When survivors can turn to loved ones with the truth of what they experienced and be met with love and trust, they can then work together to foster accountability and ensure the problem is never repeated. Everyone involved has an opportunity to heal.
Love WITH Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse, an anthology introduced and edited by Aishah Shahidah Simmons, discusses a pathway to healing from sexual violence within community. It presents the thesis that “survivor-centered accountability without relying on policing and prisons is love and radical justice.”
Originally gathered in an online forum, the conversation in this anthology is dynamic and cohesive. Every essay works well to teach readers, even those who might not be familiar with concepts like restorative justice, what a humane end to sexual violence could look like. The individual narratives of the authors add history, truth, complexity, and validity to life as a survivor.
The collection of essays centers the voices of Black survivors, includes many queer voices, and was a co-winner of the Lambda literary award for 2020. Aishah Shahidah Simmons initiated and facilitated the conversation with all featured writers, and her expertise working professionally with and for fellow survivors shines through in this collection.
In October 2020, I was grateful to talk with Aishah over email about Love WITH Accountability, the history of justice for survivors of sexual violence, the process of putting together this anthology, and what a future with love and accountability looks like.
Love WITH Accountability: A Conversation with Aishah Shahidah Simmons
Interview with Aishah Shahidah Simmons
Can you share how you would like to introduce yourself?
Aishah Shahidah Simmons
My name is Aishah Shahidah Simmons. I’m a Black feminist lesbian survivor of childhood sexual abuse, adult rape, an award-winning cultural worker, and Buddhist. For over 25-years I have created diasporic Black survivor-centered cultural work focused on healing from and accountability for adult and childhood sexual violence without relying on policing and prisons.
You asked the authors in this anthology to respond to the idea of love with accountability, which refers to family members holding one another accountable after an instance of sexual violence (specifically child sexual abuse, which is discussed the most in this anthology). Communities and families need to openly validate the survivor’s experience. By addressing the violence and doing their best to make sure it doesn’t happen again, the cycle will break and survivors can heal. How do you think this concept of accountability and restorative justice is already changing the conversation around sexual violence and survivors, and how do you hope it will continue to change?
Aishah Shahidah Simmons
Restorative Justice, Transformative Justice and Community Accountability are continuously changing the conversations around sexual violence and survivors in different ways. There are more recent mass-mediated conversations around these practices than in the past. However, they aren’t new. Their origins go back for decades and, in some instances, centuries. Historically and contemporarily, many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities have wrought relationships with policing and prisons. These systems’ origins designed for the elite class’s safety are rooted in white supremacy, heteronormativity, patriarchal, and classism. They weren’t created for the safety or security of marginalized and disenfranchised communities.
We must refrain from looking for overnight solutions. Dating back to Columbus’s arrival in 1492, the European settlers in the Americas and the Caribbean raped, committed genocide, and stole humans, land, and resources. We’re talking about centuries of intergenerational violence and trauma that are an integral part of the fabric of this hemisphere.
Policing and prisons give the illusion that we will all be safe if we lock up the harm doer. This line of thinking doesn’t factor in the bystanders who often allow or condone the harm, nor does it address the sobering reality that all of us can cause harm, and many of us are both harmed and harm doer.
I believe in survivor-centered accountability. I think survivors should decide the best route for their healing journeys. We know that policing and prisons do not stop rape long or even short-term. Most survivors do not receive justice in a court of law. They are often left to heal their wound alone without any form of accountability. You can review the RAINN’s (Rape Abuse Incest National Network) criminal justice statistics. I hope that exponentially more people utilize RJ, TJ, and CA as tools for disrupting and ending violence instead of relying on state-sanctioned punishment and retribution in response to any form of violence. This isn’t easy work. It’s long term, laborious, and there aren’t one size, quick-fix solutions. However, I believe there are more viable opportunities for healing, accountability, wholeness, and ultimately ending the sexual violence pandemics.
There’s a line in your introduction to Love WITH Accountability that says “Sexual violence is pervasive and touches upon almost every single social justice issue including but not limited to race, gender, gender identity, disability, sexuality, education, housing, immigration, health care, mass incarceration, militarization, and politics.” Can you talk a bit about how, in your experience, this idea of intersectional justice can help survivors heal?
Aishah Shahidah Simmons
As a Black feminist survivor, I’m explicitly clear that applying an intersectional framework in response to sexual violence is imperative for the survivor healing process, most especially for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). I intentionally use the word “imperative”. We must have a multipronged approach to addressing sexual violence because none of us live single-issue/identity lives. Too often, incidents of sexual violence traverse various forms of oppression embodied into one. Sexual violence may be the root or instigator of immediate trauma. However, there are often intersecting forms of violence. They include all of the issues you referenced from my introduction to the anthology. Recognizing the healing is a journey and not a destination, I’m most interested in frameworks that encourage healing our whole selves.
What was the impact of having an online forum as a way to put together this anthology? What was the biggest revelation you had during that process, and what did you personally take away from those conversations?
Aishah Shahidah Simmons
In Fall 2016, I curated and edited a 10-day online #LoveWITHAccountability forum on the news site, TheFeministWire.com, where I am an associate editor. I invited an intergenerational group of 29 diasporic Black cisgender women, gender non-conforming people, and trans and cisgender men to join me in exploring what love with accountability look like in the context of childhood sexual abuse.
The group included diasporic Black survivors, advocates, activists, and one former bystander (who is also a survivor-activist), my mother, Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Ph.D. For the first time, she wrote publicly about her decades-long journey of finally acknowledging what happened to me as a child and the subsequent decade’s long cover-up by her and my father. All of the forum’s writings are freely available both on The Feminist Wire and on the forum page of #LoveWITHAccountability® website.
The 2016 forum is the profound pre-cursor to the 2019 Love WITH Accountability anthology. The biggest takeaway from the experience was the critical need to transform the online forum into a book to continue and deepen the conversations that emerged from the online forum. My understanding developed in response to facilitated discussions and public presentations across the United States about exploring models of “accountable love,” as one way to disrupt and end child sexual abuse without relying on policing and prisons. These conversations were held in high schools, colleges/universities, churches, and sexual assault prevention coalitions. The number one recurring request that I received during my numerous presentations (November 2016-August 2017) was for a book on the issues and topics that the contributors and I grappled with in the #LoveWITHAccountability online forum. Those experiences in high schools, colleges/universities, churches, and sexual assault prevention coalitions developed my clarity. I would edit an anthology featuring most of the revised writings from the forum and brand-new essays by survivors, activists, and advocates of African descent would be the next step on the #LoveWITHAccountability journey.
What’s the next step you hope readers will take after encountering your work and reading this anthology?
Aishah Shahidah Simmons
As a cultural worker, my goal is to create work that ignites diasporic Black survivor-centered accountability in response to sexual violence without relying on policing and prisons. I hope readers of Love WITH Accountability will use the anthology as an educational, healing, and organizing tool to disrupt and end childhood sexual abuse in families and any other institution where children are sexually harmed. There are over 40-distinct, diasporic Black road maps that span generations, gender identity, sexuality, and political/social perspectives about addressing this inhumane pandemic, humanely.
What projects are you working on at the moment? What’s next for you?
Aishah Shahidah Simmons
One of the many things that COVID brought to my acute awareness is that children are always sheltering in place. Those who are sexually abused are often sheltering with their abusers. While “sheltering in place” isn’t the language that the Love WITH Accountability contributors use in our writings, that’s precisely what happened to most if not all of us. When we talk about global health pandemic, we mustn’t forget that many of us deal with at least three concurrent epidemics (COVID, white supremacy, sexual violence). Recognizing this, I wanted to provide free or significantly discounted resources that address the intersections of white supremacy and sexual violence on diasporic Black survivors’ lives. My film NO! The Rape Documentary is available for streaming in multiple subtitled languages for $1 per 72-hour rental period. During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I started hosting and moderating the #LoveWITHAccountability® Virtual Book Talk Series. They are free, ASL interpreted, online gatherings with the contributors to the anthology. Since we cannot gather in person for book talks and conversations, I wanted to co-create a virtual sacred space where the contributors could read excerpts from their chapters and engage in conversation about healing and survivor-centered accountability.
To date, there’ve been seven official book talks featuring approximately 34 of the 43-contributors. The virtual book talks along with other, audio/visual resources are available for free viewing and listening on the website, YouTube and Vimeo.
My next book project is titled, From Love to Justice (w/t). It is the third part of three cultural works that disrupt adult rape and childhood sexual violence in Black communities. My film, NO! The Rape Documentary (2006) is primarily about adult intra-racial rape, accountability, and healing in Black communities. It gathered the wisdom of 28 diasporic Black survivors, scholars, activists, dancers, and poets. My anthology, Love WITH Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse (2019), expands NO!’s conversation to connect the dots between CSA and sexual assault, honing in on CSA. It gathered the wisdom of 43 Black survivors, advocates, and one bystander seeking solutions emerging from their CSA experiences and/or advocacy. From Love to Justice builds on this work. The book project develops a cultural strategy centering storytelling and writing as a praxis for disrupting and ending the childhood and adult sexual violence pandemics without relying on carceral justice.
I am an 18-year student and practitioner of dhamma (dharma is the widely known Sanskrit translation) teachings in the Theravada Buddhist lineage. I credit 27-years of therapy with a licensed, clinical Black feminist psychologist specializing in trauma, and my Buddhist practice as two grounding anchors on my survivor-activist journey. My cultural work is greatly influenced and informed by my spiritual practice. In September 2019, I left the spiritual container I called home for 17-years. I needed to practice and learn in an environment where I wasn’t expected to leave my racial, gender and sexual identities at anyone’s door. In 2020, I began studying 1-1 with Black dharma teachers Tuere Sala and Dr. Shanté Paradigm Smalls. In 2021, I will begin a two-year Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program. I am committed to deepening my understanding of an embodied spiritual practice and sharing with others, most especially survivors who are navigating their way in the aftermath of the trauma.
Aishah Shahidah Simmons is a Black, feminist, lesbian survivor and an award-winning cultural worker. She edited the 2020 Lambda Literary Award-winning anthology Love WITH Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse ( (AK Press, Fall 2019), and she produced/directed the 2006 Ford Foundation-funded, groundbreaking film, NO! The Rape Documentary. Simmons’s cultural work and activism are documented extensively. She has taught, presented her work, and lectured throughout North America, and in countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.