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The Campaign to Force India to Confront Its Epidemic of Male Child Sexual Assault

53 percent of the childhood sex abuse victims there—and more than 110 million in all—are male

Five-year-old Abhhydday (Abby) loved animals. Every day at his mother’s urging, he’d walk down to the local nature park in Patiala, India, to chase rabbits, which would easily elude his grasp. So when a friendly man scooped one up and offered it as a gift, Abby couldn’t refuse. The man led Abby to a “magical section” of the park where he said rabbits essentially jumped into your lap. When they reached the secluded nook, however, all the animals were out of sight.

“Give uncle a kiss on the cheek,” the man said, placing a hand on Abby’s stomach to “listen” to what he’d eaten for lunch. It seemed strange, Abby tells me, but the guy had just caught a rabbit with his bare hands so he gave him the benefit of the doubt. “What perturbed me was when I started feeling pain,” Abby recalls. He asked the man to stop. Instead, the stranger placed a hand over Abby’s mouth and raped him.

This continued every other day for two years.

When Abby would refuse to go to the park his parents insisted, believing he was just being lazy. They didn’t think to question about Abby’s awkward gait or vanishing briefs because they couldn’t comprehend something like this even happening to a boy. Meanwhile, as a “man in training,” it was ingrained in Abby to act tough no matter what. And so, he believed his rapist when he warned, “If someone finds out about this, the shame is going to be upon you, not me.”

“Silence is the perpetrator’s best friend,” Abby explains. “I grew up believing that my masculinity would be questioned if people found out.”

Sadly, Abby’s story isn’t an outlier. India has the largest number of child sexual abuse cases in the world. A 2007 government study on child abuse revealed a shocking 53.2 percent of children reported experiencing one or more forms of sexual abuse. Of this number, 52.9 percent were boys. Put another way, of the 440 million children in India, conceivably 220 million are sexually abused and more than half of them are boys. Yet somehow, Indian law doesn’t recognize males as being victims of sexual abuse — only perpetrators.

For example, the section of India’s Penal Code that defines rape begins, “When a man commits rape of a woman…” The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act also disregards males as being potential victims. And in the wake of the outrage over the gang rape of an 8-year-old girl in Kathua last month, Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi introduced the death penalty for the rape of girls younger than 12 and increased the minimum punishment for those whose victims were under 16. Boys, however, weren’t mentioned once.

“It’s really about the hetero-sexist relationship gone awry,” explains Simmons College Professor Jyoti Puri, who studies sexuality and law in India. “If a girl has been assaulted, it’s about her honor and chastity being violated. Most importantly, the honor of the family has been spoiled.” The primary role of boys, on the other hand, is being protectors of the family honor. So when boys are sexually assaulted, the main concern is that their masculinity has been diminished. Also, Puri adds, because the vast majority of perpetrators are men, there’s an additional stigma of same-sex sexual assault and a violation of the norms of heterosexuality.

“Is Indian culture ready to accept the fact that boys too are sexually assaulted and raped?” asks filmmaker-activist Insia Dariwala, whose The Hands of Hope Foundation has produced a puppetry animation video on personal safety for children, a public art installation on child sexual assault and the first-ever photo campaign on male child sexual abuse. Dariwala is quick to note, however, that sexual assault against boys is hardly exclusive to India. “The truth is, throughout the world, sexual abuse and rape on boys is an ignored reality that society would rather look away from instead of addressing.”

The reason for that, she says, is an unwillingness to acknowledge the vulnerability of men. No society, she says — be it Indian, American, African or European — provides a system where a boy is allowed to be vulnerable. “The deep-seated patriarchal seed, watered by women over generations, is a big reason why men can only be seen in roles as protectors, never victims. It’s these beliefs that keep parents from reporting their sons’ abuse.”

Abby agrees: “In many scenarios in India today, children name their perpetrators, but parents choose to do nothing about it to avoid shame.”

Elsewhere in South Asia, some parents even profit from their sons’ contracted rape. For example, in the 2010 Frontline documentary, The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, a tribal father sells his 13-year-old son to a wealthy man hundreds of miles away. “Of course we miss him,” the father explains. “And we know what happens to him when he is gone. But he is a boy. Whatever happens will pass.”

The most common form of male-on-male rape, though, is that which is weaponized. “When a boy or man is raped, it diminishes his status by making him into a girl or a woman,” says Tom Digby, author of Love & War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance. “It starts with the gender binary and an assumption that men and women are fundamentally different beings. One side is valorized while the other is denigrated. So if a boy or a man is raped, they are, in effect, thrown over the fence to the other side of the binary and lowered to that status.” What’s worse, he adds, it’s extremely common to hold the rape victim complicit in their sexual assault, further lowering his status.

As for a solution, Digby says, “I looked at a range of diverse societies around the planet, and I don’t know of any that stepped in to solve the problem of raping boys. The only exception I can think of would be ancient Sparta, where sexual relations between boys and men weren’t only common, but prefered.”

Thanks, though, to a successful petition on Change.org by Dariwala, there’s a glimmer of hope in India. In response to the petition, Maneka Gandhi, India’s Minister of Women & Child Development, announced the creation of a first-of-its-kind study on male survivors of child sexual abuse, led by Dariwala. “Child sexual abuse is gender neutral,” Gandhi said. “Boys who are sexually abused as children spend a lifetime of silence because of the stigma and shame attached to male survivors speaking out. It is a serious problem and needs to be addressed.”

As for Abby, he’s finishing up his studies to become a management accountant and working with Dariwala and other survivors to educate people about child sexual abuse. “I believe in turning poison into medicine so people can learn from it,” he says. “There are so many parents in denial that something like this could happen to their child.”

What’s crucial, he says, is changing the long-held belief in India that men and women are inherently different. “For many people in India, it’s not about you as a whole. It’s about what you have between your legs. If you’re born with a penis, they believe you should behave strong, act strong and be protectors. But this brings with it a painful misconception that men and boys don’t need protection, too.”