Trigger Warning: Parts of this blog post may be triggering. Please take care of yourself and seek out help if you can.
A couple months ago I was invited to do a presentation at Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s “Sexual Assault Victim Advocacy School”, an intensive several day training session for advocates who work with sexual assault victims. I was honored to be asked and am always willing to share my story, partly because there are not that many men in particular who are willing to talk about their own sexual abuse.
I feel that every time I share my story I heal a little bit more. It’s great that talking openly leads to more healing, but the real reason I am willing to speak is that male childhood sex abuse is so rarely talked about. I believe it is important that those who can speak to it do so in order that others may know they are not alone. The ultimate goal is that there will some day be no more survivor stories because there will be no more victims. The more that I can speak about it, the more that famous people who were abused as children can talk about it, the more likely it is that others who have suffered abuse will understand they are not alone and they will seek the help they need or report an abuser who will then be put away and not be able to hurt others. These are lofty goals, but things like child sex abuse aren’t going to end because of any one person, or even several, but because all who were abused can talk about it and demand that we change what is acceptable in this world.
Following is a condensed version of what I talked about today. It was followed by a lengthy question and answer period with a lot of good questions. I am excited by the work that these advocates are doing to assist others.
When I was nine or ten years old I was touched for the first time. It was a very quick, brief touch, through my pants, but it felt very uncomfortable. So I did what every little boy is taught to do when things like this happen. I told my mother about it. She looked at me and said, “Oh, you shouldn’t let him do that to you.” Because of that response I went away both blaming myself in some way and feeling like it wouldn’t do any good to tell my mother about anything like this in the future.
When I was ten years old the abuse started in full force. The first time I was asked if I wanted to play a game and being ten I excitedly said yes. I was then told that I would need to be tied up to play the game and being ten that didn’t seem unusual to me. My feet were tied to a piece of furniture (a dresser, I believe) and my hands to another (the bed, or it may have been the other way around). My pants were pulled down and I was molested. He sat on my chest and I couldn’t see him or what he was doing. All I could see was a crucifix on the wall above him with Jesus looking down upon it all and doing nothing. I’ve often said I lost both my innocence and my faith that day.
For the next seven years or so I was abused in many ways (oral, touch, and rape).
As an adult the abuse impacted me in many ways. Oftentimes victims of sexual abuse suffer from any number of the following (and more): Alcoholism, anger issues, drug abuse, life-long fears, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), promiscuity, prostitution, self-abuse, self-hatred, suicidal ideation or attempts. I pretty much fit the bill on every one of those, but through a lot of work, a positive attitude, and loving people in my life survived despite the horrors of my youth and the self-abuse of my adulthood. I haven’t had a drink since April 18, 1989 (and quit doing drugs before that), have not had casual sex in ages as I’ve been in a long-term committed relationship, and have not had suicidal thoughts in many, many years. This doesn’t mean I am fully healed. There are still occasional issues that flare up. I think you are never fully over the effects of abuse; it is a matter of controlling the effects most of the time.
There are many roads to recovery. Some get there through therapy, others through spirituality, others through internal exploration, or sharing with friends or family. For me recovery came primarily through loved ones and a lot of internal work, mostly through research and through my own writing, as that is the way I have always learned and grown. It’s the same way I went about coming out. I could not have survived without the ability to process creatively. The arts can be incredibly healing and a great way to explore oneself and the meaning of life, suffering, and more.
For me a heart attack also had a lot to do with it, as being faced with the threat of death causes one to relook at everything in life, what you’re doing with it, and what still needs to be done. It was after my life-threatening heart attack that I decided I had to share my story in a play, which is why I wrote Invisible Boy, my autobiographical play about surviving my own abuse and coming to a place of forgiveness. The other thing that my heart attack changed was that I now listen to my heart, both figuratively and literally, in ways that I never used to be able to do. If my heart tells me to write a play to share my story I do it. If it tells me to work on a conference on child sex abuse survival I do it. I trust myself and my instincts a lot more now and I believe I have done a lot of good work in the last several years because of it.
There are some things about being a male survivor that really are different due to being a man. While many of the life-long effects of childhood abuse are the same for men and women, gay or straight, there are some things that are different for men that advocates (and friends or family) need to be aware of in order to provide the best possible help to those who seek it.
Silence. Men are likelier to remain silent and never speak about their abuse and there are several reasons for this, some of them probably more so for straight men than gay men. As a gay man I’ve already examined my sexuality, femininity, gender, masculinity, etc. as part of my coming out process. For men who buy into a cultural expectation of what it means to be a man coming to terms with sexual abuse, whether it was childhood or adult sex abuse, can be very difficult.
Men are supposed to be strong, not weak. Admitting that someone abused or raped you says that you were not able to defend yourself. Never mind that your abuser was older and bigger, or was in a position of authority or power–you’re male; you’re supposed to be able to defend yourself.
There is also the fear of being gay, or being labeled gay, due to homophobia (including internalized homophobia). Again, because of societal expectations gay men are often perceived as being somehow more feminine or weaker because of their orientation. Those of us who are gay know this isn’t always the case. There are very masculine gay men and feminine straight men. But the cultural expectation trumps the reality because it is so ingrained in us.
There are also issues for those men who were abused by women. Abuse is devastating regardless of who the perpetrator is, but often men who are abused by women will hear from others about how lucky they were, not about how horrible it was. The reality is they were not lucky. They were abused and that abuse will have an impact on them as they grow into adulthood. Another common reaction is the earlier mentioned strength and weakness issue. Men abused by women are thought to be somehow weaker than other men, if the abuse is even believed. It seems that our society is less likely to believe a man who talks about being sexually abused by someone of the opposite gender. In general our society has a long way to go to come to a better understanding of gender and gender roles.
A couple other things about male survivors is that men are taught to be stoic, to stay tough, and to either just get on with life and ignore problems or to push their way through them and not deal with emotions. What they don’t understand is that dealing with hard issues is really a greater sign of strength than pretending that there is no issue when in fact it is really hurting you.
The final thing that makes it particularly tough for male survivors is that the male body can have a physical reaction that makes it appear that they are willing participants, even when they are being raped or physically attacked. While the body may react this way it doesn’t mean that the heart and soul were on board with it. Perpetrators will often use this as evidence that the victim “wanted it” or “asked for it” in some way, or that they enjoyed it. It allows perpetrators to justify their actions and often makes the victim fall into self-blame (which can be another reason to maintain silence about what happened).
Male survivors need a few things to help them come to terms with the abuse (and most of these apply to female survivors as well). First, advocates need to understand that information on male sexual abuse can be difficult to find. When I was writing Invisible Boy I found hundreds of books on sexual abuse and child sex abuse, but only a handful on male victims and survivors. The information is out there, but one has to seek it out, and the search is often not easy. Familiarizing oneself with the few books and websites particular to male survivors can be incredibly helpful when offering support. Learn as much as possible and be informed.
As with any survivor–Listen, Don’t Judge, Believe. Allow the survivor to talk. Accept their story and their truth.
Be available and let that be known. Most survivors have to come to therapy or their friends or wherever it is they ultimately turn to at their own pace. When they are ready to talk they need to know you’ll be there and what you can do for them. For organizations advertise all of the services that are offered. Publicize services, do press releases, have a web presence and make sure that it is vibrant and lets all underserved communities know what is available for them.
Let the person know they are not alone. Unfortunately statistics say 1 in 6 boys is abused and the numbers are probably way higher because of the under-reporting and silence talked about earlier. But once a victim knows that other men have been victims and survived they may be willing to share their own stories and get the help they need. The more survivors who come out and share their stories the more others may recognize that their stories are not entirely unique (though the particular circumstances might be) and they are not alone. More and more famous survivors are coming out publicly with their stories and that can only help.
Childhood sex abuse can be a life sentence if the victim does not ever deal with the effects and acknowledge the abuse, but any man or woman who becomes a survivor instead of a victim does so because they deal honestly with their history, their emotions, and the effects of the abuse. One can live a powerful, full life and take control back by dealing openly and honestly with the abuse.
Some famous men who have publicly come out as survivors of childhood sex abuse:
Ozzy Osbourne (singer)
Drew Carey (actor)
Tom Arnold (actor)
Gabriel Byrne (actor)
Todd Bridges (actor)
R. A. Dickey (baseball player)
Axl Rose (singer)
Scott Brown (U. S. Senator)
James Dean (actor)
Don Lemon (news anchor)
Antwone Fisher (playwright/screenwriter/director)
Theo Fleury (hockey player)
Tyler Perry (actor)
Carlos Santana (musician)
Billy Connolly (comedian)
Maynard James Keenan (singer/musician; Tool)
Chester Bennington (musician; Stone Temple Pilots)
Derek Luke (actor)
Henry Rollins (musician)
Laveraneus Coles (football player)
Kirk Hammett (musician; Metallica)
Johannes Brahams (composer)
Mike Patton (singer/songwriter; Faith No More)
Jonathan Davis (singer; lead, Korn)
Marilyn Manson (musician)
Sugar Ray Leonard (boxer)
Note: James Dean’s sexual abuse survival is second hand, from his good friend Elizabeth Taylor. He never publicly acknowledged it.
Some online resources:
Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, http://www.wcasa.org
Rape Crisis Center, http://www.danecountyrcc.org
Male Survivor, http://www.malesurvivor.org
1 in 6, http://www.1in6.org
LiveScience/Male Victims of Sexual Abuse Face Unique Challenges, http://www.livescience.com/12909-senator-scott-brown-male-sexual-abuse-stigma.html
Betrayed Boys, http://www.betrayedboys.com/
cc4ms (Canadian Centre for Male Survivors of Child Sex Abuse, http://www.cc4ms.ca/
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR)/Common Victim Behaviors of Survivors of Sexual Abuse, http://www.pcar.org/blog/common-victim-behaviors-survivors-sexual-abuse
Kali Munro/The Treatment Needs of Sexually Abused Men, http://kalimunro.com/wp/articles-info/sexual-emotional-abuse/the-treatment-needs-of-sexually-abused-men
Invisible Children/Child Sex Abuse & The Most Powerful Suicide Note Ever, http://www.invisiblechildren.org/2011/01/08/child-sex-abuse-the-most-powerful-suicide-note-ever/
Invisible Boy, https://vimeo.com/17470426
Solidarity with Child Abuse Victims/Survivors, https://www.facebook.com/SolidarityWithChildAbuseVictimsSurvivors
Since writing this post I wrote a memoir about my experiences and also published the play, Invisible Boy. Below are links to those two books on Amazon.
Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story– https://www.amazon.com/Empty-Playground-Survivors-Callen-Harty-ebook/dp/B019BNQ8W0/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1491052031&sr=8-1&keywords=empty+playground