Changing The Myth ‘Sexual Abuse doesn’t Happen to Men’.
“I didn’t think anyone would believe what my father did to me, I didn’t want to believe it myself. I kept trying to push the memories down, but they were always there, and it took me almost 60 years to tell somebody.” National Male Helpline Service User
As I sit here, paused before typing, I am aware that I am not really an academic person. So, when asked to write a blog about working with men and their experiences of therapy in relation to sexual abuse, I am left with the conclusion that I would rather write from the heart. This I feel is what I do best, and I will of course include some facts. However, I would like the reader to really understand my own experiences of working with men who have been sexually abused and the experiences of the men themselves.
It is important to me that the message ‘it doesn’t happen to men’ is one we can change through building awareness, knowledge and understanding across all communities. Enabling men to access the support they need.
I’m going to start with my experience of working with men in prison. The opportunity arose unexpectedly as a student when introduced to a charity providing a counselling service to men in prison. I worked with many men over the 2 1/2 years and almost all of them had experienced sexual abuse at some time in their lives. I came to acknowledge the links between sexual abuse and crime, as many adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse struggled with attachment and a sense of belonging. Being seen as important and feeling accepted within organised gangs or criminal environments in their younger years would help to fill the void.
Through therapy I saw many of these men begin to heal from what was often a complex and traumatic childhood, having journeyed through the care home or fostering path. I was left questioning who they could trust if not their carers.
As my work with survivors continued outside of the prison environment, I noticed some common factors that connected many of these clients:
- and the misinformed belief that it couldn’t happen to them because they were male.
The more I spoke with these men the more I learned how such blocks were getting in the way of them sharing or even acknowledging the reality of their experience and accessing the help and support they so desperately needed.
The impact the sexual abuse or rape would have on these men’s lives was huge.
Sexual abuse had a significant impact on their relationships. Many found it difficult to trust others, express their feelings and speak to partners about their past abuse – even if they did recognise their experiences as abuse.
For some of the men, they had no healthy relationships role modelled to them as a child. As a result, I noticed in therapy that they would react from a place of trauma within their own close or intimate relationships as well as everyday interactions with others. Violence – be it physical or verbal – was often their learnt way of telling others they were hurting or upset. That they were crying out to be heard, noticed, or have a need met.
Meanwhile, other survivors may develop a dependency on drugs or alcohol to cope and suppress the difficult feelings. I experienced men struggling with work, social and family life as they battled with feelings of not being deserving or good enough and difficulties with trust.
The shame felt would bring up questions about why it happened to them and what they had done to encourage it. I experienced men trying to justify why it happened and expressing that they somehow deserved it, even if the abuse happened to them as a child.
“Having someone who understands how trauma effects males is a real help” Male Client
In therapy, I worked with men, exploring their younger selves that had been abused. I would see many of my clients start to understand what happened to them and how it is affecting them as an adult. Healing can be complex and take time, but I believe the time I spent with these men was valuable and often saw the start of their healing process taking place.
Many men felt confused as they experienced arousal and even orgasm during the traumatic experience/s. These responses led them to believe that they enjoyed the experience and therefore it was not rape or sexual abuse. I heard this common misperception from so many men in therapy. Rape Crisis highlights that “orgasming or experiencing feelings of arousal during sexual violence doesn’t mean it wasn’t sexual violence.” (What is sexual consent? | Rape Crisis England & Wales)
Therapy can help with understanding that the body’s natural way of responding is to react to its external environment, in this instance physical touch. The cremasteric reflex, also known as the “groinal response”, occurs when the genitalia or surrounding area is stimulated. This is an autonomic response, meaning it is not under a person’s conscious control.
The alpha male image of men, so often portrayed in our society, creates a barrier for those who experience abuse to come forward and seek support. In my experience, working with male survivors, they came to therapy with a belief that they were weak and blaming themselves for the abuse that happened to them. ( Bad People – The myths that silence male victims of rape). Doubting their experiences, they were left questioning if it was rape or sexual abuse because of the shame and confusion.
With one in six men having experienced sexual abuse or rape, it is now more important than ever to get the message out that sexual abuse can and does happen to men, and they do have the right to be supported.
“There was no judgement, and I was able to speak freely.” Male Client
Whilst writing this article, several feelings come up for me, mainly frustration and sadness that as a society we still expect men to ‘man up’ and get on with things alone. Men are human beings too and every human deserves to be heard, understood, and feel safe in their relationships, families and work, no matter their age or life history.
Another feeling I have is hope. Things are changing and by writing this article I hope it will bring greater awareness to all who read it and that every man it speaks to feels more comfortable about seeking support when they feel ready.
Written by a Safeline Therapist