Are We Making Headlines or Headway?
This article first appeared in Ms. Magazine on 1/24/19.
Try this: Think of your deepest, darkest secret. The one you can’t imagine telling anyone. We all have at least one. Imagine that if you tell this secret, something terrible is going to happen. People you love deeply, upon hearing your secret, will leave you. That is why we survivors fear telling our stories.
There’s a long list of other reasons. They’re all steeped in fear, too. My fear can fill a barn. I’ve been here before so I know what it is: my tongue prefers to push its tip up into my palate like it’s the first line of defense against my voice, and my tear ducts are working overtime constricting every few minutes to hold back the flood; my cheek muscles are swimming in salt water, and my lower lip is pushing back a tremor with all its might; my breath won’t go an inch deeper than the top of my lungs.
I know my fear by heart with my eyes closed. That’s what processing childhood sexual abuse can do sometimes—make you crazy-angry and crazy-scared.
Beginning when I was eight and until I was 12, my father said, after every rape: “You tell anyone and I’ll kill you.” His menacing words held sway until I healed enough to realize, at moments like this, that I am not going to be killed for writing this article.
That people may actually read this article feels life-threatening to me, or so says my residual fear resulting from my sexual abuse experience. But deep down, under my anxieties, I know truth-telling is healing—even when the people you tell the truth to don’t want to hear it.
The healing I have gravitated to, chased after, beaten doors down for, took a very long time. Decades. What that did was build a spine for my voice to stand on. It constructed a foundation for the courage to speak to my family, all the while not knowing what their reaction might be, and ultimately lose most of them. They took whatever was left of their love for me and headed for the hills, and I withstood the blast of their departure from my life.
I am not the only one. Activism and creativity have been paths to healing for many of us, just as putting these words onto this page is for me. Individual survivors have long sought all kinds of spiritual and psychic healing, even on a cellular level. We get doses of medicine from our relationships—friends, partners, therapists, healers. Many survivors have healed enough to begin working on changing our lives for the better.
Now our culture needs to heal, too—so that it is no longer a place where there is so little sexual safety. How about adding that to the pledge of allegiance? With liberty, justice and sexual safety for all.
Our society now has enough evidence to understand that sexual violation is an epidemic, and incest is the grand underbelly of our rape culture. Letting it go on means we retain the breeding ground for other forms of exploitation and violation. If our culture refused to tolerate childhood sexual abuse, it wouldn’t tolerate any of sexual violence or harassment.
That isn’t to say that there has been a powerful, renewed upturn in social consciousness raising. There has. It started with the Women’s Marches in 2017, followed by the explosion of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Then came the Olympian gymnasts marching in time to the music of their victim statements broadcast out of a courtroom in Lansing, Michigan—damning not just one athletic doctor but the institutions that protected him for 20 years.
As all that emerged, this second-wave feminist heart of mine sat for months, too stunned to even know what to say—except for the occasional whisper about my fear of backlash, about my fear of those things that people say and do to refute, discredit and attack any of us who are telling our stories and fighting for justice.
I feel like my writing, my speaking, my telling is buried under a trash heap of facts. It’s a big heap. Priests and parents are raping children. Sergeants are raping corporals. CEOs are raping secretaries. Professors to students, therapists and clients, politicians and interns—it goes on and on.
What we’re seeing now is an avalanche of truth-telling—an iceberg moving through our world, its eyes glaring out at all of us, wondering if it will be now that we, as a planet full of people, will begin to notice it, to consistently remember it and to finally do something about it.
That’s why, even in the midst of this moment, I keep asking myself: Are we making headway, or will these headlines just die down again? After the speaking up and shaming and after some perpetrators get taken down, there will still be an incredible amount of work to do. Institutions that have not held perpetrators and their protectors accountable will have to change the way they do business, and we will all have to redesign our environments in order to keep everyone safe.
If sexual violation is the iceberg, with sexual harassment being the tip made much more visible by the #MeToo, incest is its wide and harsh foundation, hidden in the depths of the ocean of our culture. As always, it’s only the tip we’re seeing. At the top of that frozen mountain are all the women voicing how they’ve been harmed, as well as some men. From movie stars to our next-door neighbors, there’s a tornado of women shouting. A slice of them tweeted #MeToo.
Great—no, fantastic. The more daylight shining on sexual violation, the more it can be eradicated. But what’s beneath the surface that can’t or won’t be seen?
Put on a wet suit and air tank, dive under the cold waters of social obscurity and find the under layers, and there reside those who can’t or aren’t ready to speak. Swim a fathom or two further down to all the battered, sex trafficked bodies.
Now come back up to the surface—you’re almost out of air. Take a rest, warm up a bit and then put on another tank—a bigger one this time—and grab a buddy. Don’t go down alone. Swim past all you’ve seen so far, down to the place where all these other layers have grown out of.
It’s there you’ll find the incest and sexual abuse that’s been happening to children for ages, and is happening to children right now. That, my friends, is where all of this is stemming from.
There has been a groundswell of deserved attention for the #MeToo chorus exposing workplace harassment and abuse—but hardly a whisper about the violations that happen in the home. That’s why I am adding my voice as a woman who survived incest.
Over 58,000 cases of childhood sexual abuse were reported in 2014, with 93 percent of the children knowing their abusers. I need to add a caveat to these horrific numbers: 70 percent of victims don’t ever report. Those children, and their stories, are reason alone for us to make sure everyone gets validated for telling their story. These numbers are proof that we must have a continual avalanche of witnesses.
Until we stop the sexual abuse of children, none of these other outrages are going to end. Once the top of the iceberg gets melted down with the warmth of truth and understanding, the next layer gets exposed for what it is, huge and pervasive.
Every time I speak publicly I get asked: “What do you believe has to happen to end childhood sexual abuse?” Sometimes I want to say: “How the f#*k should I know?” But I don’t.
I say: “It’ll have to radiate from childhood sexual abuse survivors —telling the truth about our lives in ways that people will hear.”
I know why I always need to breathe and stall before that pronouncement. It pains me to lay this burden of social change on the backs of my sister and brother survivors, as if they didn’t already have enough to deal with. But I know that rarely, if ever, does someone give up power and privilege. Almost all strides in eradicating sexism have come from women—same with civil rights and LGBTQ rights. Most hard-won bits of progress have been achieved by those on the short end of their respective stick.
Survivors are more than witnesses. Our bodies are crime scenes. And something’s going to happen after we tell the truth. It depends on whom we tell, of course—like a support group versus family, a priest or a lawyer. But every single person we tell is going to have a reaction, and many of those reactions, sadly, will stink. (I can’t leave out the devastating fact that if you are not only a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, but also dealing with racism, physical disability, transphobia or poverty, the scales of justice are stacked against you even more.)
Non-survivors have a job to do, too: believe those who tell you they survived childhood sexual abuse.
I can feel a small flame in my gut stretching itself a bit, considering the possibilities of what a multitude of survivors and believers might come up with together for ending this soul-crushing epidemic.
Anyone else interested in finding out?
- Donna Jenson
Donna Jenson founded Time To Tell and wrote and performs the one-woman play, "What She Knows: One Woman’s Way Through Incest to Joy," which is based on her own experience of surviving incest and what she did to make her life worth living. Her book, Healing My Life from Incest to Joy, is a narrative of the choices she made and experiences she had that helped her heal from her childhood trauma.