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How Masculinity Can Make It Difficult To Heal

Experiences of sexual abuse or assault can affect you to your core – who you are, how you understand yourself – as a man and a human being.

Expectations Men Face

Many men who’ve been sexually abused or assaulted fear their masculinity has been compromised—like they’re not a “real man”—even if no one knows about what happened or thinks twice about their masculinity.

Why? Having unwanted sexual experiences means being:

  • Sexually used or dominated
  • Vulnerable
  • Overwhelmed
  • Flooded by intense emotions

These experiences and feelings run opposite to how males are commonly socialized and encouraged to be.

Men’s confidence and self-esteem can greatly depend on how “manly” they feel, and how manly they believe other men and women see them as being.

Proving Manhood and Self-Protection

So it should be no surprise that some men go overboard to prove – to themselves and everyone else – that they’re not only “real men,” but super manly.

Many men who've been sexually abused or assaulted fear their masculinity has been compromised.

Countless men have said that as boys, teenagers, and young adults, they’ve gone to great lengths to prove their masculinity: playing aggressive sports in super-aggressive ways, sexual conquests, bulking up by lifting weights, picking fights, extreme drinking and using, reckless driving, daredevil stunts, joining the Marines, etc.

The list goes on and on. And many men only realize years later that a major motivation behind these actions was to prove that they were “real men”– even while holding the belief that their past unwanted sexual experiences meant they weren’t “real men.”

Another motivation behind men attempting to prove their masculinity is to protect themselves from further attack – to be the kind of guy no one messes with, to belong to group of men that everyone sees as tough and beyond any challenge to their manhood.

Confusion or Fears About Your Sexuality

Another way that unwanted sexual experiences can be different for many men: If the sexual experiences involved another male (or males), they may have thoughts and confusion about whether they are gay.

It’s very common to ask oneself:

  • Did it happen because I’m (really) gay?
  • Am I gay because it happened?
  • If anyone finds out, will they think I’m gay?
  • Can I ever be a “real man” if I was sexual with another male?

Whether you are straight, gay, or bisexual is, of course, totally fine. That said, in different cultures and subcultures, these ways of being sexual are accepted, or not, to varying degrees.

In most cultures, regardless of your sexual orientation, if you’ve had an unwanted or abusive sexual experience, the question, “Am I gay because that happened?” can bring lots of torment. For straight men, they may doubt that they are “really” heterosexual. For gay and bisexual men, they may wonder if their attraction to men was caused by their sexual experiences.

Totally Normal, Understandable, and Overcomeable

Such concerns and worries about one’s masculinity and sexuality are common and totally normal. But it’s absolutely possible to sort them out, and to become completely comfortable with who you are as a man and a sexual being. Many other guys like you already have.

Finally, you may want to read a paper on the psychological impact of sexual abuse on men, by Dr. David Lisak, a 1in6 board member. It has many powerful quotes from interviews with men, which are grouped into themes and discussed in terms of how the effects can be different for men. (At first glance it looks very academic, but it’s not.)

Myths & Realities About Manhood

“Real Men” Don’t Have These Experiences

This myth is a powerful one—that males are never sexually used or dominated in ways that can leave them feeling vulnerable or overwhelmed.

Thanks to this myth, guys tend to find themselves in one of these two situations:

  • Suffering from negative effects, but not realizing what happened was harmful or that it’s related to current problems.
  • Aware the experience(s) were harmful, but too ashamed to seek support dealing it.

Both situations make it difficult for men to move on and achieve the lives they want and deserve. And both predicaments are made worse by widespread ignorance in society – ignorance about the fact that such experiences are not rare for males, that the experiences can have lasting negative effects, and that men can overcome those effects and be manly at the same time.

Breaking free from this myth can lower the odds of getting stuck with needless suffering and lost potential.

“Real Men” Don’t Have or Show Vulnerable Emotions

Thanks to this myth, many men don’t pay attention to the emotional effects of their unwanted sexual experiences. And if they do, they don’t allow themselves to seek the support and help they need.

Believe it or not, males are biologically wired, from birth, to be more emotionally reactive and expressive than females. For example, baby boys become distressed more easily, and cry sooner and more often than baby girls.

Blocking out vulnerable feelings blocks good feelings, too.

Yet every step of the way – by how parents, teachers, and other kids relate to them, by the games they play, and by what they see on TV and in movies, computer games and the internet – boys are constantly trained to be emotionally unaware and inexpressive, especially when it comes to vulnerable feelings.

Boys also learn, without even having to think about it, that they should be ashamed of such feelings, even that they should hate themselves for having them.

Expressing Vulnerable Emotions

The abilities to be aware of vulnerable emotions, express them to others, and accept them as part of being alive, are human capacities. Every boy and girl is born with the potential to develop them.

Biologically speaking, boys may be better equipped to develop these capacities. It’s cultural values and habits that cause them to be suppressed in males (or literally beaten out of them).

Males often receive the messages: “Don’t acknowledge your pain. Don’t express it. Don’t talk about it with anyone else.”

Most boys and men take those messages to heart: “No way they’ll make me cry.” “I’m not gonna be weak.” “No one’s calling me a girl.”

Such rigid and unrealistic rules about what’s “manly” lead many boys and men to feel insecure. They also push men away from the very capacities they need to overcome the negative effects of unwanted sexual experiences: awareness and acceptance of vulnerable emotions, so they can be mastered rather than fearfully run away from with self-destructive behavior (like immediately jumping to anger or aggression).

And it’s not simply a matter of men rejecting such capacities.

Even if a man wants be become aware of vulnerable feelings and deal with them in ways that bring mastery and the life he wants, it’s easier said than done. He must work against decades of “masculinity training” and conditioning of his brain.

Thankfully, the capacities that everyone has for dealing with vulnerable emotions can always be cultivated. It’s never too late.

Any man, especially with some help, can learn to be aware of such feelings and to master them. Many men have already learned some of this, usually through friendships or intimate relationships.

A Few Final Points

First, we are not suggesting that men must “go cry to a therapist.”

We’re just saying that blocking out vulnerable feelings can be a major block to achieving the life you want and deserve. When and how a man chooses to deal with such vulnerable feelings is entirely up to him, and any good therapist (or friend or partner) will understand and respect this.

Second, learning to experience and express vulnerable emotions (at times and places of your own choosing), means becoming more masculine in many healthy ways.

It means becoming stronger in the face of pain, and more in control of your emotions. It means having greater freedom to respond to situations based on wise choices rather than knee-jerk attempts to prove your manhood.

Finally, for many men it can be incredibly helpful just to recognize these unique challenges they face, to cut themselves some slack, and to take some time to re-think their assumptions about what it means to be a man who’s had unwanted sexual experiences.

How Our Values Affect Healing

Sources of Our Values

Some values are “hard-wired” into our brains, like experiencing hunger and pain as bad, and happiness as good.

Many of our values are shaped by culture. For example, the belief that it’s good to make lots of money, or that it’s bad for men to express fear or sadness.

Some values are viewed by just about everyone as absolutely true, no matter what anyone says or what culture people happen to live in (i.e., part of “God’s law” or the nature of life). For example, that parents should feed their children and protect them from injury, or that people should not kill others for entertainment.

Moral Values

We experience such values as commanding our respect and submission – or the opposite, as pushed on us against our wills (by other people and institutions including families, peer groups, religions, and authorities of various kinds).

Our moral values are about who we are, not just about what we do. They are fundamental frameworks for judging what kind of people we are. Are we good or bad men? Good or bad sons, fathers, husbands, students, workers? Some questions to consider:

  • What are your most important values, especially about the kind of person you want to be?
  • What does it mean to you to be a “good man”?
  • What other roles and responsibilities are most important to you? How do you think you should be living up to them?

We can’t help but judge ourselves in terms of our moral values.

Many of our values are shaped by culture.

How close or far we are from being what we see as good? Are we are moving closer to or further away from good ways to be?

How judgmental have you been toward yourself about ways you haven’t lived up to your values?

Do you view unwanted or abusive sexual experiences as evidence of “failure” on your part – to be a good person, a good male, a good son, a good ________?

Do you think the effects of past negative experiences have prevented you from being the kind of person you want to be?

It’s not that we’re always sitting around pondering such questions, nor should we be. But we certainly feel better about ourselves when our actions fit with our values, and worse about ourselves when faced with evidence that we’re falling short on values that matter to us.

These judgments are so automatic we often don’t even notice them. But they are always there.

Setting aside some time to reflect on our moral judgments of ourselves can be helpful, especially if you’re “beating up on yourself” in ways that make you feel terrible and prevent you from living up to to your values.

Conflicting Values

We’re all complex individuals. Some of the things we really like and want – that is, things we strongly value – conflict with other values that we hold dear.

As unique people who grew up in complex social situations, we’ve absorbed conflicting values from family, religion, friends, television, etc. So we can’t escape conflicting moral values and ideals, especially when we’re young, trying to sort it all out and find the “right” ways to be.

There are many reasons we have conflicting values. Consider the following:

  • How do the values of your parents conflict with those of your friends?
  • Are there ways of being that you learned were “good” for “being a man” and getting through unwanted or abusive childhood experiences (like walling yourself off from vulnerable feelings), but have led to failures at being a good friend, lover, or father?
  • Do you find yourself flipping back and forth between different sets of values, both in your behavior and in your judgments of yourself, in ways that prevent you from “getting your life together”?

Also, we all have unique genes and brains, which means that some values will fit with our personalities and others will clash. Someone with a “fiery” personality is more likely to anger easily and, when threatened, not to live up to other important values like being patient and kind to others. Or someone struggling with depression that’s temporarily altered his brain functioning may have trouble living up to his values of working hard or being a dedicated and dependable friend.

Another example: If you have a highly extraverted personality, and by nature place a very high value on being seen positively by your friends, then you’ll be much more likely to embrace their values – even when they conflict with values you deeply respect from family, religion, or respected role models.

And another: Reflect for a moment on a “bad habit” or addiction that you have. If you’re not just doing it to avoid withdrawal symptoms, then you really value the experience of engaging in that habit or addictive behavior. On the other hand, you feel ashamed and guilty because the addiction conflicts with other values that you have, and because it conflicts with the value you place on being in control of yourself and free to decide what you do.

Finally, as Dr. Richard Gartner explains in Beyond Betrayal (chapter 2), we all have three images of manhood that make conflicting demands on us, thanks to conflicting values. And these conflicts can cause problems for men with histories of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood:

  1. The man you know you are
  2. The man you want to be
  3. The man the world expects you to be

Not Mere Philosophical Concerns

They go to the heart of who you are. They go to the heart of how you can move beyond the effects of unwanted or abusive experiences to live a life that you’ll feel happy and proud to lead.

But these aren’t easy things to sort out, either. It can be a big challenge to sort through your conflicting values, how they have been shaped by positive and negative experiences in your life, and how to prioritize your values and live up to the highest ones, so you can become the person you want to be.

For some men with histories of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences, this will take some time, and some help from others, sometimes including professionals (like therapists). Hopefully beliefs about how seeking such help conflicts with some values (like being a “strong man” and not needing to “depend on others”) will not get in your way.

Feelings of Shame

What It’s About

Shame has to do with thoughts and feelings about who you are.

It involves feeling unworthy of respect or positive consideration by others, feeling like you deserve to be judged or criticized, and feeling embarrassed in front of others.

Like guilt, shame can be hard to bear. It can make it difficult to overcome the negative effects of unwanted sexual experiences.

And like guilt, shame isn’t all bad. There are times we should feel ashamed and try to win back the respect and trust of others. Without a sense of shame, we’d be in trouble.

Shame has to do with thoughts and feelings about who you are.

But shame can be a huge problem, of course. It can go too far, go on too long, and prevent us from relating to others in healthy ways.

Yet many men have found they can beat shame and leave it behind, using the tools of understanding and self-awareness.

And this won’t be news to anyone: For men with histories of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences, such intense and long-term shame can become an unshakable part of life.

You already know a major reason why…

Being a Man Who Has Had Unwanted or Abusive Sexual Experiences

For the vast majority of boys and men, it feels shameful to have experiences that directly conflict with how males are told from an early age that they’re supposed to be in order to be considered a “real man.”. Boys are told:

  • Males are not supposed to be dominated, let alone victims—especially sexually.
  • Males are not supposed to have sexual contact with other males (if this was the case for you).
  • Males are not supposed to experience vulnerable emotions, especially fear and sadness.
  • And males especially aren’t supposed to feel ashamed. (This one can create a vicious cycle of ‘shame over feeling ashamed’ that can seem impossible to escape.)

For many, the shameful sense of not being a “real man” because of what happened is a huge burden in their lives. It affects what and how they think and feel about themselves. It leaves them fearing how others would see them if they knew what happened. (Sometimes they can’t shake the belief that others must know and, in turn, see them as “not a real man.”)

There may be deeper, and unrecognized, sources of shame.

This shame is felt to some extent by just about every man who had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences. Yet it can be overcome, and many, many men have managed to do so.

But for many men who experience extreme shame – shame so intense that it drives many of their thoughts and behaviors, including always trying to “prove themselves” – there are other, deeper, and older sources of shame.

Sources of Extreme Shame

For men struggling with such extreme shame, it may seem to be all about the sexual experiences. But is also, sometimes even mostly, about shame learned in their youngest years and earliest relationships.

Sometime during the second year of life, children become capable of imagining how others think of them. They become self-conscious. They also start feeling shame.

When someone a child cares about expresses disappointment in him, rather than acceptance and enjoyment of his presence, he experiences shame. Suddenly, there is a disconnection in the relationship, and the child feels (at a minimum) less secure and less supported.

When the person expressing disappointment is a parent or other important caregiver, the child wants to end the situation of disapproval and avoid having it happen again. In healthy relationships, this is just what the child tries to do, over and over again. In this way, he learns to maintain the overall approval and love of parents and other caregivers, despite his unavoidable mistakes and “bad behavior.”

Yet when parents and caregivers don’t merely disapprove of specific things a child does, and don’t just temporarily treat him as less worthy of respect and love, but instead repeatedly express a lack of love and appreciation—even contempt and hatred toward him—then shame becomes a constant. It becomes overwhelming. And it leads to extreme attempts to escape it.

What does this extreme shaming look like?

  • Like a little boy who, whenever he approaches his father or mother full of pride, about to tell about something he’s done, is met with “leave me alone,” or a hand waving him away, a blank look, or no response at all.
  • Like a little boy who, whenever he’s made a mistake or done something wrong, hears from his parents things like “you’re so stupid,” “you’ll never amount to anything,” “you’re such a terrible, ungrateful child,” or the ultimate “I wish you were dead.”

When such experiences are repeated over and over again, any boy will be torn between his need for connection and love and his fear of shaming rejection, criticism and ridicule. Any boy will come to see himself as a bad and unlovable person.

For a boy treated this way in his home, shame is not about how to manage his relationships with people whose approval he needs. Instead, shame is about how he’s a bad and unlovable person who deserves rejection and contempt, even hatred.

At some point, even the most basic needs for love and attention – so often met with rejection, criticism and ridicule – themselves become sources of intense shame. Once this happens, until and unless truly loving and healing close relationships are found, shame will be a constant companion. It will color all of his relationships and all of his attempts to find his way in the world.

The two faces of shaming are rejection and contempt. Repeated shaming rejections in childhood can create a person who fears and avoids close relationships. Repeated shaming contempt can saddle a person with lots of anger and hostility for years.

Repeated rejection and contempt, whether alone or combined, tend to create boys and men who fear and avoid asserting their needs in healthy ways. And so, men who were severely shamed as boys have a big internal obstacle to seeking help – or even feeling entitled to seek help, including help with getting over their shame.

Shame Can Be Overcome

It is possible to overcome shame, even the most extreme shame. We can’t emphasize that enough.

  • It is possible to reach out for genuine connection from people capable of providing it.
  • It is possible to find the help you need to overcome the shame you feel about the sexual experiences, even to overcome a deeper layer of shame created by early shaming relationships.

Many other men have done it. Many other men have found themselves amazed, and rightly proud, of how they’ve overcome their shame and turned their lives around.

Feelings of Guilt

What It’s About

Guilt has to do with thoughts and feelings about things you’ve done.

It involves feeling regret, and usually feeling critical or judgmental toward yourself, for having done something wrong or bad – something that conflicts with your values and with your view of being a good person.

It can include beating up on yourself, for recent actions or things you did a long time ago.

Like shame, guilt can be tough to bear. Feeling guilty can make it hard to overcome the negative effects of bad experiences.

Much of the guilt experienced by men who’ve had unwanted sexual experiences is basically unfair to themselves.

None of us are perfect. We’ve all done things that conflict with our values. We’ve all let down or harmed others, including people we respect and love.

Not all guilt is bad. If we couldn’t experience guilt, we’d be in big trouble. We couldn’t admit to ourselves bad things that we’ve done, or make amends. We couldn’t have healthy relationships with friends, neighbors, coworkers, or anyone else we might offend or hurt.

Yet for many people, guilt can spiral out of control. It can be misplaced. It can be harmful, in both their personal and work lives.

About What Happened and How You Responded

For men who had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences, there can be extreme guilt about ways they responded to sexual experiences and the people involved.

It’s common to feel guilty about:

  • Not saying “no” or physically resisting.
  • “Letting” another person take advantage of sexual ignorance and curiosity.
  • Becoming sexually aroused or experiencing sexual pleasure, even when they didn’t want or like what was happening.
  • Having engaged in sexual activity with other children, even if manipulated or forced by others.
  • Not protecting a brother, sister, friend, or other child from someone doing the same things to them.

Unfair, Extreme, and Harmful Guilt

Much of the guilt experienced by men who’ve had unwanted sexual experiences is basically unfair to themselves: It is not based on an accurate or objective view of what happened. It does not reflect the fact that there was little they could actually have done – as vulnerable children or confused teenagers – to prevent what happened or to respond differently.

You may be coming up with reasons to feel guilty. If this sounds like you, you are definitely not alone.

Much of the guilt is extreme and harmful. It contributes to problems like low self-confidence and low self-respect, to depression and constantly feeling judged by others – all of which can cause serious difficulties in relationships, school and work.

If this sounds like you, you are not alone. These are normal human responses to unwanted or abusive sexual experiences.

Of course, no matter how normal it is, it’s a lot to deal with. We understand.

We certainly don’t want you to feel guilty about feeling too much guilt! But we also aren’t saying that you might not be right to feel some guilt about some things you’ve done or not done (again, some guilt is healthy).

We’re just pointing out something you probably already know, or are starting to suspect: sometimes you feel guilty about things that, as a child or teenager, you were unable to understand or control under the circumstances, and that you know were not really your fault or responsibility.

If this sounds like you, maybe you already see much of your guilt as “irrational.” But as you may also have discovered by now, knowing it’s irrational in some way doesn’t mean it just goes away. Or that it stops making you feel really bad.

Furthermore, such extreme and “irrational” guilt may not be limited to how you feel about the unwanted or abusive sexual experiences. You may be feeling overly guilty about all kinds of things in your life. Every day you may be coming up with more reasons to feel really guilty. Again, if this sounds like you, you are definitely not alone.

Sources of Extreme Guilt

There can be many reasons why such extreme and irrational guilt keeps coming up and doesn’t just go away, even when we understand that’s what it is.

We won’t try to explain them all here, but will mention three common ones:

  • Maybe parents, teachers, religious or other authorities repeatedly made you feel guilty for things that weren’t your fault.
  • Maybe when you did do things worth feeling some guilt about, you were made to feel extremely guilty, and led to believe that making amends was impossible.
  • Maybe you came to believe (without necessarily realizing it) that blaming yourself was better than believing that you had little or no control over what happened, and came to see “it’s my fault” or “I have no control” as the only two possibilities.

Guilt Can Be Overcome

Thankfully, as with even the worst shame, it is entirely possible to overcome such deeply ingrained, “irrational”, and extreme guilt.

It can take time, and some people need considerable help, including professional help, along the way. But it can happen.

Many other men with histories of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences have learned to stop beating up on themselves for things that weren’t their fault. Many other men like you have learned how to make amends when they can and, when it’s an appropriate response, to truly forgive themselves. Read men’s stories here.