“It Takes A Village”: Afterword to the #LoveWITHAccountability Forum by Aishah Shahidah Simmons

I had big plans for writing the Afterword to the #LoveWITHAccountability forum, but the truth is I am worn out completely. In the spirit of transparency, I recently became consumed with so much internalized conflict about how my grandfather and also my father would come across in my mother’s courageous contribution to this forum that I couldn’t focus on how I would bring closure to this forum. I, the unapologetic BLACK FEMINIST, was initially unable to fully APPRECIATE that, per my 12th hour invitation to participate, my mother PUBLICLY held herself accountable in this forum. I was more worried that The Feminist Wire readers would think that my Pop-pop was a horrible person. He definitely did horrible things to me as a child but I do not believe he is a horrible person. I didn’t want readers to inquire why I didn’t invite my father to contribute to this forum. He and I are still on the journey. We are not in a place to publicly share about our process. I was still in protection mode.

As a result, I couldn’t accept the invaluable sacred gifts of my mother both privately and publicly articulating the decades long harm inflicted upon me, and deeply heartfelt apologies with meaning. As sister-survivor-comrade Luz Marquez-Benbow wrote in her article, “incest is some insidious sick shit.” The postscript that I wrote at the end of my “mother’s lament” was a brand new development in response to my deep angst. It was not a part of the original plan for this forum. As a result, I do not have the wherewithal to go any deeper right now. My gratitude for my mother pushing herself to get here on her and my journey is endless. I am personally reminded that it is never too late for accountability and healing.

My goal with the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire was to create a virtual space to both ignite and also continue dialogues about the taboo topic of child sexual abuse in diasporic Black communities in the wake of all of our heightened awareness about state sanctioned white supremacist violence committed against Black people and our communities. Twenty-nine intergenerational diasporic Black people disclosed and explored child sexual abuse, healing, justice, and love with accountability over a period of ten-days on The Feminist Wire. I’ve only been pregnant once in my life and had an abortion six-eight weeks later. Yet despite my lack of knowledge about carrying a pregnancy to term, I frequently used the analogy of being the thirty-four-week pregnant doula who actively engaged with supporting twenty-eight concurrent births. This was my journey with the #LoveWITHAccountability forum. This forum was hardcore work for many of the contributors to share their truths about what happened to them as children, and to also share their visions for a world free from sexual violence against children and adults in a public forum.

The #LoveWITHAccountability forum is a continuation of work that precedes this collaborative project, and it is also a beginning. As diverse as the forum is, I am clear that there is always room for more diversity. It is twenty-nine drops in the vast child sexual abuse ocean, which is not to take away from the individual and collective power of those profound drops. Every drop plays an important role in creating the waves of seismic change. It’s extremely important for me to acknowledge that there are additional marginalized voices from within the diasporic Black community that aren’t featured in this forum. This is a beginning.

Up until it was time to publish the articles and poems, I was a one-woman entity. This was intentional by my design and it has taken its toll. I thought I was going into the very deep end of the pool with this forum. Instead, I found myself in the middle of an ocean of trauma. Fortunately, I had many resources in the form of twenty-four years work with Dr. Clara Whaley-Perkins, a Black feminist licensed clinical psychologist and founder of the Life After Trauma Organization, a fourteen year practice of vipassana meditation, and a trusted inner circle of sister-sibling-brother friends during this process including Mia Mingus, Jennye Patterson, Heba Nimr, C. Nicole Mason, Marie Ali, Josslyn Luckett, Heidi R. Lewis, Tamura Lomax, Luz Marquez-Benbow, Mari Morales-Williams, Nikki Harmon, Yvonne M. Jones, Kai M. Green, Sonja Ebron, Evelyne Laurent-Perrault, Jonathan Crowley, and Molly Broeder Harris. Even with all of human and spiritual resources, there were several times when my head went under the water. I didn’t drown because of the support of resources. The waters are calm for now. I hope I can mentally and emotionally rest a while before the ferocious waves return because they will return. This is the nature of personally and professionally tackling child sexual abuse as an adult survivor. There are so many layers of residual trauma.

It took a village to make this forum a reality. I want to share gratitude for many individuals who directly and indirectly made this forum a reality. The #LoveWITHAccountabilty project probably would not exist without the support of the Just Beginnings Collaborative (JBC). I do not believe I could psychologically and emotionally focus on child sexual abuse day in and day out while simultaneously doing other non-related work to financially sustain me. JBC’s founding executive director Monique Hoeflinger was an important source of unwavering support during both the incubation period and the literal launch of both the project and the forum. John L Jackson, Dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2) enthusiastically welcomed me as a Visiting Scholar. His support of me and my work has also been unwavering.  Director Susan Sorenson invited me to be an Affiliated Scholar at the Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence, which affords me the gift of an opportunity to engage with graduate and undergraduate students whose research and scholarship is focused on addressing various forms of family violence.

All of the JBC individual fellows and two organizational grantees came together in the first quarter of 2016 and formed an ad-hoc collectively defined #SurvivorUnion.  We worked together to support each other both in response to an organizational crisis and with our individual projects, which focused on addressing and ending child sexual abuse. It hasn’t always been a crystal stair amongst us, and I am profoundly grateful for the community that we, Mia Mingus (Living Bridges Project),Luz Marquez-Benbow (Love in Sister/Brotherhood), Amita Swadhin (Mirror Memoirs), sujatha baliga(Impact Justice), Tashmica Torok (Firecracker Foundation), Sonya Shah (Project Ahimsa), Ignacio G. Rivera (The Heal Project), Ahmad Greene-Hayes (Children of Combahee), and Aqeela Sherrills co-created. I can’t imagine this journey without their presence, friendship, camaraderie, and support. Each of these individuals are doing incredible ground-breaking work to pull up the roots of child sexual abuse in marginalized communities. I continue to learn so much from them and their work, which inspires my own.

During the first six months of 2016, I had the amazing opportunity to be the Sterling Brown Visiting Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College. My Africana Studies colleagues Rhon Manigault-Bryant and James Manigault-Bryant invited me to Williams College and quickly became my friends and spirit family. It is because of them that I was very fortunate to work with my former student and research assistant Aunrika Tucker-Shabazz.  In addition to Rhon and James, I also created a really important close-knit community with VaNatta S. FordRob WhiteSophie Saint-Just and Daniel GoudrouffeRashida BraggsWill RawlsMeg BossongFerentz Lafargue, Vivian Huang, Merída RuaAmal Eqeiq and Anicia Timberlake. I was able to share my work in process with each of them, and I also shared a lot of much-needed laughter and fun times with them in the metropolis known as Williamstown, MA.

 

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I cannot think of any other online publication other than The Feminist Wire (TFW) where I would’ve been able to publish over twenty-five essays, reflections, poems on child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in diasporic Black communities for ten days. These pieces ranged from 700 to almost 4000 words. Since its co-founding by Tamura Lomax and Hortense Spillers in January 2010 and subsequent leadership by Tamura and her co-managing editors Monica J. Casper and Darnell L. MooreTFW has always gone deep beneath the surface with our work, most especially our online forums.

Since 2012, TFW has conducted multiple forums, allowing our readers to delve deep with TFW collective members and other writers on a wide range of topics, including, but not limited to: PalestineWomen’s Filmmakers Muslim Feminisms; VotingViolence Black (Academic) Women’s Health; World AIDS Day; Masculinities; Race, Racism, and Anti-Racism within Feminism;Assata Shakur and the Black Radical Tradition; the Aftermath of the (George Zimmerman) Trial;Feminist Theory: A College Forum Love As A Radical Act; Disabilities; Mass Incarceration and the Prison-Industrial Complex in honor of and featuring Mumia Abu-Jamal; Audre Lorde; Toni Cade Bambara; Climate Change and Feminist Environmentalisms; Campus Violence, Resistance, and Strategies for SurvivalShout Your Abortion; and June Jordan. The #LoveWITHAccountability forum is a part of TFW’s radical continuum.

There are very few, if any, online publications that provide the in-depth left of center, radical, multi-racial, pro-reproductive justice, pro-LGBTQ, anti-imperialist, anti-white supremacist feminist writings that The Feminist Wire has consistently provided for free. This volunteer work of curating, writing, editing, and publishing is almost always completed in our second and third shifts after working jobs, partnering, parenting, and/or, for many of us, being engaged activists for social change in our societies and in the world. I did not call upon support from my dear TFW comrades-friends until it was time to publish the forum because this was the first time that, thanks to funding received from the Just Beginnings Collaborative, I could solely focus on the forum work all day and every day. With that shared, Heather TurcotteTamura LomaxHeidi R. LewisHeather Laine TalleyMonica J. CasperTC TolbertJoe Osmundson, and TFW’s Editorial Interns Jazlynn Andrews and Angela Kong each played important roles with the publication of the forum. There’s the literal work of uploading, copy editing, resizing of photos, tagging, and hyperlinking. Then there are the personal extended texts, emails, and voicemail messages to check in and consistently send love and emotional support along the way that underscores the TFW community building that many of us work hard to sustain through the cyberwaves in the midst of it all.

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My sister-friend C. Nicole Mason reminded me that I do not walk on water and my well-being would be at stake if I tried to do everything including promoting the forum. She connected me with two incredible Black women who helped me with creating the visuals for my work. Kathryn Bowser created the gorgeous #LoveWITHAccountability logos. Maura Chanz and her company Glitter and Hustle handled all of #LoveWITHAccountability’s social media sites. She created the beautiful images that brought some of Aunrika’s research to visual life. Maura also lifted excerpts from each of the contributors’ words to create beautiful collages with their images. The website was designed by my dear friend Jennifer Patterson who five years ago played a pivotal role with igniting my journey to address my own child sexual abuse.

Sister Valerie Ann Johnson invited me to participate in the Africana Women’s Studies’ inaugural “Heal the Healer” week-long residency at Bennett College. The residency unexpectedly coincided with the second week of the forum, which turned out to be a gift. My time at Bennett College was a much needed respite in the company of sistren, and for that I am most appreciative.

There aren’t any words that will articulate the depth of my deep gratitude and love for each of the individual twenty-nine #LoveWITHAccountability forum contributors who trusted me enough to take this public journey with me. It wasn’t easy for most of the contributors. Everyone’s plates were already full and yet, they accepted my invitation to revisit excruciatingly painful experiences in their lives and envision what accountability for child sexual abuse can look like. Despite my huge ask without a lot of time to reflect, re-member, process, write, and publicly share, they pushed through to participate. Their commitment to this forum is powerful commentary on their unanimity that we must break the silence and address child sexual violence in our diasporic communities.

The forum contents are listed below in chronological order.  There are over twenty-five individual archived road maps from which readers can explore and decide which routes, if any, resonate with part of their journeys.

The movement to end child sexual abuse is not a one size fits all movement. #LoveWITHAccountability is a call to action that doesn’t end with this forum, as there are many more road maps in multiple communities.

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Publication Timeline for #LoveWITHAccountability forum:

  1. Aishah Shahidah Simmons, Digging Up the Roots: An Introduction to the #LoveWITHAccountability Forum
  2. Chevara Orrin, Soul Survivor: Reimagining Legacy
  3. Danielle Lee Moss, Ed.D,  Love Centered Accountability
  4. Aunrika Tucker-Shabazz, How I Built Community While Researching Accountability
  5. Ahmad Greene-Hayes, “The Least of These”: Black Children, Sexual Abuse, and Theological Malpractice
  6. Kai M. Green, Ph.D., Fast
  7. e nina jay, a place to live
  8. Thema Bryant-Davis, Ph.D., Our Silence Will Not Save Us: Considering Survivors and Abusers
  9. Adenike A. Harris and Peter J. Harris, [VIDEO] Pops’nAde: a Courageous Daughter & Her NonAbusive Father on Loving Lessons, Living Legacies (L)earned after Sexual Violence
  10. Worokya Duncan, Ed.D.,  Unfinished
  11. Zoe Flowers, Violation and Making The Road By Walking It
  12. Ignacio G. Rivera, Accountability to Ourselves and Our Children
  13. Tashmica Torok, Casting Aspersions
  14. Cyree Jarelle Johnson, Social Silence & Child Sexual Abuse
  15. Alicia Sanchez Gill, A Network of Care
  16. MiKeiya Morrow, We need Speak7 because Black Children Matter and Child Sexual Abuse Thrives in Silence!
  17. Liz S. Alexander, In My Mother’s Name: Restorative Justice for Survivors of Incest
  18. Tonya Lovelace Sunset: Seeking True Accountability After All of These Years
  19. Nicole Mason, Ph.D., Oh, to Be Free Again: Love, Accountability & Bodily Integrity in Response to Child Sexual Abuse
  20. Sikivu Hutchinson, Ph.D., The Coiled Spring First Grader Deep Inside: Sexual Violence and Restorative Justice
  21. Cecelia Falls, Self Love with Accountability
  22. Loretta J. Ross, Paying it Forward Instead of Looking Backwards
  23. Qui Dorian Alexander, Thoughts on Discipline, Justice, Love and Accountability: Redefining Words to Reimagine Our Realities
  24. Kimberly Gaubault, Safe Space: The Language of Love
  25. Thea Matthews, activist, poet, prison abolitionist, human rights advocate, incest and rape survivor
  26. Kebo Drew, It's the Whispers
  27. Ferentz Lafargue, Ph.D., On Moving Forward
  28. Luz Marquez-Benbow, Who is Accountable to the Black Latinx Child?
  29. Lynn Roberts, Ph.D., Becoming Each Other’s Harvest
  30. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Ph.D., with Aishah Shahidah Simmons, LOVE WITH ACCOUNTABILITY: A Mother's Lament & A Daughter's Postscript
  31. Aishah Shahidah Simmons, "It Takes A Village": the Afterword to the #LoveWITHAccountability forum

May we all envision and work diligently to co-create a world without violence for the future generations…


Photo Credit: Daniel Goudrouffe

Photo Credit: Daniel Goudrouffe

Aishah Shahidah Simmons is a Black feminist lesbian incest and rape survivor, award-winning documentary filmmaker, published writer, international lecturer, and activist. She is a Just Beginnings Collaborative Fellow, and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, where she is also affiliated with the Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence. She is the creator of the film NO! The Rape Documentary and the #LoveWITHAccountability project. An associate editor of The Feminist Wire, Aishah has screened her work, guest lectured, and facilitated workshops and dialogues to racially and ethnically diverse audiences at colleges and universities, high schools, conferences, international film festivals, rape crisis centers, battered women shelters, community centers, juvenile correctional facilities, and government sponsored events across the United States and Canada, throughout Italy, in South Africa, France, England, Croatia, Hungary, The Netherlands, Mexico, Kenya, Malaysia, India, Switzerland, St. Croix U.S.V.I, Germany, and Cuba. You can follow both #LoveWITHAccountability and Aishah on twitter @loveaccountably and @Afrolez.

LOVE WITH ACCOUNTABILITY: A Mother’s Lament & A Daughter’s Postscript by Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Ph.D., with Aishah Shahidah Simmons

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Ph.D., with Aishah Shahidah Simmons

A Mother’s Lament

My name is Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons and I am the mother of my only child/daughter, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who was sexually molested by her (step)grandfather from when she was 10 until she was 12years old. When Aishah told me that her grandfather was sexually molesting her, I did not believe her. I told her that she was having a bad dream and that her beloved Pop-pop would never do anything like that.  He presented as an upstanding family man, hard worker, proud provider for his wife, Aishah’s grandmother, who he loved dearly and tenderly cared for. My daughter’s grandmother had a lingering illness and did not work outside the home.  She doted on Aishah, her “Pie” as she called her. For her, the sun rose and shined on Aishah. The feeling was mutual between the two of them; my daughter loved her grandmother dearly; I thought more than she loved me and I was a bit jealous of their relationship at times.

But I also felt so fortunate that my daughter had grandparents who cherished her and I felt that she was SAFE staying with them when I had to be out of town for long stretches due to my job which had me traveling across the country and sometimes internationally during the course of my work. Ineeded my daughter’s grandparents’ home to be SAFE so that I could travel and work without worrying about her well-being, knowing that she was loved and PROTECTED by both grandparents (or so I thought).

For my daughter to tell me that her grandfather was sneaking into her bedroom, late at night, and was touching and feeling her vagina and forcing her to kiss him in the basement were  monstrous acts beyond my imagination.  It could not possibly be true, I thought.  It was he who drove me, Aishah and her father home from the hospital after her birth. He carried her in his arms as her father wheeled me to the car in a wheelchair. I did not believe it! I told her so.  If it were true, massive changes had to occur; changes that would disrupt my life.  I hoped that it was just a bad dream and that the matter would go away. Oh how I wanted/needed it to go away!

It did not go away! My daughter insisted that this was happening. When I would question her about the facts, she would be perplexed about why I didn’t believe her and cry hysterically. I finally began to believe her but I did not know what to do. While I was becoming outraged at the possibility that my daughter was being sexually violated by her grandfather, disgracefully, I was also concerned about what would happen to my job if she could not stay with her grandparents when I had to be on the road. Her father and I were separated at that time and I had serious doubts about leaving Aishah in his care for extended periods of time because of our ideological differences about child rearing. The issue of how to raise Aishah was the one big contention between her dad and me and unfortunately, this possibly played a role in my inaction during Aishah’s ordeal at the hands of her grandfather.

I told her dad that Aishah’s grandfather, his stepfather, was coming into her bedroom late at night and sexually molesting her.  He, too, did not believe it, saying that there was no way his stepdad would do anything like this. I shared that I, too, had not believed it initially but that Aishah was so insistent that it was not a dream, that she was not making it up; that I now believed it was true. I said that we had to do something to stop it, but what?  As noted above, Aishah’s father and I had been separated for several years. He was also dependent on his parents providing child care for our daughter when either one of us was on the road. As a busy international human rights activist and labor organizer, he also traveled a lot. Also, as I mentioned, his mother had a serious illness and was totally dependent on her husband for her comfortable life style and the excellent health insurance (via his job) that provided the doctors who, we all believed, were keeping her alive.  Aishah’s dad kept saying it would kill his mother to tell her that her husband was sexually molesting her granddaughter and that we had to keep it a secret from her AT ALL COSTS!

What is so outrageous about my and Aishah’s dad’s behavior was that we were equally, if not more concerned, it seems in retrospect, about his mother’s wellbeing,my jobhis jobour Movement work and our reliance on them for childcare than we were about the tremendous harm being done to our daughter!

After much hang wringing and discussion, Aishah’s father said he would speak to his stepfather, warn him that we knew and tell him that he had better never touch her again. I agreed to this plan. Later, I was told that this conversation had occurred. What I find shocking and shameful about my behavior is that I made myself content with this and never spoke to her grandfather myself. I am dismayed that I did not confront him myself, me the activist referred to as an Amazon by some of my male SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) comrades because I instituted one of the only sexual harassment policies on a project in Laurel, Mississippi that I directed during the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964 when I was barely twenty:

Everyone on my project had to go through an orientation that included a segment on sexual abuse and were told that they would be exposed and dismissed if they committed such crimes. As a result of that I became known as an Amazon and many of my SNCC male comrades refused to work on the project…”[1]

I have been the victim of sexual assault on several occasions and risked life and limb to stop these attempted rapes: Firstly, from my Morehouse “Brothers” while a student at Spelman College. I had also fought off a high Nigerian Official who was on a State Department Tour of the Country, I helped to host as a Spelman student. The most terrifying attempted sexual assault and battering was by one of the first African American Football Players with a major NFL Team, the Houston Oilers during my years at Spelman. He also tried to run me down with his car after I escaped from his cluthches. The most painful of all sexual assault attempts I endured was from a fellow SNCC “Comrade,” who I had to fight off at the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project Orientation in Oxford, Ohio. This was by someone I admired and trusted as Aishah had admired and trusted her grandfather. But even more painful than the actual attempted rape by a SNCC comrade, was that when I reported him to a SNCC official, I was told that they (SNCC Leadership) did not have time to deal with atrivial matter such as this. Adding insult to injury, I was told: “Why are you making such a fuss; you should have given him some!”  I cried myself to sleep that night and a few nights after as I now had to add worry about being raped by a fellow comrade in addition to dogging bullets from Klansmen and other white racists who had vowed to kill all of us who were going to Mississippi that summer.

In spite of having endured these sexual assaults, I, in reality, did nothing to SAVE my daughter from being sexually molested in her grandparents’ home by a family member, someone I thought she was SAFE with.  WHY? This is a question I cannot answer to this very day. It troubles me deeply that I cannot explain my inaction.

Additionally, Aishah’s father and I agreed that he was supposed to spend nights at her grandparents’ home when our daughter stayed overnight, which was often, to act as a deterrent to any additional molestation. I’m not sure that this plan was adhered to. Yet, I continued traveling for my job, leaving Aishah there while deluding myself into believing that the situation was taken care of.

This was a LIE!  It was not taken care of. Yes, my life went on as usual as did Aishah’s dad’s. The only person left to suffer in fear and anguish year after year was, Aishah! What happened to her, and her dad’s and my inaction has haunted her and my relationship for thirty-seven years!  Aishah has had to struggle without my understanding and support for what happened to her beyond the molestation for almost four decades.  This is because what is even more outrageous than my not intervening directly with Pop-pop, is that her father and I expected her to continue to go to her grandparents’ home, sleep in that same bedroom where she was molested, help out with her grandmother’s care after she developed Altzheimer’s , spending days and nights with the man who molested her for two-years, for three decades after the sexual violation!

Oh, yes, I apologized after she began to lash out at me for leaving her there all those years and for tacitly expecting her to function with her grandfather as if nothing had happened long after he stopped sexually molesting her. As far as Aishah knew, neither her dad nor I had done ANYTHING!  On the surface nothing had changed between us and him. As far as she knew we had done nothing to end the nightmare, nor was he publicly or privately censured in any way for his crime, by me.

For these decades, I could not understand why Aishah could not “just get over it!” I was in denial about the great harm that had been done during and long after the actual molestations took place. There was the great harm of Aishah’s father and me acting normal around this man. Never letting on to other family members that he was not as he appeared, but was someone who caused our daughter great harm, who we were protecting for our own selfish reasons. To add insult to injury, we expected our daughter to keep it a secret; to never tell her grandmother (it would kill her we kept repeating over and over!) nor all of the other family members who regularly gathered to celebrate birthdays and holidays over these three decades.  We acted as if all was normal! I never understood the tremendous harm I was inflicting on my daughter. What is worse, I never thought about what she must be going through at all those parties, dinners and gatherings held there. We wanted her to put it behind her; to forget about it; to not upset the happy family. I did not understanduntil less than three months ago why Aishah was still angry with me; why our relationship was so troubled.  I was oblivious to the fact that the harm continued way beyond the two years she was being actively molested.

As a Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and Human Rights Activist, I am shocked and ashamed of myself.  I am ashamed that I let my only child, a woman child, suffer all these years in silence.  I am ashamed that I did NOTHING, really, to take her out of the horrible situation she endured during and long after the molestations occurred by wanting her to keep QUIET; to keep it SECRET! To go their regularly and act as if nothing had happened. I don’t know how I did this!  I am just now admitting and coming to terms with my INACTION with this GREAT EVIL that I covered up and expected Aishah to cover up!  I am just – thirty-seven years later – coming to terms with the terrible spiritual, psychic, emotional and physical toll that this has taken on Aishah for almost four decades.  I am just now becoming ACCOUNTABLE to her for the LOVE I have always proclaimed that I have for her, my daughter.

I am so sad about the overt and covert harm that I caused my only child.  I am grateful that in spite of this great harm I have caused, Aishah has persevered, rose like a Phoenix from the ashes and held me ACCOUNTABLE for my silence and cover up of a monstrous evil.  She has broken silences with her film NO! The Rape Documentary,  with her numerous published writings in print and online, her national and international lectures, workshops, and now, her project#LoveWITHAccountability, I can only pray that she forgives me and that I continue to learn from her example, her writings and the personal experiences she shares with me on how a parent should act when their child is sexually abused:

First and foremost: Believe Her! (or Him) Check it out! Confront the perpetrator

Secondly: Remove her/him from the site of the molestation and do not make the child continue to go there and act as if everything is normal!

Thirdly: Charge the perpetrator with the crime to family members and possibly the authorities unless he/she makes amends, especially within the family unit!

Fourthly: Get professional help for your child, other family members and yourself!

I am proud of and salute Aishah’s work to stop this horrible scourge of sexual violence against girls and women that is a pandemic mbers in this country and around the world. Thank Goddess and Gods, Aishah is silent NO More.

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A Daughter’s Postscript

After talking extensively with my mother in response to my deep feelings of unexplained irrational guilt about a one-sided view of my grandfather in her “peace,” we both agreed that I should write a postscript.

What happened to me as a 10-12 year old child was egregious and it became horrific because nothing was ever done. My grandfather is definitely guilty of sexually molesting me for a period of two years. However, he is not the only one who caused me severe harm. As my mother shared, I told her about my molestation while it has happening. Initially she didn’t (want to) believe me but ultimately, she eventually told my dad. They were bystanders who never did anything. I was left to navigate my way by myself as a child who became an adult.

This is not the sum total of who Pop-pop (my grandfather) was or who my parents were and are. Up until writing my “Removing the Mask: AfroLez®femcentric[2] Silence Breaker”chapter in Jennifer Patterson‘s edited anthology Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices from Within the Anti-Violence Movement, I only wrote about my parents in glowing terms without ever exposing their contradictions. They are both prominently featured in my film NO!. My father is also the celebrated subject in my short video In My Father’s House, which is about his unwavering support of my lesbian coming out process. For me, my life is about the profound contradictions and deep complexities.

Nana (my grandmother) wasn’t ever told what her husband did to me. She was my closest confidante up until my first year in college when she began the initial stages of developingAlzheimer’s disease. I didn’t tell her and neither did her son, my father, or her ex-daughter in law, my mother. If it weren’t  for her husband, my Pop-pop, Nana would’ve been in a nursing home when she developed Alzheimer’s disease. Despite the fact that she was mentally unaware of her current reality, her husband was her literal savior, and simultaneously, he was my terrorist when I was a defenseless 10-12 year old girl. What would it have meant for my parents to hold him accountable? Would he have admitted to his molesting me? Would my grandmother have believed me?

I will never know those answers.

Throughout my twenties and my very early thirties, during my grandmother’s demise, my grandfather became the celebrated hero for being a dedicated and committed husband who carried the lion’s share of his wife’s care. In my eyes, he was the flawed hero whose painful contradictionswere only acknowledged in private when I brought them up with my parents.

After over a decade of living with Alzheimer’s disease, Nana only spent the last three days of her life in the hospital prior to her becoming an ancestor. This is because of my grandfather’s unwavering commitment to his wife. It was during her most unconscious state in her hospital room in late December 2001 that I laid my head in her lap and sobbed. I finally told her what I never could tell her when she was conscious and alert.

Without ANY hesitation, I celebrated my grandfather for ALL that he did for his wife when I wrote and delivered Nana’s eulogy at her funeral. After her burial in December 2001, I continued to lovingly engage with my grandfather until shortly after I played a pivotal role in saving his life nine years later in March 2010. It was then that the weight of a mask  that I wore for 31-years almost suffocated me. I began taking the steps to yank it off and destroy it.

I was angry because the assumption was that I should “be there” for my grandfather during his critical time of need. And while I was there and I believe would do it again, I could no longer accept this inadvertent belief that I must sacrifice myself for the man who terrorized me and  the man and woman who allowed it to happen. That was no longer acceptable.

To my father’s credit, he said, “Okay.” He didn’t make me feel guilty about my decision. He supported it. Without any input from me, he also believed it was his responsibility to tell both my aunt and my cousin (her daughter) the reasons why I completely disappeared from any and all activity connected to my grandfather’s care. My grandfather became an ancestor in February 2011 and after much thought and deliberation, I did not attend his funeral.[3]

How do I heal from 37-years of intentional and inadvertent denial from two beloved people, my divorced parents, who did not walk their human rights defending talk when it came to addressing my child sexual molestation?  Since late August 2016, this is the question that my mother and I are experientially learning minute by minute of every single day by day without attachments to the outcome. It is not a parallel journey, but my belief is that my father is also pushing himself to face what feels like the unfaceable. This is our familial version of #LoveWITHAccountability.

End Notes

[1] NO! The Rape Documentary. Aishah Shahidah Simmons. AfroLez® Productions, 2006. DVD.

[2] Coined in 1990, by Aishah Shahidah Simmons, AfroLez®femcentric defines the culturally conscious role of Black women who identify as Afrocentric, Lesbian, and Feminist.

[3] Simmons, Aishah Shahidah. “Removing the Mask: AfroLez®femcentric[2] Silence Breaker.”Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices from Within the Anti-Violence Movement, Ed. Jennifer Patterson. New York: Avalon 2016. Page 31. Print.


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Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer of African American Studies and Religion at the University of Florida. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Religious Studies and a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies from Temple University. Her primary academic focus is on Islam with a specific focus on Islamic Law and its impact on Muslim women. She conducted research in Jordan, Egypt, Palestine and Syria on the Shari’ah’s impact on women, and the contemporary women’s movements in those countries to change these laws while on Fulbright and USAID Fellowships.

She currently teaches Courses on Islam, Women and Islam,Modern Islamic Thought, African American Religious traditionsand Race Religion and Rebellion.  Her manuscript, Muslim Feminism: A Call for Reform is under review and she is under contract with The New Press, for  ISLAM does not equal FUNDAMENTALISM.  She has published several articles including: “From Little Memphis Girl to Mississippi Amazon,” in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts By Women in SNCC, Holsaert, Norman et al (eds.) University of Illinois Press; “Martin Luther King Revisited: A Black Power Feminist Pays Homage to the King,” in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion; “Striving for Muslim Women’s Rights—Before and Beyond Beijing: An African American Perspective” in: Windows of Faith: Muslim Women Scholar-Activists of North America.  G. Webb (ed.), Syracuse University Press 2000; “Are We Up To The Challenge?  The Need For a Radical Re-Ordering Of The Islamic Discourse On Women” in: Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism. O. Safi (ed.) London: One World Press 2003); and others.

In addition to her academic and spiritual studies she has a long history in the area of civil rights, human rights and peace work. For 23 years, Simmons was on the staff of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker peace, justice, human rights, and international development organization.  During her early adult years, Simmons was active with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), becoming active during the Sit-Ins as a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga. This involvement led to her leaving college to work full time with SNCC in the summer of 1964 as a volunteer in the historic Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. She is the recipient of the Gainesville, Florida’s 2010 Rosa Parks Quiet Courage Award, the co-recipient, with Aishah Shahidah Simmons, of the  Scarritt-Bennett Center’s 2010 Ann L. Reskovac Courage Award,  and the Gainesville Commission on Women’s 2011 International Women’s Human Rights Award. She is featured in the internationally acclaimed award-winning  NO! The Rape Documentary by her daughter Aishah Shahidah Simmons, and the award-winning PBS Documentaries This Far By Faith by Valerie Linson and Freedom Summer by Stanley Nelson.


Photo Credit: Daniel Goudrouffe

Photo Credit: Daniel Goudrouffe

Aishah Shahidah Simmons is a Black feminist lesbian incest and rape survivor, award-winning documentary filmmaker, published writer, international lecturer, and activist. She is a Just Beginnings Collaborative Fellow, and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, where she is also affiliated with the Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence. She is the creator of the film NO! The Rape Documentary and the #LoveWITHAccountability project. An associate editor of The Feminist Wire, Aishah has screened her work, guest lectured, and facilitated workshops and dialogues to racially and ethnically diverse audiences at colleges and universities, high schools, conferences, international film festivals, rape crisis centers, battered women shelters, community centers, juvenile correctional facilities, and government sponsored events across the United States and Canada, throughout Italy, in South Africa, France, England, Croatia, Hungary, The Netherlands, Mexico, Kenya, Malaysia, India, Switzerland, St. Croix U.S.V.I, Germany, and Cuba. You can follow both #LoveWITHAccountability and Aishah on twitter @loveaccountably and @Afrolez.

Becoming Each Other’s Harvest by Lynn Roberts

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By Lynn Roberts

Throughout my writing of this essay, I have grappled with what it means to break the silences surrounding childhood sexual abuse.  My own silence began when I was around 6 years young and, while I have broken my silence several times since, I have also retreated back into various forms of silence over the course of my 55 years in this world as I know it.   I am not certain if my initial silence was a response to being coerced by my brother (who is four years older) to engage in sexual acts without my consent, to the violence I witnessed almost nightly between my parents, or some combination of these events.  Or maybe it was the case of child sexual abuse that shook our entire community when an 8 years young Black girl was abducted, brutally raped and murdered; allegedly by a Black man who was a friend of her family.  She was the little sister of my first crush and the first boy I ever kissed.  At the time, I was terrified that what happened to her could happen to me, to any of us Black girls.  My voice became one of the few things I could control in my childhood.  No one could make me speak if I did not want to.  When I did finally choose to speak – around the age of 13 – I spoke clearly and confidently of many things and my parents were so pleased to hear my voice, that I was not reprimanded for the occasional sprinkling of curse words (many of which I learned from them). But I still did not speak about the coerced sexual interactions between my brother and I.  While I don’t recall my brother ever telling me not to tell anyone, it was clear in my own mind that if I dared to tell anyone, chances were, I would not be heard or worse.

And so it is with the power of silence to betray us.  While I can now wholeheartedly embrace and endorse Audre Lorde’s admonition “Your silence will not protect you”, there were times in my life when I thought it did protect me.  My silence had protected me from the feelings that result from not being heard after I have been harmed and did choose to talk about it.  It protected me when I endured being raped while a college student and feared first for my life and then being blamed by my mother for being raped.  Such feelings can be just as deep and soul taking as the ones that result from not being protected from harm in the first place.

. . . and when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive.[1]

It took me forty-something years to share my childhood sexual abuse with my mother (albeit I never shared my college rape) and, just as I could have predicted, she did not hear, let alone comfort me.  Instead, she expressed her anger at me for not telling her then – when I was a young child – at a time when she could have done something about it.  My waiting all those years to speak about it, she reasoned, had led my brother to withdraw from the family (and specifically her) out of his supposed shame and guilt.  My mother might have been right.  After all, my brother did not have any contact with any of us for several years, but the only conclusion I could draw from her reaction was that my mother valued my brother more than she valued me.  It was very painful, and all too familiar.  In my family and in my observations of the world, Black women and girls have often been expected to put the needs of our husbands, our sons and brothers before our own.  What right did I have to bring up my harm when my brother was already broken from the blatant abuse and disregard of living as a Black cis-man in a White Supremacist society?  Of course, I knew that as a Black woman living in that same society, I had every right to bring it up, but how could I expect my mother to acknowledge my right to do so if she had not fully recognized her own?

With this in mind, I recently asked my mother, now 85, about her own experience with child sexual abuse.  I had only vague snippets of my own memory of what she had told me many times during my childhood, if only to strike fear in me when going outside the house to play.  She recounted for me what it felt like to be 9 years old, alone and frightened as a Black girl growing up in racially segregated Los Angeles in the 1940’s.  I already knew that her child sexual abuse involved a White man and a stranger, not a family member.  I did not know that like me (or I like her), she had never told her mother.  This time, my mother and I were able to imagine together what it would be like if she had told someone and, more specifically, if she had told her mother.  With my urging, she practiced aloud with me what she would have wanted her mother to say to her as a child to make her feel heard, or do to assure her protection if she had broken her silence.  I silently wished that my mother would ask me to do the same, but I was not prepared to break my own silence and ask for what I needed.

Accountability without Further Harm

I believe that ‘Love WITH Accountability’ should lead us to healing and is necessary not because we wish punishment or harm to the person who has violated us, but because we seek to live in a world without child sexual abuse and other violence.  In a world with Love and Accountability, we can envision our own child self – that child who existed before the harm – or the adult we would have become if the harm had never happened to us in the first place.  When we have Love with Accountability we can ask for what we need, even many years and decades after the harm.  Through Love with Accountability we can envision the person who sexually abused us (or a loved one) as a child as still dwelling in this world (or family, or community) with us and not burning in hell or locked up for life in a prison cell. We see them as also capable of healing and less likely or no longer capable of causing further harm to us or anyone else.

Healing Happens in Relationship and Community

I have not felt a need to claim nor to shape my own identity out of what has happened to me or to label others based on what they have done that has harmed me.  I do not refer to my brother as a perpetrator any more than I consider myself to be a victim or even a survivor of child sexual abuse. This does not mean that I deny his actions had a significant impact on me.  Up until the child sexual abuse I experienced, I was developing what I now consider was a very healthy sense of my sexuality.  I can remember masturbating without shame in private.  When I was five and was caught “playing doctor” with my same age childhood playmates, our mothers did not shame nor punish us.  All that changed and I was shamed into silence after being told that incest was wrong – something only backwoods PWT (yes, my parents used that kind of language then) did, not educated Black folks like us.  It did not occur to me then that because he was four years older, my brother was exercising power over me and that was also wrong.  I now realize that this early sexual contact without my consent might have shaped not only my intimate relationships, but also most, if not all, of my personal and professional relationships since.  Maybe it contributed to my always being the one pursued rather than the one to initiate a relationship with someone I liked.  Maybe it made me question then (and even now) whether I was sexually attracted to: boys or girls, both, or neither.  Surely it has contributed to my heightened ability and propensity to anticipate, empathize and respond to the needs of others long before my own, whether those others are family, friends, colleagues, or even strangers.   Even now, I am more concerned about how my writing this peace will help or harm others rather than my own need to speak about this.

Twenty years before I told my mother, my brother and I talked about his abuse of me. Neither of us had the tools nor the wisdom necessary to hold him accountable for his actions.  With the silence finally broken, I felt some relief, but I was not healed.  I figured we would always be family and that his harmful actions, however un-reconciled, would not change that.  Indeed, for the second time during our adulthood, my brother has come to live with me.  Had I only seen him as the perpetrator of my childhood, I am certain I would have felt unsafe welcoming him into my home, especially with my daughters, and now my young granddaughter also living with me.  Instead, I have viewed this as an on-going opportunity for my brother and I to continue our journey towards healing from all the harm caused, witnessed and experienced during our childhood.

That said, my practice of ‘Love WITH Accountability’ requires that my granddaughters and grandsons must be given the tools they need to tell someone should their sexual and bodily autonomy ever be threatened without stifling their natural sexual curiosity and explorations.  Just as importantly, the adults who care for them must also be given the tools they need to hear them, to protect them and to hold other adults accountable.

As my mother and I talked that afternoon, and on numerous occasions with my brother, I have discovered it is in these moments that all of our strengths and weaknesses as individuals and as a family are revealed and healing becomes possible.  When we categorize and label the members of our family and community based solely on their transgressions against us, it removes the historical, familial, and social contexts in which all of our human interactions occur, freezes our most horrendous actions in time, stymies our opportunities for growth, and offers little hope that we can stop or prevent future harm.  The pursuit and practice of ‘Love WITH Accountability’ that I continually strive for as a parent is different than what I have experienced and strive for with my brother or an elder parent.  I have learned that there can be different pathways to Love with Accountability that are unique to each individual, each family, each community and the circumstances of the harm.The man convicted of raping and killing the baby sister of my childhood friends was sentenced to life in prison and continued to claim his innocence six years ago when he appealed to the state Supreme Court to review the case with support of DNA evidence obtained byThe Innocence Project.  The original verdict was upheld and, unless he has since died, he is now 71 years old – having spent the past 43 years in a state maximum security prison.  I wish more than anything that this beautiful Black child would have been better protected and free to walk to a friend’s house in her own neighborhood without harm, as much as I wish for certainty that the person who sexually abused and killed her could be held accountable for his actions while also being treated for his own afflictions.  He, too, was a child once, perhaps with a family in need of healing.

Crafting New Tools to Dismantle, Envision and Re-Build

While we must continually strive to dismantle the patriarchy, White Supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia that undergird childhood sexual abuse, we must simultaneously build a new foundation of families and communities strong enough to ensure the safety and well being of all our children.  Every child is not as blessed as young Zuri to have a parent like spoken word artist and activist Staceyann Chinn teaching her that No means NO! That is what makes this forum so critical and why we must use every organizing, educational, cultural, artistic and social media tool at our disposal to counter the hegemony of rape culture that pervades American society from the cradle to the grave.  Let us envision a society that does not empower the carceral state to intervene in the affairs of our families and communities, but instead builds Black Feminist magical spaces for multi-generational families to gather and be healed from the multiple harms of systemic oppression, especially child sexual abuse.  Inspired by the writings of Toni Cade Bambara and Audre Lorde and quoting one of her students, bell hooks describes this magic in her book, Sisters of the Yam:

healing occurs through testimony, through gathering together everything available to you and reconciling.[2]

The beauty and promise of approaching child sexual abuse as preventable, and as a family and community crisis rather than as a secret or a crime is that it allows us to see and embrace each person involved as wounded and in need of our support and guidance rather than our judgment and punishment.  When this support is provided with Love and Accountability, then we are each also more capable of healing from our hurt, reconciling our anger, and further evolving as human beings.  I am reminded and take to heart the words of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks pulled from her powerful ode to freedom fighter Paul Robeson:

“We are each other’s harvest,
We are each other’s business,
We are each other’s magnitude
and bond.”[3]

[1] Lorde, Audre. “A Litany for Survival” in The Black Unicorn Poems. W.W. Norton. 1995

[2] hooks, bell. Sisters of the yam: Black women and self-recovery. Boston, MA: South End Press; 1993; p.17.

[3] Gwendolyn Brooks. Family Pictures. Detroit, MI: Broadside Press; 1971: 19.


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Lynn Roberts, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Community Health and Social Sciences Program of the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy in Harlem.  She earned her BS in Human Development from Howard University and her PhD in Human Service Studies from Cornell University.  She has served on the board of directors of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and, most recently, Black Women’s Blueprint. Prior to CUNY, she designed, implemented and evaluated several programs for women, youth and families in NYC. She identifies as a Womanist/Black Feminist scholar activist, mother, and grandmother.

Who is Accountable to the Black Latinx Child? by Luz Marquez-Benbow

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By Luz Marquez-Benbow

The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey of 2010, states that 1 in 7 Latinas experience rape at some point in their lifetime.

I am one of the seven.

When I share my history of childhood sexual abuse, I am often asked if my brother ever asked for forgiveness or why I still engage with my family? Frankly, I never gave a fuck about an apology for such a gross violent act. Additionally, I, like many incest survivors, struggle with family and guilt, because I never wanted to let go of my family. Most of my thoughts were stuck on the “why’s,” and “what if’s.” As for forgiving myself, this is a life-long process. Forgiveness is complicated by all of the societal sanctioned victim-blaming that occurs on a daily basis. I did forgive myself for thinking that these horrific violations happened to me because in my family, I was “La Prieta” (“the Dark One”).

Despite doing everything my mom told me to do including:  wearing shorts under my skirts/dresses, not sitting on any men’s laps, never be alone in the company of a stranger, and to pray, I was still sexually abused.

I wondered, who should pay for the cause of my sexual trauma at the early age of seven:

  • My mom who failed to believe me?
  • My oldest brother who is more than six years my senior who abused me?
  • My community for holding women and girls accountable for the sexual victimization many of us experience within our own communities?
  • My Puerto Rican culture whose anti-blackness deemed me “beautiful for a negra linda con pelo bueno” (beautiful for a pretty Black girl with good hair)?
  • My Black nationalist movement which fails to acknowledge ALL OF ME…my womanhood; yet, I am called “Queen.”?

I have been in denial about my need for accountability for a long time. Like some survivors, I have struggled internally with these questions, but I never uttered the words out loud; let alone written them anywhere. And yet, here I am in this public forum giving voice for the need for LoveWITHAccountability!

Living a double consciousness is a reality for many incest survivors because it enables us to maintain familial ties, even after the sexual abuse occurred. As a young person, my double consciousness made me very angry. The only way I could stop from harming others or from committing suicide was to use drugs. I was angry at my oldest brother, my mother’s boyfriend, and my mother. I was angry at god, the orishas, y la mano de Azabache (derived from my African and Arawak Spiritual traditions, Boricuas believe that the hand of Azabache is a protector of children); and every fucking being that is supposed to protect children and yet, fails miserably.

I have lived a drug free life for the past 31-years and yet, I still struggle with anger. This is often the reality for most incest survivors because of our engagement with our families. I know it is best and healthier for me and my kids to cut off my family (my mom and my brother) completely, but I can’t entirely disengage from familial ties. Frankly, I need to navigate these dynamics because culturally familial ties are very important for me that it is too painful to not have them in my life. Who is accountable for these contradictions?

As a little girl, I believed I was unlike most kids because I was sexually violated at such a young age in the name of sick love.  As an adult, I know this type of violence against children is more rampant than we care to acknowledge in society.  National studies state that 90% of sexually abused children know the perpetrator. Furthermore, the impact of child sexual abuse can last a lifetime and is often intergenerational. Childhood is a precious time that informs the rest of all of our lives. Usually what happens to us as children is internalized and passed on from generation to generation. Who is accountable for this loss of childhood because of child sexual abuse, and its’ impact on our kids and their kids?

My first born child Anansa was and is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. I made a commitment to my daughter and two sons that I would protect and listen to their emotions. I was intentional with communicating critical pieces about not harming our bodies and letting them know they can talk to me about anything. I believed that if I couldn’t protect my kids, ‘cause child sexual abuse is some insidious shit, I would be a compassionate mom and most of all believe and support them. Like most parents, I wanted my children to have a childhood free from such abuse. While I was able to break the cycle of child sexual abuse, I want to know who do I hold accountable for the conversations I had to have with my children about child sexual abuse? These are the conversations that many in the Black diasporic community have to have with their children. Who is accountable for these difficult and yet, necessary conversations about the realities of living in a world that views most Black diasporic people, especially our children, disposable? This is evident through rampant police and other forms of state sanctioned white supremacist violence perpetrated in our communities every single day. Our schools including the classroom are not even safe for Black diasporic children. And then, there’s the pandemic of child sexual abuse?

Who is accountable to the Black diasporic child?

As a Black diasporic community, and in particular, my Black Latinx/Afrodescendant Community, we need to have critical dialogues and action strategies about our responsibility to ending child sexual abuse, not because it’s any worse than in other communities; but because we have not held ourselves accountable to ensuring the safety of all our children. We have placed race at the center and marginalized women, children, and LGBTQI people amongst  other critical topics in our communities. Liberation for our people must include standing up against misogyny, homophobia, and against the notion that women and children are property.  In the name of radical love, I need my Black diasporic brothers to take responsibility to tackle the issue of toxic masculinity and the over-sexualization of our children, of girls/women, and to mentor young brothers. I need for brothers to do this organizing work with the same rigorous conviction that is taken against other issues to hold white amerikkka accountable.

Who is accountable to Black Latinx/Afrodescendant girls/women?

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about the notion of what does it mean to be in sisterhood with each other? What does a healthy link or bond feel like with another human being, where everyone holds each other especially at our worst moments? During my time in the mainstream anti-sexual violence movement and disability movement, I explored the concepts of sisterhood and unconditional support within Women of Color spaces and also while supporting Black and Latinx young adults with disabilities. I also learned, from my sibling Dave who lived with a physical disability, that so much is possible when unconditional support exists.

As a 2016-2018 Just Beginnings Collaborative (JBC) fellow, I am re-imagining with adult survivors of child sexual abuse in my Black Latinx/Afrodescendant community, the concept of sisterhood and brotherhood. My project Love in Sister/brotherhood is about creating a space for Black Latinx/Afrodescendant adult survivors of child sexual abuse to give voice to our experiences while building our capacity to make systemic political and cultural change.

Similar to and yet different from my sister-survivor and co-JBC fellow Aishah Shahidah Simmons’#LoveWITHAccountability project, my work is inclusive of community and personal accountability as my project simultaneously creates a network of survivors within my community.

From a Black Latinx/Afrodescendant cultural perspective the term, sisterhood denotes a powerful connection to our historical African traditions as women leaders protecting and teaching the African ways of healing and protecting ourselves so that we never forget our past.  My innate being has always believed, upheld, and explored the “sisterhood” within myself and other movements. Presently, I am interested in applying this traditional value/norm as a culturally specific response to supporting adult survivors within my own community. The experience of child sexual abuse can change how we love, how we parent, how we form relationships, and how we cope and heal. Additionally, we live in a world that blames and isolates survivors in particular those of us from Black diasporic communities. However, with Love in Sister/brotherhood we can change this reality for many survivors and leverage our collective power to end child sexual abuse.

This concept of sisterhood was the foundation for the development of the first ever national Women of Color (WOC) led anti-sexual assault organization in the United States that I co-founded over 10 years ago: The National Organization of Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault (SCESA). In the late 90’s Women of Color working at State Sexual Assault Coalitions across the United States came together to address the lack of WOC representation and leadership at State Coalitions, as well as the lack of culturally specific services for survivors of Color at the time. This organizing work led a collective of sisters to form a WOC leadership project. To be clear, the leadership project was more about increasing our leadership than it was about leadership development. Many of us women of color were already natural born leaders in our own right. The collective grew and evolved into SCESA. It is with a renewed commitment to sister/brotherhood that the next phase of my work is unfolding.

We know through the public health approaches of promotoras that community can be a powerful intervention in stopping child sexual abuse but like all communities, our Black Latinx/Afrodescendant community needs support and guidance about how to support survivors and to demystify bystander approaches so that a sister/or brother intervenes against abuse.

Shame and judgment are huge barriers that cause many survivors to be isolated from their community. This prevents disclosures or simply hinders critical dialogue about complex issues such as child sexual abuse; which also allows for further vulnerability.

Additionally, general society is losing its sense of human connection, many no longer live in community with each other. As Black Latinx/Afrodescendant communities we, too, are struggling with living in connection with each other. Given this loss of connection and the realities of child sexual abuse, I believe it is, as the revolutionary Assata Shakur states, “our duty” to rebuild our communities’ capacity to provide Love in Sister/brotherhood. The late human rights warrior Grace Lee Boggs once stated, “We have to change ourselves in order to change the world,” but not because something is wrong with us, but because Lee Boggs understood that the revolution begins with self and in community with each other. Love in Sister/brotherhood is critical to rebuilding our lives, breaking the cycle of abuse, dispelling the shame and guilt many of us live with and supporting others in our communities to do the same.

A child is not capable of causing anyone to violate them sexually. Nothing I did nor said meant that men, Black Latinx/Afrodescendant men, my brother and brothers in the struggle for our people’s liberation, could push their gender in my face and treat me as property. When we, Black diasporic people, are not accountable to each other for child sexual abuse in our communities, we burden Black children’s bodies and psyches with the responsibility of carrying their unacknowledged sexual trauma. Meanwhile, they simultaneously carry all of the vile white supremacist toxicity directed towards Black diasporic people for their entire lives. This was the reality of this former 7-year-old, who didn’t think that I was worthy of holding anyone accountable for my safety, including  my family.

We are all responsible for protecting the Black diasporic child. When we don’t, we must be accountable for our actions or lack thereof.  Love in Sister/brotherhood will provide a platform for my Black Latinx/Afrodescendant community to follow through on our non-negotiable duty to protect the Black diasporic child by ending child sexual abuse.


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Luz Marquez-Benbow is a Just Beginnings Collaborative Fellow (JBC) where she is focused on building a survivor network of Black Latinx/Afrodescendantes to advance social change and movement building toward ending child sexual abuse.

For over 15-years, Luz has worked on issues related to sexual assault. In the late 90’s, Luz served as the Director of Outreach and Policy for the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NYSCASA). In 2003, Luz co-founded and was the former Associate Director for the National Organization of Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault (SCESA). In this capacity, she worked closely with national policy advocates, and Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2005 and 2012.  Most notably, Luz co-led the efforts to develop the Culturally Specific Grant Program in VAWA, and ensure that all national violence against women policy is reflective of the needs of Communities of Color throughout the U.S and Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S Virgin Islands. She also worked to reauthorize the Family Violence Prevention Services Act of 2010.

Prior to working on sexual assault issues, Luz worked within the disability rights movement, primarily as the work related to self-advocacy, community inclusion and leadership of People with Disabilities.

As a survivor of child sexual abuse, incest, and rape, Luz is very passionate about ensuring that the voices of Communities of Color are included in all aspects of ending violence against women. Over the years, Luz has connected sexual assault to the history of enslavement of African people and the colonization of our lands, such as Puerto Rico, to link our collective struggles as People of African descent throughout the Americas. Luz is a Black Boricua mother of 3 and wife.

On Moving Forward by Ferentz Lafargue

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By Ferentz Lafargue

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One of the many conversations with my editor prior to the publication of my 2007 memoir, Songs in the Key of My Life, that sticks out is an exchange about what the book’s publication might mean for the person who sexually assaulted me when I was a child. I had not said this until that point, but as the public disclosure of my status as a survivor of childhood sexual assault neared, I had begun visualizing how my memoir’s debut might facilitate getting justice against my assailant.

Visions of court deliberations, depositions with lawyers began persistently loitering in my mind. In these dreams, we were on equal footing, and I was forced to consider whether I was prepared to go forward with facing him for the first time in two decades. Then, just as swiftly as this possibility had overtaken my life, it disappeared when my editor reminded me that fewer than 3% of sexual abusers are ever imprisoned.

While I had long been aware of this statistic, for some reason I thought that at this point in my life, the outcome might be different—after all I was no longer a child hoping someone would believe me; I was now an adult, a well-educated professional—my word would be as good as his.

Years later, I still think back to that moment, not simply just the conversation with my editor, but rather that moment in time when I had steeled myself for the inevitable pivot toward justice and my assailant being held accountable for his abuse.

The questions that recollections of this period in time conjure are essentially the same ones that I was asked when approached about contributing to this series:

  • What does accountability look like when tackling child sexual abuse (CSA)?
  • Can we have accountability around CSA without punitive justice?
  • What does restorative and transformative justice look like to you?

Accountability looks like healthy families and communities. Accountability does not begin after any abuse has been perpetrated, but rather before anything happens. For example, I remember looking on in awe a few years ago as a friend spoke to her toddler daughter about not letting people touch her unwillingly. More to the point, I was taken aback by how deliberate she was in using the word “vagina.” Later when I asked her about this exchange with her daughter, she told me that being frank in reference to her child’s body was one of steps she was taking toward stemming the long history of child sexual abuse that had long infested her family.

My partner and I are similarly direct with our children, making sure to refer to their body parts by their correct names. We refrain from indirect or infantilizing references to their bodies. For example, we do not tell the boys to clean their “wee wees” in the shower. Instead, it is “wash your penis.” By modeling for them that we are not afraid of discussing their bodies, we are empowering them with templates to do the same. Therefore, in treating them as sole proprietors of their bodies, we are helping frame their interactions with others around their bodies so that they may be better equipped to fend off would be abusers.

That said, parenting strategies aren’t foolproof nor is the existence of sexual abusers indicative of familial failings. The intersection of personal and social responsibility in this matter is particularly fraught in large part because there is a greater struggle to effectively articulate and acknowledge that sexual predators are in our midst and, in some cases, in our own homes. And not unlike other areas of the criminal justice system, what constitutes a transgression worthy of being included in a sex offenders registry is wildly inconsistent.

As a staunch opponent of mass incarceration, I loathe advocating for imprisonment in most instances and sex crimes are no different. Therefore, a multifaceted counseling strategy is, in my view, the strongest resource to curbing child sexual abuse. I would include quality sex and general health education as a form of counseling because schools and curricula shape individual and communal behavior. Again, it is important for young people to learn as early as possible that sex is not something to be ashamed of or to be kept secret. Moreover, incorporating teaching about mental and emotional health in schools will help everyone learn throughout their lifetimes how to process and articulate what is happening in their lives, and more specifically, what is happening to them. Expanding knowledge about healthy practices will not only lessen the likelihood that individuals might commit crimes, but it may also increase awareness around unacceptable behavior for young people.

Additionally, removing the threat of prison is also likely to bolster odds that victims and their families come forward and challenge abusers. The prospect of losing a relative to incarceration, especially when that person is possibly a breadwinner or contributes to the household in another significant capacity is daunting for many victims and their families.

Lastly, as presently constituted, most prisons and jails in this country do not have the staff and other resources to effectively rehabilitate criminals. American prisons for the most part are devoid of counseling services capable of providing ongoing support for inmates. Re-entry programs also lack the necessary staffing to facilitate mediation between assailants and their victims, a service that is vitally needed, given that many victims were likely abused by either a relative or another person close to their family.

In my estimation, restorative and transformative justice are systems tilted toward protecting victims, helping make them whole after they have been abused, and creating safeguards that will diminish the likelihood that assailants can continue abusing others. Restorative and transformative justice prioritizes ensuring that victims feel comfortable coming forward once abused, and that assailants receive necessary counseling that will enable them to see and acknowledge the harm caused by their actions and to help prevent them from recommitting these forms of violence.

A decade after that conversation with my editor I still occasionally reflect on whether I should be doing more to bring the person who abused me to justice. It has been well over twenty years since he and I last saw each other and I do not have any idea as to his whereabouts. Years ago when a person from the neighborhood where I grew up befriended me on Facebook, I would cull through their friends list in search for clues as to what might have become of my abuser. Nothing ever materialized. These days, I find myself less engaged in trying to track him down and more focused on ensuring that my own children have the necessary tools to avoid the kind of harm I suffered. I do not believe that justice has been served, but I do believe that I am using the pain and anguish I suffered to transform the prospects for future generations of my family.


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Ferentz Lafargue, Ph.D., is Director of the Center for Cultural Engagement at the Catholic University of America (CUA), and author of the memoir Songs in the Key of My Life.  Ferentz’s writing has appeared inThe Washington Post,  215mag,Americas Quarterly, The Huffington Post, Next American City, Social Science Research Council , Social Text: Periscope, and the inaugural issue of Bronx Biannual (Akashic Books 2006).

It’s the Whispers by T. Kebo Drew

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By T. Kebo Drew

I have started and stopped and rearranged this piece of writing dozens of times. Once I began to write, memories came back from the place where I forget things, where I had dismissed them.

It is no small irony that I am also a history buff who has read residential school stories, slave narratives, and the coded language of slaver diary entries, abolition articles, legal opinions of the day and newspaper adverts.

And so I write this first: racism and white supremacy, slavery and colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism are built on the exploitation of people, their labor and their bodies. This crushing weight rests on the horror of sexual violence perpetrated against children of color, particularly for our Native and Indigenous cousins throughout the Americas, and for Black people as a whole.

I have a memory from when my family lived in Mexico so I must have been around 4 years old. My mother was cooking in the kitchen and I hid around the corner with my father playing a game with her. Every so often, he would send me into the kitchen to smack my mother’s bottom with both my hands. I would run back to him and giggle. After a few rounds, the ever-presented music playing in the background changed, and I think that my father said something about slow dancing. I remember clearly that my mother said, “not until she is 30.”

The twin roots of sexual violence, from outside of and within the Black community, are entwined together in both my maternal and paternal family trees. Every so often a branch starts from a woman whose name is known and an often unknown, and more often unnamed, white man. When my maternal great-grandmother was 13, 14, or 15, as the story goes, her father, who was himself the son of an enslaved woman and a white doctor that recognized him as a son, told her to “go see about that white man.” The fact that she was a girl herself was of little consequence because the family needed to eat, and “that” white man had resources. My grandfather, and to hear tell, his brother/cousin born from my great-grandmother’s younger sister, were born of these transactions. There are multiple stories on both sides of my family about a distant relative from generations ago, who marries a woman who already has a young girl child. Then, after many children together, his wife dies, and he marries his step-daughter and starts another family. Long before my great-grandmother bore a son from that white man, her older half-sister later became her stepmother.

There are whispers, so faint they are like wind and when I turn to listen they seem to disappear: the elder losing memory, who when talking about the life of a grown man that has been in and out of prison since he was a teenager, and does not form friendships with other men except his cousins, tells the story of the man as a four-year-old boy who said “that woman touched him.” To hear tell, we’re the third generation of queer Black kids and there is a story known only to us. In our parents’ generation there was a cousin, who was very Butch, or possibly Transgender, who was murdered after an attempted rape. There are the whispers of my paternal grandfather and how he treated one of my aunts, to which my own father most likely said, “well, he was an alcoholic.” There are whispers of my maternal grandparents, who learned of the preacher’s intentions toward my then 13-year-old aunt, who not only changed churches, but completely changed denominations.

It wasn’t until I began to start the healing process from my own experiences that I understood that I was looking at a tree full of sexual violence, watered with degradation and fed on blood. I was rocked into the ground, looking at the roots so very close to my own grave. It was clear that there was a continuum that connected me to my great-grandmother, the women of my family, and other Black women.

I have kept my own stories locked down, diminished. I only recently began to see my experiences as child sexual abuse.

After I was born, my parents left the South, left Memphis, for big cities like Chicago, where my brother was born, and then New York. My father would allow me to walk my big dog down the streets of Manhattan, and Rochester. He said that he watched over me as I walked, but that didn’t stop all the calls from the Black men on porches from inviting me to sit in their laps and give them some sugar. Something kept me from going to them, and to this day I don’t know what it was.

We moved to Mexico, a place that Black folks have escaped to since the 1800s for freedom and a break from the specific flavor of racism endemic to the U.S. My parents and so many other Black people where following in the footsteps of Elizabeth Catlett and Audre Lorde to find space to breathe. At one point, we lived in a big house that belonged to the rich son of a Nation of Islam leader, full of activists, hippies, and students.

There was the time that my father left my younger brother and me in a car to wait for him. He went into an apartment building and was gone from day to dark. I had forgotten which door my father went into, and my brother had to go to the bathroom. We weren’t to disturb him, whatever his was doing, drugs, drug deals or a woman. Eventually police officers noticed us and we were taken to the station, where someone recognized these little dark children and took us home. My mother didn’t know about that for 30 years. By the time we left when I was 6, I had learned to lie for my father, and keep secrets, especially anything having to do with sex.

My brother and I were separated from our parents for about 6 months because of police violence against my father. We went to Memphis to stay with our extended family, where there were games that the kids played with the determination of adults. When we were all reunited at our new home in Oregon, there was the little girl who insisted that she wanted to “go down” on me because she was going to show me what people did in bed. I did not know how to say no, and I did not know what to say or who I should tell. I knew how to keep a secret. A secret about the white men on the streets of the very white college town where we lived, who would call me over to their cars, and masturbate in front of me until I could gather my thoughts and run away. About the white man who saw my neighbor friend and I playing in the upper branches of a tree in the park. Who climbed up, reclined on the branches just below and took himself out. We jumped down so far and ran, and he stole all of the allowance money we have saved up. One night, when a white woman came banging on the door at home, saying she had been thrown into a van by two men and attacked. I don’t remember all of what was said, I think that she was raped. I could not talk about it with anyone, because that was one of the nights my father had his mistress over. I might have been 9 years of age. I remember feeling weary and older, much, much older.

By then, my parent’s marriage was so horrible that I prayed for a divorce. I became my father’s girl between my mother, and his mistress. I had already learned very early to take care of my father’s emotional needs. I became his confidant and his witness. I did not feel special. I knew about his relationships. I knew about his porn stash. I knew which women were attractive. I had heard him having sex with his mistress. On those days and nights that my mother was working, my brother and I were “with” him, so he couldn’t be with anyone else. Sometimes my father would take me on long drives alone with him so that he could talk, and once he told me to choose. That my brother would stay with our mother, and his mistresses’ son would stay with her, but I was the one to decide where “we”, him and I, should go. All I remember is my hot cheek pressed against the window of his truck with the cold rain falling outside. There was a level of constant forced emotional intimacy where there was no room for my own instincts, feelings, and development. At the same time, I was going through an early puberty. I was awkward, chubby and strong, with an intellectual understanding of human sexuality. I liked to read and I would look up any mention of lesbian in the library card catalogue. I felt mature and much older than I was, but emotionally I was like a 10-year-old, because I was in fact 10 years old.

When men my father hung out with said that I would make a good wife, he said that I would remain a virgin like my hair. He would joke about the kinds of men who needed to rape women because they weren’t handsome enough to have women come to them. I felt like an embarrassment to my father because I was not beautiful like my mother, or the kind of women that he found attractive. With my twinned family trees I got the wide hips and the thick thighs, I wasn’t shapely with a nice figure at all. He did not know what to do with this strange, quiet girl. The combination of my maturing body and the emotional closeness I had with my father, led people to ask if I was his girlfriend when they saw us together. He would laugh that off every time.

I was incredibly timid, hyperaware of everyone, and ashamed of my body. My father knew this because there were no secrets from him. Sometimes my body would become the subject of adult discussion, and his jokes. Often I would feel that I was being watched. I would have these bolts of intense feeling in my body, I thought that I was embarrassed that someone was looking at me. It was only later, in the few times in my adult life when I have actually felt attracted to someone, that I recognized it as desire, and not my own. As a result, I felt emotionally raw and physically exposed all of the time. I took to wearing clothes that covered me, my fat body, and my ugliness, completely. It was visceral, instinctual. To this day, when I feel emotionally manipulated or “screwed” over, I actually feel it in my genitals.

By the time that my parents separated, and we moved away, my father still had a strong emotional hold over me. He would manipulate me over the phone to get back at my mother, and every time she cried it was for something he told me to do. By that time, I was 12 and my brother had a little friend who would say every day, “hey, let’s gang bang your sister.” My brother would always say “no” and keep playing, doing what 10-year-old Black boys do. The distance from my father was a relief, but it didn’t stop the comments from boys and teenagers. They either said that I was fat and ugly (as my father alluded to without saying it outright). Or, like the Black boy in middle school who came from behind me and put his hands in the pockets of my corduroys, drawing the anger of our Black woman teacher because she thought that I was fast. It didn’t stop men either. Like the time I was sitting on the living room floor at my own house during a backyard bbq, when a white man, a guest of a family friend, started talking to me. I was mostly invisible in my life, shy and full of social anxiety. I happily answered all of his questions, although some of his comments went over my head. I didn’t show that I didn’t understand (because my father explained his disappointment at my failings), because I was so grateful for the attention that seemed to be about me. So when my mother came in like a cold storm telling the man, “she’s only 12!”, I was confused, then ashamed because of my own ugliness and his sexual intentions.

I thought that my father was an expert gas-lighter like his siblings, and a garden-variety narcissist as a result of childhood physical abuse and PTSD as a war veteran.  This was how I diminished my own experience. For years, when people asked me about our relationship, I would say that it was uncomfortable or inappropriate. I never mentioned the level of emotional intimacy and the sexual undercurrent, because he didn’t touch me physically. Since his death 3 years ago, I learned words for the whispers and secrets that had bound me so tightly to my father, emotional incest, like strong shiny ribbons that bruise the skin and break it bloody. Along with the sexual myths about Black girls and teenagers, it was a nearly lethal combination.

Now I believe that it is a consequence and an irony of emotional incest, that what started the break from my father, was being drugged and gang raped by a group of young white men when I was 15. What I clearly remember of that night is that I once again felt grateful that anyone wanted to talk with me, and give me attention. I had never even held hands romantically with a boy or girl my age. So after I drank the water they gave me, and the first boy kissed me, I remember feeling this sense of wonder. By the time my friends, those 3 white girls who so casually used the word nigger to describe someone’s suntan, left me at the house, their departure was a dim concern. For close to 2 decades after I was gang raped, chronic physical pain and retrograde amnesia meant that I had to freshly relive the rape over and over again each year on the anniversary of that night.

Like my mother said, it was not until I was 30 that I was ready.

I had dismissed the child sexual abuse I experienced because I had blamed my own awkward, pubescent and teenage Black body for what happened to me. I struggled with beliefs that I did not deserve to be loved, that I should be grateful to anyone who could overlook my fat body to touch me with desire, and that I had to give all of my emotional energy and labor to be worthy of any attention. I had sexual relationships with people that I would not have coffee with today. Too often, my sexual desire and romantic attraction, to Black Butches, and Transgender, or cisgender Black men, felt much too much like family and too close to home. I struggled with my genuine love for Black people, emotional intimacy, and reminders of my father. Part of my healing process has been to look what I missed as a child. It is not an exercise in nostalgia but one of love for myself. I pull out memories from the place where I forget things, memories that started before I was born, and memories created yesterday.

Studies of survivors of child sexual abuse show our experiences and risk factors collide make us vulnerable to re-victimization as we get older. In the intervening decades since my childhood, survivor activists have changed the conversation about child sexual abuse. More people are haphazardly teaching children about body safety and consent, particularly from strangers. Yet as children mature and go through puberty, the conversation switches to their raging hormones. And that’s for white children.

Current activism about everything from the school-to-prison pipeline to police violence notes that our Black children are deemed older than we really are, with knowledge we do not have. Myths about our pain threshold, our strength, our assumed criminality and sexual deviance are written on our skin. We learn early to be courageous. We learn quickly to take care of our parents’ emotional needs and be watchful of white people’s feelings. We are taught that our bodies are not our own. We are taught that our emotions are not our own. And because I still like to read, I see studies that note that current rates of rape of Black girls and women, particularly in cities like Chicago and Dallas, is similar to the for rape of Black girls and women ages 15-30 during slavery (West and Johnson).

I fear for Black children now, and I fear for the children we once were.

And so I write this: we as Black people have survived a twisted breaking of souls and relationships, and child sexual abuse is a part of our history, our community, and our every day lives.

Love with accountability means that we need to understand age-appropriate intellectual, emotional, and sexual development for Black children, including teenagers. It means not simply praying for the lives of our children, and claiming that we protect them through control of their bodies and emotions, which leaves them more vulnerable. It means that we champion the wholeness of their bodies and their sovereignty over their own souls. We need to act on the entwined roots of sexual violence against Black people, from outside of and within our own community, by focusing on Black children and ending childhood sexual abuse. If we can protect the most vulnerable, small, soft and quiet beings, among us, then we can end the violence that consumes us all.


Photo Credit: Leilani Nisperos

Photo Credit: Leilani Nisperos

T. Kebo Drew, CFRE is a filmmaker, writer and dancer, she is the producer and director of Ain’t I A Woman? which has screened at the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival and Translations: the Seattle Transgender Film Festival, among many others around the world. She has also produced numerous films, which include Don’t Fence Me In: Major Mary and the Karen Refugees from Burma, which won the Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary from the 2006 Washington D.C. Independent Film Festival and the Director’s Citation Award from the 2006 Black Maria Film Festival. She got her start at a Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project – QWOCMAP screenwriting workshop in 2001, where she wrote two feature-length screenplays. She has performed in the U.S., Latin America and Europe as a poet and dancer. She is a Cave Canem Poetry Fellow and won an Audre Lorde/Pat Parker Award and an Astraea Emerging Lesbian Writers Award. She also won an Irene Weed Dance Award and Robert Kuykendall Dance Scholarship. Kebo is currently the Managing Director of QWOCMAP, which builds power through film that radically centers our marginalized communities to fundamentally transform the world where justice and equity are the norm. QWOCMAP creates, exhibits, and distributes high-impact films that authentically reflect the lives of queer women of color (cisgender & transgender), gender nonconforming and transgender people of color (of any orientation), and address the vital, intersecting social justice issues that concern our multiple communities. QWOCMAP uses film to shatter stereotypes and bias, build community through compassionate public discussions, and strengthen social justice movements. QWOCMAP is in the second year of its joint Life Healing Project with San Francisco Women Against Rape, which combines Learning Circles and Filmmaking Workshops for LBTQ women of color to address the many forms of violence that impact our lives.

activist, poet, prison abolitionist, human rights advocate, incest and rape survivor by By Thea Matthews

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By Thea Matthews

 

“Field of Lilacs” (please click to listen to audio)

 

Outro to “Field of Lilacs”

– Thea’s Rendition of Love with Accountability–

Love is an enigmatic expression, an undeniable force that reverberates from within and is experienced from without. Love simultaneously empowers the self and who the self interacts with. I specifically remember during my adolescences, deciding to hate myself, blame myself, deny myself (self-)love because of what I was forced to endure early in my life. I subconsciously said, yes, I am willing to hate myself, blame myself, ruin myself, and kill myself because my grandfather and uncle repeatedly sexually assaulted me, and I was forced to play “house” with one of my cousins. The pain was unbearable at times and the suffering seemed unending. My rite of passage was incest. The bullying at school only poured pounds of salt on open infected wounds.

My existence was a gaping hole without a model of what healthy love is, let along what accountability is. After disclosing that my grandfather molested me, I still found myself at my grandparent’s house, seated next to him at the family Thanksgiving dinner. I don’t know if my grandfather, uncle, and cousin molested anyone else. I do know that I am a third-generation survivor of child abuse. My grandmother was abused, my mother was abused, and I was abused. I don’t know much about my great-grandmother, because she died in her early-mid thirties of cervical cancer when my grandmother was only five-years-old. I assume more of my maternal generations were violated and abused in some way.

My grandfather died when I was in high school, and my uncle and cousin disappeared from my life. Last time I saw my cousin, I refused to hug him and he felt so insulted, it incited an atypical dysfunctional family argument with my grandmother. She is close to 90 and she will die not knowing that the love of her life was a child molester, and that one of her sons and grandsons are also child molesters. Where is accountability in that? Well, as I recovered from a suicide attempt in 2011 and as I continue to recover from active addictions and destructive behaviors, I quickly realized that accountability must first and foremost come from within.

Initially, I began demanding accountability from our nation’s police force when I got involved in student protests with the Black Lives Matter movement. The mass killings of unarmed people, the degree of which systemic violence takes place and no one really held responsible provokes anger and directs me to take action. Yet, I realized: if I am to want others to be accountability around me, I must ensure that I am also being held accountable for my actions. What do I have to do to keep my side of street clean? Yes, I was very much a victim. The abuse started when I was preverbal and ended by the time I was 9; the bullying continued until I was 13. My fundamental years of emotional and brain development were robbed. I was robbed from a childhood.

As an individual who identifies themselves as a freedom fighter, an activist, my foundation must be and can only be reinstated with conscious acts of love with accountability. To heal, I do what is essentially described in my poem “Field of Lilacs.” Ritual is highly important to me. Spirituality is my oxygen. My leader is a divine force to be reckoned with, no gunshots can take this entity away. I continuously do a series of actions releasing trauma from my mind, my body, my soul, my spirit.

I don’t need an “apology” from the harm doers in my life to actually heal. I don’t need a pitiful recognition to liberate myself. Amends are actually for the harm doer and their karma; not for me. I need to love myself. I need to be accountable for my actions. I need to ensure that my behavior and actions are transformed. The absolute truth is: I cannot force anyone’s transformation. The revolution has already occurred within me when I almost jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. In order to fiercely love and radically accept what is in the present moment, I am solely responsible for learning and practicing various forms of nonviolent communication. Thus, continuous acts of love with accountability ultimately ensure personal/social/cultural transformation.


Photo Credit: Christina Campbell  

Photo Credit: Christina Campbell

 

Born and raised in San Francisco, California, Thea Matthews currently attends UC Berkeley, studying sociology. She has been writing creatively for close to 20 years. Poetry is her healing medium. Regarding her attainment of liberation, she lives her life according to a path based on service, purification, and spiritually based principles one day at a time.

Safe Space: The Language of Love by Kimberly Gaubault

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By Kimberly Gaubault

There is a practice of erasure that happens in traditional Christian church communities.  The systemic erasure of those who carry the weight of having such truths as sexual assault and domestic violence/gender violence forced upon them…those whose understanding of God, love, community and self is often structured around violations against body and spirit…this erasure makes the church a safe space for those who want to avoid the ugly reality that these behaviors and conscious decisions are made (often) by those we trust, in community and spaces we have designated as sacred. We are programmed to embrace spiritual rhetoric that shames and silences those who have been victims of sexual assault (regardless of gender identification).  This same rhetoric is often used to fill the uncomfortable space that exists in communities where sexual assault (primarily during childhood) has occurred.  The use of clichés such as:

 God is good all the time and all the time God is good,

God won’t put more on you than you can bear,

All things work together for the good of them who love the Lord…,

Just pray about it,

and other biblically based phrases and sayings rather than engaging violations and violators head on often discourage victims from speaking out about their abuse/abuser.  It is important that we provide space for these conversations to happen and truths to be shared proactively, with full understanding that there will be discomfort but, through honesty and full disclosure there can also be hope for healing.  To espouse a system of avoidance and silence is to espouse the alienation, physically, and spiritually of those who have been relegated to the margins of the intricate tapestries woven together to form the beloved community. The margins are the spaces that give value to the common space that is shared in the middle ground.  The margins have importance and relevance to the big picture. Childhood sexual assault is too common to be treated as anomaly.  By addressing it, in community, we can open up a space for healing for those living with the shame of being violated as well as those living with the shame of having violated another.  Love calls us to accountability in the ways we form community and responsibility in the ways we maintain it.

On First Times (*Trigger Warning: This is a rape story)

The first time I was raped

the act was not as painful

as the accusation

the implication that

somehow

I must be at fault

almost 29 years later

I remember what I was wearing

as if it were yesterday

I never wore it again

never washed it again

never trusted my mother again

and he was light-skinned

and this was the 80’s so

light-skinned was in

I was nervous

hadn’t seen him before

he thought I was cute

I didn’t believe it

I was dark-skinned

and skinny

and dark

and too Christian

and dark

and big forehead

and dark

and big lips

and dark

too dark to be the right shade

for light-skinned to holla at

I avoided eye contact

straightened my shirt

I remember what I was wearing

my favorite outfit

until that day

I never wore it again

I think I told you that already

I still don’t trust my mother

and she don’t like me

I don’t think she ever has

what was we talking about…oh yeah

he was light-skinned

and I just kept walking

because I’m not supposed to attract boys

this is what causes problems at home

why they calling here?

you don’t need no boyfriends

they calling because you just want to be fast

they only want one thing

don’t bring home no babies

Maybe

I just want to be liked

at home and at school

don’t feel comforted, at 17,

about being a ‘peculiar people’

don’t want to have sex or be sexualized

don’t want to always be so different

all the time

don’t care so much for being the ugly girl at school

all the time

the one who can’t go to no parties cause she in church

all the time

can’t go to no friend’s houses and can’t have them come to mine

all the time

can’t be in marching band because THOSE kids…

feeling left out

all the time

my friend and I

he and I liked to talk

we couldn’t do it in school much because I’m smart

and I don’t go to school to make friends

I go to school to learn

he had to get up the nerve just to call the house

because he knows the chill of ice

even when it’s over a phone line

and even though it’s all related

I digress again…

the first time I was raped

I remember what I was wearing

remember walking home from school

remember walking up the stairs to our apartment

remember being grabbed

I remember being groped

I remember being raped

I remember being raped

I remember trying to convince my mind

that this was not so bad

that if I stayed still long enough

maybe he would get bored and stop

that at least he thought I was cute

that he was light-skinned

and light-skinned was a compliment for dark-skinned

right?

I didn’t scream

didn’t call for help

I remember my body refusing to cooperate

refusing to allow easy penetration

I remember not fighting

not knowing how

and hating all 85 pounds of my lethargic flesh

I remember the silence of the house

how his voice reverberated off the walls of my ears

I remember what I was wearing

my favorite outfit

and believe it or not

it was not the act

but the after

that made it mourning clothes

the “you shouldn’t have been wearing THAT outfit”

that turned it into shroud

and this story was never told

because I was never asked what happened when that guy followed me home

not when I vomited up light-skinned’s touch for 2 days after

not when I was balled over in pain in the wake of light-skinned’s embrace

not when I was being treated for the gift that light-skinned left me

not when I missed a month of school because light-skinned’s visit

required hospitalization

medication

and recovery time

I was never asked why I never wore my favorite outfit again

I was never asked

so I didn’t tell

and 29 years later

I still remember

how we celebrated the healing

but never talked about the hurting

and how the hurting

never fully goes away

© 2016 Kimberly Gaubault (Redefining Freedom)

 


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Kimberly Gaubault is a mother, grandmother, preacher, poet, singer, musician, Social Justice activist, advocate, lecturer and educator. As a survivor of Domestic Violence/Gender Violence and sexual assault, Kim seeks to empower those who have been affected by such horrible acts of violation.  Kim served the Duke University Community as the Program Coordinator for the Women’s Center for 3 years and continues to work towards solutions in regards to matters of social justice.  She uses her art, knowledge and experience as a vehicle of intervention and healing in the church, the academy and the community, nationally and internationally.  Kim holds a dual BA in English and African and African American Studies with a certificate in Women’s Studies, from Duke University, and an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary, in the City of New York, with a concentration in Theology and the Arts, Interreligious Studies and Interfaith Dialogue. Kim’s philosophy of personal interaction is “If I’ve not positively influenced someone everywhere I go, I’ve not walked in my purpose.”

Thoughts on Discipline, Justice, Love and Accountability: Redefining Words to Reimagine Our Realities by Qui Dorian Alexander

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


I always felt like discipline was such a loaded word. As an adult I think of discipline as consistency. A deliberate and intentional regimen. Coming back to a thing even when I don’t always have the desire to do so. I often thought that if I could not commit myself to writing every single day then, I couldn’t be a writer. If I didn’t commit to the physical practice of yoga everyday then I couldn’t be a yogi. This idea often prevented me from showing up to the practices that keep me well, because I internalized the ideas that I couldn’t really be committed to something if I didn’t have discipline. The grit to work hard, dig deep and keep at something even in the face of adversity. If I wasn’t the most disciplined then I wasn’t a master and therefore my ideas were not valid. To work through the self-sabotage of validity, I had to confront my own ideas and relationship to that word.

When you look up discipline in the dictionary, one of the very first things that come up is punishment. As a child, I thought of discipline in this way and often rejected it because of that idea. We live in a world that teaches us the only way to create discipline is through punishment. It becomes laced with shame, fear, guilt and failure. Discipline serves as a method of control for those in power, often when their sense of control is being questioned. It’s a system based on fear to maintain that power and we come to understand power as domination and authority because of this. This fear-based ideology teaches us that power can only reside in the hands of the few, one must maintain that power at all cost and that someone else’s access to power becomes a threat to our own. This ideology becomes particularly pertinent in teaching children how to engage with the adults in their lives. There are so many ways we deny a child their autonomy around their bodies, from forcing them to hug/kiss their relatives, scolding them for questioning adult behavior, or teaching them that any physical discipline they receive is because of love.

We all have an aversion to punishment. It doesn’t feel good, and doesn’t help us embraces the learning mistakes teach us. But when learn these patterns of punishment as children they show up in our homes, schools and larger communities. The conflation of discipline/punishment, power/abuse and structure/fear become normalized. So much “order” in our society is maintained, not by people’s desire to genuinely to do the right thing, but rather people’s desire to not get caught for doing the wrong thing. So what happens when young people experience harm from the people who are supposed to protect them? These conflated ideas and patterns teach young people that any harm they experience was brought onto themselves. They too must “maintain” order in their families, and by challenging any behavior that has become normalized; they become a disruption to the family. Negative reinforcement often doesn’t help people change their behavior, whether they have caused or received harm. People do not learn through shame. But our (in) justice system is setup in a way to isolate both survivors as well as people who have caused harm. It is set up to scare people into changing, through the negative consequences of their actions, rather than confront the issues that set the context up for abuse.

Sitting with the word discipline, I realized that I struggled similarly with the word justice. What does justice look like in the context of child sexual abuse (CSA)? Our society tells us that when justice is served, someone being held responsible means they are punished. They are then thrown into a system that promotes more fear, shame and isolation. There are a multitude of reasons why survivors of CSA don’t speak about their abuse, often because they experience those same contexts of fear, shame and isolation. Conditions that don’t actually help people heal, change or grow. Is it really justice if someone suffers from abuse in similar ways I did? Is justice served if someone is robbed from the community and care it takes to be a better person? Is it justice if someone gets locked up in a box, and not given the opportunity to heal, just act out again?

It makes me wonder what would this look like if we approached this from a place of love rather than a place of fear? Especially when we are taught that leading from a place of love will only get us taken advantage of and lead to more pain and hurt. No want wants to talk about love, especially within the context of child sexual abuse and other forms of sexual violence. Violation of any form of intimacy is devastating, particularly in the familial context for children and young adults, and impact our lives into adulthood. This can become difficult for folks to unpack as love is often used as a way to manipulate young people. We don’t want to talk about love when it’s been taken from us or used against us, so why would we offer love to someone who has done that to us?

This led me to really sit with another word, love. What do we mean when we say that word? Do we mean an experience or do we mean a tangible item of value? We often teach children that we accept problematic behavior under the guise of love. That is something to give and take, and if it is taken from you, you did something to deserve it being taken. This skews a young person’s ideas about what the difference between love and abuse actually is. As we get older, we are taught a romanticized version of love, not thinking of love as taking work, it’s presented as effortless. We don’t take the time to think about the discipline it requires from us. Love is a verb, love is an action and it doesn’t always feel good. bell hooks describes love as a “wanting to extend yourself emotionally and spiritually for yourself or someone else.” A process that requires intention.

If we come to understand love to ask for more presence and practice from us, the real question becomes, do we think everyone is deserving of love? Who gets to decide who is worthy of love? If we use the systems and structures that are currently in place as our standard, no…not everyone is worthy of love. Our system teaches us that both survivors and people who cause harm don’t deserve love. Often ignoring the conditions that produce abuse and perpetuate an acceptance of rape culture. Rape culture is built on the basis that not everyone is worthy of love, and that those in power get to decide who is worth of dominating and who is worthy of being dominated. A result of the continued conflation of power and abuse, punishment and justice, rape culture continues to manifest in our social, cultural and political lives. It is built on the backs of vulnerable bodies: particularly children/young people; women and femmes; trans and gender non-conforming folks; people of color; poor/working class and disabled people. Teaching us that some people are entitled to power while others must “earn it.’ It teaches us that vulnerable bodies bring that on themselves.

Rape culture operates like an institution, a systematic structure of power that all other structures of dominance contribute to. A structure that determines where and how we place value. This capitalist based framework teaches us to commodify our world. We even base our relationships on what we can gain from the exchange. Capitalism is the system we’ve been taught to exchange value. But whose bodies do we value? Who gets to express that value? And who gets to decide if and when that value can change? Rape culture reinforces an underlying ethic of fear. Child sexual abuse and rape culture are inextricably connected as rape culture enables child sexual abuse to go unspoken. It rationalizes problematic behavior based on unequal power dynamics. These ideas just become accepted as truth and don’t leave space for people to challenge or complicate the narrative around them.

There have been many contexts and frameworks to envision these words: discipline, justice, love, value in new ways. I think sci-fi and speculative fiction is one of those frameworks. Walidah Imarisha says,

“When we talk about a world without prisons; a world without police violence; a world where everyone has food, clothing, shelter, quality education; a world free of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, heterosexism; we are talking about a world that doesn’t currently exist. But collectively dreaming up one that does means we can begin building it into existence.”

That imagining, visioning and building is speculative fiction. What would our world look like without child sexual abuse/violence? What are the ways we are learning to love differently? How do the relationships we have with our own bodies manifest themselves in our relationships? All these questions allow us to dig deeper to find a different way of responding to child sexual violence.

When I tell people I believe in prison abolition, their first reaction is usually fear or puzzlement. Common reactions include: “I know it’s not perfect, but it’s all we have” or “some people should just be locked up.”  People hold these sentiments to be true, all while recognizing that police brutality and mass incarcerations are very real issues within our communities. Our reliance on the state to define words like discipline, justice or value, have impeded our abilities to envision new ways of dealing with harm, change and fear. Transformative Justice (TJ) is a new vision. TJ is way of practicing alternative justice that acknowledges individual experiences and identities and works to actively resist the state’s criminal injustice system. It’s a method with responding to violence outside of the state. As a queer black trans person, the state is contributing to the erasure of my existence. The state doesn’t want me to exist in the first place, so I can’t rely on the state to solve the issues my community is facing. So what happens when the abuse I’ve experienced comes at the hands of my family members? How do we hold the juxtaposition of wanting accountability but knowing that the state can’t actually provide that?

It brings me back to examine what I think justice really is. What are we actually asking for when we say we want justice? Our fear based approaches to justice, denounce the actions one does in society but accept those same actions as consequence for one’s behavior. If we want to stop those violent behaviors, why are we condemning them in one context and condoning them in another? Why do we not support systems that allow or provide space for people to change? Do we want justice to look like trading in folks who are not as valuable as others? Is that what we want our liberation to look like?

We have to hold people accountable for the things they do. But let’s be clear, accountability and punishment are not the same thing. Punishment never looks at the root cause of conflict. It only addresses the value of the conflict, you have to “pay for” what you have done. Accountability acknowledges the conditions that caused a person to act in the ways they have. It recognizes the context in which one understands their own actions and creates a framework for someone to understand and be responsible for the impact of those actions.

To believe in TJ you have to believe in change. That people have the capacity to change, understanding that not everyone does. You have to believe that if we help people heal from their own hurts they can recognize how they have taken that out on others; they can start to change their behaviors. Prison locks you in a cell, takes away your humanity, isolates you, and takes away your worth. That fear based model doesn’t make space for people to change, it takes away your humanity so it can profit off of your body, a practice that impacts survivors of child sexual abuse as well. So what can accountability look like for a survivor of CSA? What does a support system look like? Can their healing be prioritized regardless of someone being accountable to them?

These questions provide us with the foundation to think of accountability as more than checking off “accountable to do lists.” It is doing the hard work of sitting with what it is that we believe in and what words we let define our experiences. It is difficult to acknowledge the fucked up things you have done or have been done to you. TJ provides a framework for us to accept that we are still worthy of love and belonging when we do or receive harm. Its saying no one is disposable, because oppressive structures are what cause folks to make harmful decisions and what teach us that any harmed we’ve received is our fault. One of my teachers once told me,

“Every action a human makes, is to bring them closer to joy.”

When you don’t have much to work with, your joy might be at the expense of someone else. When our relationships are just commodities to be sold, you can rationalize doing that or having that be done to you.

Accountability also cannot be done in a vacuum. It requires connection, trust and vulnerability. We have to be willing to be seen in our mess. Vulnerability is another word to sit and struggle with. Our fear-based world teaches us to conflate vulnerability with weakness. But vulnerability is the basis of human connection. When we see and hear our own experiences reflected in others we know we are not alone. The connection allows us to feel held in the process of change, that we have support, that there is something worth changing for. The vulnerability of asking for what one needs to heal is essential for both survivors and those who cause harm.

Brene Brown said, “Feeling vulnerable, imperfect and afraid is human, it’s when we lose our capacity to hold space for these struggles, that we become dangerous.” Our reactions to being seen in our vulnerability are based on fear. If we can only deal with interpersonal conflict by reflecting the values of the PIC (isolation, commodification, taking away humanity), we are just perpetuating the same systems that kill us. Learning to deal with interpersonal conflict in new ways, allows us to unlearn harmful behaviors and envision new ways to push up against larger systems of oppression.

As we continue to reflect on the words and ideas we hold to be true, are we giving ourselves the time and space to complicate those narratives? Are we asking more questions to dig deeper? Are we giving ourselves permission to be honest with how we react to those questions? I invite us all to think about words that we’ve grown to accept, the words that don’t sit right with us, and the words that prevents us from showing up for ourselves from a place of love. As we heal the wounds and trauma words hold for us, we can begin to recreate and reimagine our existences. We can begin to create new visions for our realities.


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Qui is a queer, trans, Black Latinx educator, organizer, yoga teacher and consultant based in Philadelphia. He is currently the Program Coordinator for the Haverford College Women*s Center. Qui started his organizing in undergrad to help create and hold safe(r), more inclusive spaces for folks who live on the margins. His work centers the intersections of gender, sexuality and racial justice; healing justice and transformative/restorative justice anti-violence work. Qui has shared his work at various universities, conferences and community centers, both locally and nationally. Believing the personal is political, his work strives to focus on personal liberation and healing to make movement work more sustainable.

Paying it Forward Instead of Looking Backwards by Loretta J. Ross

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By Loretta J. Ross

There is an intense dialectic between being a professional feminist who works to end all forms of violence against women and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. My life experiences propelled me into the anti-rape movement, and the movement makes sense of my life experiences. I’ve survived rape at 11, incest at 14, pregnancy at 15, gang rape at 16, and sterilization abuse at 23, but I would not forego any of those experiences. They contoured my glorious emergence as a proud, self-aware, and self-determining Black woman who unflinchingly looks life in the eye and struts proudly against all adversities. I had to decide that my trauma did not define me, although it grooved deep crevices in my mind into which it can be too easy to slip into depression. I fight these patterns daily and grow stronger with each victory. My spirit’s soul is the boss of me, not my mind, or my body, or the men who left their dirty fingerprints on my life story.

My service at a rape crisis center in the 1970s in my twenties taught me how invaluable professional therapy is in helping me stay present in my life and not seek to escape my lived experiences, as I used to do through drugs and sex work as a teenager. Instead, I learned in the company of other anti-rape sisters that fighting the numbing violence of sexual and reproductive oppression could become fuel for my passion and deepen my love of activism. Activism is the art of making my life matter. When I’ve told my story for the past 40+ years in small gatherings and national media, other women appreciate my example and find the courage to speak their own truths and be awed by the results.

All this self-confidence in knowledge gained through my lived experiences and my years as a Black feminist working in the Black nationalist, feminist, and human rights movements came crashing to a halt a few years ago at a family reunion. A 40-year-old niece secretly revealed to me that one of my brothers had committed incest against her when she was twelve. Burdened with this knowledge, I urged her to confront her father and let him know the secret was out – at least to her and me. She courageously did, and her story was confirmed when my beloved brother spent the rest of the reunion studiously avoiding me. Every time I entered a room, he caromed away as if we were two billiard balls struck by the same cue. Another of my five brothers noticed something was amiss and asked me afterwards why my joy at the family gathering abruptly disappeared. I shared the story with him. He doubted its truth because it painted a caricature of an elder brother neither of us could recognize.

I wondered what next to do, besides continuing to talk to my niece. I’m from a family of elderly women; my fondest fantasy is to finally be old enough to sit at the big girls’ table in the kitchen while other younger family members wait on us, bringing food and drinks and tenderly seeing to our needs. Since I am still mobile in my 60s, I’m not quite old enough yet, and I’m still the step-and-fetch-it kid to my aunts, great-aunts, and older cousins. But this day, I needed to sit at that kitchen table and ask my elders for advice. How could I be there for my niece in a way people had been there for me nearly five decades before? I believe with all my soul that this continuing cycle of childhood sexual abuse needs to end in my family, but I don’t know how to do it. My siblings are all grandparents, sometimes babysitting our grandchildren or even great-grandchildren. How can we protect vulnerable children we are so proud of?

I wanted my brother to be held accountable, but I had no idea what that meant. He’s battling prostate cancer, and we fear every reunion will be his last as his 77-year-old-body shrinks inexorably inward seeking relief from his chronic agony. I wanted to shout out my new knowledge, but feared what it would do to my niece, my elders, and me. My late mother was an incest survivor from age eight to sixteen, until she married to escape an abusive uncle who lived with her in a multi-generational farmhouse during the Depression. I wondered if my great-uncle also abused the surviving sisters and cousins sitting at this table with me. Did I have the courage or even the right to pull the scabs off their wounds when these women were in their 80s and 90s? If I don’t speak up, do I join a conspiracy of silence in which the men we deeply love continue to have sexual access to inexperienced girls in my family? My much older cousin raped me, leaving my late father impotent to retaliate to protect his baby girl when my abuser fled overseas to escape retribution. They may be good men who do bad things. Does that make them bad men, or complex people predictably acting out distorted masculinities?

I’ve spent the last four decades co-parenting with my rapist. My son knows this history, and has sought to build a positive relationship with his father. That effort predictably failed. What is our responsibility now as elders? Do other non-violent men in the family get a pass, and if not, what is their responsibility in breaking the silence and maintaining our love for each other? Our excessive sheltering of our girls and fierce insistence on the respectability politics of Christianity did not really shield any of our generations, my mother’s, mine, or my niece’s.

I thought I knew the answers to these questions. My Mom used to say, “Tell the truth and shame the devil!” This advice seemed sacrosanct until I became the one caught in the hinge of accountability. Fighting childhood sexual abuse no longer seemed so black-and-white, as my feminist principles urged. The nuances of family love, family healing, and family unity compromised my determination to uproot this festering canker in the hidden center of our relationships. Before I found the courage to speak up, my niece asked me to stay silent because she was not ready for her story to be more public. This was, at best, a temporary reprieve, because her father babysits his granddaughters. It’s a postponement of the truth that begs the question of whether the truth is even capable of providing healing as a pathway to justice and accountability.

The secrets of childhood sexual abuse of females in Black families can be attributed as a legacy of the enslavement, or the emasculation of Black men by white supremacy, or even dismissed as the politics of gender entitlement in society. We exist in a pervasive rape culture that normalizes and sometimes even celebrates violence against women.

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That long pause is there because in the middle of writing this essay, I received the terrible news that my son died earlier today of a heart attack. He was only 47-years old and his name is Howard Michael Ross, without whom much of my life would not have been possible. I can’t finish this now or maybe never. I have to go to Texas to be accountable to this child. My rapist is dead. My son is dead. Now I have to see that I don’t die too soon ensure that his brief life matters too. Peace my sisters…

****

Post-script. I buried my son a few weeks ago and Aishah asked me if I wanted to revise this first draft. At first I declined, but then I thought about it some more. I had the joy of raising my son Howard as a child and a teenager. At his funeral, I learned about my son as a man in ways I didn’t know before.

I wrote the following Facebook post thanking everyone for their love and support:

I witnessed at Howard’s wake and funeral how more than 200+ people loved and appreciated him as a man. He was a son, a father, a husband, an engineer, a math tutor, a college professor, a chapter president of Omega Psi Phi, a Christian, a mentor, an organizer of food for the homeless, our family nexus, a barbecue expert, a champion pool and domino player, and a proud Black man! From the students who talked about how he helped them through difficult classes, to his frat brothers who laughingly complained that he got them out of bed early many mornings to deliver food to the homeless, he was a man who touched many lives. This feminist mom was gifted with such a thoughtful and caring child who grew into a fabulous man. Although he was born of rape and incest, he made me love him immediately when they put him in my arms at the hospital, and I could not go through with the adoption. I saw how he helped others love him throughout his life of service to his family, community, Q brothers, and people. One example of how exceptional he became was demonstrated by the six siblings he sought out to bring his father’s children together to be brothers and sisters in unity, despite his father’s dubious history of violating young women. What other child of rape would do that?

I now know the stark difference between sadness and depression, because my depression comes and goes. The sadness of immense grief never totally dissipates, but grows easier to bear each day. The support from my Black sisterhood helps in ways I can never express: the pinochle sister Edith who came in her walker despite her physical pain to be with me that night. The best friend Dazon who slept with me so I would not be alone. The SisterSong leader Monica who helped elicit donations to pay for expenses. My older blood sister Carol who helped raise Howard. She talked to me every day but couldn’t attend the funeral because of her own disabilities. I am grateful for all of them and thankful that I was not alone in my grief unlike how I was isolated during my childhood traumas because I couldn’t tell anyone what happened. I can now share my story because of the anti-rape movement, and each telling helps the healing. I celebrate my son because he taught me what accountability actually looks like. I had to be accountable to him and my decision to keep him. He was accountable to me and his siblings. Maybe love with accountability is paying it forward instead of looking backwards.


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Loretta J. Ross was the National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective from 2005-2012. She has appeared on CNN, BET, “Lead Story,” “Good Morning America,” “The Donahue Show,” the National Geographic Channel, and “The Charlie Rose Show.” She has been interviewed in the New York Times, Time Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post, among others. She helped create the theory of “Reproductive Justice” in 1994 and led a rape crisis center in the 1970s. She co-authored Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice in 2004.

Self Love with Accountability by CeCelia Falls

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By CeCelia Falls

I have been accused of living in the past. This comment has usually come after I engage in a discussion about childhood sexual abuse. The ease at which I now disclose having been raped as a child by an adult male family member is uncomfortable for many people to hear.  A discomfort that is thrown back at me with dismissive comments like:

you have to stop living in the past

or

it’s time you got over that.”

That is a different kind of discomfort than what I experienced from disclosing my history to a therapist who remarked about the lack of emotion as I recounted what happened to my ten year old self. That discomfort was my therapist’s acknowledgement of how disconnected I was from the impact of my own history of abuse. That discomfort came from knowing the costs of that type of disconnect.

The discomfort that comes now has nothing to do with a “disconnect” in me, but from a societal disconnect from the reality of childhood sexual abuse—its nature, prevalence and impact on the survivor, families, and community at large. I find this discomfort both common and odd. Common because childhood sexual abuse is an uncomfortable, ugly, painful reality. Odd, because though it is all of those things-it is an incredibly common occurrence, across cultures and socioeconomic groups. So why do we still continue to be so silent?

Some will note that we aren’t as silent as we used to be given the books, movies, talk shows, etc. that have addressed childhood sexual abuse. There are also a number of celebrities who have disclosed having been sexually abused as children, yet there is still an air of secrecy and shame that pushes many survivors back into the silence they escaped. There is very little room for dealing with the ongoing consequences of abuse for the survivor.

Part of the problem is the centering of the perpetrator in the conversation. It’s understandable, to a degree. We can all agree that raping children is horrific. Something should be done about it and children should be safe from this type of horror. Punishing the perpetrator becomes the immediate goal to address the issue. While this is important, it does little to address the long term impact of the abuse on the survivor.

My work is centered on survivors and what happens after disclosure, trials, or no trials-which is more often the case. Like many survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I continue to discover what healing means, looks like, and feels like on a day to day basis. As such, I don’t come to this work with all of the answers of an expert, but as a fellow survivor seeking to create a life I love and that works for me.  Surviving, healing, and thriving is at the core.

Being in community with other survivors and expressing myself artistically has been critical in my healing journey. Community helps to end the stigma and shame that often comes with identifying as a survivor. I started the volunteer group Harlem SUN-Souls United to Nurture, to support survivors of African descent and to raise awareness about the nature, prevalence, and impact of childhood sexual abuse in Black communities. We use the arts to give voice, picture, and movement to our experiences as survivors. We are also committed to nurturing ourselves, our families, and communities to create a world free from sexual violence.  Clearly this is a lofty goal, but it can’t be done in silence or without a loving accountability to ourselves as survivors. We owe the hurting parts of ourselves acknowledgement and healing. We deserve it and we can’t wait for the rest of the world to catch up to us. Love with accountability is giving ourselves permission to love ourselves to health and the full good lives we deserve.


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CeCelia Falls is the Founder and Director of Harlem SUN-Souls United to Nurture, a volunteer group for Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse from the African/Black/Caribbean Diaspora. She hosts a monthly open mic called OPEN Expressions in Harlem. She is a writer and educational consultant, and considers both Harlem and Oakland as home.

The Coiled Spring First Grader Deep Inside: Sexual Violence and Restorative Justice by Sikivu Hutchinson

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By Sikivu Hutchinson

Why should we believe her? She’s not a white girl. Hers is not the life story that the media makes visible as gospel, tragedy, and redemption. If she comes forward she could jeopardize her family, its livelihood, its standing in the community. Besides, the real issues that we should be most concerned about are racism, deadly force and the military presence of police in our neighborhoods. Rape and sexual assault are white preoccupations that distract, because, “If you loved your community you would be silent.”

In the toxic litany of messages that black female victims and survivors receive about sexual assault this last is one of the most soul killing, the most deadly. I have written often about how there was no language, program or messaging that existed when I was sexually assaulted as an elementary school student to make my experience visible. I have written less frequently about the shame and disassociation I still feel toward the child who it happened to, the coiled spring first grader nestled deep inside, the one who loved handball, the swings, Electric Company and Golden Legacy comic books.

On the block, in our neighborhood, silence was required for daily survival. Silence meant allegiance to black men and boys splayed in the white man’s radar scope; it meant tacit recognition of their greater suffering, their greater historical sacrifice. Even now, as the political landscape has shifted—as exemplified by the national fury over the lax sentencing of convicted rapist Brock Turner, allegations against Nate Parker and Bill Cosby, as well as Donald Trump’s sexually predatory behavior toward white women—and critiques of campus rape, rape culture and victim-blaming inform mainstream discussions about sexual assault, the specific context of black girls’ experiences are absent from national policy discourse.

The discrediting of black girls’ experiences starts in preschool and kindergarten, where they are taught to endlessly check, police and second guess themselves. It’s symbolized by the hand games that are deemed too aggressive, the dancing that is too “sexual”, the “signifying” that is too loud, disrespectful, and the outfits that the white and Latina girls can wear without getting sent to the dean’s office. It is due in part to this context that—although black women have some of the highest rates of intimate partner violence and sexual assault—we are the least likely to report having been victimized. Even considering the ways in which fear of policing and criminalization in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy hinders us, there is the trauma of constant vilification from within. The Black Church has always played a key role in enforcing this regime of silence. As one of the most devoutly religious communities in the U.S., heterosexist and homophobic attitudes among black folk often perpetuate stigmas against the sexuality of black women and LGBTQ folk.  Biblical references to women as property, rape objects, seducers and subordinates who should remain “silent” are still deeply ingrained among folk who attend churches where the public face of leadership and authority is straight, cis and male.

When we do sexual violence prevention work with high school students we begin by talking about the destructive power of misogynoir within the context of their everyday teen lives. It seems as though new terms are coined every month to smear black girls’ sexuality. Over the past few weeks, the term “gerb” has become popular, joining “ho” “thot” “ratchet” and umpteen other epithets designed to check the “hypersexual”, “unfeminine” behavior of black girls. Of course, mainstream vocabulary has always been boundlessly creative when it comes to demonizing women’s sexuality. Walking students through the historical context of these terms (e.g., the way in which “wench” and “Jezebel” were used to justify the rape of black women under slavery by branding them as hypersexual breeders) is critical to providing youth with context about the relationship between racist, misogynist representations of black women in the past and that of the present. Here, rape culture has foundations in the white supremacist imagination which are then reinforced by obstructionist policies around prosecution, law enforcement investigations and inadequate rape kit testing, all of which make it more difficult for sexual assault survivors to come forward.

During a recent Women’s Leadership Project and Young Male Scholars’ peer education training with members of the football team at a South L.A. high school it was clear that the demonization of black girls’ sexuality played a key role in boys’ inability to empathize with sexual assault victims. The explosion of social media platforms has made it easier for young people to participate in sexual harassment and assault through sexually explicit posts that often cause their victims to leave school and/or harm themselves. As the young people talked about the dissing that happens on popular social media sites, virtually everyone in the room admitted to knowing a girl who’d been targeted.According to the Pew Research Center, African American teens access social media at greater rates than do non-black teens. For black girls, online predation—whether it’s through Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat—is also one of the most prevalent sources of sex trafficking. Poverty, joblessness, low access to educational opportunities and high rates of foster care representation all contribute to African American girls having disproportionate rates of domestic sex trafficking victimization.

Further, the onslaught of films memorializing and contextualizing victimized white women (be it in portrayals as seemingly disparate as those involving Nicole Brown Simpson, the Manson women killers or Amanda Knox) continues to convey the message that white women’s pain should always have priority. When young people of color see these images ad nauseum they are socialized to believe that they are the most authentic narratives vis-à-vis women’s experiences with abuse and sexual and intimate partner violence.

Restorative justice with accountability means actively engaging and training boys and men to challenge rape culture, sexism and misogyny against black women and girls. It means educating boys and men that when they demean us they are ultimately demeaning their lives, communities and families. It requires a transformative vision of black masculinity, one that confronts the way sexual violence is often framed as a “natural” part of black men’s hetero-normative sense of identity. It demands that community and government resources be shifted to prevention programs as well as therapeutic initiatives that provide critical healing space for victims and survivors—away from the prisons, police, and weaponry that lock down black communities. And it also demands bringing forward marginalized histories of the modern civil rights movement, that with its origins in black women’s resistance to sexual terrorism and rape. Finally, it asks us as black feminists/womanists/survivors who love and work with black children to continue to be on the frontlines as culturally responsive adults bringing the elimination of sexual violence into the narrative of liberation struggle. It is the legacy that our black women ancestors, against the code of violent silence and invisibility in their own homes, families and communities, left for us.


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Sikivu Hutchinson, Ph.D., is the founder of the Black feminist humanist high school mentoring program The Women’s Leadership Project and author of the novel White Nights, Black Paradise. She is a contributing editor for The Feminist Wire. You can follow her on Twitter @sikivuhutch

Oh, to Be Free Again: Love, Accountability & Bodily Integrity in Response to Child Sexual Abuse by C. Nicole Mason, Ph.D.

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By C. Nicole Mason, Ph.D.

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Our communities, families, and lives are connected now more than ever. We live in a vivid social and political moment where the voices of victims of violence are heard and felt across various communities and reach the ears of the most powerful in our society. There is no hiding: the harm done to one, whether out of hurt, fear, pain or powerlessness deeply impacts us all.

To me, love with accountability means that each of us, individually and collectively, should and must do all that we can to ensure that when there are violent or abusive acts perpetrated against woman, children or communities that we all stand and take responsibility for the harm inflicted. No one is absolved of responsibility because we all have a role to play, big or small, in making sure justice is served and wholeness is restored.

I am a single mother by choice to two children—boy-girl twins, aged seven. When I watch them play and witness how free they feel in their bodies, I am grateful. They know that they own their bodies and are free (or not) to kiss or hug whomever they choose, including those closest to them, without consequence. This is what I have taught them and the power they carry with them in their daily lives.

This freedom, so integral to our emotional, physical and mental wellbeing has been denied to many victims of child sexual assault. The violation, often at the hands of those who are charged with providing care, love and support to them can cause deep and lasting pain. I know this to be true because I did not have this freedom. When I was a child, I did not feel free in my body or empowered to say no.

For more than two decades, I have worked in various ways to heal the wounds inflicted upon me so many years ago—from working and organizing in the movement to end violence against women and girls to writing about my experience with child sexual assault to raising children with bodily integrity. They have all been exercises in my own quest for wholeness.

To be sure, accountability is a significant part of this process and my journey to wholeness. As such, I continue to use my voice to support, affirm and believe survivors. When the perpetrator is known or among us, I also work to reveal the truth of their actions and the harm it has caused, not only to the victim, but to families and communities as well. For me, there can be no reconciliation until the truth is laid bare.

I have had to save and heal myself. It hasn’t been easy. It is my hope that victims and survivors of child sexual abuse will not have to travel their journey alone and that we will all stand with them to create a society and culture where all are free in their bodies.


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C. Nicole Mason, PhD is the author of Born Bright: A Young Girl’s Journey from Nothing to Something in America (St. Martin’s Press, 2016) and is Executive Director of the Center for Research and Policy in the Public Interest at the New York Women’s Foundation. Prior to her position at CR2PI, Mason was the most recent Executive Director of the Women of Color Policy Network at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. She held the distinction of being one of the youngest scholar-practitioners to lead a major U.S. research center or think tank.  She is also an Ascend Fellow at the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC. She has written hundreds of articles on women, leadership development and economic security. Her writing and commentary have been featured in MSNBC, CNN, NBC, CBS, The Feminist Wire, Real Clear Politics, the Nation, Marie Claire Magazine, the Washington Post, the Progressive, ESSENCE Magazine, the Root, the Grio, the Miami Herald, Democracy Now, and numerous NPR affiliates, among others. You can follow Nicole on Twitter @cnicolemason and connect on her Public Facebook Page.

Sunset: Seeking True Accountability After All of These Years by Tonya Lovelace

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By Tonya Lovelace

“But I can’t remember your face
I can only remember watching the sunset
Behind your back as you tried to enter me
My va-china too small to allow”

–Excerpt from poem “My Innocence.” TLove (Tonya Lovelace), September 27, 2005.

Sunset. This is the bewitching hour that both mesmerizes and haunts me.

That was the time of day that my assailant liked the most. Sitting by Him in my little body, I was forced to please Him in ways that a tiny girl should never know, should never have to do. It is this very point, this need to have me meet His silent demands, guided by His hands and mouth and breath…it is this that bubbles up in all of my actions today. My relationships. My motherhood. My life.

I was too young. Too young to know, and too young to understand. I was helpless and yet powerful. He wanted something from me, and I gave. Until I stopped. Until I told Him that I would tell if He didn’t stop. I was my own savior. And He complied.

This is after grooming. After His insistence that me and His daughter bring in other girls. After hide and seek with naked pictures of those of us He found. After we complied.

I finally told my grandmother when she was giving me an innocent bath. Our ritual. I said “when you wash me there, it reminds me of when He touched me.” She gently asked me to share my story and promised not to tell.

She then told as she needed to…she brought the phone to me and told me it was okay. I could tell my mom. I was safe.

My mom said it was not my fault. That I had a choice. She had a way of making me laugh. She said, “Your dad can kill Him. But then he may have to be away for a long time if he did. Or we could go to court. It is your choice.” I chose court.

In the early seventies, this was revolutionary. A little Black girl in court, talking about how He touched me there. All that He did to me, His daughter, and other girls. I was breaking ground. My mother and father were breaking ground. And the court complied. He was sentenced and put on probation. Pushed out of the military.

But it didn’t stop there for me. I reenacted the scenario, but I WOULD be in charge. I would orchestrate the time, the place, the play. Boys, girls, teenagers. I was in power. We will do what I WANT to do. And it never filled the emptiness, the fear, the trauma.

I do not know His name. I do not know where He lives or who He is. But I smell Him. I feel His touch. I remember the sunset.

I hope that as the sun sets across the country each day, that little girls are vindicated. I hope that accountability is bestowed upon those in family roles, extended family, or family friends like my sexual predator was. I would like to see it in the form of restorative justice. He needs to know, they need to know, what they do to little girls who grow into adult women like me.

I am a CEO of a national nonprofit working to end violence against ALL women by centralizing the voices and leadership of women of color, and my little girl is present every day. She is wounded and hurt.

Court made me feel like I was my own superhero, but I had no real therapeutic help. With young parents, and with a court that did not yet understand, I was not given counseling at the time. I was left to figure it out and to repeat the same patterns. I still do. I am a child sexual assault survivor, bullying survivor, teen dating violence survivor, and domestic violence survivor. My early child sexual abuse (CSA) predator set me up for life.

“I count the years…

1, 2, 3, 4….
The years that she gets older than I was
When I was first touched

I count the tears…
The tears that flow from her eyes
That are not related
To being violated There
 
I count the lies…
7, 8, 9, 10…
The innocent lies that she tells
That aren’t intended to hide her shame 

Shame from someone else’s sin
Someone else’s need to
Be in you and on you
While your tiny bones tremble under the pressure

No, she is Being, 
Being 10
Being raised
Being protected 

So much so
That I have to talk myself
Out of stopping her from
Living”

–Excerpt from poem “Counting.” TLove (Tonya Lovelace), September 27, 2005.

I would like for Him to understand His role in impacting every facet of my life. And the life of my daughter. She was not ever sexually assaulted as I understand. But she carries the scars. She was kept in shackles by me. By my vigilance. My fear. My trauma. She holds my worry and my loss of innocence.

I want Him to know. And I want the courts to make His knowing possible.

And I want to see all children who have experienced any form of child sexual abuse to receive counseling, meditation, and mindfulness training. I am just now getting this information in my late forties after leaving an abusive marriage. I am just finding myself, and leaving a life of disassociation. I just attended my first CSA support group. And I am for the first time finding ME.

I have some solace in knowing that He was held accountable within the courts so long ago. Without a criminal justice response, I am not sure that an interruption in behavior will happen. While I hate that bars and chains within this Eurocentric, Black-hating system, it is presently the only way I know to halt the predatory behavior until other options come about. I would like to see the creation of national, state, and local platforms that allow for the visioning of systematic solutions that develop and steer accountability practices that put child sexual abuse assailants on the hot seat, and put child sexual abuse (CSA) survivors in charge. CSA survivors need to steer this process, and the nation and our communities need to listen.

Because as I cry writing this piece, and know that His touch will never go away, He needs to know. Systems need to know. The world needs to know.

At sunrise, and at sunset.


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Tonya Lovelace is the Chief Executive Officer for theWomen of Color Network, Inc. (WOCN, Inc.), an independent women of color-led national nonprofit based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Originally based in Ohio, Tonya has served in the field of violence against women for 21 years, holding various positions along the way. Tonya holds a Bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from Miami University of Ohio, a Master of Arts in Black Studies and another in Women’s Studies, both from The Ohio State University. She also has served as an Adjunct Instructor at several universities and has conducted numerous trainings on local, state, and national levels. Now living in Harrisburg, PA, Tonya is a proud mother, and believes that one of her greatest achievements is raising a strong, activist daughter in the midst of ongoing global inequity for women and girls of color and their families. Tonya is also a survivor of child sexual assault, bullying, teen dating violence, and domestic violence in her recent adult life. She has a refueled vision of transformed systems and communities that connect the dots across all forms of violence, with intersectional feminism and advocacy at the center of the work. It is her passion and goal to work within innovative spaces and alongside women of color and aspiring allies to help make this a bold reality.

In My Mother’s Name: Restorative Justice for Survivors of Incest by Liz S. Alexander

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By Liz S. Alexander

___________: I, Marla request that you no longer appear at my home due to past crime committed to self lasting several years, non provoked; Crime consisting of both physical and sexual abuse. When in your presence you are not to put your hands on me in any shape or form. Because of you, I have suffered detrimental effects, which have intruded constantly into my life, affecting me as a woman and human being.

 I am the daughter of a survivor of physical and sexual abuse.

During my mother’s childhood and all throughout her adolescence, she was repeatedly physically and sexually abused by her older brothers. All of whom have never been held accountable for their actions. All of whom have been and continue to be protected by the pervasive silence, secrecy, avoidance and denial that seem to be entrenched in my Black family.

As early as eight years old, I can recall my mother, Marla, telling my brother and me about her experiences of sexual and physical abuse during her childhood at the hands of her brothers. Coming from a home of parental absenteeism and neglect, my mother’s only form of escape from the abuse was becoming pregnant at age sixteen by a boy who she “sought emotional comfort from.” In my mother’s attempt to tell me of her abuse, I was unable to fully grasp the depth of what had happened to her. At the time, I couldn’t even begin to conceptualize the abhorrent act of sexual violence. However, I was acutely aware that her experience shaped how she chose to mother me, her only daughter. I can recall that regardless of my mother’s financial status as a single parent raising four children, at each place we lived, I always had my own room. Even if it meant that my brothers went without one. Additionally, my mother was attentive to what I wore and she was extremely sensitive to how boys and men reacted to me in public; especially since I always presented older than what I was because of my Amazonian physique. In one case, I can vividly remember my mother confronting a man in public, who had attempted to engage with me inappropriately.

Unfortunately, my mother’s experience of physical and sexual abuse is not unique. According to a 2014 study on sexual abuse, the U.S. Department of Justice found that an estimated 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. In 93% of the cases, the perpetrators of the abuse were a family member or someone they knew. For Black women and girls, 60% of black girls experience sexual assault by the time they reach 18 and for every black woman that reports her sexual assault there are at least 15 black women who do not, according to the preliminary findings by Black Women’s Blueprint. Additionally, given the legacy of historical trauma in the Black experience in the U.S, coupled with the incessant subjection to violence and victimization under a white supremacist, capitalist and patriarchal regime, Black women and girls are often shamed into silence out of the need to sacrifice themselves, in order to protect the “Black race.”

In her book, No Secrets No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal from Sexual Abuse, Robin D. Stone, identifies the following as the cultural taboos and social dynamics that Black women and girls have to navigate, in addition to the sexual abuse they endure, when confronted with incest and other forms of child sexual abuse in a familial context:

Fear of betraying family by turning offenders in to “the system”
Distrust of institutions and authority figures, such as police officers
Reluctance to seek counseling or therapy
A legacy of enslavement and stereotypes about black sexuality

Given this, in order to appropriately support Black women and girls who are survivors of incest and other forms of child sexual abuse within the familial context, in my experience, it is imperative that a restorative justice healing framework be realized and implemented, where the needs of women and girls survivors are centered.

In my personal experience, despite the physical and sexual abuse my mother endured at the hands of her brothers, in her adulthood, she maintained contact with them. In fact, during my childhood, she allowed my siblings and me to spend the night in their homes un-monitored. Granted, by this time, her brothers had families of their own and in my personal experience, when I went to their homes, I was neither harmed nor did I ever fear for my safety. I say this to say that in my Black family, where abuse was and still may be present, the survivors and perpetrators are in contact with each other. And if contact is inevitable, it should be done so in a restorative justice context.

Restorative Justice (RJ) is an indigenous practice that has been used to mediate conflict for centuries. However, it was introduced in the 21st century as theoretical concept by John Braithwaite, Howard Zehr, and Mark Umbreit (and others). RJ is a non punitive process that seeks to mediate conflict between victims, offenders and the community at large, for the purpose of healing harm and fostering rehabilitation for all parties involved. Moreover, for families, RJ involves “acknowledgment of fault by the offender (and family), restitution of some sort to the victim, including both affective apologies and material exchanges or payments, and often new mutual understandings, forgiveness, and agreed-to new undertakings for improved behaviors.” RJ re-connects offenders back to the family rather than isolate them, while holding the offenders accountable.

Additionally, if RJ is to be realized as an effective framework for Black families to heal survivors, offenders and the entire family from sexual violence, as well as to dismantle familial sexual violence, the healing needs of Black women and girls must be centered. When Black women and girls are centered in this process, RJ creates the space where they are empowered to decide what justice is. They also have the power to choose to forgive and accept restitution or reconciliation, or not, as well as to choose what they think is the proper balance between reconciliation and family peace. And the first step to centering the needs of Black women and girls is to believe them.

Unfortunately, my mother will never have the opportunity to experience the process of RJ because she died prematurely as a result of negative life outcomes that were a direct result of her childhood experiences of physical and sexual violence. However, she devoted the latter part of her life to healing herself, reclaiming her power, confronting her abusers and raising a daughter who would one day call out and disrupt the pervasive silence, secrecy, avoidance and denial regarding physical and sexual abuse that seem to be entrenched in her Black family.

I am the daughter of a survivor of physical and sexual abuse,

And

I claim healing in my mother’s name.


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Liz S. Alexander MA, MSW is a thought leader, public servant and advocate for justice involved youth. A recent transplant from Chicago, Liz has extensive experience working in a program administrative capacity supporting system involved youth. Liz is the founder of She Dreams of Freedom, a project that raises awareness about the plight of girls in the juvenile justice system, while also providing a platform to empower the voices of girls in the juvenile justice system. As a restorative justice practitioner, Liz is committed to working in partnership with justice involved girls to end the pipeline of girls into the juvenile justice system. In 2015, Liz was recognized as a “40 under 40” Young Woman Professional Leader by Demoiselle 2 Femme, a trailblazing organization serving girls on the South Side of Chicago, and most recently she was named as a “ Woman of Influence” by the YWCA of New York City. Liz received a Masters of Social Work with a focus in Trauma and Violence from the University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration and a Masters of Religious Leadership with a concentration in Social Transformation from the Chicago Theological Seminary. Liz received her Bachelor’s of Arts degree from Spelman College where she majored in Sociology.

We need Speak7 because Black Children Matter and Child Sexual Abuse Thrives in Silence! by MiKeiya Morrow

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By MiKeiya Morrow

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A very loud silence surrounds matters of child sexual abuse in the African American community. This silence impairs healthy and appropriate dialogue on child sexual abuse in our families and communities. This silence dismisses and discredits the lived experiences of child sexual abuse survivors. This silence debilitates law, justice, and accountability for child sexual perpetrators. This silence also arrests the development and implementation of local and national initiatives aimed at fostering and expanding child sexual abuse advocacy, outreach, prevention, intervention, and treatment. The Speak7 African American Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Program is a novel initiative that grew out of my discontent with this pervasive and painful silence, and my determination to speak out about child sexual abuse in the African American community. This brief reflection provides an overview of the Speak7 African American Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Program and the 5 Sexual Safety Affirmative Values that serve as a guiding framework in this intervention.

 

Child sexual abuse among African American children is a complex issue that warrants critical examination and the expansion of innovative and comprehensive solutions. The Speak7 African American Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Program (Speak7) is a viable response to the crisis of child sexual abuse among African American children. Speak7 is a culturally sensitive and adult-focused child sexual abuse prevention program that was developed to enhance child sexual abuse prevention competence among adults who provide for African American children. This intervention integrates the best available child maltreatment, prevention, and African American cultural studies research to promote the safety and well-being of African American children. As a culturally sensitive initiative, Speak7 explicitly aims to foster a greater awareness of the scope and complexity of child sexual abuse among African American children, and to empower African American communities to exercise transformative agency to prevent child sexual abuse.

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I believe adults bear primary responsibilities for child sexual abuse prevention and that a predominately child-focused approach unfairly places the burden of child sexual abuse prevention on children. With this in mind, Speak7 explicitly targets adults who provide for African American children as the subjects of this intervention. As adults, we create and sustain social and cultural norms that shape the environment in which we all live and directly impact child sexual abuse outcomes. Thus, we are responsible for challenging toxic attitudes and practices that foster child sexual abuse, and promoting healthy attitudes and practices that protect children and prohibit child sexual abuse.

The Speak7 African American Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Program utilizes the 5 Sexual Safety-Affirmative Values, which serve as a guiding framework in this intervention. These values are vital to creating safe environments and preventing child sexual abuse among African American children. The 5 Sexual Safety-Affirmative Values include:

#1 Open & Honest Dialogue

We believe that child sexual abuse thrives in silence. We vow to regularly and honestly speak about child sexual abuse within our homes and communities.

#2 Child Empowerment

We believe in respecting and nurturing children’s personal power. We vow to educate children about child sexual abuse and to empower children to exercise agency over their bodies.

#3 Survivor Integrity

We believe that child sexual abuse survivors should be treated with respect, compassion, and dignity. We vow to acknowledge the lived experiences of child sexual abuse survivors and honor survivors’ voices and perspectives.

 #4 Perpetrator Accountability

We believe that child sexual perpetrators need justice and accountability. We vow to report child sexual perpetrators to the appropriate authorities and to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable and receive treatment.

#5 Collective Healing

We believe that healing is the work and responsibility of the collective. We vow to acknowledge the harmful effects of sexual violence on individuals, families, and communities, and support treatment, healing, and recovery for child sexual abuse survivors.

The 5 Sexual Safety-Affirmative Values establish a set of guiding principles that prioritize the health and safety of children and survivors, and promote the broader well-being of African American children, families, and communities. Furthermore, Speak7 is an emergent child sexual abuse prevention initiative that is centered on the experience and needs of African American children. I believe that the child sexual abuse epidemic can be defeated and that Speak7 makes a valuable and promising contribution towards this end.

The Speak7 African American Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Program was developed by MiKeiya Morrow, M.A., Ed.S., doctoral candidate in Counseling Psychology at the University of Kentucky. Correspondence regarding the Speak7 African American Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Program may be submitted to MiKeiya Morrow at m.morrow “AT” uky “DOT” edu.


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MiKeiya Morrow is a doctoral candidate in the Counseling Psychology program at the University of Kentucky. She received a B.A. in Criminal Justice from Oklahoma City University and a M.A. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Central Oklahoma. Her clinical interests include child maltreatment, sexual violence, PTSD, substance abuse, and serious mental illness. She has clinical training and experience working in residential substance abuse treatment, university counseling, inpatient psychiatric hospitals, and veterans hospitals. Her research agenda focuses on the primary prevention of child sexual abuse among African American children and the development of culturally sensitive prevention initiatives. MiKeiya is the creative developer of Speaking Spaces Org and the author of the Speak7 African American Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Program. She is a dedicated children’s rights and social justice advocate, and is active in various local and national organizations. You can connect with Speaking Space Org on Facebook and follow them on twitter. MiKeiya may be reached at m.morrow “AT” nulluky “DOT” edu .

A Network of Care by Alicia Sanchez Gill

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By Alicia Sanchez Gill

I know something about trauma. And I’ve known too much about pain for too long. From the moment I experienced the first daggers of sexual abuse at age seven, until last night, when I responded to an email from a stranger requesting resources for a child sexual abuse survivor in their life, my work has centered around my own experiences of harm, and the experiences of survivors who are a lot like me. As a queer, person of color, a survivor of child sexual abuse (living at the intersection of many identities both tangible and intangible) and as a social worker whose life has focused squarely on anti-violence and healing, I often think about the ways survivors heal and resist. In a world that tells us to shrink, a society that tells us we don’t have a right to exist, or do this work, or be the experts on our own lives, we are still here. We create meaning and find hope in our interdependence.

My understanding of abuse is deeply shaped by my own values and my narrative, but also by the stories of the hundreds of hotline calls I have answered, folks I have worked with in support groups, friends, and friends of friends who have bravely and sometimes desperately shared their stories with me. Looking for answers. Hoping for healing. Searching for a more just world, however they might create it. Our stories are woven together in a web of mutual care. What I have learned is that our stories become catalysts for change. What I have learned is that our individual and collective healing takes a network of care, support, and speaking the unspoken.

Child sexual abuse, by its very nature, demands shame and isolation. Our abusers manipulated our voices and then counted on our silence, and the silence of those around us. It is complex because we know that our abusers are often the folks who are closest to us—the ones who are supposed to keep us safe. The ones who look like us and speak our language in a world where we are so often “othered.” It is confusing because our abusers hurt us and then helped us finish science projects, or took us to church or bought us ice cream. It hurts because our abusers are still here, at Sunday dinners, at graduations, at holiday gatherings. For many survivors, the devastating negotiation of speaking our truth and losing loved ones or remaining silent is a choice we should never have had to make. The radical, loving choice for those around us is to dismantle our “culture of quiet.”

I want to vision a place where children are protected from violence and a place where children are supported the very first time they experience harm. I want to vision a place where parents and teachers have paid sick leave, and living wages, and time to be attune to their children’s and student’s needs and behaviors. A place where families aren’t ripped apart through deportations, policing, and a carceral state. I want to vision a place where the protection of children is community-led, not institutionalized. Where child safety, health and well-being is not placed solely on the shoulders of women and femmes.

Networks of care for our children, and for the adults who have survived means creating community-based responses to violence. Responses which do not engage in punitive justice, but hold perpetrators accountable and keep survivors safe. It allows us to wrestle with dichotomies of good/bad, and the various complexities and nuances of the communities with whom we are engaged. This may involve affirming church communities, it may involve family, and friends. We are often the first people child sexual abuse survivors go to when they tell, both as adults and in childhood—families, friends, partners, co-workers. Believing survivors, being prepared and utilizing all of our resources in a coordinated, safe way, we can help survivors feel seen and heard, and protect the children who have yet to come.

Recently, I watched a terrifying, but fascinating video of fire ants. These ants work together so closely and in such a coordinated way, that they become a moving, protected, semi-solid structure. And yet, when a barrier falls in their way, like a tree branch, they are able to navigate around the barrier in a way that behaves almost like water. And not one ant got left behind. What if our networks of care could be like the fire ants? Solid, and coordinated, but adaptable and responsive to need? Our networks of care center around safety, rehabilitation, accountability and healing—creating communities where child sexual abuse is no longer tolerated, and in fact, eradicated. Where those of us who have survived are not left to pick up the pieces of our shame alone, but are met with a chorus of “we believe you” and “it’s not your fault.” Networks of care recognize that when violence happens, the whole community needs healing.

For those of us who never told, or told and weren’t believed, for those of us who were left unprotected, we know the swelling of betrayal that rises up in our throats. Our stories are powerful calls to action. Our stories allow us to connect to one another, and name our abuse and our abusers. Our stories are grounded in love for ourselves and our communities. Our stories help make manifest the world we want to see. It is through these deep and meaningful connections, these networks of care, that I was able to come back from my darkest edges, and begin healing.What I have learned from survivors is that it is our interdependence that will save us.


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Alicia Sanchez Gill is a queer, Afro latinx survivor. She has many years of engaging in intersectional work through various gender-based violence, HIV, and LGBTQ programs and has many more years of experience tending to her heart and the hearts of those closest to her. She has been responsible for crisis intervention with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and folks experiencing acute mental health crises, sex work organizing and HIV housing advocacy and now focuses on research because no one else can tell our stories like we can.

Alicia holds a masters of social work and has conducted research and policy writing on reproductive justice, the intersections of HIV and intimate partner violence, trauma-informed care, street-based economies, and harm-reduction models. She believes data can help tell our stories and can be both accessible and impactful. She is deeply committed to dismantling oppression, uplifting solidarity across identities, and helping to collectively shape a more just world.

Casting Aspersions by Tashmica Torok

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By Tashmica Torok

I don’t know where my father’s urn is. At the age of 20, I moved and left his box in the top of my closet. It wasn’t an accident. I made a conscious decision to not carry that man any further into my future. I wish that symbolic gesture of physically leaving him behind transferred easily to a mental reality. There is no leaving traumatic memories of severe childhood sexual abuse completely behind. Those memories are folded into the deepest corners of my brain where they will remain until I die.

I don’t remember when the sexual abuse started. I only remember that it ended with his unexpected death. My father was training to become a Green Beret in the Army and while paratrooping, a blood clot burst in his brain and he died. The abuse had come to an end but I was now left with a secret that loomed overhead as my family grieved and attempted to move on.

My father had threatened that if I told, I would destroy the family. I was also told that he was preparing me to be a wife. I still remember him explaining that it was like the nudity in National Geographic. This was my early education.

A year after his death, I told a trusted teacher and with her help, my mother. I was believed and supported immediately. When people ask me about what made the biggest difference in my healing, I tell them that I was believed and tremendously loved. I never felt blamed or shamed into silence.

When I am working with families who have been impacted by child sexual abuse, I have to admit that the idea of seeking accountability is unfamiliar to me. My father’s early death turned out to be my salvation and at 9 years old, I knew that my father would never be held accountable for his actions. I would have to be the one who bore the consequences for defiantly sharing my personal story. I would be the one held responsible for ruining his reputation. I knew that my father would always get off easy. I thought of his death as a clandestine escape route. Even though he didn’t die by his own hand, I still blamed him for leaving me holding his secret in my two little hands.

As an adult, I watch our communities wrestle with the idea of accountability. I watch our conversations as they circle around what should be done with perpetrators. We discuss treatment, restorative justice, incarceration and often, in internet threads, violence against perpetrators. We struggle to pull the pieces of what we think should happen together and then watch much of it fall away as our current system is not capable of fully addressing the complexity of child sexual abuse.

I will not stand here and tell you that I have an idea of what I would have wanted had my father survived. I cannot be sure that I would have ever disclosed what was happening. I often joke that my only form of accountability was to cast aspersions on an urn in my closet. “Damn you, dead dad.” I don’t know that I would have wanted him to go to jail or if restorative justice would have been something that would have helped my family. I am almost certain my father had his own story of abuse to tell and for that, I have found within myself a space for understanding and compassion.

Here’s the thing though. The children who experience sexual abuse in our communities are often completely disconnected from the process of accountability. Much of what happens after disclosure is controlled by laws, requirements and processes that have little flexibility to allow a survivor-led approach to addressing child sexual abuse within a family structure.

If you read that and it scared you a little, know that you are not alone. I recognize that moving towards treatment, restorative justice, and survivor-led accountability places the faith of the community in a new form of justice. It is not our country’s norm to ponder healing over punitive measures. I struggle with the idea of ever trusting perpetrators to participate in what feels like a lenient system.

Still, we have to recognize that the systems that we have put into place are not decreasing incidences of child sexual abuse. If anything, as we challenge dangerous stigmas and become more vocal about child sexual abuse, we are likely to see an increase in reports. We are not fully approaching prevention if we are not addressing the trauma and violence that have historically impacted communities of color. When our ancestors were raised to emulate overseers and taught that rape was a commonplace struggle to clean up and pray away in church pews later, we have to recognize that child sexual abuse is deeply intertwined with an inability to heal from our past. We have to acknowledge that what’s missing is not punishment, it’s the survivor’s voice and guidance.

In order to move in this direction, we must all agree that a survivor is to be trusted (or believed) when they tell us they’ve been harmed. We must decide as a community, that their healing and well-being is our first priority. We must reevaluate our justice system to ensure that the policies and procedures related to addressing child sexual abuse address long term cultural shifts in addition to short term public safety. There is a laundry list of things we must do if we decided to moved towards a survivor-led focus on accountability but in all honestly, I’m not sure we’ll get past that first one.

When given the opportunity, our community at large will allow the perpetrator to make excuses for their behavior when accountability requires a full and truthful admission of guilt. If we advocate for the truth, we have to let go of the ideas that our religion, respectability, morality, and discipline will keep us safe. When a child disrupts the view of safety that adults cling to, they push the child to view the world in a way that consoles the adults rather than protecting and validating the child.

In 2016, victims of sexual trauma have been asked by their faith community to apologize to their perpetrator, they have been punished by their school for lewd behavior ‘regardless of consent’ and they have had their sexual assaults publicly justified as treatments for injuries sustained during gymnastics.

(If you’re guessing that gymnastics injuries are not typically treated with intravaginal procedures, you would be correct.)

These are not all instances of child sexual abuse as seen within the family structure but they do indicate that culturally, we prefer to protect the reputations, titles, and honor of individuals or systems above and beyond the child survivor. These examples cannot exist on a larger scale without a supportive microcosm of rape culture playing itself out in our homes.

Instead of believing children and allowing them to lead us towards the truth, we gaslight them until they no longer recognize the truth in themselves, others, or the world around them. If we do not allow for survivor-led accountability when a child has been victimized than we cannot claim to love that child. All we can claim is a loyalty to a system that often excludes them. All we can say, is that we are willing to make a living sacrifice of that child in exchange for what makes us comfortable.


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Tashmica Torok is the founder and executive director of The Firecracker Foundation, a 501©3 nonprofit that honors the bravery of children who have survived sexual trauma by building a community invested in the healing of their whole being. Tashmica is not just a nonprofit entrepreneur. She’s wicked funny, the mother of three boys and an avid mimosa enthusiast. She is also a survivor of child sexual trauma with a deeply held belief that vulnerable storytelling changes the way we view and react to suffering.

Social Silence & Child Sexual Abuse by Cyree Jarelle Johnson

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By Cyree Jarelle Johnson

TW: Child Sexual Abuse, Ableism, Suicide

I didn’t start talking until I was approaching five years old. This is not uncommon for some people with autism and its associated disorders, but it is relatively uncommon for people diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. In fact, a criteria of being diagnosed is that there are no significant delays in language. It’s one of the myths of the disease; what does “significant” even mean? Others myths paint autistic children as cold and unloving, violent and defiant, and less intelligent than their peers. Like many children with Asperger’s, I was a creature of obsession: blue whales; the sea in general; and as I grew older, Greek mythology—particularly that material myth, Socrates.

Sometimes obsession leads me to re-read Plato’s Symposium and cry; more often it looks like quoting Socrates and visiting his bust at The Met. I was recounting my interest in Socrates recently, during a meet and greet for incoming MFA students at Columbia, when my classmate looked over at me, with a grin on his face. Didn’t Socrates diddle little boys? he half asked, half accused. Of course, the answer is yes. The ancient Greeks were invested in a cultural pederasty that, in their society, defined romantic norms. Pederasty was a social phenomenon, embedded in their myths, their men, and their Gods.

Yet, I take issue with my classmate’s question, one meant to cast history as a tragedy that has ended. Questions like that ignore that Americans also have a culture of child predation — we just prefer to look away. As a Black person, I know that child molestation and child sexual abuse are embedded within our culture. It’s in the silence around Michael Jackson’s terrible personal boundaries, and numerous accounts of child molestation. It’s the people still willing to defend him against these still mounting claims in the present day. It reappears when we can still dance to new music by R. Kelly, a man known to prowl high schools and shopping malls for teenage girls, offering them gifts in exchange for sex. The same man miraculously acquitted of raping his own teenage goddaughter not so long ago.

Even without any famous examples we can look to our family reunions, cultural events, places of worship, and homes to find evidence of this culture. We can look to our neighbors and friends for proof. Sexual violence is part and parcel of the emotional and social violence that occur within our communities. My initial inability to tell anyone about the sexual abuse I was experiencing at the hands of an elderly female neighbor created the perfect environment for it to continue. My family didn’t run to check on me because they were simply relieved to be rid of me for a while.

Autistic children are accused of being burdens to our parents and families. We are asked to be thankful when we are not murdered by their hands. We are asked to keep still when we stim, calm down during a meltdown, be quiet when we are echolalic, and stop any ticks or repetitive movements that adults find objectionable. These messages are violent, and justify violence against autistic people. These beliefs allow child sexual abuse to continue. When we ask children to be things that they are not, and to create themselves in ways that we deem appropriate, we communicate the message that what we want for their bodies is more important than their self-determination. If we truly want to end child sexual abuse, we need to recognize the autonomy of children over their own bodies. That doesn’t mean that they can do whatever they want, it simply recognizes that they have the final say over their bodies when safety is not a concern. It insists that a child that flaps their hands, doesn’t speak at all, won’t make eye contact, or never stops talking doesn’t need to be “fixed” just because adults don’t like the behavior. My family and community would have needed to revise the way they thought of me to make space for my agency before they could effectively demand accountability from the woman who molested me.

Personally, I believe that the accountability model is a conservative and confessional one. It stops at the level of admitting to the violence – an important step, but only the first one. When I hear about “community accountability,” what is meant is that the whole community will work to hold a single person “accountable” to a harmful action or series of actions. This model forgets that abuse thrives in silence and isolation. Silence and isolation can only occur when a community turns away from great injustice. Thus whole communities are implicated in all instances of child sexual abuse. I don’t need anyone to confess their guilt publicly, I already know who harmed me, and in many cases, so does everyone else. I need a community where everyone recognizes the role they played in that violation.

One reason why communities, a word I mean here as some amorphous combination of families, neighbors, congregations of faith or worship, and institutions such as school or local government, choose to ignore child sexual abuse is because the response is assumed to be necessarily punitive and to require an overwhelming amount of evidence to prove. Nobody wants Uncle Jerome to do jail time. How can you prove the pastor touched you? Aren’t you too young to even know what rape is? The victim is punished because the perpetrator is unavailable to punish, or too important to punish. The victim is of no importance because they are sullied by the crime, and suspect just for telling someone. Instead of radical communities consistently asking for ways to make child sexual abuse accountability less punitive for those who perpetuate it, I would like to first see it become less punitive for the children who have endured it.

What would it take to restore communities after child sexual abuse is reparations? I don’t think that these must necessarily be monetary, but a recognition that something material is taken in acts of great violence is important. If communities provide CSA survivors with somatics or therapy, people may be less likely to continue the cycle of abuse, and could heal from the addictions and harmful coping mechanisms that often come with having experienced violence. If communities paid for training or education for CSA survivors, we could gain a new dream in exchange for all the ones that were squashed and snuffed out. I don’t think it is realistic to try to restore the relationship between abused and abuser after CSA, but I believe that we can restore the relationship between a child and their community by offering services and benefits after such a violation.

Please, give us our reparations if you knew that someone was hurting us and we couldn’t cry out for ourselves. Please check on us, make sure we don’t hang ourselves, don’t hurt ourselves. It is a sisyphean burden to carry each day. All we can do is try to be accountable to ourselves, to our healing. All we can do is teach children that they own their bodies, and that adults who ask them to keep secrets want to harm them. All we can do is be the vanguard of the movement to end child sexual abuse.


Photo Credit: Nicole Myles

Photo Credit: Nicole Myles

Cyree Jarelle Johnson is a black non-binary essayist and poet from Piscataway, New Jersey. Their writing concerns community as a sight of trauma, animality, myth-making, and afro-pessimism. Cyree Jarelle is a Poetry Editor at The Deaf Poets Society, a journal of D/deaf and Disabled literature and art. They are a proud member of Harriet Tubman Collective. They are currently a candidate for a MFA in Creative Writing – Poetry from Columbia University.

Accountability to Ourselves and Our Children by Ignacio Rivera

Content Notice: The purpose of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire and project is to prioritize child sexual abuse, healing, and justice in national dialogues and work on racial justice and gender-based violence. Several of the featured articles in this forum give an in-depth and, at times, graphic examination of rape, molestation, and other forms of sexual harm against diasporic Black children through the experiences and work of survivors and advocates. The articles also offer visions and strategies for how we can humanely move towards co-creating a world without violence. Please take care of yourself while reading. 


By Ignacio Rivera

Love is overwhelming. I’m not referring to the act or ability to, but the very idea of it. It holds many meanings—interpretations. Love is subjective but love should be good—right? In that good love, how does accountability show up? What does love with accountability look like? Specifically, what does it look like in the context of survivorship? The practice of accountability has gained more attention in the last several years. We sometimes revel in the philosophy of accountability but the lived experience of what that looks likes varies. I guess you can say that love and accountability are subjective. Dually, we may have universal guidelines that aid in our interpretation of what these things mean separately and united. Aishah Shahidah Simmons, a long-time comrade and a fellow recipient of the Just Beginning Collaborative Fellowship for child sexual abuse survivors of color, asked me to contribute to her project and ponder this quandary.

In my attempt to ponder, I am reminded of how both our projects—The HEAL Project and#LoveWITHAccountability—although different in approach, circle into one another. There is a connection. Pieces of a puzzle that ultimately form a larger framework for addressing and ending childhood sexual abuse (CSA). In #LoveWITHAccountability, Aishah speaks of love as a verb; an action, that all too often gets derailed or eliminated when it comes to confronting child sexual abuse within the family unit.

The majority of us are taught from birth that regardless of any transgression we may experience at the hands of a family member, we must protect the family at all cost. Love is all too often used as a weapon against survivors of abuse…

If you love me, if you love this family, you wouldn’t tell. I’ve seen this “protection” of sorts, dissected over 15 years ago, in the anti-violence movement within the LGBT community. Struggling to win basic rights and gain legitimacy in our relationships, the intimate partner violence occurring within was suppressed. Uncovering the violence would harm our fight for rights— so some thought. #LoveWITHAccountability’s focus is families of color, specifically of African descent, thus the protection of the sexual, physical, psychological, economical violence within either of these family structures is anchored in our experiences with oppression. Normalcy, fitting in, not ruffling any feathers and hopefully avoiding homophobic, transphobic, racist and sexist law enforcement—a survival technique, that comes at a cost. This is the place where cultural, historical, community driven measures in addressing CSA is a necessity. It certainly should be a wider accepted option for those needing/wanting resolution and self-identified justice. In revisiting the concept of family “protection,” specifically from state punishment, restorative and transformative justice are frameworks that allow for more than prison time. It incorporates reactive accountability, has the potential to instill a long-term accountability action plan (proactive), it aids in the shifting of power, and allows for healing on survivors own terms.

Accountability, more often than not, has been experienced as a form of punishment, in answer to a wrong one has done. It is the aftermath– reactionary process of blame and shame–often times using call-out culture and more recently call-in culture to address the “misstep.” This process is only a piece of the potential accountability can offer. It should be a part of the very foundation of how we interact with one another. It should be how we come to expect respect as part of the culture, our communication and problem solving. Love cannot be maintained without accountability. Accountability in essence should be experienced as proactive and reactive but never reactive alone. In searching for the “official definition” of accountability, I found several. Most of which define it as taking responsibility for one’s actions, admitting to mistakes and being answerable to someone. I’d add that this should be understood as an overall framework of trustworthiness and responsibility of intentional actions—thus not necessarily structured as punitive (after the fact) but can be used as such to remind us of said structure. Love is accountability and accountability is love. If we believe, as Aishah states, that love is a verb, then if we navigate accountability as reactive, it in essences cancels out love. If love is moving, intentional and constantly acting, then we are processing through accountability. I want to believe that we have the capacity to love with accountability—take responsibility before there is an issue, a misstep or in this case a violation.

The levels of accountability should be noted here. I try to navigate it internally, interpersonally and community wide. How am I engaging, understanding power, and what boundaries am I putting in place for myself? How am I questioning myself? Since accountability cannot function with me alone, how am I making myself vulnerable? What am I sharing/asking of my peers? How am I listening to their input/critique? Finally, how am I engaging with the wider community? These levels function as a punitive framework as well. What did I do? Do I understand the ramifications of my actions? Self-reflection is key. Then, we must engage in “telling on ourselves.” Engaging with our peers, chosen family, family of origin, and others allows for loving critique, advice and action steps. The process goes beyond just accepting responsibility but doing some work. Saying you accept responsibility, taking steps to maintain that responsibility or doing something to rectify what you have done are all different things.

What we know is that child sexual abuse is an epidemic. It is traumatic. Surviving it increases the chances that you will be sexually assaulted as an adult and or experience intimate partner/domestic violence. We know that the most vulnerable children—those at the margins of oppression— suffer at an increased rate. We know that children are targeted because they are vulnerable and are seen as easily manipulated. We know that the effects of CSA are long lasting—especially around sex, sexuality and relationships. How would loving our children—daughters, nieces, grandchildren, Godsons—with accountability shift this abusive reality?

For me, The HEAL Project, is about not teaching through fear. It is about giving our children information—the tools to understand their bodies. It goes beyond “good touch, bad touch and stranger danger.” It picks up where CSA prevention has left off. It pushes parents to engage with their children around sex(uality). It helps to create well informed young people and aids children in finding their voice and agency. It opens up the lines of communication in a bigger way. It eliminates shame and uncovers secrecy—the places where abuse breeds. This love is radical because it is intentional and proactive.

When we teach our children how to swim, we don’t engage them through fear. The lesson goes beyond, fearing the deep end and possible drowning. We talk about our relationship to water, what it feels like to walk, run and dive into water. We talk about the joys of swimming and we inform them of the dangers. Most importantly, we engage them in discussing what safety looks like and what to and not to do in an emergency. In comparison, how do we teach sex(uality) to our children and young people? Do we leave it to the school system, have one talk with them at a designated age or don’t speak on sex at all? Are we holding back vital life information that can help our children, families and community address CSA? If we begin to think about sex(uality) education as an imperative tool for life, we would shift fear-based, incomplete or non-existent sex talks into accountable lessons for parent/guardian, children and young people. It would be an ever growing and shifting life lesson with growth and learning on all ends. It would cover body image, reproductions, sexual desire, masturbation, sexually transmitted infections, pornography, sex and love, sex without love, sexism, homophobia, consent, boundary setting, relationship building, negotiating what we want, and so so much more. It is a lifelong process that truly aids in our ability to function as connected humans. Even a lifeguard has to re-certify every two years. A refresher, a reminder because it is just that important; this is accountability with love. I am responsible for the swimmers or my children and keeping myself informed. I understand the role of power here– I am the lifeguard. I have skill to protect/save swimmers. I am a parent, guardian, grandparent, aunt– I am the adult, I must keep myself informed, teach all that I can, talk with my children beyond “the talk,” show them that they can talk to me about anything. This is a commitment. It is a process. It is the action of love. This is Love with accountability.


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Ignacio Rivera is a Queer, Trans, Two-Spirit, Black-Boricua Taíno who prefers the gender-neutral pronoun “they.” Ignacio has spoken nationally and internationally on racism, sexism, LGBTQ issues, anti-oppression, anti-violence, sexual liberation, multi-issue organizing and more. Ignacio’s work has manifested itself through skits, one-person shows, poetry, lectures, workshops, and experimental film. Ignacio is the founder of Poly Patao Productions, sporadically blogs on WhatTheySaidBlog.com, is one of the founding board members of Queers for Economic Justice as well as one of the 2016 Just Beginnings Collaborative Fellows. Just Beginnings Collaborative (JBC) is a movement building platform designed to initiate, cultivate, and fund strategic efforts to end child sexual abuse.

For more information, check out: http://heal2end.comhttp://www.IgnacioGRivera.com, and http://whattheysaidblog.com.