It happens more than you probably think: an estimated 1 in 6 males is sexually abused. While males who are abused often experience assaults during childhood and adolescence, even adult men can be victims. A lack of resources and awareness, coupled with rigid social views on masculinity, are just some of the obstacles littering the path to recovery. There is help, in large part due to MaleSurvivor, a non-profit organization dedicated to boys and men who are victims of sexual violence and abuse. Chris Anderson, MaleSurvior’s Executive Director, spoke with ASHA about his organization and the often silent suffering of the men and their families.
What does MaleSurvivior offer?
It starts with our website, malesurvivor.org, which is where most people interact with us. In addition to a wealth of information, we have resource directories that link to sexual assault resources in every state.
The part of our site I’m really proud of is the online discussion forum and it’s an amazing tool, unlike any other resource for survivors that I know of. It’s staffed by a dedicated team of volunteers—all survivors themselves—and we also have one therapist on the team. They monitor the discussions, including a chat room that gives people a chance to interact in real time with other survivors. It’s a great place for people to go to get support, and we have rules in place to maintain safety.
We also offer weekends of recovery. A team of amazing facilitators, licensed therapists and social workers, run these weekends and many do so as volunteers. The weekends are unique healing experiences, generally 20-30 men each weekend. We’re starting to offer weekends for couples, too, to help repair intimacy issues and educate partners about survivor issues.
Give some background on your story and what brought you to the field.
I began my own healing journey from being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse back in 2007. Like many other male survivors I had spent most of my life in denial of the extent of the damage the experience of abuse had on me. I was abused by a neighbor who had befriended me when I was young. I was kind of an odd duck on the outside looking in, and needed someone in my life to give me the attention I craved.
As happens often with male survivors, my marriage fell apart; I didn’t know how to have a healthy relationship with anybody, least of all with myself. It was then that I began looking at the abuse and seeking help. I had been in and out of therapy pretty much my whole life, and had never dealt with that issue. I thought it was a one-time thing, not that big a deal. As I learned more, it became clear the abuse was the one issue I needed to deal with all along.
So I came to male survivor because I was looking for a resource for somebody in my shoes and there was hardly anything out there. Thank God for the internet!
Survivors often feel shame over their abuse, perhaps even blaming themselves. Talk about how this impacts male victims.
The notion of masculinity we’ve been steeped in, the idea of the invulnerable man who takes the world on his shoulders and has to prove to the world that he can’t be hurt, has really done us a great deal of harm. When you take abuse and, on top of it, add a healthy dose of what our culture says a man should be, you get a cocktail of trauma that leads to a really warped sense of who you are, and your own worth. I spent years blaming myself for all the things wrong in my life, and felt vulnerable. I didn’t trust people and thought everyone surely sees me as damaged as I see myself.
Within our culture, there have been more resources and attention to helping support female survivors of domestic violence and rape then there have been for male survivors. I think that’s because our society is ignorant of the true extent of male sexual abuse. One in six men over the age of 18 are the survivors of sexual abuse, a number that even today many people find shocking, they’ve never heard it before. This lack of awareness only increases the burden and the sense of shame and stigma those male survivors carry. When they reach out to find support, it’s not there.
Speaking of reaching out for help, are male victims less likely to seek help because they are afraid of being shunned?
Absolutely! Let’s face it men don’t even want to ask for directions! But when it comes to asking for help and support it’s even worse. There is a big fear of stigma, because one of the things we have to fight is the Vampire Myth . When a man comes forward and says he was sexually abused, especially as a child, more often than not there will be suspicions about whether or not he will go on and do that to others. The perception persists because we know that most people who do perpetrate were at some point abused or violated themselves, but the vast majority of survivors don’t become abusers themselves, but the perception persists. This is a prejudice we don’t apply to female survivors, and it actually greatly impacts the likelihood that a man will come forward and get the help he needs to heal because there can oftentimes be significant, negative consequences to his doing so.
What are the forms that abuse can take?
There is confusion about just what constitutes sexual abuse and sexual violence. We think if somebody was sexually abused, then somebody had sex with them. But sexual violence is a crime of power, not really a crime of sexuality.
There’s a whole spectrum of sexual violence: it might involve rape in its most severe form, true violation. In my case, though, before there was molestation I remember the man who abused me took pictures of me in my underwear. You can have coercion, taunting, teasing, and bullying in severe forms. You can have hazing and rituals of a locker room mindset that goes beyond what the folks at Penn State thought was “healthy horseplay” at Penn State. Sexual abuse and violence can involve actual penetration of the body, of course, but it isn’t limited to that.
It all goes back to violations of power. For a survivor this means their own ability to establish healthy boundaries, and to protect themselves, is stripped away.
Their ability to protect themselves is stripped away. Does that make them susceptible to additional abuse?
Absolutely. Survivors struggle with far higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, even suicidal thoughts. People struggling with all those issues and who don’t know it wasn’t their fault; who don’t know there are people and places to where they can go for help to deal with these terrible vulnerabilities and sense of shame, are very vulnerable to further harms. They are vulnerable to further harms because they don’t really know how to establish healthy boundaries, they don’t always know how to say “no.”
Do you think the Penn State abuse scandal will change anything?
What the Sandusky scandal and trial has done—in a big way—is to bring the sexual abuse of males to the light; it’s no longer just an isolated, uncomfortable, weird story that happens in dark corners. It’s taken away the perception that it’s all just a weird guy hanging around the playground.
What we now understand is that abuse is happening with shocking frequency to both boys and girls: it’s happening in the house down the street, the classroom, the locker room. Penn State has turned the topic from something taboo to one where we can understand what’s wrong with society. Football is another form of religion, and this allowed us to talk about this topic in a much different way. ESPN is reporting on this; think of the people who don’t get their news from other places but who saw this story. It’s forcing us as a culture to address this topic.