Millions of men suffer in silence after sexual abuse. How can we help them better?
November 25, 2017
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, more and more men in Hollywood are coming forward with their own stories of sexual harassment and sexual abuse within the entertainment industry. As they bravely share their experiences, a long taboo issue is being brought to the surface. To the tens of millions of men still suffering in silence, this can pave the way for healing.
As a forensic consultant, clinician, researcher, and survivor of sexual violence myself, I have for the past 30 years navigated the too-often secret terrain inhabited by men who have suffered sexual violence. I have listened to disclosures, I have catalogued symptoms, I have assessed emotional losses, and I have also witnessed the liberation that comes from casting off shame and secrecy.
Research indicates that one in six men experienced sexual abuse at some point during their childhood, and this is probably a low estimate, as it doesn’t account for non-contact experiences, which can also have lasting effects.
In addition, when thinking about the statistic, we need to acknowledge the barriers that may prevent a man from disclosing his experiences; not only is there a lack of awareness about the issue and its prevalence (I often hear men say that they thought they were “the only one”), but societal expectations about what it means to “be a man” may cause a survivor to suppress his trauma.
From an early age, men receive the message that they should never be, or even appear, vulnerable or weak; the idea that men cannot be victims is central to gender socialization.
The reality is that men can and do experience all forms of violence, including sexual abuse and sexual assault. Unfortunately, due to the barriers outlined above (as well as other barriers, like lack of access to resources), most men who have had such experiences do not begin to address the negative effects until their late 30s or 40s, if ever.
The emotional impact of delaying recovery can ripple out to every area of a survivor’s life – and the lives of those in his community. Men who do not get help risk exposure to greater physical health issues (including self-destructive behavior, substance abuse, and chronic health conditions), mental health issues (including PTSD, depression, and suicidal ideation), and social dysfunction (including failed relationships, interpersonal violence, and the impeding of education and career objectives).
In discussing sexual violence, it’s critically important to acknowledge male privilege and the greater prevalence of sexual abuse and assault among women. However, if we are to continue making progress in the anti-sexual violence movement, we must recognize that men also experience sexual abuse and assault in high numbers, and need support too.
Supporting men in their recovery can have a positive global impact for people of all gender identities and expressions; when men heal, the people around them –including partners, children, other family members, friends, co-workers, and neighbors – can also live healthier lives.
In addition, emphasizing the fact that men are most often the perpetrators of sexual violence is an accurate and important element in educating people about the negative aspects of male privilege, but if we want to engage men to end sexual violence against women, we may do better to reframe their relationship with the issue.
When men are seen primarily as the cause of the problem, a natural default response is defensiveness rather than engagement. When we honor the reality that men are also affected, we more effectively invite them to be part of the solution.
Fortunately, help is out there for men who have had such experiences. For example, the national nonprofit organization 1in6 is dedicated to supporting male survivors and their loved ones online and in the community.
The 1in6 website contains a wide range of free information and programs, including a free and anonymous 24/7 online helpline, and free and anonymous weekly online support groups. 1in6 also provides training to advocates and service providers working with men who have experienced sexual abuse or assault.
By raising awareness, we not only break the silence around the issue of male sexual abuse and assault, we also open the door for men to step forward, share their stories, and find healing.
To any man who may be reading this and wondering about something they’ve been through: it’s not always easy to know where to start or what to do, but it’s never too late to seek help.