In Focus 30th September, 2016

Week After Week, I Kept Passing Off The Sexual Harassment By My Dentist As An Accident.

The piece is a part of a collaboration between Breakthrough India and Youth Ki Awaaz for the #StandWithMe campaign. Join us as we seek to get conversations going around how we can create gender inclusive safer spaces. #StandWithMe, Be my safe space.

My first kiss was a man who didn’t bother to take my consent.

This happened during one of the most painful times of my teenage years. Braces. High school break ups have got nothing on this. Most people dread orthodontic appointments because they can’t feel their teeth for the next few days or because they can feel only their teeth for the next few days, because pieces of metal in one’s mouth is always a less than pleasant experience. I had all these fears, and another – “Where will he touch me this time?”

Context: I had braces twice. If you take anything from this article, let it be this – Do NOT neglect your retainers.The first time was fairly pleasant. But one day, everything that could go wrong with my braces did go wrong and my dentist chose precisely this time to go on vacation. Visiting a new dentist seemed to be a better option than having a wire hanging out of my mouth for the next two weeks at that point, and the one I went with. At his clinic, I saw something that I would have an endless number of questions about. You see, it wasn’t a big deal then. He was merely fixing another woman’s teeth. But after everything that happened, that woman still flashes before my eyes sometimes. Did it happen with her too? How many of them did it happen with?

The next two years were the most terrifying ones of my life so far; mostly because I didn’t understand what was happening. You see, this man was almost my grandfather’s age, and the first few times he touched me somewhere inappropriate, I brushed it off as an accident. But this accident happened too many times, whilst I lay helpless and confused. Each Saturday, I stepped out of his clinic desperately searching for a way to calm myself. Each Saturday, I found myself silently hoping that it wouldn’t happen the next time. But it did. And it got worse.

One day, after fixing my braces, he made me stand up so he could check if all was well inside my mouth. Eh, all well. You’ve just put a few pieces of metal inside my mouth that cut every time I speak. (For a person who speaks as much as I do, this…well…sucked.)

This was when he leaned towards me and I, instinctively at first, leaned backwards. But he was in no mood to stop, as he continued to lean more and more towards me, until there was nowhere I could go. That’s when his lips touched mine.

As a tireless lover of romantic novels, I had read this sentence so many times. And I hadn’t, even for a second imagined that the day I would say it, it would be in this context. Again, that day, I tried to pass it off as an accident. It may seem ridiculous to you, how I week after week made excuses for his behaviour. But I struggled to accept the reality of it. Even when I told my parents, I omitted everything else, telling them only that he touched me and I didn’t like it. It was shame and fear that made me do it, shame and fear that still plagues me, in more ways than one. Why would anyone believe that a renowned dentist was doing this? He’d been working for many years and no one had ever accused him of anything like this before. Self doubt won. I went to him again, he did it again.

When I told my parents that he’d touched me, my father started accompanying me to appointments, and that was the first time I stepped out of that clinic not feeling violated. In my father’s presence, he hadn’t dared to do anything. That’s when I realised, – it wasn’t an accident. Never had been. That day, I only hoped that he realised that this was no longer just our secret. I had let someone in on it. And I hoped that it terrified him, just like stepping into his room had terrified me for so many years.

The reason I still remember the woman he was treating, from my very first visit is because I still wonder if any of this happened with her too. The day she smilingly recommended that I go ahead and get treated by this man, did she know what he would go on to do? And then it hits me, that I remained silent through everything that happened. My silence could be the reason another innocent girl dreads the touch of another person, and the shame of that is far greater than the one I experienced in that room.

I try to project a personality that is fearless and unafraid, my voice is loud and intimidating, my words piercing. But behind all of that is a young girl who felt helpless and afraid, whose silence allowed her to be violated again and again. My first kiss was a man who never took my consent, and it disgusts me, every single day that I can do nothing to erase that.

So, if you take anything from this article, take from it to not do what I did. Silence is harmful. Speak out, encourage others to speak out. I thought that my silence would make things go away on their own; but silence had repercussions. Not just for me, but maybe for many others. Words have power. And please, please, don’t neglect your retainers (I made that mistake again too).

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