Bringing attention to male survivors of sexual abuse
I was driving home from work the other day and heard a story on NPR about former University of Michigan football player Jon Vaughn conducting a sit-in protest outside of the home of University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel. Jon reported that he was sexually victimized by the University doctor, Robert Anderson, who died in 2008. Vaughn is one of over 2,000 people who made complaints against Anderson. In his interview, he makes the point that our culture creates barriers to society realizing and accepting that men and boys, particularly men and boys of color, can be and are sexually victimized. He went on to advise other men and boys of color that they are not alone, and that he doesn’t want to see sexual assault or mental health concerns continue to be taboo areas of discussion among communities of color.
Listening to Vaughn’s story was just like listening to the stories of the incarcerated gentlemen I work with. So many of them describe their own experiences with sexual abuse, and also their experiences with feeling as though they could not tell anyone, or that if they did, it would make them less masculine. Many of them do describe telling someone, and being told that they should have enjoyed what occurred, or that they were lying, or that they should forget about it and not talk about it. Many report being sexually victimized in the course of some manner of coming of age ritual or hazing. Many of the men I work with describe events they didn’t even realize were sexually victimizing until they were able to discuss their experiences in treatment.
It’s so common for men in my treatment groups to talk about having been in some manner of sexual relationship with an adult woman when they were a minor. Until we spend some time discussing it, these men often have no realization that being sexual with an adult when they were a minor is sexual victimization. Our society has taught them to see it as a sexual conquest, and taught them to believe they should desire and know how to handle that contact. It is generally only when we discuss reversing the roles (and adult man with a female child) that they can start to recognize the issue.
Men also talk about former partners pressuring them for sex, or being made to penetrate their partner when they don’t want to, and again these men often don’t realize that this represents sexual harm toward them. Or if they DO recognize it, they don’t believe they can speak up. Because with all of the toxic masculinity junk our culture has filled their brains with, they believe that men are supposed to want lots of sex, all the time, with whoever is willing, and if they don’t….well then there’s that toxic homophobia junk hanging over them as well. If they didn’t want or complain about the sexually victimizing contact, they’re not a man, or they must be gay (which of course they’ve been told is not okay).
And speaking of toxic masculinity and homophobia…..how difficult do both of those things make it for men and boys who have been victimized by another male to speak up? And if you are a man or boy of color, in addition to the barriers of toxic masculinity and homophobia, you’ve got cultural ideas about what it means to be a man in your culture to contend with….AND the negative history of experiences with law enforcement and government agencies that black and brown folks have experienced. What on earth would make a young black boy, for example, think it’s safe to report a sexual victimization when his experiences with authority figures (such as the legal system) have been primarily negative? And for that matter, what makes his parents or caregivers think that if they made a report to law enforcement, the result would be positive?
The CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) indicates that one in 13 boys experience sexual abuse in childhood, and that nearly one in 38 men have experienced completed or attempted rape during their lifetime. One in four men have experienced sexual violence involving some kind of physical contact in their lifetime. And that’s likely an underestimate, when it’s likely many of the folks being surveyed either didn’t realize that they had experienced sexual violence, or didn’t feel comfortable saying so even in an anonymous survey.
I encourage folks to open their minds to include men and boys, and particularly men and boys of color, in your ideas about who is affected by sexual violence. And I encourage you to consider the ways that homophobia and toxic masculinity interfere with our ability to see men and boys as potential targets and survivors of abuse. I encourage you to think about how these issues interfere with the ability of men and boys to realize that they are experiencing/have experienced abuse, and the ways these issues interfere with men and boys feeling able to report abuse, and to have those reports taken seriously.
If you are a male survivor of abuse, or know and support a male survivor of abuse, I encourage you to check out the resources available through the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) targeted specifically toward the needs of male survivors. You might want to reach out to your local Rape Crisis Center. If you don’t know who that is, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline, and they will connect you with a provider in your area. Or, if you are a Pennsylvanian like me, you can contact the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) for information about resources in Pennsylvania. You might also want to check out the resources available via the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). You are not alone, and there are people who can help.