Conversations about the body, sexual trauma, sexual healing and parenting often get set apart from one another but one dynamic mother-daughter duo is changing the face of the conversation and liberating others as they continue to liberate themselves. The Body Is Not an Apology founder Sonya Taylor interviews Ignacio Rivera and their daughter Amanda, lovingly called Mandy, in the conversation below. Ignacio is the founder of The HEAL Project which aims to broaden the conversation about sex and sexuality as a critical component to ending child sexual abuse. This project fosters open dialogue in the movement by promoting healthy understanding of sex and sexuality as a focal point of any work to end child sexual abuse. Igancio took their mission even further by creating Pure Love Talks with Mandy, a talk show dedicated to honest, vulnerable and intimate conversations about creating sustainable relationships with our children, normalizing the sex talks and shifting the culture of sexual abuse.
At once powerful and full of laughs join us in conversation as we heal.
IGNACIO: Hi and welcome to Pure Love Episode 4. I’m Ignacio Rivera.
MANDY: Hi, I’m Mandy.
IGNACIO: And this is Pure Love. Pure Love is an open and honest talk show between a parent and a child discussing sex, sexuality, life, relationships and everything. We want to share the ways we’ve communicated with you all. We feel like storytelling is a huge part of growth and ending shame and secrecy around a lot of issues, specifically around child sexual abuse. This project came about through The HEAL Project, a project I founded working directly to address and ultimately end child sexual abuse and a major platform for that is comprehensive sexual education.
So, my daughter and I decided to do this show so that we can share our process with other people – the wonderfulness and the pitfalls of it all.
Today, we have a special show because we have Sonya Renee Taylor from The Body Is Not An Apology joining us and she will be interviewing us today. So, we have a little different spin. Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about The Body Is Not An Apology.
SONYA: Absolutely, thank you so much for having me. I am really excited to share this time with you and to talk to you all about the work that you do! I think it is super powerful. For those who do not know me, my name is Sonya Renee Taylor. I am the founder and Radical Executive Officer of TBINAA we are a digital media and education company focused on radical self love and body empowerment as the foundational tool for social justice and global transformation. So, we really see oppression and injustice as manifestations of our inability to make peace with the body; our own bodies and other people’s bodies.
We certainly see The HEAL Project and Pure Love as an important tool as we do that peace-making work with the body. I am excited to dive in and ask you all some questions and hear what you have to say.
I really want to start off asking you all about the conception and the impetus of The HEAL Project and the Pure Love series. In a world where conversations about body, sex and gender are not only just uncomfortable but often treated with significant stigma – let alone having those conversations with a child and a parent together.
It’s really ground-breaking work and so I’m interested, what was the impetus for both The HEAL Project and the Pure Love series? Were there fears around doing it? And, if so, what were some of the biggest fears?
IGNACIO: The impetus for The HEAL Project was probably about 15 years ago. HEAL stands for Hidden Encounters Altered Lives, it was really at a time where I was delving deep in my healing with therapy, with art therapy; trying to just navigate my life. A huge piece of my healing was performance poetry and writing. I wrote a lot of angry, angry stuff and through that I developed a show that I was fortunate enough to tour with for four years and that show was really my story. My story as a person who experienced child sexual abuse at the hands of a female and I wanted to start something that specifically spoke to survivors of sexual abuse that perpetrator or wrong-doer was female. Back then, no one was talking about it. No one was talking about it period, but to talk about it as a woman broke all these types of gender stereotypes. That (particular) project didn’t end up happening but this time around I made it collaborative and I was able to get some funding. Because of the last 15 years of the work that’s been going towards sexual violence or anti-sexual violence, and child sexual abuse I was able to have a better platform now. It is not specifically about female perpetrators this time, but healing and sex education because that is my platform.
Through The HEAL Project came Pure Love because I wanted to speak directly to parents on how to talk to kids about this stuff. So, let’s do a talk show and just have conversations, talk about how I raised Mandy, what she loved about it, what she hated about it, raw, honest, we argue – that is where the idea came from and Mandy said she was in.
SONYA: In terms of this collaboration what has been the scariest thing you all have grappled with in the process of putting out Pure Love?
MANDY: My biggest fear is that because this is going to be on public, social media, people will judge me or my mom because they are trans and a lot of times people just say really ignorant, close-minded things about what kind of person I m or what kind of person they are because of their lifestyle. That was my biggest issue because, of course I have no shame. I am very proud of my mom but other people are not as accepting, so that was my biggest fear to having all of my Facebook friends or Instagram friends have access to a personal part of my life.
For someone who means so much to me (gestures towards mother Ignacio), it would boil my blood if anyone said anything about my mom so opening up that door made me nervous. There is always going to be those comments and reactions. My thought was, what are those reactions going to be?
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IGNACIO: My biggest fear was, of course, family. I talked to my parents first and said, ‘Look, I’m going to do this. Are you okay with it?’ And they are super supportive of us, we are opening up our lives in a really huge way. It’s one thing to talk about it in a workshop, it’s another to put it online. The other fear was what my daughter was saying about my trans identity, because I’m trans, gender fluid, gender nonconforming. I look the way I do and I identify very strongly as a mom and she calls me mom and that’s going to stay until I become an ancestor – that is really important to me. So, to talk about this publicly I have to talk about my trans identity because what happened to me happened to me as a little girl, that’s my experience as a little girl, therefore that was a big fear for me because I am nestled nicely in my near community and this brings it outside of that safety.
SONYA: Thank you! So, I have all kinds of other questions that are off the path that I sent you from just what you answered here. Is it okay if I ask some things that may come up? I know with a lot of the work we do at TBINAA we are dancing between what does it mean to have our own story and then how does our story fit into a larger social narrative, right? And, when it fits into that larger social narrative is it fitting into the one that furthers oppression or is fitting in the one that furthers liberation?
One of the narratives that often gets pushed, particularly on trans and gender nonconforming people is that their trans-ness is because of trauma. I’m interested in how you feel about that narrative? How does it feel for you personally? And then, how do you navigate that with the platform that you have?
IGNACIO: That is an amazing question because my one woman show really grappled with me, at the time, identifying as a lesbian and people would always ask, ‘Do you think you were [lesbian] because that happened to you?’
You shouldn’t ask any person who has suffered any kind of sexual trauma any kind of question like that. We don’t necessarily ask an open, cis woman who might have been sexually assaulted by a man, ‘Do you think you’re straight because of that?’ I think that there is a mixed bag. The thing is, there are some of us who would say there is no trauma, I know who I am. I know I am a trans person because I feel it, that’s that. I can’t speak to someone who might say, ‘My trauma informs my gender identity.’ I’m not sure, because that’s not my experience.
Maybe, in a sense of safety, I have heard someone who might be very feminine after a traumatic experience and putting that onto themselves saying, ‘If I look differently than maybe I wouldn’t get attacked,’ adds Mandy.
It has nothing to do with how someone looks.
MANDY: When people report these things that’s the first thing they ask, ‘What were you wearing? Were you inviting them in?’ Of course, that wouldn’t be the first place to go, ‘Let me not look like what I used to look like when I was attacked.’ Even though I’m not a survivor of child sexual abuse, sometimes that pushes onto me. Even now, I identify as pansexual, people sometimes assume that I’m queer because my mom is queer and it must have ‘rubbed off on you.’ [It’s this narrative of] ‘because my mom was abused they’re this way and they raised me in this unhealthy queer household and this is why I’m this way.’
So, I have to have a reason. I’ve had to deal with [people saying], ‘Oh, you’re just like your mom.’ And I’m like, ‘no.’
SONYA: “That’s not really how that works,” she says smiling and agreeing.
Another question for you Mandy: So, you grew up in this household where conversations about sex and sexuality and sexual trauma were open parts of the conversation and I imagine you had friends where that was absolutely not the case for them. How do you see having those conversations having shaped who you are today and the decisions and experiences you have had versus some of your friends who didn’t have those conversations?
MANDY: I think it shaped me tremendously. Everyone has their moments when they are not the most confident, but I feel I have a certain sense of confidence in me because I have knowledge. It’s a certain way you carry yourself when you’re informed about things; going into a situation and you know nothing you feel fear and anxiety and you don’t know what’s going to happen. But when I know A, B, and C could happen and I have a plan or options if any of these things happen, then I feel more secure and more confident going into situations. There were a lot of times growing up when my friends would ask me for advice dealing with guys or girls and I wasn’t even sexually active or I wasn’t even dating because they knew I had this type of information and knowledge because of how I was raised.
People would ask me stuff and I’d go, ‘Well from what I know…’ my opinions would be based off of the information I was given. I feel like it steered me away from a lot of bad decisions, some of the things my friends were doing and regretted doing. For me, there were so many things I have not done because I didn’t need to, because I could connect the dots to why certain people do certain things.
IGNACIO: And also, I think there’s this mystique because I remember it growing up. When my mother would say, ‘ Don’t do that.’ I would think, ‘But why?’ There was no questioning ‘Why?’ It was just you don’t do it because I said so. And, you still do it anyway because you’re so curious.
MANDY: You’re so curious and you want to figure out [why not]. But, because I had talked about these things there was no need for me to go out exploring more than I wanted to. I didn’t do things because I had zero information and it was a quest for knowledge. Whereas I’d have the knowledge and maybe I want to try that and now I can because I know going into it what to expect and what could possibly happen.
It was different for me going into relationships and sexual situations having my background, I think it was more of an easier transition than other people who had no type of knowledge – where the first thing they know about it is when someone is inside of them. Sometimes, they don’t know how to say, ‘No’ or ‘I don’t feel comfortable, or ‘Can we wait?’ or ‘What are we doing exactly?’ and just advocating for themselves.
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SONYA: Awesome, thank you for that! So, a little bit along that lines more but in a more quirky light – for both of you, what has been the most awkward conversation you have had with each other?
*Everyone shares in a few laughs.*
IGNACIO: I don’t know if it was awkward but I remember at one point, because everyone thought this was just far out there. She was sexually active and I was dating. I am polyamorous so I had several lovers and so I had a date one night and she had a date one night and we negotiated how we would have dates in the house at the same time – after hours dates.
SONYA: So you had a boo over and you had a boo over? Got you!
IGNACIO: Exactly. So, we came to an agreement of what that would be like. And so, it was like: doors closed, music UP.
MANDY: Text me and tell me, ‘I’m going to the bathroom, don’t come out.’
IGNACIO: When I tell people about that, they’re like ‘ What???’
MANDY: My friends too are like, ‘ Your mom let you have friends over and you get to close the door?’
IGNACIO: It was definitely out of the ordinary.
SONYA: There was never a ‘my door’ in my house, all of the doors were my Mama’s doors.
MANDY: An awkward thing for me and I don’t know why it was so awkward for me, but when I sort of came out to you.
IGNACIO: Oh, that was funny.
MANDY: I was literally in my room and they’re in their room. I sent an email saying, ‘I’m kind of dating this girl right now.’
IGNACIO: Hilarious because I already knew.
MANDY: But, that was weird for me. I think it was more weird because I have heard so many things from other people such as, ‘ Oh well, if your mom is gay that’s why you’re feeling this way.’ I didn’t want people to automatically connect that and say it was because of my mom. I am my own person with my own feelings and my own identity. I’m at this point and I feel like I’m this and I’m dating this girl, but I was still just like, ‘ Oh I don’t want to look at you [mom] when I tell you this.’
Even to my friends I’d said, ‘ I’m dating this chick.’ But I hadn’t said, ‘ I’m coming out as blank, blank, blank.’ And then I was actually saying this to my mom.
SONYA: I love that even in this open space. And, I think this is an important thing for parents who are engaging in and want to have these really radical, vulnerable conversations with their kids is the fact it is awkward. It is going to sometimes be uncomfortable. Just because there is this open door policy doesn’t mean that the jitters leave or the fear leaves or any of those things. It is just a commitment to work through them.
IGNACIO: It made me think of this funny story. We used to go to the café every so often and we would have these moments where it was like a ‘Don’t Get in Trouble Day.’ So she could ask me about anything, make a statement about anything or tell me a secret or something that she did that would get me upset… but she would not get in trouble.
One day, she says to me [ she was like 9 or 10] ‘I would like for you to silence your sex.’ [Laughter ensues.] I was like, ‘No, I can’t do that. But what I can do is make sure you are not in the house when I have sex.’ And she responded, ‘Okay.’
SONYA: I love that there is that opportunity to express and share, it is beautiful and really an example of radical parenting as we call it at TBINAA.
As an organization that is focused around bodies, I really am interested in what Ignacio, for you, has been your journey around healing and being in your body as a survivor of childhood sexual trauma?
And then, for you Mandy, how have you learned how to be in your body in this radically honest, radically vulnerable relationship with your mom?
IGNACIO: It continues to be a journey for me. Doing this work now, I’m 45 years old and this is something I’m talking about from when I was a child. A lot of people think, ‘It happened so long ago, why are you still talking about this?’ It is because those events completely altered my life, it changed my life, it changed how I felt about my body, the sex I wanted to have, who I wanted to share my body with and for a long time I was not having sex WITH people.
I was allowing people to do things to me. My body was exposed, I was just there and they could do whatever they wanted to do to me and I would do it because I wanted to please them. I wanted to be the best at whatever it is they wanted me to do. That is why it always goes back to my body, sexual healing and really coming into myself and really understanding I have a voice in what I want. I have desires and I could chose what I want and not want.
Talking about boundaries and negotiations was super huge for me and not that I’m an expert on it. I’ve talked about this for all this time and I still feel like I fuck up. I do really, really good sometimes and sometimes I am shitty. I ask myself constantly, I have accountability buddies, I work through these things. I’ve designed this thing for myself where I am continually learning and growing who I am as a sexual being and what I want and what I don’t want.
So that experience shaped my life, and for a long time shaped it in a very negative way. I’ve taken something really horrible and turned it into something beautiful because that cannot have control over me.
MANDY: I would say that even though we have such an open, honest relationship and conversations about our bodies I’ve still dealt with confidence issues.
Look at the society we live in, how could I not question if I was beautiful or if someone else could ever think that I was beautiful. Or just feeling comfortable in my own skin in certain outfits. I feel like it’s similar to having a background voice, because I have mom in the background going ‘You know you’re gorgeous. Cut it out, you’re beautiful. You’re this and you’re that.’ And I respond, ‘I know, I know’ but I’m still a young woman. I’m still trying to find myself and that strong sense that I am a worthy person. There are times when it doesn’t bother me and times where I am feeling very vulnerable.
It just goes to show that no matter what your upbringing is, you’re still a human at the end of the day, you still have nerves and might feel weird. I still deal with that and tell myself to forget what everyone else has to say or how they feel about my body. I just know that I try and I feel like I’m barely successful at it – not using my body to harm other people or to make other people uncomfortable. There are so many people I’ve met throughout my life who make me so uncomfortable with your body, with your presence, you’re forcing this thing on me and I don’t like it. Even if it’s just an acquaintance and the sexuality is over the top it may make me uncomfortable, so I know I try to be more aware of how my body could make other people feel uncomfortable.
I try not to do certain things or move certain ways. I try to keep in the back of my head, you never know what people’s stories are or journeys are. So, even if they don’t speak on it, you never know so you have to be weary of how you deal with other people.
SONYA: Yes, to be mindful. I think there’s something really powerful about this idea of having your mom as a voice back here because we talk at TBINAA that radical self love is our inherit self. It is actually the real voice inside of us and then we get these layers of surround sound of body shame and you’re not enough and that constant inundation of other messages. And so, I think what’s powerful – and has been for me too because I also had a mother who had that background, ‘ Child you are beautiful. You are my chocolate baby,’ kind of voice back there.
What ended up happening for me is that those two sounds. The sounds of my radical self and my mama’s voice became louder than the outside voices, became louder than that voice of body shame and indoctrination.
Sometimes that voice still does get very loud because that is a part of the world we live in, everyday that sound is on and so it is easy for it to be very loud. It is powerful that you have an external counter to that external chatter as well.
I could ask you all a million questions because I find you all awesome and fascinating and think this project that you are working on is so powerful. It is really going to help a lot of people heal, help people avoid the kind of traumas you have had to heal from and just create more powerful bonds between parents and their kids.
So, thank you all for letting me be apart of this journey and apart of this conversation with you today. I appreciate it.
MANDY: All the work you are doing is important as well. Thank you!
Thank you for your support and please continue to send in questions and if you are interested in interviewing and hosting us on your website just email us.
Bye Everyone![Featured Image: Ignacio Rivera pictured smiling on left while daughter on right also smiling.]
Ignacio G. Rivera, who prefers the gender-neutral pronoun “they,” is an activist, writer, educator, filmmaker and performance artist currently living in Baltimore by way of New York City. Ignacio has over 20 years of experience on multiple fronts including economic justice, anti-racist and anti-violence work, as well as Mujerista, LGBTQI and sex positive movements. Inspired by the lived experience of homelessness, poverty and discrimination, Ignacio’s work is also driven by the strengths of identifying as transgender, Two-Spirit, Black- Boricua Taíno and queer.
Ignacio’s activist work began at the age of 20 when they left the shelter systems of New York and moved to Massachusetts where they met their mentor and longtime friend. Their experience with poverty, homelessness and the welfare system kept them busy organizing around economic issues.
Ignacio has spoken publicly about being a survivor and sex worker, and how the elimination of sex/sex education coupled with patriarchy, capitalism and homophobia have had a damaging effect on society. The mentorship and work experience in Ignacio’s youth has been foundational to their understanding of the connectivities of oppression.