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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.
By Qui Dorian Alexander
I always felt like discipline was such a loaded word. As an adult I think of discipline as consistency. A deliberate and intentional regimen. Coming back to a thing even when I don’t always have the desire to do so. I often thought that if I could not commit myself to writing every single day then, I couldn’t be a writer. If I didn’t commit to the physical practice of yoga everyday then I couldn’t be a yogi. This idea often prevented me from showing up to the practices that keep me well, because I internalized the ideas that I couldn’t really be committed to something if I didn’t have discipline. The grit to work hard, dig deep and keep at something even in the face of adversity. If I wasn’t the most disciplined then I wasn’t a master and therefore my ideas were not valid. To work through the self-sabotage of validity, I had to confront my own ideas and relationship to that word.
When you look up discipline in the dictionary, one of the very first things that come up is punishment. As a child, I thought of discipline in this way and often rejected it because of that idea. We live in a world that teaches us the only way to create discipline is through punishment. It becomes laced with shame, fear, guilt and failure. Discipline serves as a method of control for those in power, often when their sense of control is being questioned. It’s a system based on fear to maintain that power and we come to understand power as domination and authority because of this. This fear-based ideology teaches us that power can only reside in the hands of the few, one must maintain that power at all cost and that someone else’s access to power becomes a threat to our own. This ideology becomes particularly pertinent in teaching children how to engage with the adults in their lives. There are so many ways we deny a child their autonomy around their bodies, from forcing them to hug/kiss their relatives, scolding them for questioning adult behavior, or teaching them that any physical discipline they receive is because of love.
We all have an aversion to punishment. It doesn’t feel good, and doesn’t help us embraces the learning mistakes teach us. But when learn these patterns of punishment as children they show up in our homes, schools and larger communities. The conflation of discipline/punishment, power/abuse and structure/fear become normalized. So much “order” in our society is maintained, not by people’s desire to genuinely to do the right thing, but rather people’s desire to not get caught for doing the wrong thing. So what happens when young people experience harm from the people who are supposed to protect them? These conflated ideas and patterns teach young people that any harm they experience was brought onto themselves. They too must “maintain” order in their families, and by challenging any behavior that has become normalized; they become a disruption to the family. Negative reinforcement often doesn’t help people change their behavior, whether they have caused or received harm. People do not learn through shame. But our (in) justice system is setup in a way to isolate both survivors as well as people who have caused harm. It is set up to scare people into changing, through the negative consequences of their actions, rather than confront the issues that set the context up for abuse.
Sitting with the word discipline, I realized that I struggled similarly with the word justice. What does justice look like in the context of child sexual abuse (CSA)? Our society tells us that when justice is served, someone being held responsible means they are punished. They are then thrown into a system that promotes more fear, shame and isolation. There are a multitude of reasons why survivors of CSA don’t speak about their abuse, often because they experience those same contexts of fear, shame and isolation. Conditions that don’t actually help people heal, change or grow. Is it really justice if someone suffers from abuse in similar ways I did? Is justice served if someone is robbed from the community and care it takes to be a better person? Is it justice if someone gets locked up in a box, and not given the opportunity to heal, just act out again?
It makes me wonder what would this look like if we approached this from a place of love rather than a place of fear? Especially when we are taught that leading from a place of love will only get us taken advantage of and lead to more pain and hurt. No want wants to talk about love, especially within the context of child sexual abuse and other forms of sexual violence. Violation of any form of intimacy is devastating, particularly in the familial context for children and young adults, and impact our lives into adulthood. This can become difficult for folks to unpack as love is often used as a way to manipulate young people. We don’t want to talk about love when it’s been taken from us or used against us, so why would we offer love to someone who has done that to us?
This led me to really sit with another word, love. What do we mean when we say that word? Do we mean an experience or do we mean a tangible item of value? We often teach children that we accept problematic behavior under the guise of love. That is something to give and take, and if it is taken from you, you did something to deserve it being taken. This skews a young person’s ideas about what the difference between love and abuse actually is. As we get older, we are taught a romanticized version of love, not thinking of love as taking work, it’s presented as effortless. We don’t take the time to think about the discipline it requires from us. Love is a verb, love is an action and it doesn’t always feel good. bell hooks describes love as a “wanting to extend yourself emotionally and spiritually for yourself or someone else.” A process that requires intention.
If we come to understand love to ask for more presence and practice from us, the real question becomes, do we think everyone is deserving of love? Who gets to decide who is worthy of love? If we use the systems and structures that are currently in place as our standard, no…not everyone is worthy of love. Our system teaches us that both survivors and people who cause harm don’t deserve love. Often ignoring the conditions that produce abuse and perpetuate an acceptance of rape culture. Rape culture is built on the basis that not everyone is worthy of love, and that those in power get to decide who is worth of dominating and who is worthy of being dominated. A result of the continued conflation of power and abuse, punishment and justice, rape culture continues to manifest in our social, cultural and political lives. It is built on the backs of vulnerable bodies: particularly children/young people; women and femmes; trans and gender non-conforming folks; people of color; poor/working class and disabled people. Teaching us that some people are entitled to power while others must “earn it.’ It teaches us that vulnerable bodies bring that on themselves.
Rape culture operates like an institution, a systematic structure of power that all other structures of dominance contribute to. A structure that determines where and how we place value. This capitalist based framework teaches us to commodify our world. We even base our relationships on what we can gain from the exchange. Capitalism is the system we’ve been taught to exchange value. But whose bodies do we value? Who gets to express that value? And who gets to decide if and when that value can change? Rape culture reinforces an underlying ethic of fear. Child sexual abuse and rape culture are inextricably connected as rape culture enables child sexual abuse to go unspoken. It rationalizes problematic behavior based on unequal power dynamics. These ideas just become accepted as truth and don’t leave space for people to challenge or complicate the narrative around them.
There have been many contexts and frameworks to envision these words: discipline, justice, love, value in new ways. I think sci-fi and speculative fiction is one of those frameworks. Walidah Imarisha says,
“When we talk about a world without prisons; a world without police violence; a world where everyone has food, clothing, shelter, quality education; a world free of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, heterosexism; we are talking about a world that doesn’t currently exist. But collectively dreaming up one that does means we can begin building it into existence.”
That imagining, visioning and building is speculative fiction. What would our world look like without child sexual abuse/violence? What are the ways we are learning to love differently? How do the relationships we have with our own bodies manifest themselves in our relationships? All these questions allow us to dig deeper to find a different way of responding to child sexual violence.
When I tell people I believe in prison abolition, their first reaction is usually fear or puzzlement. Common reactions include: “I know it’s not perfect, but it’s all we have” or “some people should just be locked up.” People hold these sentiments to be true, all while recognizing that police brutality and mass incarcerations are very real issues within our communities. Our reliance on the state to define words like discipline, justice or value, have impeded our abilities to envision new ways of dealing with harm, change and fear. Transformative Justice (TJ) is a new vision. TJ is way of practicing alternative justice that acknowledges individual experiences and identities and works to actively resist the state’s criminal injustice system. It’s a method with responding to violence outside of the state. As a queer black trans person, the state is contributing to the erasure of my existence. The state doesn’t want me to exist in the first place, so I can’t rely on the state to solve the issues my community is facing. So what happens when the abuse I’ve experienced comes at the hands of my family members? How do we hold the juxtaposition of wanting accountability but knowing that the state can’t actually provide that?
It brings me back to examine what I think justice really is. What are we actually asking for when we say we want justice? Our fear based approaches to justice, denounce the actions one does in society but accept those same actions as consequence for one’s behavior. If we want to stop those violent behaviors, why are we condemning them in one context and condoning them in another? Why do we not support systems that allow or provide space for people to change? Do we want justice to look like trading in folks who are not as valuable as others? Is that what we want our liberation to look like?
We have to hold people accountable for the things they do. But let’s be clear, accountability and punishment are not the same thing. Punishment never looks at the root cause of conflict. It only addresses the value of the conflict, you have to “pay for” what you have done. Accountability acknowledges the conditions that caused a person to act in the ways they have. It recognizes the context in which one understands their own actions and creates a framework for someone to understand and be responsible for the impact of those actions.
To believe in TJ you have to believe in change. That people have the capacity to change, understanding that not everyone does. You have to believe that if we help people heal from their own hurts they can recognize how they have taken that out on others; they can start to change their behaviors. Prison locks you in a cell, takes away your humanity, isolates you, and takes away your worth. That fear based model doesn’t make space for people to change, it takes away your humanity so it can profit off of your body, a practice that impacts survivors of child sexual abuse as well. So what can accountability look like for a survivor of CSA? What does a support system look like? Can their healing be prioritized regardless of someone being accountable to them?
These questions provide us with the foundation to think of accountability as more than checking off “accountable to do lists.” It is doing the hard work of sitting with what it is that we believe in and what words we let define our experiences. It is difficult to acknowledge the fucked up things you have done or have been done to you. TJ provides a framework for us to accept that we are still worthy of love and belonging when we do or receive harm. Its saying no one is disposable, because oppressive structures are what cause folks to make harmful decisions and what teach us that any harmed we’ve received is our fault. One of my teachers once told me,
“Every action a human makes, is to bring them closer to joy.”
When you don’t have much to work with, your joy might be at the expense of someone else. When our relationships are just commodities to be sold, you can rationalize doing that or having that be done to you.
Accountability also cannot be done in a vacuum. It requires connection, trust and vulnerability. We have to be willing to be seen in our mess. Vulnerability is another word to sit and struggle with. Our fear-based world teaches us to conflate vulnerability with weakness. But vulnerability is the basis of human connection. When we see and hear our own experiences reflected in others we know we are not alone. The connection allows us to feel held in the process of change, that we have support, that there is something worth changing for. The vulnerability of asking for what one needs to heal is essential for both survivors and those who cause harm.
Brene Brown said, “Feeling vulnerable, imperfect and afraid is human, it’s when we lose our capacity to hold space for these struggles, that we become dangerous.” Our reactions to being seen in our vulnerability are based on fear. If we can only deal with interpersonal conflict by reflecting the values of the PIC (isolation, commodification, taking away humanity), we are just perpetuating the same systems that kill us. Learning to deal with interpersonal conflict in new ways, allows us to unlearn harmful behaviors and envision new ways to push up against larger systems of oppression.
As we continue to reflect on the words and ideas we hold to be true, are we giving ourselves the time and space to complicate those narratives? Are we asking more questions to dig deeper? Are we giving ourselves permission to be honest with how we react to those questions? I invite us all to think about words that we’ve grown to accept, the words that don’t sit right with us, and the words that prevents us from showing up for ourselves from a place of love. As we heal the wounds and trauma words hold for us, we can begin to recreate and reimagine our existences. We can begin to create new visions for our realities.
Qui is a queer, trans, Black Latinx educator, organizer, yoga teacher and consultant based in Philadelphia. He is currently the Program Coordinator for the Haverford College Women*s Center. Qui started his organizing in undergrad to help create and hold safe(r), more inclusive spaces for folks who live on the margins. His work centers the intersections of gender, sexuality and racial justice; healing justice and transformative/restorative justice anti-violence work. Qui has shared his work at various universities, conferences and community centers, both locally and nationally. Believing the personal is political, his work strives to focus on personal liberation and healing to make movement work more sustainable.