Men and sexual abuse: Image of man in dark with head in hands

Men and Sexual Abuse

Guest post by Mandi Pierson

For the better part of two decades, I have worked with women who have survived unthinkable trauma.

I live in central Ohio where sex trafficking is being recognized, and innovative efforts are made to address the issue on all fronts, from demand to treatment and recovery.

Having worked in gender specific treatment settings for much of my career, I learned to support women and relate to their stories, even though my own may have looked much different. By the time they’ve made their way to treatment, survivors have often been through a gauntlet of trauma and abuse.

The stories these women share feature perpetrators spanning all walks of life. And more to the point, encompassing every kind of relationship.

Working in gender specific treatment settings allowed us to easily put safety measures in place so women could focus on their wellness. This has often meant limiting the contact they have with men. The stories of abuse often revolve around relationships with men, though that is by no means a limitation. Over time, I heard the same stories again and again about men perpetrating against women. The more stories I heard, the easier it became to build a wall of protection.

One of my trusted colleagues said she keeps a list of “good men” as a reminder that they exist, as our ears were so often pummeled by stories that could lead us to believe otherwise.

Since then, I keep the same sort of list in my mind, to balance the intake between trauma and the whole truth, that:

Men and women both survive and perpetuate trauma and everyone is worthy of recovery.

When I left one professional role for another, I continued to work with women until a supervisor challenged me to start counseling men. I found it difficult to imagine shifting from needing to keep a running list of good men, to sitting across from one coming to me for help. I agreed, reluctantly, knowing that if it wasn’t a good fit, I could move on while making sure that the men were taken care of.

As my wheels started turning about how to best share more about the topic of sexual abuse against men, I went right away to statistics.

To be honest, traipsing into statistics feels futile, knowing that numbers around trauma are underreported.

Blame it on stigma, shame, miscategorizing events, or even downplaying what happened among a host of other reasons, and sexual trauma is far underreported. This is true across all demographics, but most certainly the case among boys and men.

According to the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, 1 in 6 reported sexual assaults are perpetrated against boys. 1 in 25 reported sexual assaults are against men. 

What I found most helpful in my search for meaningful information was this:

“For our society to acknowledge that men are raped, we must first recognize and acknowledge that men can be vulnerable.” (NAESV)

I was part of the problem. My history of serving women exclusively clouded my view, just as any immersion into only one group tends to do.

It took about thirty seconds into my first session with a man before my defenses crumbled.

While gender expectations may inform a great deal of how we are expected to navigate the world, especially the world of emotions and resiliency, they have little to do with our body and brain’s natural responses to trauma.

Over time, I sat across from men, who, like their female counterparts, ached to be seen and have their experiences met with validation and empathy.

Most often the youthful presentation of men, even well into their fifties, surprised me. This is not to say they were young at heart or immature, but instead, they longed to be comforted, even now, for the wounds of childhood.

Author Brene Brown writes:

“Here’s the painful pattern that emerged from my research with men: We ask them to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it. In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust. And men are very smart. They know the risks, and they see the look in our eyes when we’re thinking, ‘C’mon! Pull it together. Man up.’ As Joe Reynolds, one of my mentors and the dean at our church, once told me during a conversation about men, shame, and vulnerability,

‘Men know what women really want. They want us to pretend to be vulnerable. We get really good at pretending.’”

As I reflect on the names on my ‘list of good men’ I am struck, not by the strength they display, though they are strong men. Instead, I notice they respond to me with kindness, consistency, and respect. They bring humor to ease the sharper edges of pain. They have honored my vulnerability by speaking out loud that we all need a little help sometimes.

While we have a long way to go in demonstrating compassion without judgment, perhaps we can each do the work to land on someone’s “list of good people.”

Men and sexual abuse: headshot of female therapistFor more than fifteen years, Mandi Pierson, LISW-S, has counseled individuals suffering from substance use and trauma. She specializes in serving vulnerable populations that suffer from complex trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder with a focus on victims of human trafficking. Her years of experience have led her to become one of Central Ohio’s leading experts on trauma. Her seasoned clinical perspective is regularly requested for presentations and expert counsel. Ms. Pierson is a dynamic public speaker and frequently shares her experience with a wide range of audiences, teaching them to identify victims of trauma, best practices in counseling victims of trauma, and creating trauma-informed workplaces. She enjoys helping business and government agencies increase their trauma awareness, equipping them with practical tools to implement emotionally safe spaces.  She also works as a consultant, provides LISW supervision, and has served as a community lecturer at the Ohio State University’s College of Social Work. Currently, Mandi works at Porchlight in Columbus, Ohio.

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