The recently publicized accusations of sexual abuse that were filed against 1,247 Boy Scout leaders and the crimes committed by Jerry Sandusky at Penn State University are just the latest reminders that boys and young men very often are the victims of sexual abuse.
In fact, various studies show that approximately one in six boys are victimized before age 18 in the US. Think about that. It means that there are more male sexual abuse victims than there are males with diabetes or heart disease.
Yet despite these startling statistics, it’s a problem that is rarely talked about. Our society tells male victims that they should be strong and stoic—so they often fear that asking for help may be an acknowledgement of weakness and may lead to judgment.
But one man has been crusading for a different approach. A victim of sexual abuse himself, a psychologist and author of Joining Forces: Empowering Male Survivors to Thrive, Howard Fradkin, PhD, is a psychotherapist to and advocate for thousands of other male survivors. And he shared with me why it’s so important for male victims to face their memories of abuse—whether they feel like they’re “over it” or not.
YOU CAN THRIVE
If you’re a man in your 30s or older who suffered sexual abuse, the abuse likely happened at least a decade ago—and maybe many decades ago. So you might think, Life has gone on—I’m fine. Why dig up painful memories from the past?
Just because you’re not still having nightmares about the abuse doesn’t mean that it isn’t affecting you, said Dr. Fradkin. Negative feelings can manifest themselves in different ways, so it’s important to take a close look at your whole life. For example, many male abuse survivors suffer from depression, anxiety and/or relationship problems—in particular, they may have trouble getting close to a partner. Or they might work excessively, or they might struggle with alcoholism, drug addiction or sex addiction. “People who bury the truth for years tend to use coping mechanisms to numb the pain,” he said.
In other words, there’s a difference between surviving and thriving. Ask yourself which best describes you. “Many men survive but don’t thrive when they keep their abuse a secret,” he said. “A dark cloud still travels with them.”
If you’re surviving but not thriving, Dr. Fradkin has advice that may help.
The first challenge is recognizing abuse for what it was. Men who were abused by a woman, for instance, might frame the incident as a favor—an early sexual introduction by an affectionate teacher or a friend’s mom. And even adolescents who were abused by a Sandusky-type predator can feel some ambivalence because sexual abusers tend to give their young victims special privileges, such as money, gifts, trips and even nonsexual attention. “Many survivors say, ‘But he or she loved me,’ ” said Dr. Fradkin. “Now, to thrive, they must learn how to accept the truth.”
IF YOU WERE ABUSED
Beyond acknowledging the abuse, Dr. Fradkin suggested more strategies that may help men thrive…
- Chat with other survivors. Go to MaleSurvivor.org, the site for the nonprofit organization that Dr. Fradkin cofounded. It offers articles on the topic…discussion boards where people can post questions and get answers…and a chat room where men can talk (instantly, in real time) with other male survivors.
- Meet with a mental health counselor. Find one through Psychology Today’s therapy directory on the American Mental Health Counselors Association site.
- Consider reading Dr. Fradkins’s new book. You can buy it here.
- Learn more about sexual abuse and how to overcome it. The American Psychological Association offers a variety of articles and other resources.
- Meet other survivors. Male Survivor sponsors recovery weekends that take place in cities nationwide and bring together a few dozen survivors at a time to share their stories. The organization also holds an annual conference—the next one will be held November 15 through 18 in New York City. For more details about the weekends and the conference, visit www.MaleSurvivor.org.