When Kinook, my Akita girl dog and I first me Dr. Ann McEwan, a veterinarian doctor who is also trained and functioning as a classical homeopath for pets, I was surprised and impressed with the vet’s approach to consulting my fur baby: instead of lifting the dog on the cold metal table, Dr. McEwan kneeled down on the floor to consult. Before touching Kinook, she greeted her and made an introductory friendly conversation: “Hi Kinook, I am your doctor. How are you?” Then she asked Kinook’s permission to touch her, and before she did, she first told her what she was going to do: “Now I’m going to poke your belly and feel”. “Now I’m going to smell your ears”. “Can you lift your front leg so I can look at your toes?”
This approach was not at all what I grew up with in my native Romania. Dogs were given instructions, short-worded orders, rewards and punishments: “No!” “Forbidden!” “Go to your bed!” “Come!” “We’re going for a walk!”. I remember the harshest of all: “Marche!” (From the French word for ‘go’) intended as “Get lost!”. I lived in the capital, Bucharest, and my dogs slept in bed with me, were well fed and walked daily, a much better fate then their countryside counterparts who spent their lives chained to a post outside the house.
And still, dogs were seen as objects, as an “it”. They weren’t treated as conscious beings in their own right, with awareness and personalities; but objectified extensions of us, their humans, who called ourselves “owners”. Yes, they were given food, veterinary care, and affection, but more like the kind of affection one gives to the doll or the teddy bear, not to a friend who has his or her own personality, preferences, and needs.
And then I realized another, more disturbing thing: in my native culture, children were treated the same as dogs: the property of the parents, and an objectified extension to the adults. We were subjected to slobbery kisses and embraces from sweaty visitors, and no-one would ask for our permission before being touched. It was unheard of. Medical doctors would poke at us - not only children, but also adults. Professional touch as intimate as a gynaecological examination was often conducted, when in hospitals, in the presence of a full class of practicing medical students, who were urged by their professors to stick two fingers in the patient’s vagina, without ever asking for the patient’s permission or cons
I watched Dr. McEwan talk to my dog with a kind of care and respect that I, as a child, didn't even know it existed, or dared to hope.
Personal boundaries define a conscious being as someone in his or her own right, to be respected and treated as such. Defining personal boundaries begins in childhood. Developing a healthy sense of self as an individual, autonomous being, begins in childhood.
Growing up in Romania I heard marvellous stories of another culture: Israel. Being Jewish, I had family members and friends’ family members in Israel; and there were folklore stories circulating among us Romanians about them: “Did you know that…?” Our eyes were widening in awe and disbelief: “Really?!?”
“Did you know that in Israel parents ask their children for consent when the doctor prescribes injections?”
“Yes, it’s true! The doctor says: ‘We must give little Shlomo an injection’, so the parent turns to little Shlomo and asks: ‘Little Shlomo, are you okay with getting an injection?’ And little Shlomo says: ‘No!’ So the parent turns towards the Doctor and asks: ‘Is there anything else that you can prescribe for him, Doctor, like, maybe a pill?’
Growing up as an objectified extension of the adults, discouraged us from having and expressing our own needs, wants and preferences; an objectified child learns to obey, and disconnects from any sense as a separate and whole self.
When my math tutor tried to kiss me saying: “You know, you have some qualities!” (I was sixteen and his wife was seven months pregnant”, all I could do was softly touch his arm, to block it, and turn my face away. Fortunately, he snapped out of his impulse, and promised that from now on, we would only do math. He also urged me to not tell anyone about what happened.
I did what I knew to do: I obeyed, and kept silent. I didn’t tell anyone about it.
Four years later I met a man at a dance in my university's discotheque. We dated and I felt anxious around him, but I didn't know how to listen to my gut feelings, or trust my instincts. Instead, I listened to his words, convinced that I was anxious because something was wrong with me.
One night he proposed a visit upstairs to his apartment. It was late, after midnight. I kept obeying his words and ignoring my gut, and I joined him. He urged me to keep my voice down, not to wake the old man - who my date said was his father - who sleeping and snoring on a couch in the living room. Down on the floor, in the entrance hallway, there were two pairs of small-sized women’s sandals. But there was no woman in sight in the house. My date led me to his bedroom, and persuaded me to undress, promising me that “nothing would happen”. I obeyed. He drank a few glasses of tzuika -plum eau-de-vie, and then he raped me.
I cried silently, not to wake the old man up.
When he was done, the man fell asleep. I looked through his ID papers and saw he was named differently than he had told me he was. I thought for a moment to steal his ID and take it to the police to complain, but for some reason, I didn’t. I got dressed and walked home.
For years after this rape I asked myself why was I silent. Why didn’t I scream, wake the old man up, and save myself the pain. What was wrong with me?
It wasn't until just a few years ago when someone posted an article on Facebook with parenting tips: “Don’t force your child to kiss, or hug, or touch anyone if they don’t want to. Teach them that their body is theirs, to do as they choose.”
That moment everything made sense: the priming of a girl with uninvited touch is a door open to rape.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not blame myself, or any rape victim. Rapists are despicable human beings, and that particular man was of the worst kind. His actions are reprehensible.
What I am saying is that cultivating strong and clear boundaries and a healthy sense of a separate self begins in childhood, and will later affect how an adult will behave in any conditions, including and especially under attack.
To defend oneself requires a sense of self. To stand up and speak up for oneself, requires a healthy sense of self, where self-preservation can kick-in when needed. Without a self, there is no self-defence. A self that is separate, with a mind - and a body! - of her own, who will fight back and kick in order to stay safe.
Or at the very least, scream.
© Tana Saler, September 2017