extent that he is violent to others. He often fears being made fun of if he reveals that he has been abused, and so has to live with the perpetrator in the same house or vicinity.

For many boys in India, the father is a figure of authority. In the cases of domestic abuse, the boy sees the father either verbally or physically attacking the mother, becomes inured to it, and even begins to think that this is how real men behave. After the Delhi gang rape of 2012, many NGOs came up with the slogan “Real men don’t rape”, as if to suggest that there is a subset of men who do as opposed to real men. I found this slogan offensive, and foolish. Rape is appalling, and no man should abuse women, real or otherwise.

Unlike in the case of the girl child, the perpetrator, often a family member or someone working in the household, has easy access to the boy and it is not seen as out of the ordinary to invite the child to a secluded place. In the case of street children, the danger is even greater. They are literally at the mercy of predators who abuse them at will. From early in life, when the boy is expected to suppress his emotions, we often hear others throw a barb at him, “Don’t be such a girl”.

The boy who cries or expresses too much emotion is considered a sissy and is often told to man up. Even extreme punishment at the hands of a parent or teacher is seen as part of the boy being made to understand his role as a man later in life. We hear stories of how beating in boarding schools, and other brutal forms of punishment, were vital to forging a boy’s character – “it made a man out of him”.

When certain Hollywood stars were outed as abusers of young men, there was an initial hue and cry, but, unlike the #MeToo movement led by women, the alleged abusers seem to have got off lightly. Even in the West, where there is little tolerance for any form of abuse, male sexual abuse still comes way below female sexual abuse. In Anatomy of Violence, Deepa Mehta brings out poignantly, without any judgment whatsoever or any attempt to justify their actions, the abuse suffered in childhood and their growing years by the perpetrators of the Delhi gang rape. They had become so inured to violence, had lost their moral compass that one of them did not even think that the heinous act was wrong. In fact, he felt that it was her fault for being out so late.

If we consider abuse gender neutral, we need to start talking to and about young boys as well as girls. So, far the discourse has been far too one-sided.

(HT Media)

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