Ignacio Rivera—a child sexual abuse survivor as well as a "transgender, Two-Spirit, Black-Boricua Taíno and queer activist, writer, educator and artist"—has dedicated their life to breaking silences. With their new HEAL (Hidden Encounters Altered Lives) Project, Rivera is using theater, social media campaigns and sex education for parents and guardians to interrupt the cycle of this often buried form of abuse.
A Pervasive but Underreported Problem
Research about the incidence of child sexual abuse in the United States is often prefaced with a disclaimer about the likelihood of underreporting because of stigma. According to a 2010 report to Congress by the Department of Health and Human Services, of the 1.25 million children neglected or physically abused, 24 percent were sexually abused. This translates to approximately 1 in every 15 children.
The report also found that girls are much more likely to be sexually abused than boys, and Black and Hispanic children are abused at higher rates than their White counterparts. But the bottom line, Rivera says, is that "child sexual abuse is something that affects all of us. Someone you know is a survivor of child sexual abuse, or you are."
Performance Art as Healing
Rivera has been sharing their own experience of child sexual abuse with audiences since 2001. What began as a poem became a one-person show called "Lágrimas del Cocodrilo" or "Crocodile Tears," which Rivera toured with for four years. The show evolved over the years, incorporating more audience participation and interaction and opening the door for people to come out as survivors. "Once [after a show] I was in the bathroom washing my hands and this woman comes in. She stands there, looks at me and just loses it," recalls Rivera. "She starts hysterically crying, falls to the floor and I hold her. [She says] ‘That’s my story, I’ve never told anyone.’" Rivera says they are often the first person that an audience member has talked to about their abuse and that those interactions led to the HEAL Project.
Making Visible the Hidden Tools
HEAL, which launched in January, has three components. The first is "Outing CSA," a series of short videos of people identifying themselves by race, gender, sexuality, location, profession and their status as child sexual abuse survivors. The videos, says Rivera, are not about telling the story of the abuse itself but claiming the identity and experience. "There is no burying," they say. "The shit sprouts. It comes up everytime."
In addition to the video series, Rivera is working on a sex-education curriculum aimed at parents and guardians. "The culture of silence and shame around sex and sexuality creates a breeding ground for child sexual abuse," Rivera has said. Rather than using what they call "fear-based approaches," Rivera wants to use sex education as a tool for opening up honest dialogue between parents and guardians and their children. "When we think about sexuality in that context, we are teaching our children how to be better partners, better friends. [It’s] a cultural shift in the celebration of sexuality rather than shaming and hiding."
Rivera has their own experiences building this kind of relationship with their daughter, who was born when they were 19. "The first four years of her life I was so losing it," they recall. "In my teenage years I had already attempted suicide. When she was young, I thought about it every day. I wanted to die. But she was the thing that kept me going. As she approached the age I was when I was abused, it was really hard to parent. I didn’t want to see her naked, I didn’t want to change her diapers. But I started healing myself and got into therapy and I realized I needed to be open with her."
Rivera says they enjoy an open relationship with their daughter, who is 26. They plan on traveling and talking with other parents and guardians to further shape the curriculum. "I want parents to tell me what they are afraid of, what they’ve talked to their kids about, [what] worked for [them], [what] didn’t, what [they’d] like to see."
Rivera is also adamant about incorporating a race, class and queer analysis that makes sure their curriculum reaches marginalized communities. "With all of my work I center people of color, and queer and trans people," they explain. "I feel like anyone who is at the margins [is] the most vulnerable for abuse."
Pain and Progress
The last part of HEAL returns Rivera to their performance art roots with a theater project led by survivors. Rivera says that while the work is daunting, they do see significant progress since they began this public journey 15 years ago. "I think the shifts that have happened have been around talking about sex, kink, polyamory and sexual liberation, about what’s happening on campuses, rape culture and [the idea] that ‘consent is sexy.’ It’s being cracked wide open."
HEAL is supported for two years by a new fellowship from the Just Beginnings Collaborative. Rivera is one of eight fellows, all people of color who have survived child sexual abuse. Despite this fellowship and their long history, Rivera insists they’re just an everyday person. "I’m no expert," they say. "I’m just a survivor."