Men who have been sexually abused comment that ‘as a man’ they feel considerable pressure to personally punish and enact revenge on those who sexually abused them. Men report that ‘thoughts of revenge’ can consume them. The fact that men who have been sexually abused rarely talk to anyone about what was done to them, means that they are unlikely to have opportunities to discuss these thoughts. At Living Well we recognise that it is important that we find ways to support men who have been sexually abused to deal with thoughts of revenge in ways that do not compromise their future well being.
Societal pressures men face
In our society there is a rightful expectation that justice should occur, in that those who commit sexual offences are held to account and properly punished. Men who have been sexually abused are also aware that there exists an expectation that as ‘a man’ they ‘should’ personally make sure that this happens, whether through the court or outside the court system. Men who have been sexually abused experience pressure to take injustice into their own hands, to personally ‘sort out’ or ‘pay a visit’ to any person who has sexually offended against them or hurt someone close to him. The stereotypical Hollywood model of manhood is quite unhelpful here, in that it places unnecessary pressure on men to take revenge himself, or his manhood can be called into question. The stereotypical model of the lone man taking revenge due in the face of an ineffective or inadequate criminal justice system is the subject of action movies, like Clint Eastwood’s Westerns and Dirty Harry series.
How we can help
As friends and supporters, it is useful for us to remember that if we fuel anger and thoughts of revenge we can be doing men who have been sexually abused a profound disservice. Ideally we want those who commit sexual offences to be called to account in a court of law and receive an appropriate sentence. Unfortunately, sometimes for a variety of reasons this does not happen. If you or someone close to you are thinking through the question of revenge, it is important to foreground the long term well being of the person who was victimised and consider carefully the consequences on any action. John, Rob and Kevin have considered the question of justice and revenge have shared their expereinces. Read their stories:
One man who was sexually abused in childhood acted on thoughts of revenge. He is now spending time in prison himself had this to say:
Well I look at it like this, I mean, I’m doing 4 years, right, minimum, with a top turn of 10 years, so at best I’ll be doing 6 years parole, and at worst I do 10 years of jail and I get out with straight release, right. Now, I’ve been living with this shit since as far back as I can remember. I’m 26 years of age, and as far as I’m concerned I’ve suffered enough. I just want to go home and get on with my life, right. And that’s what I would like to say to every person who is thinking about killing their perpetrator. Cause and effect. Everybody’s responsible for their own actions. You kill somebody, regardless of what they’ve done to you, murder is murder…” (O’Leary 2003).
As the above quote indicates, sometimes thoughts of revenge can feel like a solution to current problems. It is a neat simplistic biblical equation of an eye for an eye. However, the reality is that life is not that simple, hurting or punishing someone does not make personal pain or hurt go away. In fact, action taken outside of the criminal or civil justice systems, can add to life’s problems.
Factors influencing acts of revenge
Research tells us that it is quite common for men who have been sexually abused to have ‘fantasies of revenge and homicidal ideation’ running in their mind (Walker & Davies 2005). Given that abuse and injustice has occurred, it is understandable that these thoughts will appear. However, sometimes these thoughts and feelings can become overwhelming, appearing as nightmares or throughout the day; then it become necessary to act to find better ways to manage unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
In talking with men about the issue of revenge, it is useful to find ways to acknowledge and accept men’s feelings of distress, as well their wish to take some action to address injustice and hurt. In can also be helpful to examine and carefully separate out thoughts, feelings and actions, as three different areas that interact and influence how we live our lives.
An experience of sexual abuse can produce a variety of feelings with differing degrees of intensity: hurt, distress, devastation, anger, hopelessness, frustration, rage, numbness. Thoughts interact with and influence the intensity of feelings. For example, a thought such as ‘he’s not worth thinking about, he has already consumed too much of my time and energy’, is likely to produce different feelings and suggest different actions from a thought ‘the bastard has got away with it, he has to pay’.
In trying to sort out what is happening and decide on the best course of action, some men find it useful to get this stuff out of their head, to write it down and thereby create a bit of distance to observe and reflect on what is happening. Consider:
- What am I thinking?
- What am I feeling?
- What are some actions I can take to deal with these thoughts and feelings?
Plus, and this is a big plus:
- What action is going to help me to live the kind of life I want to live?
Some men find it useful to work through these thoughts and feelings in a structured way by creating four columns and writing down answers to the four questions above. It can also be useful to grade the thoughts in relation to their intensity on a scale of 1-10. It is quite common to experience multiple thoughts and multiple feelings at any one time and it is really useful if you can have an extensive list of options to deal with the feelings and thoughts (the more the merrier).
The last question "What is going to help me live the kind of life I want to live?" is important in that it helps focus on what is important for your well being. It can acts as a kind of compass for our life.
It is also useful to consider:
- Is there someone who has my interests at heart who can help me work this through?
Considering and consulting with someone you know who provides good counsel is always useful. Even if you don’t actually ask them the question, it can be helpful to just think about what they might say.
Living Well is the best revenge
One of the problems with fantasies of revenge and homicidal ideation is that the focus is on the person who perpetrated sexual abuse, rather than on action aimed at improving the well being of the person who was victimized. One Australian man who was sexually abused as a child, who has spent considerable time thinking about what was done, about the hurt he has experienced, about the question of revenge and about where he wished to put his life energy: came to the conclusion that for him:
Living well is the best revenge” (Client of Centre Against Sexual Assault. Victoria. 2010)
- Walker, J. Archer, J & Davies, M. (2005). Effects of rape on men: A descriptive analysis. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 34, 69-80.
- O'Leary, P. J. (2003), Men who were sexually abused as children, Unpublished PhD thesis, Flinders University of South Australia.