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How Can We End Child Sexual Abuse Without Prisons?

A new book shares essays by 40 Black survivors on what accountability could look like outside of the prison system.

What does love with accountability look like, particularly in communities hardest hit by mass incarceration?

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One in four girls and at least one in six boys experience sexual abuse before their 18th birthdays. Ninety-three percent of sexual assaults of children are by family members or the child’s acquaintances, not strangers lurking in the shadows.

How can we disrupt and end child sexual abuse without turning to police and a racist prison industrial complex that disproportionately criminalizes, arrests and imprisons Black and Indigenous people, further destabilizing their families and communities?

Documentary filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons set out to find answers, particularly focusing on child sexual abuse in Black families and communities, first through a forum on The Feminist Wire and now the anthology Love WITH Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse.

Referring to the 40 essays, she told Truthout, “What I’m hoping is that this book provides 40 road maps from which people can explore, think about what resonates with them, what doesn’t and why, and have these conversations.”

For Simmons, whose 2006 documentary NO! The Rape Documentary examines heterosexual rape and violence in Black communities, the question is also personal. As the child of movement organizers, Simmons spent extended time under the care of her grandmother and step-grandfather, “Pop-Pop,” while her parents worked, traveled and organized. For two years during her adolescence, Simmons was molested by Pop-Pop. Shortly after the abuse began, she told her parents, but, she says, “tragically, they never addressed, disrupted, or ended the sexual terrorism and subsequent trauma.” Instead, they questioned whether the abuse had happened and, for years, continued to send her to her grandparents’ house.

While the essays in Love WITH Accountability are written by Black survivors of child sexual abuse, the anthology goes beyond their individual experiences to envision what accountability — and a world in which children are believed and protected — might look like.

Victoria Law: Why did you choose to focus specifically on child sexual abuse within the Black family and community?

Aishah Shahidah Simmons: First and foremost, I am Black, African American. I see Love WITH Accountability as a continuation of my film, NO! The Rape Documentary, which looks at heterosexual rape and violence in Black communities.

Child sexual abuse is an international atrocity, but I really wanted to hone in on the community from which I come from, the diasporic Black community, and look at the cultural nuances and specifics around sexual violence and race from a Black perspective.

We think about the prison-industrial complex. Black people are in there disproportionately; the usual response to sexual violence is “get the perpetrators and lock them up”…. What does accountability look like, particularly in the age of Black Lives Matter? How do we talk about sexual violence while we’re really also so aware of virulent state-sanctioned violence and white supremacy against Black communities?

There’s one contributor in the book whose harm-doer is in prison. When she was abused as a child, her family pressed charges and he went to jail. Most of the folks in the anthology, however, don’t think that is the solution. How do we confront this atrocity without relying on a criminal justice apparatus that has brutalized us?

Black folks are not the only people who have been harmed by the state; I want to be really clear about that. At the same time, I really wanted to hone in on the Black experience and really push definitions on what the Black experience is.

What are you hoping to achieve with this anthology?

I’m hoping for dialogue. I’m hoping for spaces where we can have these very difficult and complex conversations, because there’s no doubt in my mind, speaking as a survivor of child sexual abuse, the impact is long-lasting. How do we reconcile with that? How do we address the harm that’s been caused?

If we can acknowledge the horrors of the criminal justice system and the prison-industrial complex, I think that can create more space for us to have real conversations. Part of the problem of trying to address child sexual abuse is that we’re still trying to protect our family members from the state. More can change if we can open up and say, “What does accountability look like? What does that look like if we knew that the person wasn’t going to be in jail, but we’re clear that they have to be held accountable?”

What I’m hoping is that this book provides 40 road maps from which people can explore, think about what resonates with them, what doesn’t and why, and have these conversations. While this book is by and about Black folks, I also believe that it can and should be used by all.

A woman in an orange shirt cradles her face in her hands and smiles warmly
Aishah Shahidah Simmons, the editor of Love WITH Accountability, invited 39 other Black survivors of child sexual abuse to join her in envisioning ways to end sexual abuse without resorting to prisons.

Why did you decide to write about your own experience?

We’re all complicated. The abuse did ultimately stop. I didn’t get an announcement that the abuse stopped. It stopped after two years, but I never knew growing up if he was going to come back into my room again.

Over time, Pop-Pop was the lifesaver in the family. My grandmother developed Alzheimer’s and never spent a day in a nursing home. The only time she was in the hospital were the last three days of her life. For 10 years, my grandfather took care of his wife around the clock. So we’re dealing with this dichotomy of the hero who took care of his wife, the matriarch in the family, and the terrorist who terrorized me as a child. It took a lot for me to really excavate all of these complexities and recognizing that what my grandfather did was egregious and inexcusable, and that my parents played a role as bystanders.

I started in January 2015, when I was in my 40s, demanding conversations with my parents about this. I started signing my emails, “Love WITH accountability.” That’s where this comes out of: What I was saying is, I love you all, and I know you love me, but you all have to be accountable for the ways in which you did not protect me.

That was particularly important because my parents, who met as fellow SNCC activists … are still to this day on the front lines fighting for racial justice and gender justice. For me, it’s really important to highlight that I also believe that there becomes this myth of who allows child sexual abuse to happen or who commits sexual abuse. That’s why I said my grandfather took care of his wife for 10 years. We keep looking for the all-good, all-bad. No, it’s not. It’s complex. That is the foundation of Love WITH Accountability. It comes from my lived experiences.

I want this book to be used in our social justice movements. We’ve always been under siege — since 1492 — but there’s just so much happening where I can’t even imagine, I’m not a parent, how I would handle all of this. You’re like, “I need to go to the rally, I need to go to the meeting,” and then wonder, “Who’s going to take care of my child?” My parents needed to believe that I was safe.

My mom went to Vietnam. She was part of the first non-governmental organization delegation to go into Vietnam immediately after the war and actually snuck into Cambodia. Pol Pot had been pushed back, but he was still within the region. That was during the time I was being molested. She was gone in Southeast Asia for six weeks.

I believe there’s a way to address harm and still do incredible movement work. But we have to talk about it.

What would love with accountability have looked like for your family?

I would have wanted them to be explicitly clear that they believed me because they weren’t clear. The initial response was, “Are you sure you’re not dreaming? You can have dreams that seem so real.”

Even if they didn’t believe me or were unsure, I wished that they at least told me, “We believe you and are going to look into this.”

You have to tell survivors, “I believe you.” If it comes up that somebody has lied, then we deal with it then, but if you look at the statistics, only a tiny percent of those who report assaults are lying. Let’s start with the belief that people are telling the truth.

I walk gingerly because who knows how my grandmother would have responded? I feel that Pop-Pop should have been confronted, and there should have been conversations about what I said was happening. But even saying that right now, I have butterflies in my stomach because would Nana have believed me? What would have happened? I knew that I wouldn’t have wanted Pop-Pop to go to jail. I remember just wanting it to stop. I loved him; I just wanted him to be appropriate with how he engaged with me.

What is love with accountability?

Accountability should not be a bad word. We all cause harm. I have caused harm. There are degrees of harm, and I wonder now who harmed my grandfather. I don’t think we’re born and we start molesting children or raping or beating people and murdering. What happened in one’s life?

When I think about accountability, it’s having conversations where we talk about taking responsibility for one’s actions and exploring what healing could look like. That may mean never engaging with that person again. I am not advocating that “Everybody has to make up and be one happy family” at all. I respect that some people are like, “I never want to see the person who caused me harm again.”

I do think that the person who caused harm has to be made aware that they’ve caused harm and has to take responsibility. We’re not just letting them off the hook. Do they need to go to therapy? What needs to happen to ensure that, a.) it doesn’t happen again; and then b.) how they can make amends, even if it’s not engaging with the person, but what is the work that they need to do to make amends for the harm?

Now when you think about child sexual abuse, … when thinking about my grandfather, I would have wanted him held accountable. I personally would have wanted an apology and for it to never happen again and for an acknowledgment that it happened.

I wouldn’t have wanted him banished from the family, particularly in light of his role in my grandmother’s care. If it wasn’t for him, she definitely would have been in a nursing home.

This anthology was originally a curated forum on The Feminist Wire. Talk about the process of soliciting submissions.

I was very interested in reaching out to people who are working to end violence, especially sexual violence. Everyone could tell their story, but the caveat was that you really had to address in your piece “how can we disrupt and end the violence.” I think there’s something powerful in storytelling, but I also wanted this to be an organizing tool. I wanted us to envision what could be possible. I always reflect upon Walidah Imarisha — the writer, activist and prison abolitionist — when she talks about speculative fiction and its power in imagining new worlds. We’re asking, “What could this look like? How could we address this? What does having a world without child sexual abuse look like?”

It was really important in terms of the closing essay by Edxie Betts, a trans radical activist who really pushes definitions of violence. They put a whole spin on what consent means, considering that this country wasn’t founded on it. We talk about consent being sexy, but what does that mean? The country’s founding was on rape and genocide, so when we talk about disrupting rape, what does that mean?

I see Love WITH Accountability as a beginning, not an end.

Simmons is co-organizing #FromNO2Love: A Black Feminist Forum on Disrupting Sexual Violence, which will take place in Philadelphia from October 31, 2019, to November 1, 2019.

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