New Whitney Houston documentary reveals she survived child sexual abuse. But the silence around it harmed her.

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Child sexual abuse is one of the most silent pandemics in societies because most survivors are often taught and usually expected to keep that devastating secret at all costs, in the name of familial love and protection. There are approximately 42 million survivors of child sexual abuse in the United States; girls, boys, transgender and gender non-binary children are sexually abused on average every minute of every day.

And, as a survivor of both incest and adult rape, I was devastated when I read in Vanity Fair that Academy-award winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald’s new documentary “Whitney” reveals that Whitney Houston and her half-brother Gary Garland-Houston were sexually abused as children by their cousin Dee Dee Warwick, the sister of Dionne Warwick.

Though I have not yet seen the film (the first documentary approved by her estate, it premiered at Cannes on May 16 and is scheduled for theatrical release on July 6) its revelation about the child sexual abuse of the Houstons provides me with a missing link about the phenomenal singer’s painfully complex life.

Like many people, I always wondered if Houston’s inability to be out as a bisexual woman — a rumor confirmed by the documentarian in the course of filming — caused so much strife in her life.

It seems that Houston’s childhood sexual trauma and her decision, conscious or not, to not fully disclose what happened and receive support was also a festering wound that she could not heal.

So much emphasis is still placed upon protecting “the family” instead of the victim, letting both the perpetrator and the bystanders who either look the other way or condone the sexual harm off the hook.

Despite all of the powerful, survivor-affirming awareness around sexual violence that has been growing, child sexual abuse — especially in families — remains a very taboo topic.

So much emphasis is still placed upon protecting “the family” instead of the victim, letting both the perpetrator and the bystanders who either look the other way or condone the sexual harm off the hook.

Instead of having their pleas for help as children or as adults acknowledged and acted upon, child sexual abuse survivors are often vilified. We are often told that we are confused, mentally unstable and/or don’t care about those “who love us the most” — our families — though they are the ones hurting us the most.

For survivors of color there is another unfair burden of “protecting the family.” The impact of white supremacy in our communities means that there are complicated feelings about involving the very system that disproportionately incarcerates Black, Indigenous, and Latinx men, women and children to address child sexual abuse.

Additionally, a new study revealing that police killings of people of color exceed accidental gun deaths, highlighting why there is an understandable fear of involving the police to interrupt or stop child sexual violence. Since relying upon the police is presented as the main option to stop violence, most victim-survivors, especially those of color, suffer in silence to protect themselves and their loved ones from police violence.

But other stereotypes continue to harm child abuse survivors. As evidenced in “Whitney,” (and recounted by other celebrities, like Tyler Perry, Charlamagne Tha God and Lecrae) perpetrators are not only men, but they are also women. If we continue to be in denial that both men and women are capable of committing sexual harm against children, we will not create space for those victim-survivors who’ve been sexually abused by a woman to recognize the abuse and feel safe to disclose it. It is difficult not to wonder if, in addition to being her cousin, the fact that Dee Dee Warwick was a woman played a role in Whitney Houston’s silence about her sexual abuse.

All of this reinforces a loud silence that, without adequate support, will leave a detrimental, indelible imprint on the victim-survivor’s life beyond that of the abuse itself.

And, if child sexual abuse survivors are also LGBTQ, we have to fight against our sexuality or gender identity being used as a weapon to discredit our abuse testimonies, or have our abuse called the cause of our not being heterosexual or cisgender. These struggles can prevent LGBTQ survivors from disclosing because we are literally caught between being disbelieved or blamed because of our sexuality or gender identity. I encourage people to compare the global statistics of sexual violence and compare those rates to the numbers of LGBTQ people in the world. If sexual violence “made” people lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, many more people in the world would be LGBTQ.

More often than not, child sexual abuse survivors with disabilities have to navigate their abuse and the likelihood that they are more interdependent than average on their abuser and bystanders for their literal survival. This interdependency with caretakers isn’t solely based upon age, but it’s also based upon the survivor’s physical and/or mental abilities. This can result in further unrecognized sexual abuse, under the guise of caretaking, confinement at home or, if removed from the home, in institutional settings,

All of the above reinforces a loud silence that — as seen in “Whitney” — without adequate support, will leave a detrimental, indelible imprint on the victim-survivor’s life beyond that of the abuse itself.

Silence is not, and never was, the answer to healing families and abuse survivors.

Similarly to Houston, my divorced parents traveled frequently and extensively, albeit for their international human rights work and not in the entertainment industry. When my parents were on the road, I stayed with family or family friends and, while I was raised in a metaphorical village, it was my paternal grandparents who provided me safe sanctuary the most. But it was there when I was 10 years old, that my Pop-pop molested me for a period of two years (though the emotional, mental, and psychological terror of my not knowing if I would be molested again continued for many years after the abuse ended). Unlike Whitney Houston, I told my parents what my grandfather was doing shortly after the abuse began but, tragically, they never addressed the abuse nor removed me from the situation.

I’m still healing 39 years later, and my parents and I are struggling in the aftermath.

Were it not for 26 years of continuous work with Dr. Clara Whaley-Perkins, a Black feminist licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in sexual trauma, 25 years of consistent involvement as a survivor-activist and filmmaker in global anti-sexual violence and LGBTQIA movements, and a 16-year vipassana meditation practice, I know that I could very easily taken a different, more self-destructive path in life; I’ve seen that result for too many other survivors.

Silence is not, and never was, the answer to healing families and abuse survivors. We must make a societal commitment to compassionately and humanely address child sexual abuse through an intersectional lens, which uses community accountability and transformative justice as viable alternative options to the criminal justice system. If we do not begin to change how we support survivors, I don’t believe we will ever eradicate all forms of sexual violence.

Aishah Shahidah Simmons, a documentary filmmaker and creator of “NO! The Rape Documentary,” is a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice and a Just Beginnings Collaborative fellow where she launched #LoveWITHAccountability.



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