We have to look past labels, appearances and perceived identities.
Author’s Note: This blog was originally published on the 1in6 website on October 16, 2014.
Here on the East Coast, the nights are getting crisp and the leaves are beginning to change. Fall means only one thing around here: football season. As a child growing up in a rural town, football was a central part of folks’ lives. Football culture defined what it meant to be a male. Back home, true American males embodied football.
I did not belong to this group. The two individuals who sexually assaulted me were both on the football team. I disconnected from football culture. I wanted nothing to do with it. For years afterward, I recoiled from football.
My healing process took me to deep places within myself. It helped me to understand who I am. One of the first stops was my understanding of what it means to be male. This meant for me examining what the connection of being “male” as it relates to football.
The act of sexual violence against a male feels like it excommunicates him from his gender identity. The shame I felt from others kept me hidden. No one talked about sexual abuse. I thought I was alone. It left me silent. I felt lost, like I didn’t belong in this football world. It must be my fault. I must have caused it to happen. Withdrawing from football culture or making myself a class clown were my ways of coping with being victimized at home.
During the years I was being assaulted no one recognized that I was being hurt. People thought only girls could have this done to them; no one expected young boys to be victims of this crime. So I felt I was alone. It did not dawn on me that there was another way until many years later.
Working with other male survivors showed me a whole spectrum of ways to reconcile victimization with male gender identities. I worked with males who coped by using drugs or alcohol. Others joined the military. Others became athletes, and that’s just to name a few.
I have worked with many football players who were sexually abused as children. They told about how they picked up football because they didn’t want to be seen as weak or because they wanted to protect themselves from ever being abused again. These men found ways of dealing with the shame by working out until their bodies were perfect. Through football, they were able to control one aspect of their lives. They were still silent like me, but instead of being invisible they were very visible. And yet they too were not noticed for having been victimized and left to deal with the effects of this crime on their own.
There is a flaw in the way our media, our movement or society communicates to men about sexual violence. We box people in by gender. We often lump men into two categories, bystanders and possible offenders. When we talk to women about sexual violence we speak to them as victims or potential future victims. It tells men that they are the problem and women are the only ones who experience violence. It’s so wrong.
Males often experience abuse. Females can act as strong bystanders in ending sexual violence and can also act abusively. This was the reality for many of those young men I worked with. The people who abused them included mothers, babysitters, coaches, uncles and more. There was no one gender that abused and there was no one way to deal with the abuse.
With the recent NFL statements on working to end sexual violence, I truly hope they take into account the needs of the men that work for them who have experienced abuse and all those who look up to them. I hope that they work on educating athletes and staff about possible long-term effects of abuse on men as well as women. It’s time to open the dialogue up to all aspects of what sexual violence does to all people.
Our movement must continue to grow and reach out to more survivors of all gender identities. The recent VAWA reauthorization gives me hope that we will get there one day. We need to think critically about the terms we use in our messaging and boxes they put people in.
Bad things happen to people. Stop, take a breath, accept it and find ways to address it more inclusively. I encourage everyone to recognize that anyone can experience sexual violence and to look for ways of supporting all who have survived it. Do advocacy with local media, so that no one who has experienced abuse feels invisible or silenced because they are not represented. We have to look past labels, appearances and perceived identities because you never know what’s underneath. I’ve done it–we all do it, but it is time for us to make a change.
By Eric Stiles
Eric Stiles is a public speaker, survivor and advocate who currently works the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). He has over 14 years of experience in the movement to end sexual violence. He holds a BA in Sociology from Pennsylvania State University and MS of Community Counseling from Shippensburg University.
Photo Credit: johann Smari/Flickr