Extending a hand to male survivors of childhood sexual abuse

Females are not the only victims of childhood sexual abuse, and now is the time to embrace males who are survivors and who are coming forward in their healing journey.  The trauma that hundreds to thousands of young males endure has been in the shadows and only recently have support groups and researchers begun to focus treatment on this population.  Why?  This is a complicated question, but some of the answers may be found in the messages sent to men about masculinity and what it “means to be a man”.  It might be thought that to be vulnerable and victimized is not a “manly thing” and therefore should not be exposed.

A blog that I was reading talks extensively about the pressures put upon men in this society. Cultural standards (in the United States, and in other countries such as Mexico and the United Kingdom) dictate that a man must “prove his masculinity” consistently throughout his life because he is supposed to be the “protector, strong, devoid of soft and feminine emotions, and overall a stoic presence”.  This brings up images of John Wayne and the Marlboro Man – a man you can trust to keep you safe.  If this man’s own personal safety and boundaries are violated, is he “still a protector, still a man??”  This masculine drive is referred to as machismo in the Mexican American culture.  I also reflect on bullying and the way that bullies can make you feel like you are not “okay as you are — whether that is a man that is not manly enough”….and also makes me wonder what the bullies are protecting about themselves in their mission to tell others that there is something wrong with them.

A man who is sexually assaulted or who is a victim of incest may feel that his masculinity is at stake and may question his sexuality.  This can lead to denial and other defense mechanisms to protect their “abominable secret – that they were not strong enough to be the man they should be”.  The truth is that there is NOTHING to be ashamed about and that addressing these issues in no way makes the survivor “less of a man”.  Studies have shown that men who were abused might take on one (or several) of three roles: 1) Perpetrator – he feels he must victimize others in order to protect himself from more pain and hurt; 2) Victim – he believes he will always be a victim and that he does not have the power to openly heal his wounds, or that he “shouldn’t try”; 3) Protector – he might feel that every child is at risk for being abused and will go out of his way to make children safe.

I have deep and insurmountable respect for Tyler Perry, an actor, writer and director who recently revealed a horrendous personal history of childhood abuse at the hands of his father.  He is making his story public and opening a door for thousands of other adult males to feel safe and free to talk about their own trauma.  Tyler went on Oprah’s show to process this devastating aspect in his life, and tomorrow he will return to her show to support 200 adult men who were molested as children and who are now (many of them for the first time) disclosing their history on national television. I am in awe of the bravery and courage of Tyler and the men coming on the show, men who are comfortable and willing to show that they can be survivors of childhood sexual abuse and still be strong men.  Tyler is a hero for adult male survivors everywhere, and I know that there are hundreds of other heros, heros who have moved forward in their lives and made a difference in the world through advocating for sexual abuse survivors.

I think that openness and sensitivity are truly honorable marks of both femininity and masculinity and that the more that our culture opens up to diverse types of people (whether in terms of sexuality, personality, ethnicity, backgrounds, etc), the more peace and healing will come to our community as a whole.

I will be sure to tune in tomorrow to Oprah, and hope you do too.  More resources and information about male survivors of childhood sexual abuse can be found at:  www.malesurvivor.org and www.wingsfound.org.

What does a body remember?

I have recently been intrigued by the concept of body memory, finding it to be a very real concept that can be a focus of therapeutic healing.  I was reading a post that talked about how a body can remember a trauma or memory that may have happened many years ago, but that is somehow still trapped in the tendons, muscles, and morsels of a person’s body.  What does this mean for a person’s mental well-being, and how does this experience shadow the mind-body connection that is so often used in therapy?

As I write a lot about body image, bodily harm, mental anguish that is projected onto the body, and other body-centered topics, I was curious about how eating disorders, emotional eating, and other types of body-involved mental disorders are connected to body memory.  I have heard accounts of survivors of sexual abuse where the survivor talks about their muscles being tensed up and they “know” that there is emotional pain lingering in that part of their body.  Getting a massage can be traumatic for someone who has had emotional pain felt in their body; I have learned about a new form of massage called Trauma Touch Therapy, which is a method used to release body memories in a safe way.

Bodies that are affected by and/or recovered from eating disorders may hold some of these same memories — of pain, shame, guilt, grief, loss.  As a person heals emotionally, cognitively, and physically from a trauma — whether it is abuse by another, abuse by an eating disorder, or emotional anguish that results in such things as cutting — the body will hold some of those memories of times past in its tendons, whether it is as a protective mechanism against further trauma or, I wonder, because the body has coped with this memory for so long that it does not know how to let it go.

As we work through processing our issues, past and present, in therapy, does emotional release follow or precede with body memory release? Is body memory a therapeutic tool to help us cope and remember what we have survived, or is it a remembrance of traumas of times past that we just cannot let go?

This makes me think of war veterans or other victims who must get a limb amputated due to injury or illness.  Research shows that the person’s body remembers that limb as if it is still attached for years to come.  The body never really forgets.  The effects of post-traumatic stress on the mind and body are intensifying as more people go to war, as the eating disorder epidemic increases, and as traumatic experiences that we may not even remember show up in body memory sensations.

As a therapist, this reiterates the importance of taking care of our minds and our bodies and remembering that they are connected in such deep ways.  Yoga, exercise, breath-work, meditation, and mindfulness are all ways of highlighting the mind-body awareness to promote healing.