Childhood trauma, its impact on men and boys, and how to support other men’s efforts to cope with those impacts in healthy ways.
I spoke recently with a group of college men whose fraternity had been sanctioned for sexually offensive attitudes and behavior. Our discussion was part of a mandated remedy. Not surprisingly, mandated conversations often don’t lead immediately to open dialogue.
Efforts to educate men about sexual violence generally cast them in one of two roles: bystanders, either preventing or supporting sexually aggressive behavior, speech or attitudes; or as perpetrators of violence.
This time, we experimented with introducing a third role to our conversation: the reality that men are also frequently the victims of violence, including the one in six men, who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood.
Make no mistake. Trauma can never be an excuse for hurting others. But I’ve found that acknowledging men’s experiences of trauma can lead to startling insights about violence. And by the end of the session, these men were readily identifying ways that men’s socialized behaviors can cause real harm.
Instead of focusing directly on their offensive actions, we first discussed childhood trauma, its impact on men and boys and how to support other men’s efforts to cope with those impacts in healthy ways.
We started by looking at a study of 17,000 patients of the Kaiser Permanente Health plan in San Diego, the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study. Researchers found that childhood trauma is actually a norm for men—almost two-thirds (62%) of the men in the study had had at least one of ten pre-identified traumatic experiences in their childhood.
Half of those had experienced more than one of the ten.
In a culture where boys grow up thinking that “real men” are never victimized, this is big news!
These traumas—what they refer to as “ACEs” (Adverse Childhood Experiences)—include physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect, domestic violence, or substance abuse in their household, parental separation or divorce, and a parent with a history of mental illness or incarceration. (Obviously, someone might have had other kinds of childhood trauma as well, but these were the ones considered in the study.)
Even more importantly, the researchers discovered that the more of these childhood traumas a person has, the higher their risk for a host of negative physical, mental health and behavioral outcomes—things like heart and liver disease, substance abuse, smoking, sexually transmitted diseases and depression.
For instance, people with 5 or more ACEs were 7 to 10 times more likely to be addicted to drugs, than people with no ACEs. Having ACEs in any category increased the risk of attempted suicide by 2 to 5 times. Both men and women who were sexually abused in childhood, were:
- More than twice as likely to have attempted suicide
- 40% more likely to marry an alcoholic
- 40% to 50% more likely to have current problems with their marriage.
Once we’d normalized the idea that most men (including those fraternity members in the room) have some kind of childhood trauma history, we brainstormed various situations and social interactions that might trigger a man’s traumatic memories and the reactive feelings that might be stirred up. They mentioned triggers like uninvited physical touch, even done in jest; the emotional risks inherent in the dynamics of dating; parties where alcohol was present; feelings of losing control; situations where they felt humiliation or shame.
Then we explored some common coping strategies that men have been raised to use to numb or defend against those feelings and to avoid feeling vulnerable—things like drug and alcohol abuse; sexual compulsivity; developing a tough, domineering or controlling image; expressing disdain for another’s vulnerability; violence against others or themselves. Ironically, they found themselves discussing, without defensiveness, the very behaviors that had resulted in their sanction.
We finished by discussing the idea that, we men, all have a responsibility to encourage one another to be our best selves—supportively challenging other men when their behaviors undermine their integrity or well-being. We discovered that focusing on healthier ways of dealing with childhood trauma can also change the way men view masculine norms and the often self-destructive coping strategies we learn as boys.
“This is different,” one man noted. “We’re talking about ourselves.”
BIO: Peter Pollard, Communications and Professional Relations Director at 1in6, has been a longtime advocate for extending accountability for preventing child abuse to include all adults as well as individual perpetrators of sexual violence, most recently as public education director and Helpline supervisor at Stop It Now!. Peter previously worked for 14 years as a child protection case manager for the state of Massachusetts. Since 2003, he has served as the Western Mass. regional coordinator for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Treehouse Foundation, a multi-generational community for elders and families with children who have experienced foster care. Peter is a survivor of sexual abuse as a child. He received a Masters in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government in 2005. His comments about child abuse and community responsibility for prevention have been published in the Boston Globe, on National Public Radio, CNN, and WBUR Boston.
The mission of 1in6 is to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood live healthier, happier lives. 1in6′s mission also includes serving family members, friends and partners by providing information and support resources on the web and in the community.
–Photo: World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr