Sexual abuse :: Project Unbreakable

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.

that 'we' terrifies me.

that 'we' terrifies me.

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…

this is a woman writing about mother-daughter sexual abuse
this is a woman writing about mother-daughter sexual abuse

The idea that I should be afraid of my abusers (yes, both of them) seems absurd to me now. I live in my own apartment, in a secure neighborhood, with a rifle for home defense. But when you’re five years old, you’ll believe anything an adult tells you. I didn’t tell anyone for fifteen years, and the first time I told anyone, I vomited from panic and nearly passed out. Over these last few years I have slowly chipped away at the amount of fear and control my abusers spent so much time cultivating, each in his own way. My therapist tells me that male victims are generally less likely to come forward, and that is a trend I would very much like to see reversed.

The idea that I should be afraid of my abusers (yes, both of them) seems absurd to me now. I live in my own apartment, in a secure neighborhood, with a rifle for home defense. But when you’re five years old, you’ll believe anything an adult tells you. I didn’t tell anyone for fifteen years, and the first time I told anyone, I vomited from panic and nearly passed out. Over these last few years I have slowly chipped away at the amount of fear and control my abusers spent so much time cultivating, each in his own way. My therapist tells me that male victims are generally less likely to come forward, and that is a trend I would very much like to see reversed.

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]

45 Comments:

  1. Your website is amazing. I’m very new to this site, only joined yesterday, but I can’t pull myself away. Fortunately, I have never been abused, but it sickens me to the core that people do this to children.

    My daughter is 8, and when she was 4 she told me her cousin touched her rosebud (her cousin was 12). I’m very lucky that my baby told me this.

    Of course my first reaction was shock, but the main thing was that I didn’t want to react too badly because I didn’t want my baby to think she had done something wrong.

    So the next day we made an appointed with the Psychologist, whom she continued to see for a couple months. They did play therapy and talking etc. My main aim was firstly to make sure my little love bug was ok, she had to be check out etc, and given therapy, but my other main concern was that my baby knew that mommy and daddy believed her.

    I just feel no child lies about something like that, and that parents need to take what their children say very VERY SERIOUSLY.

    Lets talk about her drawings. The first drawing she drew of herself, but she had no arms and something that looked like a red ball where her vagina would be. The Dr explained that the drawing with no arms symbolizes that she felt helpless. The red ball is the violation to her private part.

    The next drawing she still had no arms, but the red ball was in her tummy. (meaning, she’s still dealing with the issue, still feels helpless, but her concern over her private part is ok.

    The next drawing was pretty much the same, but she had a smiling face, so she’s starting to feel a little happier.

    The next drawing was a beautiful picture of mom, dad, baby, our dogs. For herself she drew herself with wide open arms, and big red heart in her chest(no more ball), and a huge smile.

    I was so emotional, because I just wanted to help my little pumpkin. I myself felt helpless, and angry that her cousin did this, but then I had to wonder, what is happening to her cousin (who’s also a girl) to do this.

    So then I had to sit her mom down and have a discussion. I was concerned that she was just acting out what had been done to her.

    The cousin hasn’t admitted to such things happening to her, but she did go for counselling so lets just hope she’s ok too.

    My point to this very long winded novel i’m writing is that I wish all parents just believed in their children. I’m no saint, but I was NOT going to be the one to hurt my child further. If a child can’t trust her parents, ESPECIALLY HER MOTHER, then who can they trust, and what will their world be like.

    My baby is getting so big now, and I’m so proud of her. She does well at everything she does, school, ballet, netball, swimming, gymnastics……you name it, she does it.

    It just makes me wonder, what would have happened to her soul if we had been the kind of parets that bury their head in the sand. The ones that take away their child’s safe place. I just can’t imagine being like that.

    Don’t get me wrong, we fight, we have arguments, I lose control and i’m no perfect mother. but I know one thing, I love my children, and will do anything for them. I would die for them without a second thought. They are my life. They are my heart, beating outside of my body.

    And anyone hurts my babies……..I will totally FUCK THEM UP.

    Regards
    Jackie

    Jackie
    June 22, 2012 at 5:32 pm
    • wow jackie – what am amazing story! and awesome how you dealt with your daughter’s experience. i wish more parents would consider taking their kid to a therapist for big life events such as this. little people experience all the emotional waves we do but don’t have the capacity to process it or make sense of it … it’s a whole lot of raw feeling that gets buried to deal with at a later, more adult, date. i reckon if the issues can be faced with help and good care up front, like you did with your little girl, it saves a whole lot of hurt and pain later.

      dot
      June 23, 2012 at 10:33 am
  2. i’ve always enjoyed the honesty and frankness with which you write here but this post is really courageous

    respect to you for sharing.

    waren
    February 22, 2012 at 4:28 pm
  3. Hey Dot, I was ‘fiddled’ with by a family friend’s son and only found out in my twenty’s that he had done it to both my sisters too……giving us piggy back rides with his fingers in our panties. Still makes my skin crawl at the thought of it.
    But worse is that fact that his sister has 2 beautiful girls and I always wonder if he did anything to them and also got away with it……just how many little girls did he mess with.
    My sisters and I have discussed it in depth and all feel guilty for never speaking up. We are still best friends with his sisters and I don’t know if I could risk the friendships and tell them what happened.
    Where do I go from here?

    Secam
    February 17, 2012 at 4:25 pm
  4. “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…”

    This is EXACTLY how I feel. Again, you are more brave than I.

    Anon continued
    February 16, 2012 at 5:09 pm
    • and again. not more brave than anybody. i just don’t have a choice in shutting up :)

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 10:01 pm
  5. I’m not as brave as you. I sat crying at my desk, considering a tweet, considering a news24viafacebook comment… I can’t do it.

    I’ve had:

    “Are you sure you want to do this?” – while he takes my virginity and I’m saying no.

    “I just can’t help myself, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” – while being held down and prematurely ejaculated onto by a close friend who was about to rape me, while I’m crying and saying no.

    While being raped by a stranger I asked why, he said “I just wanted to know what a white woman feels like”. He also apologised at the end.

    All of these took place between 13 and 19 yrs of age. I suffered from eating disorders from 13 to 20. I now rely on marijuana to eat properly and cope with anxiety, every day. My friends think I’m a stoner, work has no clue, I know its my way of coping.

    Oddly, I do enjoy sex now, a lot actually. And willfully role play a lot of scenarios where I am being dominated. I don’t feel bad about that, at all, though.

    Anon
    February 16, 2012 at 4:28 pm
    • i was horrified to read this. please tell me you’re seeing or will consider seeing a therapist.

      loving sex or being dominated in sex is not the problem. the trauma of your multiple rapes is.

      please. please. please. go. see. someone. call rapecrisis for referrals. they are cape town based, but if you’re elsewhere they will be able to direct you to a resource that can help you. 021 447 9762

      please.

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:59 pm
  6. Dot, I am struggling to find words. Huge respect and thanks to you for being the brave and amazing person who has had the courage to have written this column. Sometimes I am just thankful that I am one of the few women who has escaped sexual abuse as a child, because so many of the women that I know or meet through my practice have been abused. Often they have taken years to speak about it and their scars are deep and difficult to heal.
    As a mother of two sons the thought of anyone harming or violating them is possibly my worst nightmare. I think one of the ways to prevent this from happening is ensuring that your children are always able to speak to you without fear. I have told my children that sexual abuse exists from a young age, educating them in terms simple enough for them to understand and encouraging them to have healthy boundaries. I urge other parents to build relationships with their children where they do not feel fear, and should anything happen which violates them in anyway (including verbal abuse) they feel confident that their parent/s would listen with love and respect and take action accordingly.

    Marina
    February 16, 2012 at 2:13 pm
    • oh my hon. i have such respect for you. thanks for commenting. x

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:55 pm
  7. Dot, I salute you. I am proud of you. As one of your readers, I feel that this is the platform for this, the number of people I personally know who have been raped and sexually abused by their family members is alarmingly high, and their own sense of responsibility for the actions is even more frightening.
    Thank you for being so strong, for sharing your experience, for sharing your words.

    As for the girl in the little blue jumpsuit – I think that she has a lot to be proud of – growing into an opinionated and liberated woman, who bravely faces her demons and inspires those around her to talk frankly about the “hush hush.”

    Thank you for sharing and thank you for inspiring. I’m off to share this post.
    xx

    Samantha Laura Kaye
    February 16, 2012 at 1:41 pm
    • that is a very kind, wonderful thing to say. thank you x

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:53 pm
  8. Thank you. You are braver than I.

    Dave
    February 16, 2012 at 11:55 am
    • not really. i just don’t have a choice anymore.

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:53 pm
      • dont be ashamed of your sexual side of your life…and dont blame yourself. God let things happen for a purpose, it doesnt mean we can understand it. but his love for you, is B-I-G and you will feel his blessings when he blesses you. Life is more beautiful to LOVE. and LOVE is a free gift. love is not evil, does not boast ..etc its in the bible:D i believe in you , you can do it. we can do it in jesus name AMEN!

        john
        January 27, 2014 at 11:11 pm
  9. I think one of the important things about projects like these – and those who contribute to them – is that it is a reminder to parents that you can’t be too careful. Rape is unthinkable to some, but we must guard against it wherever we can. As a parent, it’s fucking terrifying, but necessary to keep it in mind. Thank you for reminding us.

    biobot
    February 16, 2012 at 11:49 am
    • i’ve always been of the belief that if you’re not prepared to educate your child about sex, the world and TV will.

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:52 pm
  10. Quite simply, thank you.

    Cathy
    February 16, 2012 at 11:17 am
    • :) i am filled with incredibly lovely feelings of warmth and happiness from everybody’s responses. thank you.

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:49 pm
  11. I just read your column and it stung me straight in the heart. I was raped aged 6, and the only person I told was my husband shortly after we met, and it has never been discussed since (17 years ago) or with anyone else. I think about what he did to me everyday. If my mom found out, it would kill her. I was invited to swim at his house and she innocently sent me. which is why I will never say a word to anyone to this day. My daughter is now 6, and it haunts me what I endured at that age. He changed my life forever. I dont remember much as a child, but that day, I remember like it happened yesterday, his actions, his words, his voice. Do you know he went on to be a policeman?
    I saw him a year ago at a shopping mall, the first time in 27 years, with a wife and two children. He looked at me and straight through me. I was carrying my baby daughter, I was frozen to the spot. Still to this day, I think about it every night. I dont sleep well as a result, not since age 6. I struggle being introduced to strangers. I often wonder, how much more of a stronger person I could be had this not happened to me. For a long time I wouldnt let anyone touch me (which was I had to tell my now husband at the time because he didnt understand). I am sitting here with sweaty palms and a pounding heart. It feels cathartic to write this, I have felt the urge to let it out but never brave enough too. I Admire those who have had the guts to face their attackers, with all my heart. I wish I could do the same, but must his children pay for his mistake? Thank you for posting this Dot, it summarises everything for me.

    Echo95
    February 16, 2012 at 10:55 am
    • darling, why why why do you feel you have to protect your mother’s feelings? why do you feel you need to keep this to yourself? please please please please find a lovely therapist to help you work through this. don’t let him steal the rest of your life (and your sleep). you sound like you have the support of a trustworthy partner, isn’t it time to get your power back?

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:48 pm
  12. hey plums
    i’ve had the support of a great therapist and friends. I would never have posted this before now. But although I feel strong and safe enough to write about it now doesn’t mean that writing about it is easy. i just knew when i saw the tumblr that the time was right. especially since so many on project unbreakable have experienced abuse i could never imagine and were still brave enough to post.
    thanks for all your lovely comments.
    dot

    dot
    February 16, 2012 at 10:28 am
  13. i will fucking KILL any fucker who dares lay a hand on a child.
    NOBODY has the right to touch you when you dont want to be touched.
    i have very little recollection of my childhood, so i cant say i can understand how you feel, but just point out the spineless fuck who hurt you, and i will make his life very unpleasant.
    name and shame, i say.
    it makes me ill that there is this ‘dont ask dont tell’ attitude to abuse. ‘it’s not our business’. bullfuckingshit!! if you are too fucking spineless to do anything to prevent a child or adult from experiencing abuse, then just go and kill yourself, because the world doesnt need you using up resources, and god help us, reproduce and spread your weak DNA in the world.

    Adele
    February 16, 2012 at 10:27 am
    • xxx

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:44 pm
  14. i was 9. i got told that if i told, i’d get everyone in trouble and make everyone sad.
    despite everything he did/said, i did tell. and nothing happened.
    took me a long time to forgive my mom.
    took me an even longer time to forgive myself.
    thank you for sharing your story.
    xx

    anib
    February 16, 2012 at 10:26 am
    • that really is a double whammy of fuckedupedness, when the people you need to trust do not act appropriately and leave you stranded emotionally. it’s a very vulnerable place to put yourself – telling someone – and if your first port of call turns you away … well, it sets the course for a whole other kind of shame

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:44 pm
  15. I’ve lived through this. My daughter was molested by a sick fucker who was her swimming teacher. She was 2 when he started, and 4 when we found out. Courts failed to prosecute because there was “insufficient evidence” (there were at least 6 kids, that we know, but we estimate 200 that he’s fiddled with). He walks the streets of our neighbourhood, and he lives his life free. Except if you Google his name, you’ll find out about it. And that is my comfort. THAT is my release. Just THAT victory, is what enables me to sleep at night. She’s nearly seven now.

    My sister was molested by our uncle from the age of two. She survived it until she was 10. Then he got bored when she started getting boobs and tried to move on to myself and my brother. I was 1 year old at the time. To this day, we still don’t know if he was successful or not. I have no recollection of my childhood from the age of 3 to the age of 7. Nobody knows if it happened, and if it did, I am 31 now and I’m watching as the bastard fades away into old age.

    Although it does explain my initial reaction to being told that my daughter was being molested. I didn’t cry, I didn’t wail, I didn’t even speak. I just went straight into lioness mode, and have lived there ever since.

    I’m in the ring with you. You’re courageous and I am thankful for you. May you always be strong.

    Cath

    Cath
    February 16, 2012 at 10:23 am
    • i am so sorry to hear about your daughter and your childhood, but so glad to hear of the way you’ve dealt with it. your little girl is very lucky to have you x

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:41 pm
  16. ((hugs))

    Jenty
    February 16, 2012 at 10:17 am
    • more hugs for me! :)

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:40 pm
  17. Dear Dot, you are so brave and I hope that others will become brave too after reading your post. I cannot imagine the amount of angst and emotion it must have taken to finally write this and I am proud of you. You have come out the other side and you have overcome. You have taken back your power! Well done.

    rumtumtigger
    February 16, 2012 at 10:13 am
    • thank you so much. yeah it was hectic, but i have an amazing counsellor and really supportive friends, which has been an amazing help. x

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:39 pm
  18. wow…

    Sparky
    February 16, 2012 at 10:03 am
    • yaaaaaaa

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:38 pm
  19. Wow.. I have no words. We all know it happens, even in our own families. But I am still astounded, shocked and disgusted with every excuse made, and secret forced to keep.

    Well done for speaking up. Maybe more people will reclaim their power through this project.

    PS: I don’t know powerful enough cuss words to describe hoe I feel about abusers… And HATE is too soft.

    You rock!

    Cybafaerie
    February 16, 2012 at 9:51 am
    • thank you darling x

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:37 pm
  20. Just (((hugs)))

    Gina
    February 16, 2012 at 9:49 am
    • i like hugs :)

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:37 pm
  21. Big. Brass. Cojones.

    Well done, Dot.

    frx2
    February 16, 2012 at 9:33 am
    • i had to google ‘cajones’ :)

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:35 am
  22. I never had the luxury of a therapist and it took me years to deal with it. These words make me wonder though….

    When you violate a child, you change their lives forever. You kill the person they could’ve been

    Anyway… good job Dotty. Writing this must have opened the wounds again.
    Thanks for doing an amazing job for all us out there.

    dignity
    February 16, 2012 at 9:17 am
    • ‘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.’

      not everyone makes it through. not everyone is able to live as fully and as freely as they would’ve without that violation (and i think that could be any abuse) in their formative years.

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:23 am
  23. Jesus I’m proud of you. I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes feeling what you must have felt. You’re incredible, and are changing peoples’ lives with this brave post! XX

    Shelly
    February 16, 2012 at 8:26 am
    • hey shelly, thanks for your kind words, it’s a awareness projects like unbreakable and all the survivors taking part in it that are really changing people’s lives… x

      dot
      February 16, 2012 at 9:10 am

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