If you are reading this information sheet it is likely that are interested in learning more about how you can help a man you know who has experienced child sexual abuse. Or alternatively, a man you know might have given this sheet to you because he believes that you are someone who can offer him support. Telling someone that you have experienced child sexual abuse or sexual assault is not easy. How disclosure of child sexual abuse or sexual assault occurs and how it is responded to can significantly influence a man’s future well being. Unfortunately, research indicates that over 70% of men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse haven’t told anyone. Listed below is information on what can influence men’s disclosure of sexual abuse or sexual assault, along with some suggestions as to how you might be able to help him whilst continuing to take care of yourself.
Barriers to disclosure
Boys and men, like girls and women, commonly do not speak of childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault. However men’s ability to speak about sexual violence is even further impacted by issues related to stereotypes about masculinity, homophobia and confusion regarding sexuality, concerns that a man will become a perpetrator of abuse, and a lack of visible support for men. Please take the time to check out the detailed list of barriers that men face on our page Men and disclosure: Deciding to tell.
Things that may encourage disclosure
Just as men and boys can be discouraged from speaking of abuse, so certain events can lead men to speak of their experiences. Disclosure of sexual abuse can be prompted by:
- Seeing a film about abuse or hearing a public discussion about sexual abuse (for example, a Kids Helpline advertisement, films like ‘Mysterious Skin’).
- Disclosure of a friend, partner, family or men’s group member.
- Seeing the person who perpetrated the sexual abuse, hearing about or visiting the place where the abuse occurred.
- Becoming a parent, or being close to a child who turns the age the man was when the abuse was perpetrated.
- When a relationship breaks down or when a partner insists that for a relationship to survive you must see a counsellor.
- When there are public inquiries into abuse or assault (e.g. The Royal Commission, Forde Inquiry).
- If the police contact you seeking further evidence for a prosecution.
- Reliving the assault through flashbacks, nightmares, etc.
- Health problems or a physical check up (e.g. suggestion of a prostate examination).
- When a partner offers support and understanding.
- When a man feels he must deal with it or die!
How you can help
You do not have to be an expert or know all the right things to say to be able to help a man who has experienced sexual violence. The fact that the man has raised the issue with you indicates that he believes you are someone who can help.
As a supportive person you can play a significant role in helping a man who has experienced sexual violence. There is no set way to support someone. Each person will react differently to what happened and will seek different kinds of help at different times.
It is not only emotional support that a man may require. Some simple practical ideas which may be useful to offer include company, transport to appointments, child care, grocery shopping or cooking a meal. It is important that you talk with the man and check in with him about what he would like. By being available, patient and understanding, you can assist a man to reduce the impact of sexual violence on his life.
Listen carefully to what he is saying. Let him speak at his pace, and reveal as much information as he is comfortable with. Try not to interrupt him or ask lots of questions. Being asked a lot of questions can feel like being interrogated. Don’t worry if he stops talking for a while – silences are okay. You don’t have to rush in to fill the gaps. You do not need to know all the details, try not to ask for more information about the actual events than is volunteered.
It is important that you let him know that you believe him. People rarely make up stories about sexual abuse. It’s also important to think about what you say. You will have been influenced, as we all have, by the many unhelpful myths in our society about sexual abuse, therefore it might not be helpful to immediately say what instantly comes into your head. Try to avoid reinforcing any unhelpful myths. (See the page on Unhelpful beliefs).
Try to contain your own feelings. Don’t allow feelings of shock horror, anger, outrage or disgust to stop you from offering support. A man could misinterpret expression of these feelings as a rejection of him or support for a belief that sexual abuse is a shameful/awful/disgusting topic that he should not be mentioning.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, say so and take time to breathe and collect your thoughts. Tell him that you understand that what he is talking about is hurtful and painful, but that you are willing to spend time with him. Be aware that if the person who committed the abuse is a family member or someone close, the man may have conflicting feelings towards them and it may not be useful if you say damning things about them. It can be useful to explain that your expressions of emotions relate to what he has been through and that you are not upset with him.
Reassurance, consistency and reliability
Tell the man that you are glad he has spoken with you. If he tells you of feeling responsible for part of what happened, take time to listen and try to understand how he could think this. Recognise that this is something he might talk through with a counsellor in the future, don’t discount what he tells you. Tell him that you appreciate that speaking about his feelings and concerns is difficult, however that you are pleased that he trusts you enough to talk with you.
Just being there providing consistent support is important, given that there can be ups and downs, good periods and difficult periods, even in a single day. If things aren’t improving right away, don’t assume that he is becoming mentally ill. Remember, sometimes things appear to get worse before they get better. Being consistent and dependable can have a positive impact in and of itself.
Offer confidentiality with limits
It is important that information which is disclosed to you is treated with respect and held in confidence. Make sure that you consult with him about what his expectations are before sharing what he has told you with anyone else. He probably will not want you to say anything to anyone else without his express permission.
In talking through his expectations regarding confidentiality, it is important to consider if anyone is in any present danger and to discuss how you might need to talk in confidence with a counsellor or a trusted friend for your own well being. If you have a concern that a child or adolescent is currently in an abusive or potentially abusive situation then the young person’s wellbeing must be a primary concern. You might need to consider talking further with someone who knows about child protection. Try not to make promises that you cannot keep.
Obtain support for yourself
Supporting someone who has experienced child sexual abuse or sexual assault will place extra demands upon you. It is therefore important that you take care of yourself. Put aside time to relax and ensure you engage in activities which recharge your batteries. As someone offering support you may also benefit from talking with a counsellor who can help you process feelings and explore your choices. Remember the stronger and better supported you are the more able you will be to provide assistance to someone.
Information for intimate partners
If you are an intimate partner of a man who has been subjected to sexual violence, be aware that actions in the present can bring back uncomfortable memories and trigger strong emotions. Sometimes he will not want to be sexual, or even close and physically affectionate. At other times becoming physically close and sexually intimate may be welcomed. If you are unsure about what he wants, ask before acting, and recognise that what he wants may change quite quickly. Also, it is important to ensure that your choices are also respected, and to remember that there is no excuse for abusive behaviour. The reality is that relationships work best where both parties feel supported, able to discuss options and have their preferred ways of doing things respected.
Check our our page When your partner discloses sexual abuse for more information on this topic.