If you know six men, the odds are that at least one of them is a survivor of sexual abuse. And if those are the statistics we have right now, chances are the number of men who have experienced or will experience sexual violence is, in reality, higher than 1 in 6.
Every person who experiences sexual violence has a unique story. Usually, survivors struggle alone with this story for years before they come forward for help or to report the crime, if they ever come forward at all. Most of the time, they don’t. Much of the time, survivors don’t even know that they experienced assault at all. Sexual assault is traumatic, it’s confusing, and it’s isolating. But what happens when you get survivors in a room together, a room that is understanding and judgment-free, is that you find out how much these unique traumas have in common.
I work as a social worker providing individual and group therapy to survivors of sexual violence in New Jersey. Soon after I began my job, I was given the unique opportunity of co-facilitating our agency’s only group for male survivors. In fact, this group is the only one of its kind in the entire state. In a state with nearly nine million residents, we can assume a few hundred thousand of them are male survivors of sexual violence. There are currently five of them in my group.
Working with male survivors, I have come to see firsthand what the small amount of research on this population shows: Male survivors of sexual violence are the silent victims of this epidemic that is sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is a broad terms that covers everything from penetration without consent to non-physical sexual harassment like showing a child pornography or catcalling. The range of sexual abuse is not about degrees of harm; research shows that what determines how sexual violence affects a survivor has less to do with the type of abuse that was perpetrated, and more to do with a survivor’s support system, the amount of years they wait before disclosing their abuse, and myriad bio-psycho factors outside a person’s control.
The men I have worked with struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder for decades after their abuse. They have nightmares every night, flashbacks every day, struggle all the time with anger, depression, and the belief that they are helpless and worthless. Many of them have struggled, on top of that, with years of substance abuse, an effective, if harmful, method for avoiding the memories and pain that come in the wake of sexual assault. The drugs and alcohol these men used were the only ways they learned how to deal with the endless flashbacks, nightmares, shame, and guilt that barraged them for years. Eventually even these substances weren’t enough, and many of them had to hit the proverbial rock bottom before the idea of telling another person about their abuse, admitting out loud their most shameful secret, became a bearable option for the simple reason that it was the only option left. For some of these men, rock bottom happened only after one or two or three stints in jail. For others, it took multiple attempts to end their own lives—death being the preferred alternative to reliving their worst nightmares, out loud and in front of a stranger. And for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others, death won out.
Why is the abuse so shameful? Why, if these men did nothing wrong, if they were just innocent children, can they not just go to therapy, purge themselves of their memories, and move on to healthier and happier lives?
Shame is, ultimately, at the root of so many of my clients’ struggles, both men and women. It comes, in part, from the judgment cast by society on survivors of sexual violence, the seemingly innocent questions posed by ignorant individuals, the questions that carry some amount of disbelief. How could that happen to you? Why didn’t you stop it? Why did you keep going back to his house? Why didn’t you tell anyone?
But these questions don’t only come from society. These questions are haunting the survivors themselves. And behind each question is a belief: I shouldn’t have let that happen to me. I should have stopped it. And so on, until years become decades and decades become a lifetime of thinking—believing—it was my fault. I did something wrong, perhaps many things wrong. I could have screamed, I could have fought back; I could have prevented this from happening in the first place.
This toxic combination of guilt and shame is often stronger for male victims for a number of reasons. For starters, boys and men are often taught that they are the stronger sex. And, for the aggregate, that is true. But physical strength often has nothing to do with fighting back during a sexual assault. Even if the survivor wasn’t a child, even if the perpetrator was a female, fighting back simply isn’t an option in many cases. Survivors often experience physical paralysis, brought on by the body’s natural flight-fight-or freeze response. In many cases, assuming the victim is somehow able to overcome their physiological shock and fight back, the perpetrator is someone in power, someone who is using a threat other than physical violence to keep the victim in check.
Society has a few extra lessons for men that come into play during sexual assault. Men are supposed to want sex, all the time. I spoke recently to a group of men in jail, and I asked them why they thought male survivors are less likely to report sexual abuse. “No one would believe you were raped,” one man said. “Especially if it was by a woman. They’d just be like, yeah man, good for you. You got some, and you weren’t even expecting it.”
And what about those male survivors who were assaulted by other men? This raises a whole slew of new questions that survivors must battle: Does this make me gay? If I tell, will other people think I’m gay?
Recently, a male survivor I know asked other male survivors if their families knew about their abuse. “Mine does,” he said, “And sometimes I’m afraid they don’t trust me near their kids.” Because this man was abused, he carries around the fear that other people will believe this makes him an abuser, that he now, as an adult, cannot be trusted around children. And unfortunately, he’s probably not entirely wrong. The myth that survivors of childhood violence go on to commit violence as adults is strong in our culture, and he may very well have family members who are afraid to have him near their children.
Finally—and this can be one of the most shameful thoughts probing at these men, reminding them that they are not worthy, that they don’t deserve help, that they, in fact, are not even survivors—it is not uncommon for survivors to experience physical pleasure in response to their assaults. Think about it: This is the trauma that haunts your waking moments and your sleep, the moment in your life at which you felt entirely powerless, a complete loss of control. You felt dirty and used, repulsed and repulsive. And instead of running or fighting or yelling—your body responds as if you are enjoying it. For some survivors, they are able to say, “My body betrayed me.” Our bodies are designed to respond to sexual touch with pleasure. Our genitals don’t know that some touch is consensual and others inflicted. A man’s penis, by design, hardens when touched in certain ways. A man can ejaculate even when his mind is in shock and his entire self is protesting what is happening.
But that’s not how survivors feel. Many survivors feel that, if their body reported pleasure, they must have been pleased. They must have enjoyed it and, even worse, perhaps that means they wanted it. It is one of the most confusing pieces for many survivors, and I’ve had more than one male client ask me if they were the only ones who experienced what I just described. The relief that comes with knowing that they are not alone—which is, ultimately, the benefit of joining a support group—is immeasurable. Ejaculating doesn’t mean that they wanted it, that they liked it, that they’re a pervert. Orgasm doesn’t mean they weren’t assaulted. It means that their bodies responded the way that bodies are supposed to.
Understanding the sexual assault that happens to millions of Americans brings us one step closer to stopping future sexual assaults. It opens the door for those millions of men, women, and children to receive compassion, hope, and help. It allows those individuals, perhaps, to understand themselves, and give themselves the compassion that is a necessary part of healing.
If you believe that you have been sexually abused or assaulted, call YWCA Bergen County healingSPACE’s 24/7 hotline at 201-487-2227 or RAINN’s national 24/7 hotline at 800-656-4673.
Bergen County’s sexual violence resource center, YWCA Bergen County healingSPACE, provides free individual and group counseling to all survivors ages 12 and older. Our men’s support group is the only one of its kind in New Jersey, and is open to all male survivors in the state. Visit ywcannj.org to learn more about our services, all of which are provided free-of-charge.