Dorothy Black talks sexual abuse and Project Unbreakable
You would think, given what I do, that overshare should come as second nature to me. If you’ve read my column and blog regularly enough, you will know when I first had sex, how many people I’ve slept with, what I think of one night stands and how I like my oral sex. Among many, many other things.
You would think, given that I share so much about my private life that it would be easy to say that I was sexually abused as a child. But it isn’t. (In fact, it’s taken me 48 hours to type just that.)
So why talk about it now?
A few weeks ago, a plum tweeted a link to a small tumblr blog with photos that shook me: people of all ages, races, sexes and sexual preferences holding posters with quotes of phrases that their sexual abusers had used against them. The site, called Project Unbreakable, was started by artist Grace Brown as a way for survivors to take back the power these words had over them.
Some phrases horrified me. Some were too familiar to be horrific. Those I recognised have stumbled around my head for years, refusing to lose significance.
We don’t realise that there are words used against us that take our words away and keep us silent in fear and in shame
When you think of sexual abuse, or of rape, it is easy to visualise for yourself an action. There is a thing that is done, a violation of space and body, within a visual context. We don’t often think of what is said as an abuse. We don’t realise that there are words used against us that take our words away and keep us silent in fear and in shame.
The words that were used against me seem so innocuous, so ordinary, as they stand alone: ‘See? It’s not so bad.’ ‘Do you like this?’
Do you like this.
I was five. There are worse things he could’ve said. Others did later. But the real clincher that sealed my lips and closed my voice that day came later, when I tried to tell my caregiver. Her reaction: ‘Don’t say anything.’ (It wasn’t so bad, it was nothing really, you’re only trying to get sympathy or get attention). ‘It’s their family’s business.’ (You’ll be fine.) ‘Well look at what you were wearing.’ (I was wearing a blue jumpsuit).
Slut-shaming has no age-restriction.
Do you like this. Scrolling through the photos of survivors with their posters, some defiant and some hiding, I was surprised by how much of a relief it was to realise that I was not the only one walking around with words like vultures in my head.
But more than that, I realised that the person who had trapped them there, was the woman who had told me not to tell anyone and to forget it. It made me think of all the times I had told people to be honest about themselves and to be open about how they were feeling. Looking at this site and admiring the bravery of the women and men who had offered up their experience to the collective, I realised I could not write about it and honour their survival unless I honoured mine.
When you violate a child, you change their lives forever. You kill the person they could’ve been
And it is survival. When you violate a child, you change their lives forever. You kill the person they could’ve been. You set in motion decades of harm, whether that is self harm or a perpetuated harm. And if you silence a child who is trying to speak, or pretend nothing is happening with your silence, you become a conspirator in that crime.
Survivors who have made it to a point of peace and who find a new, stronger, more compassionate person to become, are to be admired.
I am both alarmed and amused by parents who think the way they dress their children will prevent sexual abuse. They are like people who think men and women are raped because of what they wear. It shows an appalling ignorance of how mental illness violates and damages for its own benefit.
In my personal experience and having spoken to many who were abused as kids, it is the child who has not been empowered to question everything, who has been taught to obey blindly against their better instincts, whose boundaries have not been respected and who does not have the support and trust of safe adults, that is most at risk. Unfortunately, this is only a very valid generalisation.
It is the child who has not been empowered to question everything, who has been taught to obey blindly against their better instincts who is most at risk
They say shame dies on exposure. Exposure cannot happen without acknowledgement and honesty. It cannot happen without speaking as adults what we were forced as children to be silent about. An honest voice breaks down what silence perpetuates. An honest voice is able to say ‘Fuck you, I made it anyway.’
I salute the men and women who are taking part in Project Unbreakable, and Grace for having such a clever idea. So. This is my poster. And I like it.
If you would like to speak to someone about sexual trauma that you have experienced or if you feel you may be in a position to harm others please call LifeLine’s 24-hour number 0861 322 322 or visit LifeLife.co.za.
here’s how i actually started this column:
My mouth has gone dry and a familiar knot of low-level anxiety coils itself around my belly. I run through a list of reasons why this is a stupid idea.
In my head, I start: This is not what you’re expected to write, no one’s really going to give a toss, a million people go through the same thing all the time, why do you think this is the platform for that, don’t be ridiculous, this isn’t something you need to write about here, it wasn’t so bad, it was nothing really, so who will care, people will say how it’s not surprising you turned out the way you did and you’re only trying to get sympathy or get attention, just shut up about it and ignore it and write about something funny, something that isn’t this, something that isn’t this, something that isn’t this…
here are some of the other photos that made my tummy hurt and my eyes cry…
All of these pics, barring mine are from Grace’s Unbreakable tumblr. Go check out more people and their words, some Q&As and general support at Project Unbreakable [clickety click].
This column first appeared on Women24.com. [clickety click]