I still remember my graduate school class on treating victims of sexual abuse. I was surely not the only male in the class. Even more, I was certain many men had taken this class before. It was an important class because I wanted to know better how to help those who had experienced this horrific life experience. In some ways, I have come to believe this type of abuse is the worst thing a person can have happen. It is so devastating and intrusive.
What surprised me was the instructor took no thought to present anything on males who had been sexually abused. This is not a criticism. She actually told me this when I wrote a paper about the topic. She apologized for not including more information about male victims of abuse.
I think this is so interesting and instructive on so many levels.
It is a difficult thing to be a male victim of sexual abuse. Actually, I believe it is a hard thing to be a male victim of ANY type of abuse. It is a unique challenge. There are so many levels to this challenge for anyone–male or female–facing abuse. However, the challenges for men seem to be so much more nuanced and subtle and maybe even more complex. In saying this, I am nervous that somehow writing about men will somehow offend someone reading this–especially a woman. However, I have given this serious consideration and believe these thoughts are worth saying.
Talking about one person’s experience with abuse does not in any way negate anyone else’s experience. I believe this is true with gender as well. Talking about male victims of abuse does not in any way say anything less about women and their experience with abuse. We can and we must be sensitive to all.
Anyone who was abused in any way deserves to be heard, honored and helped. Anyone! Everyone! We should listen and support anyone who has been the victim of abuse.
My purpose in this post is to highlight how important it is to listen and look for the signs, signals, and statements that may indicate a man has been abused. We need to listen better to the men in our lives. We need to look for the possibility of abuse in the boys and men we interact with. If we are not careful, we may miss it. We may give no thought to it and not offer help to someone in need.
So, here are a few suggestions on how we can better engage men and hear them when they have had the unfortunate and devastating experience of abuse:
First, help men know that it is safe to talk. It can be difficult for a man to open up and discuss being a victim of abuse. Men are often socialized to be tough and strong. Men are often told not to cry and not show any signs of weakness. Almost all men have been taught on the playground that sensitivity, vulnerability, and gentleness are not a man’s arena. And that teaching was through hard experience. What boy has not been bullied when he shows any sign of sensitivity or tenderness?
We need to create safe places for men and boys to talk openly. We need to check in with boys who are tender or more emotional and encourage the expression of that emotion. They need to know there is a warm and open space for them. All too many feel isolated and alone! We need to give them permission to be quiet, meek, humble, emotional, and more. Boys who appear outwardly tough may need this even more! External toughness in boys and men may really be a shield to protect a fragile hurt or secret!
Make sure you listen to your boys! Encourage them to speak up and make sure they are heard. Take a little extra time to draw out the conversation and extend a helping heart. Allow them more time to open up–to get past, as it were, the toughness mentality they have been taught. You may have to wade through worries of weakness before you can help a man or boy who is struggling. Help them to know that vulnerability is strength, not weakness. When you feel most weak, you are actually most strong!
Second, check your stereotypes about men and their behavior. We will never end the abuse of men or women if we do not reality-check the stereotypes we have. We need to lose the “boys will be boys” mentality and do it quickly. Whether or not boys are fundamentally different from girls is never an excuse to allow anyone of any gender to be abusive or unkind. This perpetuates bad behavior and does not help to diminish it.
Additionally, when we teach boys and men that they have to be strong and tough all the time and never give any indication of weakness or tenderness or sensitivity, we perpetuate abuse even more. In some cases, we may be creating abusers. We need to encourage characteristics of warmth, tenderness, sensitivity, openness, and more.
We could start in basic ways. When a man is talking and becomes tearful or emotional–maybe when he says “I’m sorry” like society has trained him to do–we can offer a quick reassurance and encourage more emotion. When a boy is crying, what if we encouraged him to cry by saying “Wow, this is hard!” or “Go ahead and cry! This hurt really bad!” Let’s get both men and women teaching boys and men that sensitivity is strength. Tenderness is the new tough! Vulnerability instead of a victim!
Third, help men to challenge their beliefs about weakness and masculinity. We are so accustomed to seeing loud, brash, tough, or noisy as powerful and, at the same time, regard tears, tenderness, soft-voices, and gentleness as a week. This is absolutely false.
We need a man to know about perceived power and actual power. We all need to be better about knowing what real power is and what it looks like and does not look like. There behaviors and actions that have a high perception of power, such as yelling, throwing things, breaking things, etc. There are also behaviors that have a low perception of power, such as silence, quietness, tears, and soft-answers. From the outside, they look very different. But, who has power is often deceiving.
The man with behaviors that are externally perceived as very powerful may in fact be very weak and struggling. He looks powerful. He looks strong. He may even look abusive. But, looks are so very deceiving. He may in fact be doing these things to mask the powerless inside him. In most cases, this is the case. Toughness is not really toughness. It’s a cover-up!
The one with real strength is the one who does not need an external demonstration of strength. He can be quiet. From an outsider’s view, he may appear weak, incapable, and ineffective. However, the well of strength within my surprise you!
I once knew a boy who lived with an abusive parent. His parent would rage, break things, and commit atrocities in his home. The boy tells of one really painful day where the glass was breaking, walls were punched, and other family members were physically injured. In the midst of this, this young boy was quiet and calm and said very little.
In the wake of all the chaos, the abusive parent came to this boy and said, “How do you do it? How do you stay in control when I am so angry and out of control?” He referred to the other family members who fought back, yelled, screamed and the abuser said, “They make it worse by fighting back” and then plead with the boy, “How do you stay so calm?”
The boy said he learned in that moment–not that these words were said, but that he had more power than the raging and out of control abuser. He was the one in control. It, by far, did not look at all like what we think of control, but the boy was the strong one! Loud does not equal strength. Merely throwing self (and anything else in your path) around is not strength. Being mean and domineering is not a strength.
Finally, we need to challenge our own assumptions about who are the abusers and who are the abused. Let us not overlook the boys in need. Let us look deeper and harder to see them and see what they are experiencing. Let’s stop assuming that only men and boys commit abuses. Too many men are not helped and unsupported because we never consider the abuse they may experience.
We need to challenge our personal and societal notions of what is weak and what is strong. We need to encourage sensitivity, emotional awareness, and tenderness in all. We need to challenge assumptions and stereotypes. We need to listen with love to all regardless of gender and provide caring help!
So, let’s look to men and boys too! They are hurt and are victims too! They need our help too!
We can all do better! Let’s not forget to help the men in our lives! Let’s do better at championing goodness, gentleness, and real vulnerable strength in others!