SEXUAL ABUSE, SEX, AND MENSTRUAL HEALTH.

I needed a public platform to express and convey few thoughts and feelings. It is no news that sex education is non-existent in India. Added to this is the blatant misogyny that is rooted in the collective psyche. There is no empathy available for an unmarried person who is sexually active (with or without consent). Families are the worst places to discuss anything related to bodies. At home, a female body is an object that needs to be treasured and nurtured. It is pure, clean and untouched. Gender binaries are sacrosanct and there is no space to discuss any form of anxieties related to gender or sexuality. Many people play a dual role – a pure unexploited body for the scrutiny of the family, a liberated, free body outside the realms of social control. Playing such double roles is exhausting. I keep wondering if there is any way to openly tell my family what I actually am. Why should I keep playing the role of a naive virgin for the sake of others? I am infantilized by society’s gaze and I readily play the role of a child for its satisfaction. This is an attempt to make public my journey and to ponder on certain thoughts related to the entire topic. It is personal and intimate. I am scared to write this, but I want to feel liberated. I want to be open about what happened to me, and what I am now.

CHAPTER 1:  The Absent Body

When I was seven years old, my cousin abused me. He removed my underwear and fingered me. There I said it. It took so much courage to say this without feeling dirty. I guess I went into shock the moment it happened. I didn’t move or struggle. I just let it happen with a smile on my face. I never understood the event. I cannot retrieve most of my memory to clearly remember everything. All I know is that I didn’t move and didn’t fight back. I simply acted like I was asleep. Very recently I understood what I was actually doing. I dissociated. It was like my mind had left my body, my limbs felt numb and my senses were all lost. It was easier to cope when I didn’t feel the pain (or remember it) and didn’t lose my mind over it. I simply ejected myself from my body, lay it down there like a dead log and freely used my mind to roam around anywhere in the world but my body. This is what happened to me at the time of sexual abuse. I had been disconnecting and surviving. I learnt later the impact of this on my normal life, which I will discuss further.

CHAPTER 2: The Body as an Experiment

I was a science major at school. I thought I had a fair understanding of the female sexual organs from whatever I’ve learnt from the Biology textbooks. I considered myself an expert compared to my friends who had no knowledge on how menstruation and female reproductive organs work. I was so wrong. I had a bookish kind of knowledge that fell short in aiding me at the time of need. I was 21 and still had no clue about where things are located in the surface of my body.

At this time, one of the public health students at my university conducted a project/survey on menstrual cups. She needed volunteers to try using menstrual cups and give her feedback about their experience. The only thing that interested me about this project was the free cup that she was going to provide. Menstrual cups are good for the environment and can be used for years, hence cutting back money spent on sanitary pads. Naturally, my friends and I jumped in as volunteers to take part in the study. Little did we know that we were least prepared.

Most of us struggled to understand our anatomy. I thought that I could insert something into my vagina with ease. My friends were also sure that they can find the right angle to introduce the cup into their body. I am not exaggerating when I say this, the amount of paranoia and fear that surrounded the hostel corridor when one of failed to insert the cup was palpable. It was painful. It felt like too tiny a space to put anything in. It gave back pain when all the muscles were tensed. It made us question whether we have normally functioning organs. These are few of the many concerns that circulated among all the participants.

It should be noted that all of us who were having trouble in the cup insertion were sexually inactive. We had no experience on where goes what. Isn’t this an indicator of how gloriously our education had failed us? Our anxieties increased ten-fold. We thought we could never have sex. How could we when we couldn’t even insert a finger? Many of us called our parents for support. Parents provided brilliant support by admonishing us for trying something so foolish, for compromising our untouched, virgin status and for making decisions without consultation. It seemed as though our bodies weren’t autonomous organisms. They needed parents’ permission to do anything sexual because we were juvenile and didn’t know the world. I hate that young women have to explore their sexuality with fear and no support from their caregivers. Worse, these parents were ready to judge and verbally abuse them when they tried to open up. How could we call this culture great when it is phenomenally failing its young people to explore themselves, body and mind?

After our episodes with our parents, all the participants decided to hide it from them that they were still going to try using the menstrual cup. Three of my friends and I decided to go to a gynaecologist to examine ourselves. What happened there is another horror story.

CHAPTER 3: The Body as Betrayal

Around the same time I was experimenting with the menstrual cup, I was having an active sexual life. My boyfriend and I decided that we would have sex. We were both ready to get intimate and explore things. At the same time, I was constantly failing to insert the cup. The same condition and anxiety extended to my sexual life too. In few words, I just couldn’t have sex. It was too painful and difficult. My body felt like a brick wall with stinging thorns that wouldn’t let anything in. It was frustrating and humiliating to lie down like an underperforming rock. Every sexual encounter ended with sadness. I blamed myself for failing. I thought I was a deformed woman. My boyfriend blamed himself for being defective. He thought it was his problem. Both of us felt helpless and useless. I had no idea why every touch hurt me. It was not just mental pain, it was actual physical pain. My insides felt like molten lava with ten thousands knives floating around and poking my rigid muscles. I never wanted such a pain. Why did it hurt so much if sex was supposed to be pleasurable? I felt that I was a worthless entity. I was never going to have a normal sex life and I was never going to insert the cup. I hated my body. I hated that it had betrayed me so awfully.

CHAPTER 4: The Body on the Medical Table

The day we went to the gynaecologist to get ourselves examined, I realised trauma can happen even when you voluntarily enter a situation. The doctor told me that she can help me with the insertion. She reasoned that if she introduced it the first time, I would be able to learn and do it myself later. So my friends and I decided to get her help. Waiting outside the examination room and hearing my friend writhing in pain wasn’t appealing. I regretted my decision but I didn’t want to back out either. When it was my turn, I went in and lay down with clenched muscles and limbs. My entire body was tensed and I felt like my heart would shatter to pieces if it beat any faster. The doctor examined me with clinical indifference. She said there was nothing wrong with me anatomically. Any problem I had, it was in my mind. She went ahead to insert the cup. I cannot explain the horror that happened then. I can only tell that it was the single most painful experience I’ve ever had. And I’ve had a colonoscopy, so that should put things into perspective. My flesh felt like it was tearing apart, my eyes were tearing up, and it felt like a knife stabbing inside me against my will. When the menstrual cup was half in, I couldn’t stay still. I was twisting and shaking with pain. I begged the doctor to stop. I didn’t care if I was a woman or not, I didn’t want to feel pain. But she didn’t stop. She said it was already half in and removing it was going to be painful too. The terror I felt is unexplainable. I somehow let it happen and walked out  of the clinic with throbbing pain. By then, I knew that I had something so wrong even the doctor couldn’t find what it was.

A few weeks later, all my friends were easily able to use the cup. Their appointment with the gynaecologist had helped them. I was still stuck in the cycle of pain and worthlessness. I had gone home for the holidays. At a moment of vulnerability, I vented to my mother about my difficulties with the cup (of course not about boyfriend and sex). My mum tried to empathise and offered to take me to an experienced gynaecologist. I was happy to get her support. At this clinic, I faced another form of violence. This violence was waged not against my body but against my freedom and existence. The doctor slut shamed women for being sexually active before marriage. She assumed I was one of those “Good Girls” who was pure and nice. “You don’t need to explore or touch anything down there until you get a husband. You are just a child; don’t pressure yourself because your friends are being stupid. Menstrual cups are bad for you. Please throw it away.” This is exactly what she said after examining me. At that moment, the look on my mum’s eyes which was so full of concern and frustration made me feel like a savage animal trying to ruin the orders of the society. I decided that I was never going to discuss anything about my reproductive health to my mother. I also understood that just because they were a doctor, that doesn’t mean gynaecologists were going to provide ethical service without judgement or violence. I am so mad at all the doctors who continue to assume that I am virgin, that I will get married to a man, that I will get pregnant. I hate listening to the words, “This would cause major issues when you become pregnant.” Too many doctors have told this to me for various reasons. How dare they assume that my body is just a female vessel that is preparing itself to satisfy the husband and carry a child!

CHAPTER 5: The Body as Self Exploration

With all the fiasco around not being able to play the right roles of a good daughter, a good girlfriend, a good test subject, I had forgotten that my body belonged to myself. I desperately wanted to satisfy everybody. If I cannot, then I was nothing. At that time I was consulting a psychiatrist for my depression. I talked to her about my troubles. She told that it was possible that my past was affecting my sexual life. I hadn’t considered that my abusive past was the reason behind my bodily failures. I got an insight that everything was in my mind. My body got tensed because of anxiety and I couldn’t relax. From that moment on, my sexual project became mine alone. It stopped being a duty to someone else and became a duty to my own self. I had to learn to relax, I had to intimately know my body, I had to listen to it and act accordingly. The self exploration I did at that time was more rewarding than getting a proof from the doctor that nothing was physically wrong with me. Turned out, I had to believe myself what everybody around me was telling – I was normal. As the first step to my bodily exploration and care, I decided to not expect it to perform. I simply wanted it for myself. I believed that if I relieve my tension and feel free, I will be able to work on my body. With this realization, I was able to insert the menstrual cup for the first time with no help and no pain. I felt tearfully elated and euphoric that whatever I was searching for was within me. I learnt to let go, help my body relax and give it the space and time it needed. This is why I feel sex education and self exploration is needed. It stops the cycle of taboo and shame. It stops us from living outside of our physical bodies.  It’s not just needed for a healthy sexual life but also for an intimate connection to our own bodies.

CHAPTER 6: The Body as a Survivor

With my newfound understanding of my body, I was soon able to have a normal life. I had sex without pain, and even felt pleasure. I felt like I was one with myself. But my happiness was short lived. Despite all the successes, I still carried a secret. I still had the conviction that I was deeply damaged and flawed. I was a monster that couldn’t enjoy consensual sex. Because, every time I was sexually involved, I felt myself zone out. My body used to be there but my mind was not in the present. I felt like I was sitting outside my body and watching myself have sex. I had memories of my abusive episodes haunt me on every such occasion. I was reliving the same event over and over, often when I was sexually intimate. I felt pained that I was betraying my boyfriend. I couldn’t be in the present and my thoughts were all about my abuser. I thought I was sick to think about my abuser while I was lovingly being involved in an intimate activity. I told myself that I was a dirty person who enjoys only dirty things. This was the impact of my trauma. I repeated the same dissociated mode again and again, by leaving my body. I felt shame for being different like that. I didn’t realise it was a survival response. Now I understand the cycle of trauma, dissociation and self-blame. Now I think I can forgive myself because there was nothing wrong to actually forgive. Now I feel hope.

Sexuality, Gender, Body and Mind all remain unexplored thanks to our education, lack of support and lack of self awareness. The pain one feels related to any of this issue, is a lonely one. It is a taboo topic that cannot be discussed. It is non-existent in its discourse but its effects and pains are very real. I wish for a time where all this can be talked about openly without shame or fear.

2 thoughts on “SEXUAL ABUSE, SEX, AND MENSTRUAL HEALTH.

  1. I am awestruck and thank you so very much for this insightful revelation!
    I can’t explain how helpful this is!

    Like

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