‘The hardest thing to get over was being a victim. I am a man, a strong men. Men don’t get abused’.38 year old man from South Australia.
Gender — that is, identifying as a man, a woman, or non-binary — is a significant aspect of our personal identity. Gender plays a large part in how we live our lives and make sense of who we are. It also shapes both the experience of sexual abuse and how men respond.
When we talk here about gender, we mean the social expectations, rules and norms that go with growing up and living your life as a boy, girl, man or woman. Gender is different from sex, which relates to whether you are born physically male or female. Typically, the first thing you are told or ask about a new-born baby is whether the baby is a boy or a girl (their sex); this then influences how the child is dressed, what gifts they are given as they grow up, what sports they are encouraged to play, how they are treated by others, and how they come to see and think about themselves (gender).
In examining how messages about living life as a boy or man influence the way men understand and cope with being subjected to sexual abuse, we do not suggest that men’s experiences are worse than women’s experiences. Rather that it is important to acknowledge and be aware of how gender operates and can create particular challenges and difficulties in people’s lives.
Some common ‘gender messages’ for men
Every man has his own experiences and beliefs about what it means to be a man. At the same time, men face some common social pressures about how they should behave, feel and think. These pressures influence how men respond to different situations at different times. Men can feel under pressure to always appear:
- Strong and powerful – physically and mentally
- Self reliant, able to sort out and deal with problems alone
- In control – not showing any vulnerabilities
- Rational, logical
- Not express ‘difficult’ emotions
- Interested in and ready for sex (at all ages)
This restrictive model of manhood is often presented as something natural, with the suggestion that men are just born this way and that a ‘real man’ doesn’t have to work at being a man. In reality, we ‘learn to become a man’ from a very young age: these ways of being a man are not the product of our biology. In growing up, men and boys learn to live and be compared to this idealised model, soon finding out if they are not acting in a way considered man enough!
Some technical stuff
In our culture, gender operates as a binary system. What we mean by this is that behaviours and qualities have become allocated or divided up according to whether they are considered masculine or feminine, with the expectation that men are not meant to act like a woman and women are not meant to act like a man. In this system gender differences are often amplified; for example, we often refer to men and women as ‘the opposite sex.’
‘it is very difficult to admit that it happened, to do this is to somehow almost not be a man’.Manager, Age 38, sexually assaulted from age 12-13
Expectations related to how a man should be can lead to men experiencing ‘double trouble.’ As well as the actual and traumatic experience of powerlessness involved in sexual abuse, men face the problem of how to make sense of what was done and how they have responded as a man.
First, the idea that men should be strong and powerful and able to defend themselves, even against over whelming odds, can have men being down on themselves for ‘not fighting back’ or ‘getting the hell out of there.’
It can be helpful for men to hear that one of the most common responses to trauma is to freeze, like a rabbit in the headlights. Freezing is not something someone can control, it is a response of our nervous system. It is a response that might have saved your life or stopped things from being worse.
In our culture, the expectation to ‘be a man’, carries with it the pressure to not appear vulnerable, to not be ‘a victim.’ This is clearly completely unrealistic, however we know it exists and men feel that pressure. Being made to feel powerless and being a man seem like two incompatible things. These pressures can have men evaluating and judging themselves negatively for ‘being tricked,’ for ‘not measuring up,’ at a time when they would benefit most from understanding and encouragement.
Second, the idea that men should be able to manage anything that is thrown at them and just ‘keep soldiering on’ can have men feeling pressure if they are struggling, believing that as a man “I should be able to sort this out, to just put it behind me and get on with it.” Common responses to abuse, not wanting it to have happened and feeling overwhelmed as a result, can have men unfairly questioning and judging themselves as failing as a man.
“It is important to remember that it is not your fault or your responsibility. The abuser is the only person responsible and being male does not make what was done excusable.”Business owner, Age 25, sexually abused from age 2-14
Building on the strengths
The experience of growing up as a boy and becoming a man in our culture introduces us to valuable skills and knowledge for participating in and contributing to work, family and community life. Some of the ‘masculine’ attributes that can cause difficulties for men who have experienced sexual abuse can also be valuable resources and strengths to draw upon. The challenge is to make use of the knowledge and skills men have picked up without these becoming the only way we operate.
In a crisis or emergency, and in some kinds of work, the ability to ‘stay calm,’ ‘keep a level head,’ or ‘hold it together’ is highly valued and sought after. These skills are not only useful in some occupations, such as working in medical and emergency services or high pressure workplace and business operations, but are valuable life skills that help us to parent and assist members of our community every day.
Learning developed in relation to masculine stereotypes can be drawn upon in managing potentially overwhelming emotions. For example:
- Men’s ability to manage and contain feelings of frustration, anger, sadness or distress are essential life skills, particularly in situations where expressing these feelings might lead to further difficulties, judgement or ridicule (men can sometimes be quite critical and harsh on each other).
- Learning to deal with a panic attack without medication through ‘being self reliant,’ ‘drawing on problem solving skills,’ and ‘remaining rational’ can increase a man’s confidence, give him more independence, and help avoid embarrassment in social situations.
Navigating a way through
As a man dealing with an experience of sexual abuse, a challenge is to navigate a way through, but in a way that the strength of developing self reliance does not become an Achilles’ heel and lead to isolation; where feeling pressure to be in control does not limit choices or opportunities.
Isolation – Self Reliance – Connectedness
The potential difficulty with the expectations of being self reliant, able to look after yourself and take care of things is that, when overdone, it can have men becoming quite isolated. It can lead to men closing down and keeping quiet, becoming reluctant to talk about what is going on for them. Unrealistic expectations to ‘man up’ or ‘harden up,’ to ‘push through’ and ‘just get on with it’ can lead to men feeling they have to deal with problems alone.
Men can believe it is a sign of weakness to ask for help with personal problems, difficult thoughts or feelings. Some of the things we know are helpful for recovering, like connecting with other people, are at odds with the demands of self reliance. Yet in other areas of their life, men will routinely gather all the information and support they can. If you have a problem with your car you can’t fix, you take it to a mechanic or friend who knows about cars. One of the most helpful things men can do to help themselves is to build relationships with supportive people.
‘Healing takes time. Each man and boy are different and their needs are different. Respect their boundaries and try to understand that even if they push you away, it is not to hurt you but because they are hurting.’Business Owner, Age 25, sexually abused from age 2-14
Control – Choice
Another area to be sensitive to as a man is that the pressure to be in control does not end up reducing choice and options.
Everybody wants to have some sense of control over their own life. Control in this sense is not a bad thing. This is extremely relevant for men who have been subjected to sexual abuse, because sexual abuse is about having control and choice taken away. This could include control over your body and how it reacted to the abuse, or how you react to memories of the abuse now.
Unfortunately, there are also pressures for men to exert unreasonable, unrealistic or unfair levels of control over themselves and/or others, and this is where problems can arise. Men sometimes go to extreme lengths to control every aspect of their emotions, lives and environment. Trying to control all emotions can be counter productive in that it can both lead to complete numbness and set up a battle with emotions where we continually feel out of control in not being able to control a natural response to an unwanted event.
If someone’s sense of trust has been broken and they have been hurt, they can sometimes get into excessive control as a way to try and make sure they don’t experience hurt again. This is when problems can come up, because the need to be ‘in control’ can lead men to put undue pressure on themselves, to close down and isolate themselves further or to try to control their immediate environment and lives of loved ones. Healthy relationships are built on a foundation of respect and choice, not control. The challenge is to accept that, although in the past someone may have abused your trust, not everyone you trust wants to hurt you or your family. If you have children, it is important that they can explore the world and learn things for themselves, to develop their skills, to let help them learn the challenges of life in safe ways. People might let you down from time to time, and this can be hurtful; however these let downs can be part of a healthy relationship, and is quite different from someone deliberately abusing your trust to hurt you.
The expectation for men to be in control is neither all good nor all bad. What’s important is that choice is also prioritised and enacted in relation to the kind of person you want to be and the respectful relationships you are working to develop.
Sex and being a man
Sexual abuse and ideas about masculinity both influence men’s sex lives, and together they can produce a complex minefield for men to navigate.
When we listen to men (who have been subjected to sexual abuse) speak about their struggles with sex, we are often invited to think all these problems are caused by the sexual abuse. We are mindful that gender can intersect with sexual abuse and add to men’s problems when they feel pressure to always:
- be ready for sex;
- be happy if a woman (in particular) wants to have sex with them; and
- be able to perform without any problems.
Experiences of sexual abuse can make sex itself seem abusive, and generate a lot of anxiety and fear about sex. Managing the tension between these two sets of influences is extremely challenging.
Some men and their partners find it helpful to consciously put sex ‘on the backburner’ for a period of time, and instead focus on intimacy and play. This can ease the pressure on both partners. It can also help to have open and honest discussions with your partner about the anxieties that sex can raise for both of you, and what support you need from each other. For example, men might worry that their partner feels rejected or unattractive if he does not want sex. Openly discussing these issues can help to understand what each partner really feels and thinks.
Some questions to consider
A challenge we face as men is to be aware of expectations of being a man, whilst making sure they don’t restrict our choices and willingness to access support that helps us to live well.
- Are there times you are particularly aware of expectations about how you should handle situations as a man?
- Are there skills or qualities you have as a man that have been useful for getting through tough times?
- Are there qualities of ‘mateship’ and support that you have learned to value as a man that you are able to share with other men?
- Are there some places or people that don’t place these expectations on you?
- Do you sometimes find yourself wondering about these expectations, and whether they really suit you or those around you?
- Have there been times when you’ve done what’s best, even if it has gone against some ideas about ‘being a man?’
Sources utilised in developing this web page
- ‘Who can a man tell’ booklet: View the PDF
- South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault website: www.secasa.com.au
- Maryam Kia-Keating, Lynn Sorsoli and Frances K. Grossman (2010) Relational Challenges and Recovery Processes in Male Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 25: 666