Men who have experienced sexual violation often have a kind of invisibility in the world. They are not prominent in literature about therapy, in research about sexual violation, or even generally in the public awareness. This has begun to change somewhat, recently, in the aftermath of the revelations about high-profile predatory figures in the media world and the abuse of young males in football and other sports. But, on the whole, the idea of a man or a male child being raped, sexually abused, manipulated or used by another is still a deep taboo for many people.
If we cannot face this taboo, we are collectively failing to look into the reason behind an enormous amount of suffering and even of death.
In an article in Therapy Today, Phil Mitchell, himself a male survivor of sexual violation and a specialist clinician in this field, makes the point that ‘Of the 6,188 suicides registered in the UK in 2015, three quarters were males. It could be argued that, for some males, especially those who have been sexually exploited, death can be seen as preferable to being seen as less of a man’ (Mitchell 2017).
Sadly, even some in the caring professions continue to feel that there is something so grotesquely awful and unthinkable, so incomprehensible – or even downright unbelievable – about a man or boy being sexually hurt or objectified, that they fear they do not have what it takes to be able to work with this issue or do not wish to even attempt it. In a systematic review of research published online in the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, only 22 per cent of people using statutory mental health services are ever asked by mental health staff about previous experiences of abuse. Of those who were asked, women patients were far more likely to be asked than male patients (Read et al. 2017).
I wrote a book about effective therapy for male survivors of abuse, which was published by Jessica Kingsley in April 2018: ‘Helping Male Survivors of Sexual Violation to Recover. Stories from Therapy.‘ Part of my motivation in writing it was to honour the courage and the determination to heal shown by the many men I have accompanied in their therapeutic work over the last 17 years.
Another reason I wrote the book was to encourage and embolden those in the helping professions who think they might not have the capacity or skill to support this client group. My hope is that the book will help them trust that they certainly can be of use to male survivors of sexual abuse, whenever they offer a combination of warmth and rigorous thinking within the context of a respectful relationship.
The book takes the form of fictionalised case studies of 7 male survivors from a wide range of backgrounds, ages, and tells the story of the therapy for each one. The common theme, in all the stories – no matter what the age, education, income, sexuality or family background of the individual coming for support – is that male survivors have a particular burden that they carry, to do with the deeply held belief that a male should be strong and tough.
Even when this belief is not held consciously, and even when it is vigorously rejected on a conscious level, its roots still seem to go deep, both within many individuals and within our collective. So, in a culture where boys and men cannot help but take on board certain fundamental messages about males needing to embody strength, power, and being in control, when they have not been able to embody those qualities, eg. when they have experienced sexual abuse, they are left with almost intolerable grief, anger and, most crucially, shame.
The American psychologist Silvan Tomkins explains why the shame after abuse is so shattering for men:
“Though terror speaks of life and death, and distress makes the world a vale of tears, yet shame strikes deepest into the heart of man. While terror and distress hurt, they are wounds inflicted from the outside which penetrate the smooth surface of the ego; but shame is felt as an inner torment, as sickness of the soul. It does not matter whether the humiliated one has been shamed by derisive laughter or whether he mocks himself. In either event he feels himself naked, defeated, alienated, lacking in dignity or worth” (Tomkins, 1963).
The good news is that the healing balm for the stinging shame Tomkins describes is available to any man whenever he is able to speak, and feel understood and supported about an experience that has left him with shame. Individual therapy, as well as other sources of emotional and psychological support, such as compassionate friends and/or a partner, and being part of an accepting group or team, can all provide opportunities for this vital dissolving of shame. It seems a simple thing.
But there are still too few opportunities for men and boys to feel helped in this way. There are still too many men and boys staring into an abyss of isolation and a feeling that they are alone and fatally flawed for having once been helpless and vulnerable when they were abused.
‘Helping Male Survivors of Sexual Violation to Recover: An integrative approach – stories from therapy’ by Sarah Van Gogh is published by Jessica Kingsley. The book is available at a 20% discount from the regular price of £22.99 for readers of the Male Psychology Network blog from www.jkp.com/uk/products using reader offer code ‘SVG’.
About the author
Sarah Van Gogh has worked as a counsellor in private practice for many years and is on the training staff at the Re.Vision Centre for Integrative Transpersonal Counselling and Psychotherapy in North London. She also worked for seven years as a counsellor and trainer for Survivors UK, a London charity that provides support to men who have experienced sexual violation. She studied English at Cambridge University, worked in the fields of theatre, community health and adult education, and has written about the vital connection between the expressive arts and therapy for a number of journals. She writes a regular column in the BACP Private Practice Journal.
Mitchell, P. (2017) ‘Boys can be victims too’. Therapy Today 28(8), 34–7.
Read, J., Harper, D., Tucker, I. and Kennedy, A. (2017) ‘Do adult mental health services identify child abuse and neglect? A systematic review’. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing 27(1), 7–19.
Tomkins, S. (1963) Affect/Imagery/Consciousness: Vol 2. The Negative Affects. New York: Springer.
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