For men, recovery from sexual abuse or assault is about gradual healing.
We know the word “recovery” can turn off some people. (If that includes you, sorry about that, and please don’t tune out the helpful info here.) Sometimes choosing words isn’t simple or easy.
All we mean by “recovery” is “gradual healing,” a standard meaning found in any dictionary.
The “gradual” part is important. Recovery or healing, including overcoming addictions and other bad habits, occurs in stages. So it really can take time to heal or overcome effects of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences.
The books below provide excellent, comprehensive information on the stages of recovery from the effects of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences (and other potentially traumatic experiences), and on what’s involved in helpful therapy.
First, let’s address that imperfect term, “recovery.”
Now, for the models. There are two that describe stages of recovery men go through to overcome harmful or traumatic boyhood sexual experiences.
Both models are excellent. Both map common paths that many others, including men who once felt hopeless about ever being truly happy, have traveled with success.
The stages they describe also apply to healing from the effects of physical abuse, emotional abuse, and other potentially traumatic experiences that boys and men can encounter.
We encourage you to learn about both models below.
This model is described in detail in Mic Hunter’s Abused Boys, one of the first books written for men struggling with the effects of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences.
The model comes from Hunter’s experiences of helping men to sort out and overcome the effects of such experiences.
He found parallels with the stages of grieving the loss of an important person in one’s life – which makes sense, because harmful sexual experiences and their effects are often experienced as causing one to ‘lose’ important aspects of oneself (for example, one’s masculinity, confidence, trust, or enjoyment of life).
Denial doesn’t necessarily mean refusing to acknowledge something that is true, though this can be the case. Rather, it refers to a variety of ways that men can – for very good reasons – push memories of unwanted sexual experiences out of their awareness. These ways range from completely “blocking out” or “splitting off” memories, without even realizing it, at one extreme, to intentionally, and often with great effort, trying to keep memories and reminders from breaking into consciousness, at the other.
Most men who have had such experiences, but haven’t yet sorted them out or dealt with their effects, find themselves somewhere in the middle. They have clues that something happened, or fragments of memory that pop into awareness, but these are quickly pushed away or “blocked out” whenever they come into awareness.
There are many reasons that men have for pushing such memories and related thoughts out of their minds. They can trigger unwanted feelings like anger, sadness, fear, or horror. They can trigger unwanted and disturbing thoughts – about one’s masculinity, about important people and relationships in one’s life (past and present), and about what would happen if such memories and thoughts were not always pushed away. As discussed in stages of change, it is neither helpful nor respectful to push or try to convince a man to look at such memories or information which suggests that he may have had sexual experiences that are causing him problems now.
On the other hand, as Hunter points out, it can be costly to keep such information out of awareness. In some cases, it uses ‘cognitive resources’ that are needed for other purposes, like one’s school work or job responsibilities. It can keep one in constant (if unacknowledged) fear of experiencing any vulnerable emotions that could trigger unwanted feelings, thoughts and memories about the sexual experiences. This means being unable to experience or tolerate other people’s vulnerable emotions, which is necessary for caring about their suffering and doing the right thing to help.
Also, emotions tend to be a package deal. Disconnection from negative emotions usually means experiencing few positive ones either, or not even getting close to experiencing one’s potential to have fun and be happy. Men in this situation often find themselves feeling like they’re ‘going through the motions’ in important relationships – with friends, family, girlfriends, wives and partners, even their children.
In this stage, men acknoweldge that something happened, but attempt to convince themselves (and others) that the experience wasn’t harmful and hasn’t caused them any problems – even though it has.
This is not to say that men can’t have unwanted or even abusive sexual experiences that do not cause problems in their lives. This is possible, for example, if the experience only happened once and the boy’s or man’s life was otherwise full of healthy and positive relationships with family, friends, and other authority figures.
Instead, this stage refers to the experiences of men who are, on the one hand, no longer pushing away the fact that they had a potentially harmful sexual experience, while, on the other hand, they’re not yet ready to deal with the impact it continues to have on them. These mixed feelings are often expressed in ‘yes but’ thoughts and statements.
The ability to doubt the reality of what happened, or its effects on one’s current life, can be very strong at this stage. Also common is “pseudoforgiveness,” in which, as Hunter puts it, the man ‘attempts to move from denial straight into forgiveness without experiencing any of the emotions’ related to what happened.
Below are some common things said by men in this stage, from chapter 5 of Hunter’s book:
One last obervation, and a suggestion, from Hunter:
“When in the bargaining stage, many people find that a constant argument or civil war goes on in their heads: ‘It really happened.’ ‘No, it didn’t.’ ‘Yes, it did.’ This goes back and forth, seemingly forever. If you find this happening, you may find it useful to choose a side and write a letter to yourself or someone else arguing that point, making no attempt to be objective or to see both sides. Once that is done, write another letter arguing the opposite side. Pay attention to your body during the writing of each letter, and listen to what your emotions are telling you.” (Abused Boys, p.105).
This is a third stage that many men experience. This stage begins when a man recognizes not only that something happened, but that it really did harm him.
For some men, this is the beginning of believing that what was done to them matters because they matter. For those who have squelched their anger, or been unable to feel it, this may be the first recognition that experiencing and expressing anger can be helpful and healthy.
For some, this “opening to anger” brings fear that they will lose control and hurt other people or themselves. This fear can be valid and healthy. In fact, realistic concerns about anger’s destructive potential tends to protect men from acting out violent thoughts and impulses that may be triggered very suddenly.
Importantly, it’s almost impossible to be simultaneously angry about something done to you and blame yourself for it. For this reason, getting angry about what happened can bring relief from self-blaming thoughts. It can be the beginning of overcoming the tendency – which is especially common in men – to blame yourself for ways people took advantage of you.
For many, the recognition that they are valuable human beings, and that what happened isn’t their fault, can bring a huge sense of relief. Also, the anger may also provide a lot of energy and motivation to make positive changes in one’s life. In these ways, this phase can bring a great deal of healing and progress.
At the same time, this can be a risky period. Anger may become a central player in one’s emotional life. It can spill out in ways that are harmful to oneself or others. Or one may now feel justified and entitled to act in the same old angry ways one has for a long time, rather than taking responsibility for them. In addition to relief and empowerment, then, this stage can bring new challenges and responsibilities.
Another problem is that some men have trouble moving on from this stage. Whether consciously or not, they prefer anger to the sadness that is an essential part of recovery. Men especially are vulnerable to getting stuck in the anger phase, because they have been conditioned to feel safe and strong when they are angry, and fear that sadness equals weakness, even being a victim, though as described below, this is definitely not the case.
As Hunter points out, in this stage many men find that exercise is a great way to channel the energy of anger or “vent” angry feelings. Running, lifting weights, or playing active sports can not only channel the energy and help release the feelings, but increase one’s senses of being strong and powerful. Finally, for some men hitting a punching bag, or even an old mattress, can be a safe way to release anger when it wells up inside.
As Hunter writes, “Sadness comes when a man realizes that he was wronged and that he has lost something that he can never retrieve.” This is when the grieving phase of the overall grieving process described by these stages really kicks in.
Harmful unwanted or abusive sexual experiences bring many losses – of innocence, of trust in others, of belief in oneself, and of achievements that never happened thanks to the effects of the unwanted or abusive experiences.
Truly facing and reflecting on one’s many losses can bring a great deal of sadness. Sadness is a totally legitimate and justified response to such losses. It can be painful to experience, but coming to know this sadness can bring great strength, and deep appreciation and understanding of the suffering that are part of so many people’s lives.
During this phase men can become very sensitive. Not only their own pain and suffering, but that of other people, and even of pets or other animals, can feel very intense. They may cry easily.
Hunter observes, “As a person moves through the sadness stage, he will notice how his tears change. At first, crying will be very difficult and painful. He may fight back the tears by holding his breath, not making any sound… or shaming himself for needing to cry. Later in this stage, the tears will seem to come from somewhere very deep and are often accompanied by a sense of being a small child. There is often a sense of great loss and loneliness…. Still later in the recovery process the tears are followed by a sense of healing, coming together, wholeness.” (Abused Boys, p.111).
In short, in this stage of recovery one’s experiences of sadness become increasingly healing and strengthening.
Hunter and others have suggested several activities that can help bring about this transformation. One is writing goodbye letters to things you have lost because of unwanted or abusive experiences – “for example, the relationships you never had because of your shame and fear of intimacy, or the type of parents you never had, or the loss of your spontaneity.” (Abused Boys, p.111).
Once again, a passage from Hunter’s book nicely sums up the essence of this stage:
Acceptance here does not mean failing to see that what happened was harmful and wrong. Instead, it means accepting that the past cannot be changed, and coming to peace with it rather than remaining focused on pain or sadness, anger or resentment.
While it may be hard to imagine at the beginning of the recovery process, it really is possible to experience a sense of serenity about even the worst childhood experiences and the negative effects they once had.
The acceptance of this stage brings great strength and power. The strength and power come from having faced one’s life head-on, having truly experienced the worst of the past, and having arrived at a way of being that is free from running away from painful truths or getting caught up in them.
With acceptance, one can truly move on – as a man of greater courage, strength, hope, and wisdom.
In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman presents a model which describes in detail the healing process of people who struggle with a combination of problems related to unwanted, abusive, or traumatic experiences in their past.
The problems may include:
The first stage of dealing with and overcoming such problems, and of any helpful therapy or counseling, is about:
Most important, the key to healing from traumatic experiences in childhood is achieving these stage-one goals of personal safety, genuine self-care, and healthy emotion-regulation capacities. Once these have become standard operating procedures, great progress and many new choices become possible.
Importantly, the first stage of recovery and treatment is not about discussing or processing memories of unwanted or abusive experiences, let alone “recovering” them. (For more on how the stages of recovery are related to memories of abuse, particularly recovered memories, see Personal Concerns & Questions on Dr. Jim Hopper’s web page, Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse.)
Of course, everything is not always so perfectly ordered and sequential.
For example, during the first stage it may be necessary to discuss the contents of disturbing memories that are disrupting one’s life. This may be required to help manage the memories, or to understand why it is hard to care for oneself (e.g., the abuser acted like or even said you were unworthy of care or love). However, in this case addressing memories is not the focus of therapy, but a means to achieving safety, stability, and greater ability to take care of oneself.
Depending on the person, the first stage of treatment may also involve:
Throughout all stages of treatment, it is often necessary to address psychological themes and dynamics related to one’s history of unwanted or abusive experiences.
As discussed in Principles of Therapy or Counseling, some of these are core issues that should determine the very nature and structure of treatment. These include:
In the first stage of treatment, these themes and dynamics must be addressed when they are obstacles to safety, self-care, and regulating one’s emotions and behavior. Therapy can help with recognizing habitual behavior patterns, beliefs, and motivations that maintain self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors outside of conscious awareness or reflection.
Increased awareness of these themes and dynamics brings greater understanding, greater ability to take responsibility for them, and greater capacities to choose new, healthier responses and actions. (Mindfulness meditation practices can also help cultivate such awareness and freedom; see Mindfulness and Kindness: Inner Sources of Freedom and Happiness.)
This stage of recovery and treatment is often referred to as “remembrance and mourning.”
The main work of stage two involves:
After establishing a solid foundation of understanding, safety, stability and self-regulation skills one can decide – mindful of the potential pain and risks involved – whether or not to engage in the work of stage two.
In fact, once the first stage of recovery has provided such a foundation, some people realize that thinking and talking about painful memories is not necessary to achieve their goals, at least in the short term. Some find that the memories are no longer disrupting their life and no longer of much interest to them. (And sometimes people need to teach their therapists about this!)
For those who choose to focus on disturbing memories, including because those memories are still disrupting their lives, several “memory processing” methods can be used during this stage.
In general, these methods involve re-experiencing the memories within a safe and healing therapy setting. They can be very effective at ending the influence of such memories in one’s daily life.
Most importantly, there are very effective therapy methods that have been proven, through years of clinical experience and research, to bring great relief and healing by transforming memories and responses to reminders of harmful childhood experiences.
(Please note: none of these methods “erase” memories, and they are not designed to “recover” memories. If you have personal questions about this issue, see Dr. Jim Hopper’s web page, Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse.)
One of the most research-supported approaches for processing traumatic memories is EMDR. This method can rapidly transform traumatic memories into non-traumatic ones – and you don’t have to talk about them in detail, if at all, making it a great option for many men.
Again, the main point here is that there are effective and relatively rapid methods for dealing with intensely distressing memories. People do not have to be tortured by them for years.
The third stage of recovery focuses on reconnecting with people, meaningful activities, and other aspects of life.
We will not go into that stage here, but recommend reading Trauma and Recovery, which describes all three stages of recovery in depth and detail.
EMDR is short for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s not yet known exactly which components (or combination of components) are responsible for its effectiveness. But research has proven its effectiveness as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Here’s an overview of what happens in EMDR sessions:
The above shows very clear differences between EMDR and traditional exposure therapy, which requires clients to narrate memories out loud and in detail, from start to finish. Obviously, many people do not want to do that.
Everything about EMDR allows the client to associate to different memories, themes, and ideas – including positive ones. In fact, anyone who has any experience at all with EMDR, as a client or therapist, is quickly impressed by just how many such associations and connections occur during EMDR sessions.
When such associations arise in EMDR sessions, clients are able to transform painful or traumatic memories into ones that are woven into new webs of associations.
Rather than the same old horrible images, feelings, and thoughts, the memory becomes much less distressing or no longer distressing at all. It becomes connected to thoughts, feelings and body states involving things like safety, comfort, and kindness toward oneself. It’s still a memory of something bad that happened, but it’s not an overwhelming memory. it’s not one you struggle to push away out of fear or shame.
That’s where any good therapy approach for dealing with memories of unwanted or traumatic experiences will take you. But EMDR has a way of doing it much more quickly and with less distress than most other approaches.
Of course, as we cover above under Stages of Recovery, there’s more to healing and recovery than transforming memories, which is a focus on the second stage of recovery.
But transforming such memories can be a huge relief, and some therapists who use EMDR are good at stage-oriented treatment of men with histories of unwanted or abusive boyhood sexual experiences.
To find an EMDR therapist near you, use the Find a Therapist service of the EMDR International Association. EMDRIA’s primary objective is to “establish, maintain and promote the highest standards of excellence and integrity in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) practice, research and education.”
If you’re interested in reading scholarly papers on EMDR, a good place to start is an article by Susan Rogers and Steven Silver, Is EMDR an exposure therapy? A review of trauma protocols. The discussion above overlaps with theirs in many ways, but they provide much more theory and references to relevant scholarly work. They also provide case examples, which give a feel for the treatment and how it can help unique individuals. The article is one of several articles in a special January 2002 issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychology on EMDR. Another excellent (and brief) article on EMDR describes why, to quote the title, “EMDR minus eye movements equals good psychotherapy.”
There are effective and relatively rapid methods for dealing with intensely distressing memories. You do not have to be tortured by them for years.
Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy is, along with EMDR, the other most-researched treatment for postraumatic stress disorder, and very established in the academic mainstream. (Of course, this does not guarantee it is the best approach for a particular person; this is also true for EMDR, and true of any treatment when it comes to unique individuals rather than groups of research participants.)
The theory behind how PE works is the Emotional Processing Model of Edna Foa and Michael Kozak. These authors have presented this model in several influential papers, particularly these:
While these are long and fairly technical papers, some people may find reading them to be useful. Their theory can be summarized briefly as follows:
Based on this description of the model and how it views effective treatment, it makes sense why traditional exposure therapies like Prolonged Exposure, in constrast to EMDR, insist that clients narrate their traumatic memories in detail, in sequence. This is seen as the only way to ensure that the fear structure is fully activated: if clients are allowed to “jump around” or to associate to other memories (as in EMDR), the thinking goes, then they might avoid key aspects of the memory and fear structure. And if they do not activate it fully, they will not be able to truly incorporate corrective information and transform the fear structure so it is no longer pathological.
In short, traditional exposure therapies like PE insist that clients narrate the trauma out loud, in detail, from start to finish, so the therapist can be sure that the client is fully activating the fear structure, fully engaging with the emotions, and really getting the full benefit of the treatment. Similarly, clients are required to listen to an audio tape of their narration of the trauma in between sessions – again, to ensure full activation and incorporation of corrective information as hearing the tape over and over again generates less and less fear and avoidance responses. However, it should be noted that many therapists modify traditional exposure therapy by beginning with less traumatic memories, by not requiring the “homework” of listening to oneself narrate the trauma on audio tape, and in other ways that reduce its stressfulness.
Importantly, we have focused on EMDR and PE, two highly researched treatments for transforming traumatic memories, but there are certainly others that people with histories of unwanted or abusive experiences in childhood have found helpful. One common component is exposure to distressing aspects of the memory in a safe and structured setting.
Again, the most important point: There are effective and relatively rapid methods for dealing with intensely distressing memories. People do not have to be tortured by them for years.
There are ways to find therapists where you live who have the right experience, training and knowledge.
But first, you should know about good web resources on how to choose and evaluate potential therapists once you’ve gotten some names and numbers.
We strongly suggest reading these articles before seeking or contacting potential therapists in your area. For example, as these articles suggest, it is important to “interview” at least two or three potential therapists, rather than committing to the first one who seems to know what he or she is doing.
The Sidran Foundation has an extensive list of therapists and clinics around the country that specialize in treating people with histories of mild to severe childhood adversities or abuse. See their page About the Help Desk. Again, neither we nor the Sidran Foundation can vouch for every therapist on the list, but they can usually, at a minimum, provide some good leads.
As described above, EMDR is a therapy proven to help people transform traumatic memories into nontraumatic ones, and particularly suited to men who do not want to talk about what actually happened. It is also practiced by thousands of therapists around the world, many of whom are very experienced at working with men with histories of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood. You can find EMDR therapists through the Find a Therapist service of the EMDR International Association. EMDRIA’s primary objective is to “establish, maintain and promote the highest standards of excellence and integrity in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) practice, research and education.”
RAINN‘s phone hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) can connect you with people who, in many cases, can recommend therapists or clinics qualified to help you in your community – but please keep reading before you use this service. The phone hotline automatically links callers to local counseling centers in their area with trained staff members who know about (a) the effects of unwanted or abusive childhood sexual experiences and (b) available local services. However, someone answering the phone at a local center may not understand issues and concerns specific to men, and may not know any local therapists or clinics qualified to help you.
Psychologist Listings of The Association of Black Psychologists – Lists African American psychologists around the country and their areas of specialty, including “sexual abuse.” Those without that specialized focus may know African American or other therapists of color (or White therapists) in their area who are skilled at working with people of color who’ve had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood.
The Consumer’s Guide to Psychotherapy, by Drs. Jack Engler and Dan Goleman (author of the best-selling Emotional Intelligence), is an excellent book available in paperback from Amazon, both new and used (some really cheap), and may be in your local library. Though it was published in 1992, and is not up to date on the latest treatment innovations, this book has a great deal of timeless wisdom about choosing a therapist, the nature of therapy, different schools of therapy, etc.
Workshops and retreats with other men who have had similar experiences and struggles can be very healing, especially when combined with other, individual or group therapy. Many men report huge reductions in shame, decreased sense of aloneness, etc.
For some men these intensive experiences also can feel overwhelming. Take time to assure yourself that a given retreat, workshop or community event is designed to create a safe, structured and trauma-informed environment that will enhance your recovery process. Retreats and workshops are most often useful as a way to expand progress made in therapy, rather than as an effective “first step” when it comes to finding help. If you do think that you want to do a workshop or retreat, make sure you really research it, including asking the leaders/facilitators as many questions as you need, so you can know as much as possible about whether it’s likely to meet your needs and expectations. Remember, knowledge enhances safety, and safety is what healing is all about.