As we’re winding down April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I can’t help but think of the many inspiring messages we receive over the course of the year from men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood. Frequently, the men report that their visit to the 1in6 website is the first active step they’ve taken toward healing….often 20, 30 or 40 years after the abuse stopped. One of our primary goals is to help reduce that lag time for facing their traumatic history by engaging males at a much younger age to seek help.
Of the more than 600,000 visitors to the 1in6 websites (the main 1in6 website, the Spanish-language site and the 1BlueString site) in 2014, many speak of the relief they feel at finding they are not alone. They speak about the importance, after years of carrying the secret, of being able to tell someone about their experiences, even someone they don’t know and are unlikely to ever meet.
They sometimes describe a complex mix of reasons that kept them from speaking up sooner: social norms for men that makes it feel unsafe to disclose vulnerability; a misguided attempt to bury the painful memory with numbing addictions; or a tragic wish to protect others who they love from the knowledge that a respected family member, also had an abusive, hurtful side to their behavior.
Men often carry the secret until the need to redeem the unravelling parts of their lives finally outweighs the pressures to remain silent. Sadly, some men, who fear that no one will listen, carry the secret through their whole lives.
This week, I’ll be speaking in South Carolina and I’ll close my presentation by reading one email, which I found to be especially poignant (changing details to maintain the anonymity of the sender and protect his safety). He wrote:
“I was sexually abused by my older brother.
It happened to me almost every night from the age of 5 to about 12 years old. I keep pushing the memory to the back of my head hoping that one day I would just forget.
It didn’t fully bother me up until recently, and that’s because I’ve realized that this is the root of my issues. But ever since I figured that out, I haven’t been able to get it off my mind. When I go to classes now I look around and I feel so different from every one else, like I don’t belong. I have friends and we talk but I just feel so alone and different. This is eating away at me and I can’t stop it.
I’ve never told anyone about this, I just can’t. Since we’re older now, we have our own lives. I just know if I told my mom or some one it would ruin his life (he’s 28,) and my mom would probably disown him and I feel like she would see me different as well.
I really don’t want her to know, I just need to tell someone. I just can’t tell anyone, but I need to.”
We work hard to help provide men paths out of that silence. The website provides information about the breadth of the problem and the potential for healing; our Bristlecone and 1BlueString Awareness and Engagement programs offer a way to feel a part of a network of hope; and our Online SupportLine offers a means of getting immediate support and finding resources.
There’s no question in my mind that if asked, the countless many in the anti-sexual violence field would answer a resounding, “Yes, we’ll listen, you can tell us…”
Perhaps this first step toward healing will be the beginning for this young man toward a healthy, happy life. At the beginning, it seems like an impossibly long journey. But as so many men have learned, the goal is reachable and the journey is well worth making.
To this young man and the thousands who visit the 1in6 websites everyday, know this for certain: “Yes we’ll listen, you can tell us.”