After a long journey from New York, Christopher Anderson arrived in California at the weekend healing retreat and thought to himself, “What the hell am I doing?” He almost turned right around and got back into his rental car to head to the airport and back home. But something stopped him. Each step he took resounded in his head.
As he walked up closer to the entrance of the retreat center, he made eye contact with a guy about his age who was also attending. Anderson says, “When we made eye contact, I saw in his eyes what I saw when I looked at myself in the mirror. It was the first time in my life I felt like I was not alone.”
Coming to terms with sexual abuse
This was the first time, at age 33, that Anderson was taking the courageous and life-changing step of examining and acknowledging the incidents of sexual abuse that occurred in his childhood. And it was all due to an organization called MaleSurvivor, the oldest and largest male sexual violence advocacy and support community. Founded 20 years ago by a group of therapists and social workers, MaleSurvivor has now expanded to include weekend retreats like the one that Anderson says turned his life around, as well as professional conferences that bring together academics, advocates, and survivors. It also, importantly, has a publically viewable, peer-moderated, anonymous online discussion forum.
Visits to that forum were what first made Anderson realize that it was OK to talk about what was done to him as a child, and that there was a safe place to do so. “As someone in my 30s who had never dealt with it, that was very important for me to see.” Anderson says this is not an uncommon experience for men who find the site. In 2015, MaleSurvivor had 169,000 visitors from the United States and 250,000 visitors worldwide, who viewed 2.5 million pages of content.
As it turns out, the average disclosure delay is over 20 years for male survivors of child abuse, so Anderson is in good company. And the numbers are shocking: MaleSurvivor estimates that as many as 1 out of every 4 males experience some form of sexual trauma in their lifetime.
“It’s broadly assumed that it’s a small minority of men who experience this when we’re really talking about a public health issue. It affects more men than diabetes and heart disease,” Anderson says.
Stigma as a barrier to healing
A member of the board of MaleSurvivor who served for years as the organization’s first executive director and a dedicated advocate for survivors of male sexual violence, Anderson has come full circle.
He says that there are strong disincentives for men to disclose sexual violence, meaning that most feel intense shame and fear at the idea of telling someone (much less their whole community, family, and friends). “As a man [the messages are], you gotta suck it up, don’t be weak, don’t be vulnerable,” Anderson says.
These cultural norms and stereotypes around masculinity and sexuality, which can vary by age, sexual orientation, and race, contribute to the 20-plus year delay in talking about what occurred. And many men never do.
In addition, many people incorrectly assume that men who have been abused asked for it, are lucky to have experienced it, or that they will go on to be perpetrators themselves.
When men do not process the trauma or tell someone about abuse they experienced, research suggests that their risk of every conceivable negative health outcome — including heart disease, diabetes, depression, alcoholism, and poor diet — skyrockets. They’re also likely to write it off as “the way I was initiated into sex” and have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) such as flashbacks and anxiety, without actually making the connection to their cause.
While there are some differences in the effects of trauma in males and females, Anderson believes there are mostly similarities. At its core, he defines trauma as a very intense experience of powerlessness to protect oneself or another, resulting from spiritual, emotional, or physical harm. Survivors often blame themselves, as they rarely have the resources to stop the abuse, and are trying to make sense of the senseless.
The seeds of hope
The crux of the healing that occurs at professionally facilitated MaleSurvivor weekends and in the online forums is compassionate listening and sharing around each man’s unique experience. Anderson says various modalities and exercises are utilized, depending on what each individual needs to feel safe. They all empower men and help them to break through the walls of shame and stigma.
The “Four seeds of hope” are centered masterfully on the MaleSurvivor homepage, and they are the first words you see. They’re the primary messages that MaleSurvivor aims to send to each man who finds himself there. And they’re what Anderson would encourage victims and loved ones of victims to focus on:
- You are not alone.
- It was not your fault.
- It is possible to heal.
- It is not too late.
The idea is that with every seed of hope they spread, the greater the chances that one will take root and sink in, both to each man and boy affected, and to society as a whole. Progress is happening, and it is inspiring and exciting, to say the least.
Roadblocks on the journey
Anderson says there are some particularly challenging aspects to the work as well. For one, he notes a frustrating lack of partnership and support for efforts to address victimization of males, on the part of other groups, including the female abuse survivor movement. He wishes that there could be more collaboration and trust, to raise the profile of these issues and help them become more of a central issue on the national agenda. He wonders if the disconnect has to do with the fear-based, often ingrained perception of men as abusers.
Another huge roadblock is the legal system. Unfortunately, most states require that a child be actively assaulted at the current time in order to press charges. Past the age of 21 or 23, many men have no recourse for civil or criminal charges regarding abuse that occurred in their childhood. This is of course especially discouraging given the 20-year delay that often characterizes disclosure in males. State laws are frequently under review, however, and awareness is growing.
Responding with compassion
If someone you know or love shares with you that they were abused, Anderson stresses three things, which he coined “BPT,” when it comes to responding compassionately and effectively:
- Believe them.
- Stay present. Don’t react or talk about yourself, or even make comments or judgements about the situation or abuser.
- Say thank you. This person has given you the gift of their trust.
You can refer them to http://www.malesurvivor.org/index.php as a starting point. Look into local resources and therapists experienced in this type of trauma, and above all, stay centered in hope.
If you have experienced abuse, know that you are not alone and that there are resources and support services available to help you. Check out MaleSurvivor, and if you’re ready, open yourself up to the healing process.
Here are some other resources:
- Child Welfare Information Gateway
- Help for Adult Victims of Child Abuse
- American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children
Just as Anderson found the support he needed, bravely overcame childhood abuse, and went on to live a fulfilling life, so too can you.