Trigger note: This essay contains descriptions of child abuse.
This was previously published on As Ashes Scatter.
“The primal aspect of male power can be very intimidating, especially if one spent boyhood with men who abused or avoided their own power.” —Rick Belden
I came across this quote on Twitter, and it stopped me in my tracks. It was one of those valuable and rare light bulb moments where the flash of revelation actually stays on long enough to do some real soul searching. The revelation concerns my fear of men, a fear I’ve had as a survivor of incest and child sexual abuse all of my life. Yet the real power of these words from Mr. Belden, for me, was the validation that I am not the only one who feels and fears the way I do. Logically, I knew I couldn’t be the only one, but logic can and often does fail in the face of fears like that. Having another person, another man, say those words in public—that carried weight … and light to explore by.
Primal male power means many different things to many people. To some, it is attractive, desirable, sexy. Sometimes it can be provocative to me, if I am not specifically afraid of the person, but most often I am terrified by it.
My father was a handsome man; to me as a child, he was larger than life. People who came to our house seemed enthralled by him. When he wasn’t actively hurting or terrifying me, I felt enthralled too; and I craved his love and approval so intensely, I endured unspeakable things to try to win it. This is a common thing many child victims deal with, but I didn’t know those things then. I only knew what he told me.
The first time he raped me, I was four years old. He had conditioned me to believe he was a god, my god, and I was his property, to do with as he pleased. By age five, he chose to rent his property to other men. They were all different, but all the same. Some were cruel, some pretended to be kind; but the end result was always pain, confusion, terror. In the years that followed, ninety percent of the strangers who came to the house where there because they had paid my father to be able to rape me. One of the defining things that I think shaped and honed my fear of men was how “normal” they seemed. Outside of the act of rape, they behaved just like the teacher at school, or the mailman. They were Everyman, and so for me, they became all men everywhere.
I don’t leave my house much, unless I’m in my bipolar “up” cycle of mania. I am ten-feet-tall and bulletproof then, as the illusion goes. Otherwise, I go to weekly therapy sessions and not much else. Out on the streets, I often encounter more reasons to fear men. They catcall in ugly voices, call me “Frankenstein” or offer me advice: “Halloween was last weekend, freak.” I am a bisexual, but they don’t quibble about label specifics when they beat me up for being gay. There have been sexual assaults as well. Survivors often feel like a target for rapists, and sometimes it appears to be true. All of this has formed a very hard to refute perception in me: men intend to do me harm.
A new family was gathered around me in time, and my new “dad” encouraged me to go to therapy. For the first nine years or so, I would only agree to go if he went in with me for the sessions. For the first year or two, he was also the only one who would speak to the therapist. Aside from two friends in school, who are a part of my family today, this man was the first I dared try to trust. It took years to finally believe he wouldn’t harm me. Family has been my best example that some men are good and kind, decent and honorable. I try to remember that as I meet others, but there is a wariness that never goes away, and I still believe it keeps me safer than I would be without it.
There is a downside, of course. I’m told there are good people in the world; I’ve met many on Twitter from all over the globe, even if most of them are women. Yet there are probably many decent men I might meet, except my fear keeps me from trusting, or from even being friendly. If they are friendly? I question their motives. The past whispers, “They play nice to make you relax, then they hurt you.” I dress to repel quite often. If the extensive facial scars or blind eye from my abuse injuries don’t keep them at a distance, the piercings, tattoos, and dark Goth clothing might. I wrap myself in an aura of “do not touch” just as securely as the heavy spiked boots I strap on my feet. Among those warded off could be nice people, of course, but my past taught me it’s not worth finding out.
For the odd occasional soul who isn’t fooled by the costume of threat but is actually drawn to it, I simply don’t know how to deal with them. If they try to touch, I’m far more likely to punch them in a PTSD fit than ever shake their hands. When they try to engage me in conversation, I retreat in confusion and fear. They must want to lure me into trust, to harm me later, right? Logically, I know that isn’t the case with all of them; but again, logic has nothing to do with this fear. This isn’t just about men, of course; I often fear and mistrust the motivations of women I don’t know very well, too. Somewhere between being sexually abused by both parents and some of my father’s clients being female, it’s become an all-inclusive miasma of terror and the anticipation of harm.
Coming back to the powerful quote from Mr. Belden, I can’t emphasize enough that the most frightening men to me are those who own their primal power. Many examples of Everyman have this to some degree, but the others, the arrogant, the proud, the vain—these strike a fear in me that cuts the marionette strings of my play at being a man and reduces me to a very small and shattered boy, huddled in the darker corners of my own mind. Assertive and powerful women can do the same, but there is an inherent maternal or nurturing quality in so many women; they are more often taught to show feelings, compassion. Men are abandoned in so many ways, because they aren’t taught those things. It leaves them believing they must be tough, powerful, primal … and therefore, to a survivor like me, terrifying.
I don’t “cling” to these fears or perceptions by choice, and I cannot merely “get over them” as so many unkind and uneducated people chose to suggest. These things aren’t dust to be swept away to leave me clean and whole—they are the ashes of the man I will never fully be able to be. Caked with physical, mental, and emotional injury, they streak and smear … and remain. The rancid, acrid smell of them fills our spirits, and coats our nightmares. For some of us, they can never be swept away.
For those I have startled with my fear or rejection of their honest offers of friendship, I can only say I am sorry. It is so hard to see your goodness while blinded by the tears of my past. Some days, I am so caught up in how to breathe, just to breathe, that there simply isn’t energy left to be sorry when I offend or hurt others. I promise you, I will feel sorry later. When I am home and feel safer again, as safe as one can be when the monsters are in the mind and heart, I will regret my sharp words; or my actions, if your misunderstood gesture caused me to lash out. I will regret, I may cry for causing another person pain or to fear; but none of this will wash the ashes clean. If you ask why, I can only say, “Because I am still burning, still being consumed by this fire.”
This is only some of the horror that child sexual abuse leaves ground into the stains on the child now grown into a man. If you would help ease his pain and fear, remember that the boy who was raped is still there, inside. Look in his eyes, see the way he withdraws when you try; and you will see that wounded, scorched boy. Be still and silent, be open and don’t crowd him, help him feel you mean him no harm. When he leaves you, don’t follow the trail of ashes in his wake; wait and watch. When he is healed enough to be ready, and you have proven worthy of trust, he may turn, and offer his hand, or the precious gift of his story of pain.
For all survivors of any form of rape or abuse; you are not alone. Speak out. Find your path to healing.
Related Content on The Good Men Project
W.R.R. writes: “I knew I wanted to write on this topic, specifically my fear of men, the moment I read the quote above; so I dropped everything and replied to Mr. Belden, asking for permission to use his quote in an essay that might hopefully help male survivors of child sexual abuse, and those who need to understand them.”
Rick has published several of his poems on The Good Men Project: you can find them on Rick Belden’s author page.
Read W.R.R.’s previous contribution to The Good Men Project, a chilling story of his childhood: The Seeds of Power.
—Photo credit: me_ram/Flickr