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Sexual abuse: Consent is at the heart of the matter —Dr Dumebi Mordi

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By Ebele Orakpo

Sexual
Dr Dumebi Mordi

First point of contact

Sexual abuse is very rampant now and it is very disturbing. We realised that because pharmacy tends to be the first point of contact for most people seeking health care, we get a lot of information and more visits from the average Nigerian than a hospital. Most people tend to reserve hospitals for when they are really ill because of cost and access issues. A lot of them can walk into a pharmacy and talk about what is going on with them; an aspect we are trying to harp on because we believe in holistic patient care, we don’t just talk about physical health, we also talk about mental health. In the process of discussing with patients about their issues, we’ve uncovered a disturbing trend.

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Disturbing trend

People feel comfortable sharing their issues with us and we keep everything confidential. There is a growing trend of people who are being sexually abused and not knowing where to get help.

A typical case could be a girl who got pregnant and came to the pharmacy to figure out what her options are. Usually, they start off by saying: “I’m not  sure if I am pregnant, I have not seen my period for about two or three months.” That usually starts a conversation.

Then they may say: ‘Okay, I want to do a pregnancy test.’ They do the pregnancy test in-house because we offer laboratory services. If the test comes out positive, the next question is: ‘What can I do?’

 Violated by known persons

In the course of discussing with them, we realise that some of the girls are not in committed relationships. It could be that they were violated by someone they know or someone they didn’t know. Based on what we see here, it is far more common for them to be violated by someone they know. So a lot of times, it is a very confusing process for the lady because one, she is not sure what has happened; she hasn’t processed it yet, she is too afraid to share the information with anybody. She comes to us because she feels that she won’t be judged and she needs to know what her options are medically.

Like I said, we do both physical and mental part and we give them the options. One, they need a confirmatory test to determine if they are pregnant; a scan to determine how long they have been pregnant and then we always recommend that they see a physician so that they will have a well rounded view as to what is going on. The conversation then progresses to the mental health aspect.

Mental health

It was a struggle initially for us to find resources to help victims of sexual abuse who became pregnant as a result. We realised there are some resources in Nigeria such as the Mirabel Centre and Women at Risk International Foundation, WARIF and one other centre in Yaba. Those are the three key places we usually refer people to because they have counsellors to work with them and help them through the psychological process as well as refer them to physicians.

Don’t be reactionary

We should not always be so reactionary; we don’t want to always wait for the growing stories because we are aware that for every one person who has the courage to walk in here and discuss what has happened to her, several others keep it to themselves because they are afraid of stigma, afraid of being accused or victimised by people with negative comments especially on social media so they would rather keep quiet and suffer in silence. So rather than having to always deal with abused people, let us also deal with the prevention of abuse.

Prevention

Recently on radio, we had a discussion and the founder of WARIF, Dr Kemi Dasilva-Ibru, was there. During the program, someone called and asked what the mindset of a man who would think it is okay to sexually violate or rape a woman is? Dr Kemi Dasilva-Ibru made a very good point about a power dynamic which means the person being raped is usually in position of lesser power and the person doing the raping is usually of higher power. Another thing is that we are not discussing the narrative of consent and understanding of what consent means.

 Consent

A lot of women who come in were raped by people they know or people they trusted, may be the husband. It’s dicey in itself because people don’t think a man can rape his own wife. Consent is at the heart of the matter. If the person says no, she has not given consent. If the man is the one that initiates the sexual activity, he needs to be clear with his partner whether she is his wife, girlfriend, or someone he knows. Always find out: ‘Please, do you want us to have sex?’ If she doesn’t, back off, it doesn’t matter how far you’ve gone. If at any point the word ‘No’ is used, you stop. If at any point there is indication that this person is reluctant, you stop.

Hot button phrases

There are some hot button phrases that indicate the other party is not interested; ‘I don’t feel like it.’ ‘I don’t feel up to it.’ ‘I don’t really want this.’ ‘May be we should try another time.’ ‘Can you please stop?’ Those are phrases that indicate that the other party is not willing.

Interpretation

Then there is the other side of the coin; the interpretation of what the person is saying versus what the person is actually saying.

You hear some stories of ‘she said no, but the way she said it indicated that she didn’t really mean it,’ or ‘She didn’t really say anything, she just kept quiet,’ or ‘I noticed she really wasn’t into it but she didn’t really tell me to stop.’

The important thing to realise is that somebody who is being violated is in a very confusing situation. It’s not something that is crystal clear. Sometimes, one will not be able to articulate that this is not something they want, may be out of fear, resistance or confusion, the human mind is very complex so sometimes, some people may not process it until the act is over. All they know is: ‘I don’t feel good; ‘I am not really enjoying this.’ ‘I am not really sure I want to be here.’

I think it is important for us to pay attention to each other as well as listen to what is being said, not your interpretation of what the person is saying. If the person is saying no, whether they say it in a soft voice, or shouting and kicking and screaming, no is no. If the person says ‘I don’t want this,’ and they are not participating, more than likely, they don’t want to be there. Even more so, if the person didn’t actually verbalise the word ‘stop,’ they just kind of went limp and not responding, that is usually an indication that something is wrong so it is important not to get carried away with emotions but also pay attention to the person you are participating in a sexual activity with. If there is not an enthusiastic yes, absolute ‘yes, I want to do this,’ you should pause.

Sexual assault

Sexual assault happens quite frequently but the important thing is we need to be clear on what consent is, from both parties. What consent looks like from a man and what it looks like from a woman. Some men feel that when they toast a woman and she says no, that is the beginning of the chase. I heard somebody say: ‘They always play hard to get but eventually, they will give in,’ or something like ‘It makes the chase sweeter the harder you have to work to get her.’ I think that narrative is very disturbing because it spills over into the bedroom, workplace, into interpersonal interactions where someone has to tell you ‘no’, six, seven times in a very forceful manner before you finally get it. What people don’t realise is that some people who have been violated may not say ‘no’ more than once, they just shut down. Some people may not be open to the idea to begin with, but fear won’t allow them to even vocalise what they are feeling but you can tell from the person’s body language that they are either afraid, they are not interested and they clocked out so to speak. So all of those things are still relevant because at the end of the day, you have taken away somebody’s choice, you have damaged the person mentally and in some cases, physically and you have set in motion a series of events that may affect that person the entirety of their life. So in essence, you bear the burden of having damaged somebody for a few minutes of pleasure. It’s not worth it.

Crazy person

There is also the narrative of the rapist being a crazy person who is just uncontrollable. It is true in some cases and untrue in others. It could be something as simple as two friends hanging out together and the guy feels like ‘one thing led to another’ and the woman feels like ‘this was never anything I wanted; I didn’t even think for a second that by hanging out with this man who is a friend of mine, whom I have known for many years, that this would happen and it is not something I wanted.’ The relationship is damaged, she is damaged, he may have to deal with guilt, loss of a friendship and a lot of confusion.

Crossing the line

We need to change the narrative because you have some people that are considered regular guys, hanging out with female friends, or significant others who didn’t realise when the line had been crossed from consent to non-consensual.

The other side of the coin is people who are involved in double-talk, saying no when they really mean yes. It is not attractive, it’s not you being coy, it’s you sending mixed signals that could potentially damage you and the person because if you set a precedent of always doing double-talk, then when it comes down to the situation where sexual activity is involved, it’s very confusing for the other party. Don’t play such games with people because not only is it dangerous for you, it is dangerous for other people as that person is walking away thinking ‘if this girl always said no when she meant yes, is that the same for all women?’

I heard of a girl who was with a man sexually, she said no and the man backed off and the girl went and spread a rumour that the guy must be gay because she expected him to push harder.

This is very dangerous; you are teaching that person to disregard what you are saying and because we are all the sum of our experiences, if that relationship didn’t work out and he moves on to the next person, he may apply the lessons from what you erroneously taught him- that women are unstable, when they say no, they really mean yes or she wanted me to try harder; it’s ridiculous! It contributes to this culture of not hearing what you are being told but interpreting it in whatever way that suits you.

Let’s be people of our word, let your yes be yes and no, be no.

Not all rape victims cry out and not all rape victims fight back; not all rape victims will kick and spit and scream; some people shut down, we all handle trauma in different ways and some people because of the psychological trauma, the mind suppresses the memory and it shows up many years down the line in another relationship and the person can’t understand why their partner is reacting in a certain way.

‘All I did was touch her shoulder and she fagged out.’ It means the touching of the shoulder is a trigger to the memory that has been suppressed. Consent is an enthusiastic Yes, meaning Absolute ‘Yes, I do want A B and C.’ What is not consent is reluctance, lack of participation in the activity, a clear no, whether loud or not, giving excuses not to participate in the activity; never actually verbally articulating consent; you cannot gain consent from someone who is asleep or drunk or under the influence of any substance because they are not in their right mind. You cannot get consent from anyone who is under the age of 18 years, a non-adult cannot give consent for sexual activity, it is illegal.

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