There is no question that speaking up about sexual abuse is paramount to healing. As a licensed therapist, I started a group called It Happens to Boys in 2007. Since that time, I have presented workshops with a group of male survivors and have spoken at various recovery centers across California. Getting to that point was not an easy task. In fact, it took several years for the centers to allow us to speak directly to the men in treatment. The recommendation for men in recovery, at that time, was that they must have at least one year of sobriety before they deal with trauma issues.
However, by working in the trenches, so to speak, we discovered that so many men had never told anyone about their abuse - not a counselor, sponsor, or even friends. Thanks to the work they were doing in their 12-step programs, some men were able to come clean, and actually mentioned their abuse in their personal inventory (the fourth step). But, it stopped there. They believed that because they had told someone and had dealt with it in the Program, the work was done. In reality, they still had not processed the pain and shame surrounding the abuse. As a result, relapse was right around the corner.
The story of sexual abuse is often one filled with secrets, and is most times extremely painful, confusing, and damaging. The survivor may be in conflict as they experience a myriad of contradictory feelings: love of the perpetrator, fear of the perpetrator, and/or hatred of the perpetrator. Perpetrators of sexual abuse are most often known by the victim, and are often placed in a position of power over the person they abuse. Sexual abuse is not about sex. It is about claiming power over another person. Oftentimes, the abused person is the only witness to the act, and other adults frequently find the victim’s story hard to believe. Adults even respond to child victims with expressions of anger, disagreement, and even rejection. I have seen several clients whose non-offending parent chose to side with the perpetrator over their own child. In cases where the child is taken out of the home, there is a second instance of betrayal and suffering. The first is from the abuse and the second is from the subsequent abandonment or rejection.
Children often blame themselves when they are abused, and it makes perfect sense. A child is not capable of being on his or her own, although many children have ended up raising themselves as a result of their parents’ unavailability. Parents are often unavailable due to long work hours (as is the case with many single parents), the use of drugs or alcohol, gambling, and sex/love addictions. The child feels that if they can just become smarter, taller, prettier, or more handsome, then that will help the parent get better. The child is fearful of having no one to take care of him/her. Blaming the parent would be admitting that they were too sick or unavailable. That is frightening, and therefore, the secret is protected. Another stumbling block is that the feelings evoked by abuse are extremely shaming and painful, and men often turn to drugs and alcohol to repress those feelings. Men have been raised to believe that they should not show their feelings, especially those of vulnerability, fear, or sadness. They have been taught since they were little that boys don’t cry, boys are strong, and boys must protect themselves and those around them. This is a powerful message, and because they want to be seen as “real men,” they often follow this advice. However, as a therapist I have seen this backfire time and again because repressed feelings often turn to rage. Rage is very costly to our society in terms of domestic violence, road rage, violence against others and self, and the costs associated with recovery and medical care.
Kaiser Permanente and The Center for Disease Control conducted a 10-year study called ACE – Adverse Childhood Experiences. The questionnaire predicts the short and long term outcomes of exposure to traumatic stressors. The outcomes link childhood traumas to a multitude of health and social problems. The study demonstrated that once survivors begin to speak out, the healing begins. Some of the recommended processes are EMDR, Yoga, Meditation, 12-step work, group therapy, mindfulness practices, and inner child work.
Why don’t boys tell about their abuse? As mentioned earlier, men are programed not to talk about feelings. Also highly relevant is that perpetrators often will groom potential victims for up to five years before they commit their crime. They befriend the child, take him/her on trips for camping, shopping, and buying gifts, and give the child compliments. They thus become a trusted adult in the child’s eyes. In some cases, where these boys are growing up in a single parent home, needing a dad means making the decision not to tell about the “secret” so that they continue to receive these benefits. Others feel the perpetrator is an outstanding member of the community and that no one would believe their story about what happened. Our society has seen way too many examples of boys being abused by trusted religious leaders, Cub Scout leaders, coaches, and teachers.
So many times, it is only in instances where a significant number of boys and men came forward against the same perpetrator that they were finally believed. David Price, a member of our group, was abused by his high school principal and did not tell anyone until he became depressed and felt suicidal as an adult. David approached his Church to ask for assistance in paying for his therapy, and he was met with anger and rage and told he was not telling the truth. He decided to bring a lawsuit against the church to obtain this much needed help, and in return, he was counter-sued for bringing about a false claim.
In his book, Altar Boy, Altered Life, David describes his experience of being deposed by numerous law firms over a long period of time, and being asked such questions as: “As a child did you have sexual feelings about your father?” Since the Church had an abundance of funds available, and David did not, they won the case. David finally received a settlement when more men came forward to admit that the same priest who abused David had sexually abused them, too.
Randy Boyd, another member of our group, has written a book called Healing the Man Within. This is a very helpful resource for male survivors, in which Randy describes being groomed by the man who eventually became his stepfather. This man was a pillar of the community and a Deacon in his church. One night when the man was raging out of control, Randy tried to obtain community help, only to have the door closed in his face.
Robert Teitelbaum, another member of our group, has also written a book called Frogs and Snails and Mobster Tales, in which he shares his own story of abuse while living in one of the most prestigious homes in the Coachella Valley. Robert had visible injuries and also never received help, mostly because of his parents’ position in the community. Also, because they were respected criminal attorneys from Chicago, people feared getting involved. Dave Pelzer’s memoirs, A Child Called It and Too Close to Me, have been reminders to survivors of all ages that no matter what type of abuse you suffer, you can still become productive members of society.
Child welfare experts agree that false accusations of child sexual abuse are very rare and for victims, the act of coming forward takes great strength and courage. It is time to let survivors know that they must come forward and that we will believe them.
Our It Happens to Boys group has grown in membership over the last seven years, and we are finding that group therapy is a great asset. Most men initially think they’re alone in what they’ve been through, but hearing other men’s stories normalizes the thoughts and feelings they have experienced over the years. It has been so rewarding to watch the personal and emotional growth of so many of the men in our group. Our wish is that survivors will feel safe enough to speak up and leave the shame where it belongs…with the perpetrator.
Child abuse is never the child’s fault.
The Seventh Annual It Happens to Boys Conference will take place on March 6-7, 2015 in Rancho Mirage, California. For more information on registration, go to www. creativechangeconferences.com
Carol Teitelbaum, LMFT