A key learning for me in talking with men who have been sexually abused is that it is important to prioritise support for women, partners and family members. Men are invested in ensuring their partners receive support. Men live and breathe in relationships and like women their lives are enhanced and grow in relationship contexts. Although it may sound common sense that we should ensure that women, partners and family are provided with quality information and support, I am constantly reminded that there is still work to do. Too often potential allies in a healing journey are left struggling on the sidelines.
At the service I operate, enquiries in relation to obtaining support for men who have been sexual abused are often initiated by women (nearly 50%). These women tell an all too familiar story of care and concern, as they struggle with the impact of sexual abuse on their partner, on their relationships and on themselves. It is typical to hear the following comments:
For the past couple of years I have been struggling to understand what has been going on…I love my husband…I know him as a dear, kind man, yet am watching him distance himself from me and our children…He is working longer and longer hours…He stopped talking to me…he stopped coming to bed…he keeps saying it’s not you, it’s me…if it isn’t me then why am I being punished…when I told him things had to change or I’m leaving, that’s when he told me… he told me about being sexually abused 2 years ago, but he won’t go and get help…I don’t understand…he made me promise not to tell…I know it sounds ungrateful with the hell that he has been through, but I didn’t sign up for this…I don’t know what to do..I feel like I am going under…we need help…It’s tearing our relationship apart…It’s tearing me apart….
The women we speak with are not just wanting to know how best to support the men in their life, they are seeking support for themselves as people whose relationships and life are being ‘torn apart’.
In trying to offer personalised support, I am aware and there is a complex interplay of social and sexual abuse related factors that confront these women. Young men’s typical ways of managing the effects of sexual abuse, not talking, denial, drink, drugs, casual sex, numbing, risk taking, limited expression of emotions can have them flying under the radar in their teens and twenties. It’s how young men behave, right. However, when young men start a relationship they are often challenged to change these ways of living life, as partner’s seek relationships based on commitment, trust, love, care and intimacy. What can make this even more difficult is intimate relationships can trigger reminders of the childhood sexual abuse (abuse occurs in interpersonal contexts, involving betrayal of trust). It is not surprising then that pressure for change often builds in relationships.
Partners are quite often the first person a man will tell of the sexual abuse (on average, men disclose sexual abuse 22 years after the event, some 10 year later than women). Telling does not mean however that the shame, guilt, fear of people questioning his manhood or sexuality that led him to keep the abuse secret just goes away. Partners, report pressure to take on and keep the secret. This has an effect of isolating women from important sources of personal support for them at a time they most need it.
The pressure partners can feel to act as sole supporter is too much to expect of one person. We know that being well connected and supported is important for our health and well being. However, current men’s health research notes men are less likely to access health care and counselling than women, men have smaller social support networks than women and men are unlikely to have a close confidant other than their spouse. This lack of support compounds problems for couples dealing with sexual abuse, leaving both parties struggling to cope.
Lack of community recognition, awareness and support for men who have had unwanted and abusive sexual contact has a significant impact on the lives of men and on the lives of women. My intent in naming some of the challenges that couples face in addressing the impact of sexual abuse has been to both highlight the complexity of factors at play and to encourage greater support for partners and families. There is much I have not mentioned, including the particular challenges that face women who have also experienced sexual abuse, mothers/fathers and same sex couples.
I know from experience that just as relationships can be a place where problems related to sexual abuse can appear, they can also be a place of profound healing. Walking the healing journey together can be hard work and infinitely rewarding. Healthy, happy relationships can be an antidote to sexual abuse. Relationships can be a place where people learn to feel safe and have their choices respected. Relationships are a place where individuals can learn self care and offer care, support and encouragement to others, where couples can build trusting, respectful, intimate, sexy, loving relationships.
Dr. Gary Foster established and manages the Living Well Service in Brisbane, Australia. For more information see www.livingwell.org.au.
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