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 Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis
As a womanist psychologist, minister, and sacred artist, my reflections on effective response to child sexual abuse necessitate an examination of the journey of survivors and offenders within their cultural context. I invite you to consider these pathways to safety, love, and accountability with me through poetry and essay, art and science, heart and mind. After wading in these waters for many years, I am persuaded that any effective solution will need to be holistic and interdisciplinary. In other words, all that each of us has to bring to the table is needed for transformative care, healing, and justice to be co-created.
Molestation gets buried
In the ribcages of children
The pelvic bones of children
The hearts, lungs, and memories of children
These children, we children, grow up
And from the vantage point of strangers
We may look like sturdy oak trees
But those who dare to look closely
See the sores on our bark
Experience the tangled roots of our emotions
Witness the disconnected gaps in our branches
But most don’t look
Retreating habitually to the averted gaze of eyes shut
………refusing to bear witness
Willing our children to stand under the weight
Celebrating those who manage to soar despite the weight on our wings
We directly and indirectly give our children the script of silence
No one after all wants to hear about ghosts that came in the night
Often sharing our same last name
No one wants to think about the intrusions on toddlers, the fingers or the hellish hot breath whispers
The violation of bodies still young enough to carry lunch boxes and backpacks
No one wants to sit with the whole truth of the dismantling of adolescents
Those left sobbing in the fetal position
Limping back to homeroom
Shallow breath as intruders descend upon us
It’s easier to talk about God or report cards or television shows or what’s for dinner or even problems facing the black community
Anything really is more palatable than shh…
Our silence does not save us and definitely does not heal us
But even with the demand for silence, the violation speaks
Often in riddles
The violation discovers the code of nonverbal communication
The abuse screams in the muffled voice of depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, anger, panic attacks, addiction, dissociation, suicidality, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder
Translated in our communities with other labels like bad attitude, too sensitive, drama queen, troubled, zapping out, spacing out, irritating, trouble maker, bad hygiene, forgetful, to grown for her good, shy, secretive, quiet, weird, emotional, cold, moody, off
Forgetting they told us with words and deeds to hush
But we need space to think, feel, speak, connect, process, restore
We need seeing eyes, listening ears, open hearts
The silence strangles us again
Again and again
Yet often those who encourage silence would in most cases say they love us
It’s the kind of love that walks on egg shells around sexual violence
The kind of love that would defend us against the sting of racism or the mistreatment by a teacher, stranger, or in some cases a bully
But when a vagina, penis, anus, breasts are involved our loved ones run out of words
Cloaking themselves in silence or uncomfortable laughter
After all most grew up in houses where those words were neither uttered or alluded to
Especially in relationship to children
They were not given the vocabulary for this test
So they leave their paper blank
Putting roof over head, food on the table, God in your heart, goals in your mind
And this my sisters and brothers is love
But this silenced love does not save us when the vultures have come to eat up our flesh
Desecrating our temples
Leaving 4 year olds, 10 year olds, 15 year olds to gather the sharp edges of shattered pieces of themselves… alone
Loved ones can think silence is a gift
Hoping children will forget, not dwell on it, and not focus on it
If we don’t speak it, we can falsely believe that we have erased it
But it remains busting out of the seams of our souls
Not only is silenced love insufficient for survivors, it is also is a disservice to abusers. Abuse thrives in silence and secrecy. Abusers grow in power the more eyes that are closed. Denial by family, community members, teachers, social workers, and judges are the wind beneath the wings of predators. While children are often silent as a result of shock, fear, confusion, and shame, what keeps non-abusing adults silent? The reality is most abusers are not strangers. There are abusers we know that we consider to be monsters and these abusers we often fear, even as adults. But most abusers are not considered monsters. They often are loved ones. They are our partners, spouses, siblings, children, aunts, uncles, neighbors, teachers, coaches, principals, troop leaders, and ministers. We often believe that the godly response is to love them unconditionally. We want to believe it was just a mistake, a case of bad judgment, a response to stress, a regretful act that only occurred because of substance abuse, an error brought on by the child who was too grown, too developed, or too fast. In some cases we are silent because of our distrust of the criminal injustice system. We have seen too many black bodies dehumanized behind bars so instead of adding to the numbers we exchange our children’s black bodies for the freedom of our kindred who are perpetrators.
To be honest, our silent love is not just a gift we give our loved ones who are abusers. It is also a gift we give ourselves. We don’t want to think about it and don’t want to talk about it. We wish it had not happened so we act as if it never happened. Our silence intensifies the suffering of survivors and gives free license to molesters to continue to violate our children or someone else’s children.
Truthfully our silence, intentionally or unintentionally, supports the abuser. It does not support their transformation or growth but instead gives them license to continue acting out their quest for power and control on the bodies of children. If we love someone who has abused, we must accept that true love requires honesty and accountability. If we love them, we have to want better for them and of them. We often retreat into silence in the presence of those who have abused children because we don’t know what to say and we are afraid to hear their answers. Love with accountability means that I have to speak truth to the person who abused a child or adolescent and dare to discuss the impact of their actions. To not speak on these ongoing consequences is to allow the abusive person to believe that moments of violation are simply insignificant flashes of the past never to be visited again. Abused children, as well as adults who were abused as children, continue to live with the physical, psychological, social, and even spiritual consequences. If I love someone who has abused a child, I have to love them enough to have honest conversation and authentic dialogue about those whom they have violated, the consequences of that abuse, and their current thoughts about abusing again. To love someone who has been abusive it to actively engage in conversation and take concrete steps to reduce the risk of future abuse. Risk reduction should not be placed on the shoulders of children. Risk reduction is not simply telling children to “stay away from them” or “tell me if they do it again.” Not only must I be willing to wade into the water of truth telling with loved ones who have been abusive, I have to step beyond my comfort and actually require accountability which includes reporting the abuse. Sexual abuse is a violent crime and to treat it as if it is not gives abusive persons the message that violating children is acceptable and excusable. If I love someone who has abused a child, I have to tell him or her the truth and the truth is the abuse of children is a major violation that requires major intervention.
Our current prison industrial complex does not have a great track record for transformation or rehabilitation. However it is problematic for us to send the message that stealing televisions and physically assaulting strangers should result in a punitive action but sexually violating children does not warrant a punitive response. If we are going to transform the entire prison industrial complex, which we must, it should not be a piecemeal approach that starts with continued community and societal silent support of sexual predators. If incarceration is part of the response, the incarceration of sex abuse offenders as well as the incarceration of other offenders should not be inhumane. Incarceration should not include required unpaid labor, solitary confinement, overpopulated prisons, routine rapes, torture, and unsanitary conditions and/or unsafe conditions.
A punitive response however is not the only possible response to child sexual abuse and it is definitely not a response that is effective in transforming the hearts, minds, and behaviors of offenders. It should not take a multi-million dollar psychology grant to surmise that locking human beings behind bars where there is a high likelihood of them being the victim of sexual assault does not lead to improvements. Transformative justice, on the other hand, can include mandated long-term counseling, monitoring, and registration. Conferences conducted with the aim of restorative justice should prioritize the experience and needs of the survivor not primarily function to serve the needs of offenders. Restorative justice can provide survivors with a safe space to tell their stories if they so choose, statements of support from both persons in their intimate circle and from authority figures, and resources for counseling and to assist in other areas of the survivor’s life that may have been affected by the abuse such as housing, education, and medical health needs. Dr. Judith Herman’s work on perceptions of justice for adult survivors note that most want acknowledgment of what has been done to them and only endorse the incarceration of offenders who they believe to remain a risk of re-offending them or others. For the offender, restorative or transformative justice can include circles of support which have been studied in Canada for over a decade. These circles include informal networks as well as professionals from the justice system and mental health system that provide consistent monitoring, guidance, and accountability to assist the offender in integrating into the community in healthy, safe ways. Those who have loved ones who have abused children sexually should open their minds and hearts to the reality that we can love people and still hold them accountable for their actions. These acts of love move us beyond the silence of neglect and enabling to align ourselves with intervention which may include directly addressing the abusive behavior, reporting the abuse, advocating for more humane approaches to incarceration for those who remain a risk to society, and supporting the mandate for treatment, monitoring, and guidance. Those I love I do not want to neglect, leaving them to further harm themselves and others. As a family, community, and society we have to go beyond hoping our loved ones who have committed abuse will change. We have to choose to love them enough to wade into the difficult waters for the safety of our children. There is an African proverb which says, “When you pray, move your feet.” Our children’s lives, bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits matter. Our faith in abusive loved ones without the work of accountability leaves us all unsaved.
Thema Bryant-Davis, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, and an ordained minister in the AME Church. She earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from Duke University and completed her post-doctoral training at Harvard Medical Center. Dr. Bryant-Davis is a former American Psychological Association representative to the United Nations and past president of the Society for the Psychology of Women. The California Psychological Association honored her with the Distinguished Scholar Award for her work on the cultural context of trauma recovery. She is author of the books Thriving in the wake of trauma: A multicultural guide and Tweets for the Soul. She is co-editor of the book Religion and Spirituality for Diverse Women: Foundations of Strength and Resilience. She is also a spoken word artist and sacred dancer who utilizes the expressive arts and spiritual practices to facilitate recovery. Dr. Bryant-Davis is a trauma researcher, practitioner, and survivor who has dedicated her life to prevention and intervention efforts with aims of empowerment and thriving. She also co-edited a book that was published this summer by the American Psychological Association entitled Womanist and Mujerista Psychologies: Voices of Fire, Acts of Courage. She has conducted research on interpersonal trauma including but not limited to human trafficking, sexual assault, child abuse, and societal trauma. At Pepperdine University, Dr. Bryant-Davis has taught Expressive Arts Therapy, Trauma with Diverse Populations, Clinical Skills, and Multicultural Counseling. She is the director of the Cultural and Trauma Research Lab and has worked with the NAACP on a project exploring best prevention practices and barriers of Black churches to HIV/AIDS. Dr. Bryant-Davis has been a mental health expert consultant for television, film, radio, and news print for a range of outlets such as CNN Headline News, BET, and National Public Radio.