Though child sexual abuse has been recognised and widely discussed as a social problem for more than last three decades, little is known about male child sexual abuse in India. Based on the feminist perspective and rights of girl children, the initial researches addressed the question of childhood sexual memories of female adults or experiences of girl children. As a result a debate on female child sexual abuse was initiated within the framework of violence against women. The emphasis on female children was continued in the discussion in India, albeit some of the researches and survey reports on child sexual abuse identified male children as victims.
Prevalence of sexual abuse among boys
In contrast with the global trends, most of the studies in the country revealed vulnerability of boys to sexual abuse either similar or higher percentage comparing with the abusive experiences of girls. One of the pioneering surveys conducted by Patel and Andrews (2001) among school students in Goa found that 33 percent of boys experienced various forms of sexual abuse and rural boys (10.3 percent) were more likely to have experienced coercive sexual intercourse than urban boys (2.5 percent). The national study of Government of India (2007) covering 2211 children from 13 states noticed one or more forms of sexual abuse among 52.94 percent of boys as against 47.06 percent of girls. The recent systematic review in 2018 ascertained high prevalence of child sexual abuse among boys in India. The review estimated that 10-55% of the boys in school and college samples have experienced one or other forms of CSA. However underreporting keeps the magnitude of the issue under wraps as elsewhere.
The cases reported to legal systems also reflect the hidden nature of the problem. As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) Crimes in India report, 2018, out of the total 39827 cases reported under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, 1025 cases were filed as sexual violence against male children (NCRB, 2019).
Myths and reality
Available literature grappled with the question of male child sexual abuse in the country and unsettled many myths on survivors and perpetrators. Most of the studies observed multiple forms of abusive experiences of male children between the ages of four and eighteen and thus highlighted the vulnerability of younger as well as elder male children. The survivors experienced penetrative and or non-penetrative forms of abuses from known and un-known perpetrators. But as against the myth that strangers are the predators, most of the studies in the country found known people including neighbours, teachers, relatives and elder friends as the persons sexually abusing boys.
Many people believe that majority who sexually abuse boys are homosexuals. But the available information finds involvement of (older)friends and women along with men as abusers from the same localities. This apparently challenges the popular understanding about the perpetrators and hence highlights the abusive behaviour of the predators irrespective of their sexual orientation, age and gender. The identification of locals in the abusive practice disentangles the purported nexus between sex tourism and foreign paedophilia in sexual abuse against boys.
Myths extend to the effects or impact of sexual abuse on boys as well. It is presumed that sexual abuse is less harmful to boys than girls. But similar to the case of girls, many boys suffer noticeable effects or impact such as emotional and psychological issues along with health complications including STIs. A recent qualitative study by KP and Panicker in Delhi (2019) explored the painful experiences of boys and resultant fear, anger, rage and shame among them due to the instances. One of the participants in the study said. “(I) was told that I will be killed. I got scared…even I cried, it was really painful”. The research further unravelled that as a result of such abusive episodes, some of the boys were found to be absent in schools, dropped out, lost interest in studies & ran away from home thereby ending on the streets without adult supervision. The study findings therefore overtly dismiss the myth and point out that sexual abuse can be equally damaging for both boys and girls.
A feminist agenda for research and action
Empirical evidences in India found that no child disclosed the abusive experience with anyone as the boys got scared and felt guilt, fear and shame after the incidents(s). A section of boys didn’t dare to disclose as they felt that nobody would believe them, if they share the instances. Some of the boys worried about their family honour, while others considered the experiences as a question to their masculinity. Response of one of the participants in the Delhi study summarises it; “I was very angry and was going to hit him with a stone. I was very angry and felt that I was not a man”. The dominant discourse of denial and disbelief on sexual abuse and the notions of masculinities play a vital role in lack of disclosure and keeping the episodes under wraps.
Parents or caregivers are also reluctant to acknowledge sexual abuse of boys as a problem to be addressed. Subramaniyan et al. (2017) found that parents and family members were not sensitive to the mental health problems of sexually abused boys. Even the families who sought professional support also did not express their willingness to continue the treatment. In short the role of gendered social norms and masculinities shaped by patriarchy is evident in the findings for lack of disclosure and barriers for not seeking various services including psychiatric help for boys.
It is true that feminist scholarship and interventions in the country have significantly contributed in building a body of knowledge on sexual abuse of girls, strategies for addressing the underlying factors and developing various supportive services for the girl/women survivors. But male child sexual abuse as an area for research and action has not merited adequate feminist concern yet. The available surveys and reports produced by developmental agencies indeed identified sexual abuse of boys as a social problem. But the literature was observed limited in exploring the problem rather than offering a nuanced understanding about the issue within a conceptual framework of gender and masculinities. In this context, it can be summarised that male child sexual abuse needs to be recognised as an agenda for feminist researches and actions which in turn would be helpful in breaking the silence around sexual abuse against boys in India.
Jayaraj KP is with Butterflies, a non-governmental organization working with street-connected and vulnerable children in New Delhi. He can be reached at email@example.com