We are survivors, too.
Historically, those of us who are male survivors of sexual victimization are often an unrecognized, underserved and unmentioned population when the issue of sexual assault is discussed. Many of us do not even recognize or understand that we may have been victimized. Yet one in five males will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, many of us before the age of 16.
The harmful impact of the sexual victimization of males is felt daily by all of us — in our families, communities and workplaces. It is often the unspoken, unrecognized and untreated issue when we are dealing with the problems of addiction, mental health, physical health, relationship issues, domestic violence, anger management, criminal behavior and many other issues that impact boys and men. Yet many male survivors do not know there are resources available to help them recover, nor do they feel safe talking about the impact sexual victimization has had on them.
I believe we all need to work harder to create a safe climate and culture for male sexual assault survivors. It is time for us to look at sexual assault and victimization as a gender-neutral issue. All survivors of sexual victimization are in need of quality services to assist them in their recovery regardless of their gender or age.
We have done a good job promoting awareness of the issue of sexual victimization of females for many years. Yet we still have great strides to go in promoting the same awareness, understanding and availability of resources to men and boys. We need to take what we have learned from those efforts, expand it and apply it to our male population as well.
Even with the publicity in recent years regarding the sexual abuse of males by clergy, coaches and other trusted adults, it has not translated into an increased demand for more knowledge or understanding of the needs of the male survivor population. Sexual victimization is not an easy topic for most of us to discuss. We need to push ourselves even further to extend that conversation to include males.
There are many complex factors that negatively prevent men and boys from coming forward to disclose what happened or to request assistance in their recovery. As men, we are raised to think of ourselves as strong and able to protect others and ourselves. Men who demonstrate vulnerability are often viewed as being less than a real man. In reality, any male may be sexually assaulted regardless of his size, strength, appearance, age or sexual orientation. We often go to extremes to build defenses and a personality, so no one questions that we were ever victimized.
Many males do not recognize the fact that they experienced sexual victimization. Many men are subjected to various acts of hazing, which involve inappropriate sexual contact as becoming part of athletic teams, fraternities, the military and other organizations. This often leaves one with feelings of victimization but is not seen as such. Speaking out about these situations can leave men feeling they are betraying the whole group.
Many males also have same-sex perpetrators and are afraid if that detail becomes known, they might be seen as gay or will experience consequences in their careers, families and standing within their community. The majority of perpetrators who victimize other males identify themselves as heterosexual.
We must remember that sexual victimization is about power and control — not sexual satisfaction. There are also female perpetrators, and often the impact is downplayed as a rite of passage or somehow not as damaging as a male perpetrator. These, and many other factors, contribute to a conspiracy of silence surrounding male sexual victimization.
For the last 15 years, I have had the wonderful opportunity to co-facilitate support groups for adult male sexual assault survivors at sexual assault support centers in Lewiston and Brunswick. I have worked with a female co-facilitator as a way of creating a feeling of safety, as many of those men had same-sex perpetrators. I have truly been blessed to witness the strength, resiliency and hope that those men share as they venture on their journey of recovery. I am also saddened by the stories of lives spent dealing with the physical, emotional and spiritual pain resulting from sexual victimization, thinking there was no place safe to turn for help.
The present systems provided by sexual assault services in Maine are ready and available to provide support and assistance to male survivors.
Failed marriages or relationships, suicide attempts, drug and alcohol abuse, lost childhoods, feelings of isolation, shame and guilt are only part of the legacy of sexual assault survivors. Stories of hope, opportunities for growth, personal healing and the joy of recovery are also part of the unique gifts that these sexual assault survivors have given to me, greatly contributing to my own recovery.
Sexual victimization is a difficult and uncomfortable issue for us to deal with as individuals, families and a community. It is an issue that impacts us all in one way or another. It is incumbent upon us to continue to work to make our communities safer and more welcoming for all sexual assault survivors regardless of gender or age.
Let the road to recovery from sexual victimization be one that we take not only as individuals but one we take as communities and a society. I invite you to join me on that journey of recovery.
Bill Lowenstein is the president of the board of directors of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services serving Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin Counties. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.