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Content Notice: This article is part of the #LoveWITHAccountability forum on The Feminist Wire. The purpose of this forum and the #LoveWITHAccountability 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.
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.
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.