When I first read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita as a precocious 15-year-old, it wasn’t what it is to me now. On first reading, it was a book that conveyed to me that a relationship between a young girl and a much older man — who happens to marry her mother purely to gain access to her — was nothing out of the norm. These things happen, I thought.
Many years and many life experiences later, a re-reading helped me realise that, despite the fabulous writing, the book had at its heart the normalisation of paedophilia. This is what art does, what literature and cinema and television do, when they depict the abhorrent. They normalise.
Pehredaar Piya Ki, a show currently airing on Sony TV, tells the story of a 9-year-old who is married to a 22-year-old. The practice of young girls being married off to much older men is not unheard of, and is still the norm in certain cultures, incompatible though it may be with modernity. This show, however, brings a new twist to inappropriate relationships: it features a young boy ‘romancing’ an older woman — rather like a typical filmi stalker romeo — getting married to her, and even having a ‘suhaag raat’ and a honeymoon with her.
The show is aired at prime time on a general entertainment channel which is typically considered family viewing. Just like Lolita, Pehredaar Piya Ki endorses and normalises the inherently repugnant.
According to Indian law, a marriage where either the woman is below age 18 or the man is below age 21 is considered child marriage. Such marriages have been illegal since 1929. The law also ensures that boys and girls forced into child marriages as minors have the option of voiding their marriage up to two years after reaching adulthood, and in certain circumstances, marriages of minors can be null and void before they reach adulthood.
Despite its dubious legal status, public reaction to a show depicting child marriage hasn't exactly been unanimous disapproval. “Bache ko action mil raha hai tou teri kyu jal rahi hai,” reads one comment on an article about the show, revealing how society views relationships involving a younger boy and older woman.
In order to understand why this point of view is dangerous, take a minute to assimilate the following statistics.
Tulir-CPHCSA's 2006 study, conducted among 2211 school-going children in Chennai, indicates a child sexual abuse prevalence rate of 42%. While 48% of boys reported having been abused, the prevalence rate among girls was 39%. Children of all socio-economic groups were found to be equally vulnerable. A 2007 survey sponsored by the Women and Child Development Ministry and carried out by Prayas, UNICEF and Save the Children found that 53.22% of children in India reported facing some form of sexual abuse, with over 50% of those victims being boys.
To reiterate, both surveys reported more boys being abused than girls.
While many of us recognise that we have to protect our girls, we tend to think the boys are alright. But the fact is that boys are just as vulnerable as girls. And the fact they are watched out for less stringently because of the mistaken belief that they are not at risk conversely puts them more at risk of being abused.
The other assumption is that boys are exclusively abused by other males, but the fact remains that women also abuse young boys. We don’t have India-specific statistics for this, but American studies show that women are the perpetrators in about 14% of sexual abuse involving boys.
There are numerous cases of older women grooming and seducing teen boys, but this is not perceived as worthy of the label ‘sex offender’. Instead, boys are taught that losing their virginity to an older woman is a badge of honour. The survivors of this abuse battle with guilt, conflict, self-esteem issues, and addiction disorders as adults. They are told that they enjoyed it too, and with that ‘enjoyment’ comes the guilt. They become complicit in their own abuse.
Young, pubescent boys are on the threshold of emotional and psychological maturity. While they might appear physically grown up, mentally they are still rather vulnerable. Curious, hormone-driven, and often battling with parents who they think don’t understand them, they are ripe for the picking.
Despite all this there is an inexplicable omerta around the sexual abuse of boys. Which brings me back to why I have a problem with Pehredaar Piya Ki. The show normalises a marriage between a child and an adult, and with it the implicit assumption of the sexual relationship that will exist between them. By showing this on a general entertainment channel watched by families across the country, we run the risk of normalising what is inherently deviant in its basic premise. Instead of warning them against potential abusers, we’re telling our boys that it is okay to be drawn into predatory relationships, sexual or emotional.
And that is not a message that we should be sending our boys.
Contact Kiran Manral at Arundhati.Dahiya+KiranManral@buzzfeed.com.
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