Coping Strategies for Men Sexually Abused as Children…
O’Leary, P., & Gould, N. (2010). Exploring Coping Factors amongst Men Who Were Sexually Abused in Childhood British Journal of Social Work DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bcq098
A few years ago, I saw the play ‘Doubt’ at the Sydney Opera House and what struck me, apart from the dodgy Bronx accents, was the fact that the mother of the boy who might have been sexually abused by the priest was able to write it off as no big deal. Until then, I rock solidly believed that there could be nothing worse than being sexually abused. How could anyone ever recover from such a dreadful experience? Of course, they can, and they do (2010). In this article by O’Leary and Gould (2010, n.pag.), they look at how a group of 39 adult male survivors in Australia coped with having been sexually abused as children. What the authors (2010) found is that these men split into two distinct types…
- Those for whom their abuse history was a lingering sack of crushing bricks; and
- Those for whom their abuse history served as a powerful motivating force to live well.
Abuse stinks. Men sexually abused as children are extremely fond of topping themselves quickly or drinking themselves slowly to death (2010), of being full of uncontrollable rage and fathomless fear. It is the betrayal of trust, the shattering of attachment, the confusion caused by people whose inviolable obligation is to love and care for you, hurting you with frequency, and impunity. Then there is the secret, that which is imposed by others and that which springs up from within, the terrible, terrible sense of shame that someone might find out that you have been touched, tainted and then what would they say? What would you say? Undoubtedly, many men choose to hold that secret close to their hearts rather than run the risk of unravelling in the midst of its exposition.
As a participant in O’Leary and Gould’s (2010) study commented:
‘I buried it [the sexual abuse]. Every time it reared its ugly head I buried it. I put more trash on top of it [violence and drugs] and stomped it down and buried it’.
‘Denial’, briefly mentioned in this article (2010), is such peculiar terminology. It implies wilful individual agency in suppressing emotions that are usually too raw and too difficult to deal with, not that many people want to listen anyway. It also understates the complexity of reconciling (rational) cognition with (volatile) affect, as if the two always operate logically in tandem. Male adult survivors who seek to bury their abuse history are usually struggling with the most gut-wrenching horror that anyone could ever imagine. That they might get angry, pissed, or stoned, shut down or cut off is not objectively reasonable behaviour but it can be a necessary survival strategy in lieu of something better coming along. We should never rush to judge any man caught up in that perilous situation.
The 39 participants in this study reflected on what advice they would give ‘to other men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse’, namely to:
1. Take that first courageous step to talk with a trusted other about your abuse history;
2. Learn to value yourself, acknowledge your qualities and remain hopeful; and
3. Gain strength through solidarity with other adult male survivors (2010).
Critically, for most of these participants, coming to terms with their abuse history began with talking with partners, other family, friends, colleagues, or health professionals, which in turn provided many opportunities for normalising and re-framing their traumatic childhood experiences (2010). It sounds like a movie, it sounds like a cliché, but that wonderful moment when an adult male survivor first realises that what happened to him was never his fault nor should he have to drag that bag of bricks around for a second longer, is when recovery finally comes into view. What the rest of us can do is listen without prejudice and accept unconditionally any brave man who takes that monumental step to share the story of their abuse history with us…
‘Survivors also talk consistently in the study of the need to be believed and for elements of the helping response to be active and practical…’ (2010).