It’s highly likely that you know a man who has endured sexual violence. But you probably don’t know it yet, and might never know.
One in 6 American men will encounter sexual abuse at some point in their lives. According toMaleSurvivor, a nonprofit that helps male survivors of sexual assault heal, after a man is raped, he doesn’t tell anyone for, on average, 20 years. When he finally does, his courage is often met with derision, confusion, dismissal and even disbelief.
That makes it all the more important for people to understand how they can support of male survivors, if and when they decide to share their story.
When men share their stories of enduring sexual violence and rape, they are likely to hear remarks such as, “That can’t happen to a man.” These reactions, often rooted in ignorance rather than malice, contribute to doubt, shame, revictimization and depression. They often impede the survivor from seeking the much-needed professional help integral to the healing process.
In order to truly understand how to be supportive, one should search no further than the voices of men who’ve endured such painful, dehumanizing experiences.
Mic spoke with male survivors of sexual assault to solicit their recommendations for how friends and family members of victims can be supportive allies in the healing process. Their stories are multidimensional. They include assaults perpetrated by people from all walks of life, including men, women, strangers, family members, priests, friends and teachers. Some were assaulted as children, others as adults. They are sharing their stories in order to create a more compassionate and understanding climate for male survivors of sexual violence.
Image Credit: Associated Press
Believing without blaming.
It’s crucial to recognize that many of the things commonly said to male sexual assault survivors are things that we should probably never say.
Charlie, 66, from Boston, said victim blaming, accidental or otherwise, commonly crops up for male survivors.
“Were you drunk? Were you on drugs? Were you flirting with her the night before?” are some of the irrelevant questions that may shift the accountability away from the perpetrator. Expressing disbelief may be an act of sympathy, but this common reaction makes disclosure particularly difficult for survivors. It can even belittle what they’ve experienced.
Jeff, 51, from Indiana, told Mic via email that some people have refused to believe what happened and respond with a blunt: “No you weren’t.” Jeff was told that the priest who sexually assaulted him “would never do that. He’s a good man, and a priest too.”
In some cases, the perpetrator is not someone who you would expect. It could even be someone you respect, which could make it difficult to listen to the survivor’s account of what happened.
Don’t question the victim’s sexuality.
Some men get questions about their sexuality. Gregg, 50, from Michigan, said he’s been asked about his sexual orientation, asked whether the perpetrator was a woman or a man and if his experience with sexual violence makes him attracted to both sexes. These questions are all irrelevant. A man’s sexual orientation does not invite assault, nor does the assault alter his sexual orientation.
And for the men who were assaulted by women, some of them are told that they should be grateful.Jarrod, 47, is a survivor from Oklahoma. While he was not himself assaulted by a woman, he has worked with a variety of sexual assault victims, and says guys often respond, “Man, I wish that I had an older woman to teach me about sex when I was that age.” But the “hot for teacher” trope, entrenched in pop culture through references as Van Halen’s hit “Hot for Teacher,” inaccurately regards the incident as “sex” when it indeed was rape, ignoring the emotional trauma that often results from an adult woman taking advantage of an adolescent male.
Throw out stereotypes.
Perhaps one of the most troubling reactions, especially within broader conversations about a culture that often falters on issues of sexual violence, is when some survivors are told that men can’t be raped, or that sexual assault is a “woman’s issue.”
Chris Anderson, executive director for MaleSurvivor, told Mic via email that many responses to his story of survival have included statements like “Stop trying to make this about you,” and “A real man would have defended himself.” But these reactions only work to ensure that rape of men remains a silent epidemic, preventing many survivors from being comfortable enough to disclose what happened to them.
While many common reactions to male sexual assault survivors seem like appropriate responses to a devastating revelation, many of them are, instead, counterproductive.
Let him tell you his way.
Byron, 56, from Florida, said that just because he’s comfortable telling that story does not mean he’s comfortable answering a lot of questions about it.
“I’m comfortable telling people what I’m prepared to disclose, but not to relive the details of the experience,” he said. When the person is ready to tell you, Byron said, the details will emerge.
Even prematurely affixing labels to men who share their stories isn’t the best idea, according to some survivors.
Peter Pollard, director of communications and professional relations for 1in6, an organization supporting male sexual violence survivors, said via email that it’s important to avoid labels, even if they seem validating.
“Many men may not be ready to identify as a ‘victim,’ a ‘survivor,’ or someone who has experienced trauma,” Pollard said, adding that it’s best to let the person define their experience and their story in the way that they feel most comfortable.
Emphasizing active listening and empathy.
Even though it’s important to allow survivors to tell their experience in a way that works best for them, hearing it can put the listener in a potentially powerful position to help them on the path to recovery.
“Believing someone validates the pain they are carrying, and lets them know they are not alone,” Anderson said, a sentiment echoed by other survivors who spoke with Mic.
Through active listening, survivors are positioned to feel the compassion and empathy that they desire and very much need from supportive friends and family members.
Ed, 38, from North Carolina, said one of the most positive responses he ever heard was simply, “I can’t understand what you are going through, because I never have, but I will be there and support you as you go through.” But, to be clear, another survivor added that even if you actually have experienced something similar, everybody’s story is different and it’s impossible to understand exactly what the survivor went through.
While actively listening and being compassionate is an exercise of empathy, it’s helpful to provide survivors with the resources and information to seek professional help. No one should force a survivor to seek treatment, however, as everyone’s pathway to recovery is unique and should be tailored to their individual needs.
So if a male survivor approaches you with their story, listen to him. Don’t grill him, don’t blame him and definitely don’t berate him. Offer your support only if you are genuinely prepared to be an active part of what will be a difficult, uphill healing process.
Hopefully, with the care and understanding of people in their support system, he will come to recognize that what happened to him was not his fault, that he’s not alone and that there is hope for recovery.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault and is male-identified, below are resources for referral.