As child sexual abuse survivors begin to stand up and speak out about their own experiences, they are filling the world with their perspectives. One of those survivors, Ignacio Rivera, hopes to not only share a personal experience with abuse, but amplify the voices of others. Through The HEAL Project, Rivera is giving survivors a platform and encouraging healing. The HEAL Project aims to prevent and end CSA by making visible the hidden tools used to guilt, shame, coerce and inflict violence onto children. The project’s primary strategies are: building community, critical analysis, social media campaign, mobilization and education. We asked Rivera about The HEAL Project and about giving survivors a voice to share their story and heal themselves and others.
D2L: Tell us a little bit about The HEAL Project.
Rivera: The HEAL Project is a project I began 14 years ago. In 1999, after having done years of one-on-one therapy and group therapy, I began the process of reconstructing a poem I wrote to my perpetrator into a larger body of work. In 2002, I performed Lágrimas de Cocodrilo /Crocodile Tears— a personal account of my childhood sexual abuse and incest survivorship. I toured with the show in the U.S. and abroad for four years. I wanted the show to be more than a show. I wanted audience members to interact with me, give me feedback and participate in the newly developed HEAL Project—Hidden Encounters Altered Lives. The project’s goal was to connect people, specifically cisgender females who were sexually abused by other cisgender females. Although I currently identify as transgender, I endured my abuse as a young girl and teenager. When I was coming to terms with what had happened to me, I found little information about female -to -female abuse. Thus, The HEAL Project was born to seek out those like me, share collectively, create art and find support.
The initial project failed for several reasons. I had no funding, people did not want to come out publicly, and there was great fear that their abuse by a female would not be seen as legitimate abuse. I continued to promote the project because, although I had no formal project, hundreds of people sought me out, to come out – a release of sorts. They understood that I would at least validate their trauma. In its new iteration, The HEAL Project has a broader focus and is funded. I, alongside seven other survivors of color, had the privilege of being awarded a fellowship by Just Beginnings Collaborative, to continue our work to address and ultimately end child sexual abuse (CSA).
D2L: How is the project addressing the issue of child sexual abuse?
Rivera: My project, in large part, has to do with shifting the message. This revamped version of The HEAL Project, is not about the identity of the survivor and perpetrator as cis female but one of tools, prevention, community accountability, human interaction, debunking shame and uncovering secrecy. Specifically, my project focuses on the missing conversation—sex(uality). Amending the narrative that sexual abuse is perpetrated only by pedophiliacs or that it is solely about “power and control,” will help broaden the scope of how we prevent CSA. The pervasive idea that perpetrators of CSA abuse for the purpose of control is but a portion of the issue. Power and control are consistent themes in the discussion of sexual abuse but I would add, lack of communication skills, lack of age appropriate knowledge of sex(uality), and ageism contribute substantially to the issue. Taboos around talking about sex and sexuality in our lives and movement have had a deadening effect on a strategic direction. The discussion around sexual abuse/assault and CSA has been de-sexualized and this must change.
I envision a radical, comprehensive, sex(uality) and gender framework in addressing CSA. Sex, or our society’s view on sex is a key component to understanding, preventing and dealing with CSA. Children’s comfort in understanding or talking about sex(uality)—appropriate names for body parts, boundaries, consent, love, power, etc, and the aftermath of CSA is connected to sex. We know that some effects of CSA can manifest itself in survivors being “over-sexualized” or “de-sexualized.” We struggle trying to figure out a healthy balance. Some of us never know what “healthy” could mean. Exposing these struggles helps to foster a shameless front that can unite those who feel alone in their quest for understanding and community. Utilizing multiple platforms—theater, social media and workshops—this project makes child sexual abuse more broadly talked about, especially in other social justice movements that are sources of political experience, energy and activism.
D2L: How did you first come up with the concept for “Outing CSA”?
Rivera: I kept thinking about the original HEAL Project and how people were so reluctant to tell their stories. I understand the power of personal storytelling as validating, healing and connecting but understand the struggle to publicly share. Outing CSA is the middle ground for those of us who are willing, able and privileged to divulge our survivorship. Outing CSA videos are not about telling your specific story but uncovering the secrecy of trauma. It gives a face to many, lets us know that you/we are not alone and begins/continues a dialogue about a societal issue that is seen as isolated. The Outing CSA social media campaign is a virtual introduction into who survivors are. Each participant tells us demographic information about themselves — age, race, gender identity, location, occupation and the like. Each video ends with participants stating,” …and I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.” CSA impacts our lives and, it is but one aspect of who we are. I wanted to convey that.
D2L: You’ve talked publicly about beginning your healing process just as your daughter reached the age you were abused. Why do you think that connection was so important?
Rivera: The trauma of CSA not only affected me spiritually, sexually and emotionally but very specifically, how I parented. I was terrified. My “protection” of her was fear based. I scared her and myself until I was ready to deal with and understand what happened to me. I began the healing process before my daughter was the age I was at my abuse. When she reached that age, my anxiety and triggers were overwhelming. It reminded me of my vulnerability and isolation. The help I sought out helped me to channel that trauma into proactive tools to educate her.
Why do you think it is important for people of color to have an opportunity to share their survivor stories with each other and the world?
Rivera: 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 Matters, 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.
D2L: How are the survivors finding you and telling their stories? What has the response been like?
Rivera: Coming out as a survivor or discussing it in public is scary and triggering, so I knew that it would take time for people to feel comfortable in doing so. I also know that people who are not survivors find it difficult to see themselves in the movement to end CSA. I’ve posted call-outs and posted submission guidelines on the website. What I’ve found is that I’ve gotten most of my submissions through one-on-one connections. After giving a talk or facilitating a workshop, I’ve solicited videos (for Outing CSA and Sex (Ed) is), from survivors, sex educators and parents. I’ve taken the time to talk with them, go over the process step by step and discussed what it means to come out publicly.
D2L: Do you think that the stigma of child sexual abuse is stronger in certain cultures? If so, how?
Rivera: Unfortunately, I believe the stigma of CSA flourishes in multiple spaces. I also understand that oppression plays a big part in how that stigma lives. As a person who was sexually abused by a female when I identified as a female and later came out as a lesbian, my internalized homophobia engulfed me. Was I a lesbian because of my abuse? Would I become a predator now? Even today, as a transgender person who passes as a gay man, my connection to children or passing pleasantries to smiling babies is weighted by how society views me or my intentions.
D2L: How have you been working with other advocates for child sexual abuse prevention? What is the role of community?
Rivera: The role of community is everything. Engaging with community, asking questions and getting feedback have been vital to the direction of The HEAL Project. I’ve mostly been connecting with individuals, activists, sex educators and parents at the onset of this project. Some organizations, such as yours, have reached out to me — offering support and community. Working with organizations will increase in the coming year.
D2L: Part of the The HEAL project is to develop a sex education curriculum. What role do you believe sex education plays in child sexual abuse prevention?
Rivera: Comprehensive sex education is the nucleus of my project for reasons I mentioned prior. At the onset of developing this project, I set out to craft a curriculum for parents and guardians. After almost seven months doing the work, talking to people and having a better understanding of my constituency, I’ve shifted this idea. Instead of a curriculum, I’ll be creating a “parent hack” of sorts. I want this to be used as a tool for all parents/guardians of varying economic, educational, spiritual, sexual orientation and racial backgrounds. I don’t want to write for writing sake but create a tool that was accessible and user friendly.
D2L: You’re really gearing up for the performance part of the project. Tell us a little more about your vision for the performance and the impact you hope it has.
Rivera: As someone who’s seen that theater has had a seismic effect on education and organizing, I want to continue that work. I envision the theater program called “The Fall of the Secret Keepers,” as an experience. A walk through gallery and video display, performance and Q&A. Soon, I’ll post an open call to survivors of CSA who are parents/guardians to participate. I’m hoping to get at least ten survivors of diverse backgrounds from Baltimore to join in. For those who want to remain anonymous, I’ll be posting guidelines for folks to submit visual art pieces, audio stories and poetry. The event is set to launch at Baltimore’s Motor House on April 8, 2017. Participants will commit to meeting once a week to develop and rehearse performance piece, beginning February 7, 2017.
Ignacio G. Rivera , who prefers the gender-neutral pronoun “they,” is an activist, writer, educator, filmmaker and performance artist currently living in Baltimore by way of New York City. Ignacio has over 20 years of experience on multiple fronts including economic justice, anti-racist and anti-violence work, as well as Mujerista, LGBTQI and sex positive movements. Inspired by the lived experience of homelessness, poverty and discrimination, Ignacio’s work is also driven by the strengths of identifying as transgender, Two-Spirit, Black- Boricua Taíno and queer. Ignacio’s activist work began at the age of 20 when they left the shelter systems of New York and moved to Massachusetts where they met their mentor and longtime friend. Their experience with poverty, homelessness and the welfare system kept them busy organizing around economic issues. Ignacio has spoken publicly about being a survivor and sex worker, and how the elimination of sex/sex education coupled with patriarchy, capitalism and homophobia have had a damaging effect on society. The mentorship and work experience in Ignacio’s youth has been foundational to their understanding of the connectivities of oppression.
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