Abuse and Silence: Male, Female, and Family Perspectives

Men can also be victims of sexual abuse and rape. Maybe they silence themselves and their experiences even more. What can be done with the trauma and shame which so many people carry around in secret?

I feel a need to respond to my own last post (“The Aftermath of Rape: Secrecy and Support”). While rape and sexual violence are mainly crimes perpetrated by men against women, and while there is a certain historical context which in a way normalises these attacks — they can be seen as within a┬ácontinuity of how women have been treated for centuries — it is certainly not always the case that the attacker is the man and the victim is the woman.

All variants are possible: women abusing women, women abusing men, and men abusing men. I don’t know any statistics, and I would seriously doubt their reliability if I found them, precisely due to the extra shame and silencing brought on by the “less typical” variants of sexual abuse. But from my experience as a counsellor, I know that there are many men walking around carrying a huge internal pressure created by secrets which have never been told relating to sexual abuse/rape, and they feel they will be waiting a very long time for public recognition of their problem and specially designed support services.

The experiences of men who have been abused are maybe even more forcibly silenced, by the men themselves, as they do not fit into anyone’s comfortable view of the world. While women ultimately have to fight against the role of victim, it may provide a kind of temporary support necessary for survival too. There is some level of recognition of their experiences.

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The following are my impressions; of course I am not a man, nor am I an expert, and of course what I’m writing will not apply to everybody. But according to my experience, it looks like this. Men feel that the experience of abuse goes against every cultural role they are expected to fulfill, and that they must keep their silence at all costs.

Determined not to be victims, not to be passive, not to be wounded, not to be over emotional, not to be out of control, terrified sometimes that this experience reflects on, or will change, or has changed their sexuality, asking why such a strange and rare thing has happened to them, of all people, feeling that it must be because they are weak, or wrong, or worse in some way, that it is their fault, these men walk around with an intolerable burden.

If the abuse happened when they were small, they may even pride themselves on having forgotten or got over it, then arrive in therapy with overwhelming kinds of anxiety and/or depression which they cannot explain. The anxiety and depression is often related more to the process of keeping the secret, keeping it held tight in their bodies and their emotional system, than to the attacks themselves.

It can be the case that mentally the man functions quite well, rationalising what has happened and taking care of himself by using his mental capacity. The danger is that the mental side may start “overfunctioning”, taking over the show in the absence of participation from the emotional and physical sides, which remain forcibly hidden, held down sometimes with a discernible physical effort which becomes a part of “normal life”. Holding in the facts of what has happened, never allowing in any fresh air, any warmth, anyone else’s perspective, creates a sense of shame. I am something which cannot be talked about or shown. I am something acceptable only to the extent which I control myself.

This sense of totally misplaced shame can be caused by keeping all kinds of secrets, secrets not to do with us or our essential natures, but to do with whole relational patterns. This is how families can pass on internal damage, by passing on their secrets. Individuals, men and women, directly abused, and not, often carry the pain which belongs to themselves, to others, and to the whole relational system.

Bert Hellinger, the German psychotherapist, uses a system of “family constellations”, which I find fascinating. The system defies logical explanation. It involves a group of strangers being chosen to represent family members and spatially positioned by the client. The result is usually that the people representing family members start to feel particular, appropriate physical and/or emotional sensations, which are a useful source of information, and the client reports a deep experience of how his family is working and how they can move forward.

The most important themes in the family constellations are the pains being passed from generation to generation, the missing people in the family, the suicides, the miscarriages, the rejected members, the abuse. The common theme is silence.

Hellinger does not advocate filling this silence with a lot of words, but merely observes and acknowledges what has happened, and the way in which the client who has come in some kind of distress, has been trying to make something right. They can then be relieved of the responsibility they feel. They can respond in the moment to their family members, living or dead, represented as they are by the group.

I think that there are as many effective ways of working with wounds, trauma and silence as there are people. What I like in Hellinger’s method — and of course it is a given that it should be performed ethically and with the utmost respect and attention — is the fact that it bypasses the intellect and gives faith to the body, emotions and intuition, three aspects of ourselves which can be insidiously, uniquely, terribly damaged by sexual abuse.

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