Fighting a culture of silence around sexuality that breeds child sexual abuse: Interview with The HEAL Project founder Ignacio Rivera.

Our society’s view on sex is important to understanding, preventing and dealing with child sexual abuse. We live in a hyper-sexual society that exposes sexual imagery but does not talk about it. Sex education in public schools has almost been erased. In the midst of this silence, we are left to form our sexuality in secret. This culture of silence and shame around sex and sexuality creates a breeding ground for child sexual abuse.”

– From The HEAL Project’s website.


Hari: Ignacio, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today and for all the work you do. Can you start by just giving a brief background on yourself and how you got involved with work around childhood sexual assault (CSA)?

Ignacio: Thank you for talking with me. Well, I’m a New Yorker currently living in Baltimore. I’m a long-time activists with roots in grassroots organizing. I’ve worked across many movements and continue to work in trans, POC and sexual liberation movements. I’m also a performer and that is where my work around CSA pretty much began.

H: And how did those experiences inform or evolve into The Heal Project? I know it’s funded by the Just Beginnings Collaborative, correct? Could you tell me a little bit about that organization and how you came to your current work?

I: Well, while I was performing my show in 1999, in which I tackled issues of sexual orientation, parenting as a survivor, and my relationship to sex, I decided to create The HEAL Project. I wanted to offer folks resources and create a forum for other survivors of CSA.

The actual gathering of folks didn’t work very well. Back then, people weren’t talking as openly about being survivors. I toured with that show for four years and in that time, I had audience members come out to me privately, however. There were so many but they weren’t ready to openly discuss their trauma.

That, and I had no funding so The HEAL Project was put on the back burner until several months ago. I was lucky enough to receive an email inviting me to submit a concept paper for the Just Beginning Collaborate Fellowship. I accepted the invitation, went through the process and was selected. It’s a fellowship that funded eight survivors of color and ten organizations to continue their work on addressing CSA at the beginning of the year. I’m privilege enough to have been funded for two years on my projectthe resurrected HEAL Project.

heal2end

H: As a survivor myself, I can understand not being ready to openly discuss this kind of trauma as there are soooo many levels and layers to the violence of childhood sexual assault that can leave a survivor feeling vulnerable in ways others might not imagine.

At the same time, and as you say on your website, our “culture of silence and shame around sex and sexuality creates a breeding ground for child sexual abuse.” So how might survivors just trying to protect themselves ensure they don’t contribute to the inability to have deeper, honest conversations about sexual abuse? In your work, how have you been able to combat this culture of silence while making sure survivors aren’t harmed in the process of starting these conversations?

I: When I think about the culture of silence and shame, I think back before abuse even begins. I’m thinking about the silence and shame around sex. The work that I’m doing with THP, is focused on sex(uality) education as a tool to address and ultimately end CSA. We have fear around talking to our children or to our peers, lovers, spouses about sex. Our culture does a lot of it.

We see it everywhere but we don’t have open, honest, vulnerable discussion about it. Knowledge is power! Those children who are most targeted are those on the margins. The most oppressed are targeted. The shy one. The Black one. The odd one. The queer one. The disabled one. In trying to protect our kids from “adult” matters, or in trying to protect them from teen pregnancy or STI’s, we keep information from them. Keeping this information, takes away that knowledgethat power.

If we were a culture that talked to our kids, our families about sex as if it were actually normal, and celebrated, things would be different. Not just the act of sex but body image, sexual health, boundary setting, consent, sexual orientation, forming healthy relationships, desire, masturbationall of this is sex(uality) education.

When it comes to a culture of silence among survivors, this is understandable. It is an extremely difficult thing to come out about. There are many things and people to consider. This is definitely a personal choice. It took me years to say it to myself and then to say it to the world. Those of us who are able and ready to come out, should. It is an amazing thing to see people be unapologetic about their survivorship. That openness in turn helps other survivors either find the courage to come out and/or know they are not alone. I only hope that when people decide to come out, they have understanding and loving support. This was my thinking behind my Outing CSA social media campaign. You were one of the participants. Thank you for that. You, like the other participants, were able to introduce yourself and say it. Say, “I am a survivor of  childhood sexual abuse.” It’s a scary and brave thing.

H: Right, making sure sex isn’t always thought of as icky or embarrassing is very different than disclosing your truth as a survivor. But wouldn’t you say that in some cases it’s hard for survivors to contribute to a healthy conversation around sex in general before addressing their traumas?

I think I read in a profile about the project for Colorlines your very candid recollections of having trouble not being triggered when your daughter approached the age you were at the beginning of your abuse. For some survivors, conversations around sex and children in general can be difficult to have because they remind them of their own trauma. So how did you work through your triggers, and how might other survivors do the same if they are having trouble with conversations around sex and children?

I: I think whether a survivor is able to begin a healthy conversation about sex or not, there will always come a point where they hit a wall unless they address their abuse. In my case, the first 4 or 5 years of my daughters life were so hard for me. I was uncomfortable changing her diapers at one time. For bath time, I pretty much instructed her on how to bathe herself while I sat on the toilet, behind the shower curtain.

It was all super uncomfortable. I was obsessed with her covering her body, not letting her sit on anyone’s lap and a whole lot of other stuff. It was unhealthy. I finally got into therapy and began the long road to healing. I know therapy isn’t for everyone but it worked/works for me. I did individual, group, and art therapy. It saved my lifeliterally.

As I was getting the help, I made connections with how I viewed sex, my shame around my sexual orientation, my ignorance about sex in general. I made a decision, that I wouldn’t teach my daughter through fear, and that was that. I began talking to her about her body, my body, unwanted touches, babies, and love. I didn’t freak out about questions. If I didn’t know something, we went to the library. Our relationship shifted for the better. From then on, sex and anything about it, was open for discussion.

H: As an artist, I’m really drawn to how you use art in your workparticularly theater and film. You talk about having done art therapy, and I wonder if that had an influence on the role of art in the work you do, and how you would define that role? I always think of art as how we imagine new, freer worlds before we are able to create them.

I: Thank you! I like that. I think art therapy was a defining point and art helped me releasetheater and poetry in particular. The art therapy I did consisted of lots of drawing. I suck at drawing. I do stick figures. It didn’t matter though. I was able to express in a different way. I didn’t have to use words then. Later on, I chose to use words tell my story. Then I began the creation of my show.

Another component of THP is the theater initiative. I wanted to integrate art into THP so I’m working to create an artistic safe space for collective healing. In the coming months, I’ll be putting a call out to survivors in Baltimore. I’ll be looking for survivors who want to participate in a theater project called “The Fall of the Secret Keepers.” I’m hoping there are survivors out there that are willing and able to engage in this initiative. It’s a big step but so worth it.

Its an opportunity for survivors to come together, do some healing work and collectively create a performance around the issue of CSA. The call out will be posted in December. Weekly gathering for discussion, grounding, and creation will hopefully begin in January or February. I envision a gallery event showcasing visual art, poetry, videos, performance, and a Q&A. I’m excited for it.

H: Me too! That sounds so dope, and something I wish I could do.

You’re also putting together a sex ed toolkit, could you tell me more about that and how you determine the resources you are using for it?

I: I’ve had lots of conversations with parent, guardians, and other folks working with young people. Those conversations lead me to wanting to create a toolkit.

I want it to be accessible to everyone. I don’t want it to be a classroom lesson but real tips, exercises, scenarios, and pitfalls regarding talking to children and young people about sex. I’m using my experience as a sexuality educator for the past 17 years, my personal experience parentinga now 26-year-old daughterusing input from other sex educators and parents to craft the toolkit.

H: One can see in your past projects and with this project that you purposefully represent the work of queer folks and people of color. Why is it important to recognize these identities in work around childhood sexual assault?

I: I recently did an interview with Darkness 2 Light, an organization empowering people to prevent child sexual abuse, and I addressed a similar question, I’d like to share that because a portion of it speaks to your question here:

“We must understand oppression as a consistent theme in dealing with how sexual abuse flourishes. Telling our stories is a part of the work to end CSA. The voices of survivors, especially those at the margins, must be amplified. In the age of Black Lives Matter, the continued history of racism in this country, the school to prison pipeline, people of color overly represented in child welfare system and prisons, clearly indicates that people of color survivor stories are of the utmost importance. Those affected the most, should be leading the movements crafted to help them. POC survivor stories will aid in the broadening of how we heal and navigate justice.”

In addition, highlighting queer, trans and gender nonconforming folksespecially those of coloris extremely important to me, in part because it is who I am. It is my community. I think identifying or being perceived as queer or trans, is a targeting factor for perpetrators. There is also huge overlap in how queer and trans people are isolated due to oppression and our sometimes difficult relationships to our bodies and sex. It makes sense for me to interrogate, and help interrupt this intersectional space of marginalization.

H: What else can we look forward to from you and The HEAL Project, and where can we go to stay up to date?

I: I will continue to connect with folks one-on-one, inspire participation in the Outing CSA social media campaign and Sex(Ed) Is campaign.

I’ll be beginning the process of collecting and documenting input from parents, guardian, youth advocates, survivors, and young people for the tool-kit. Be on the lookout for submission requests.

I’ve got two upcoming workshops. One at a holistic center in DC called Freed Bodyworks . I’m facilitating a workshop call “And Action! Expelling Shame and Conjuring Healing”, which will include theater techniques, visualization and movement to tell our stories and create collective healing from child sexual abuse, sexual assault and trauma.

Between October 13-15, I’ll be in Atlanta at the Sex Down South Conference. Among other workshops, I’ll be facilitating “Birds, Bees and Wolves: How to use The Talk as a tool to End Child Sexual Abuse”, as well as filming for my social media campaigns.

Folks can stay informed by subscribing to the website at heal2end.com, liking our Facebook page HEAL2End  and subscribing to our Youtube channel, The HEAL Project.

I’d like to encourage people to check out our social media campaign submission guidelines on Outing CSAfor survivors of CSAand Sex(Ed)isopen to all.


Ignacio RiveraIgnacio G. Rivera is a Two-Spirit, BLatinix Indígena performance artist, activist, filmmaker, lecturer, sex educator and mother who prefers the gender neutral pronoun “they.” Ignacio was one of the founding board members of QEJ, has over 20 years experience on multiple fronts including economic justice, anti-racist and anti-violence work, as well mujerista and LGBTQ movements. Ignacio is a Just Beginnings Collaborative Fellow, working on addressing and ultimately ending child sexual abuse. 

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