Monday, January 14, 2013

Successfully Empowering Male Survivors of Sexual Victimization to Thrive

Successfully Empowering Male Survivors of Sexual Victimization to Thrive
a guest post by Howard Fradkin, Ph.D.

Male survivors face special challenges to achieve mental health, and the good news is it is possible and achievable to overcome these challenges and help them not only survive and heal, but to actually thrive.  As a Psychologist, we have an incredible opportunity to be agents of change for these men and those who love and support them.

One in 6 men has been sexually victimized by the age of 16, according to social science research ( One in 8 rape victims is a man.  These statistics represent an epidemic of silence that has the potential to severely damage the lives of boys and men who do not get help.  We've all heard about the recent scandals:  Jerry Sandusky, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, even Sesame Street.  It seems once a week our local papers have yet another article about the crimes being committed against boys and girls.  But often, by virtue of language, "abused children" does not translate to boys in many people's minds; they think about the girls.  Without minimizing the horrendous crimes done to 1 in 4 girls, we must as a society wake up to the huge numbers of boys and men who are also being victimized.

Typically, male survivors face many mental health challenges, including depression and suicidality, anxiety disorders, damaged self esteem, impaired ability to embrace masculinity, difficulty with trust and forming intimate relationships, and engaging in addictive behaviors including alcoholism, substance abuse, sex addiction and gambling.  Many of these illnesses are rooted in the deep shame that male survivors bury deep inside their souls, fearful for anyone to know the truth of what was done to them.  Survivors of course are even fearful of telling us!  And truthfully, many of them do not even know about their own abuse, or have suppressed so deeply in their bodies, minds and souls, that they are not able to connect the dots between their current dysfunction and the betrayal of their bodies years, maybe even decades before.

Treatment is now readily available in many communities thanks to the training efforts of and, and our own Ohio Psychological Association.   MaleSurvivor and 1in6 are very important resources for any of your clients who do identify as survivors.  They host extensive websites that offer chatrooms, bulletin boards, articles, bookstores, and access to support groups and psychotherapists who can all provide help.  

Have you received specific training in working with male survivors?  There are significant differences, including the most important:  your recognition that men can indeed be survivors of sexual abuse.  I am amazed at how many male survivors I have worked with who have been to therapy for years, but were never asked the right questions that might have led them to uncover their shameful secrets of being abused.  True, some of them were not ready to talk, but I am convinced that many of them were giving lots of signs to their therapists about their histories, but because the right questions were not asked, they chose not to walk down that path either.

Men are especially vulnerable to male socialization which teaches many destructive messages that must be unlearned in order to heal.  The most significant of these messages are: Men must be strong and tough; men who ask for help are weak; men should always be in control and if they are abused, it is a sign of their weakness.  Thankfully, in our profession, we are skilled at helping men who seek therapy learn how to honor their courage and strength in seeking help for their problems.  Men need a great deal of reassurance that it is okay to talk about abuse, and that you will not judge them.  Too often, men are afraid they will hear from their therapist that they should have been stronger, or should have told someone instead of hiding and burying the secret.  And some are afraid they'll be labeled as perpetrators, or presumed they will become perpetrators simply because they were victimized.

I believe that healing is a process of learning to be disloyal to dysfunction and loyal to functionality.  Each of these damaging dysfunctional messages must be challenged, not just intellectually, but emotionally and physically as well.   Men can be helped to be loyal to functional messages such as:  it is a sign of strength for a man to courageously face the truth of his abuse; men who ask for help will become stronger and more effective and more loving; men can recognize they have zero responsibility for the abuse done to them and that the shame of these actions belongs to the perpetrator who hurt them.  Too often, survivors feel loyal to the perpetrator, and hold on their shame instead of finding ways to release it.  Men can learn to stop choosing to be loyal to dysfunctional ways of coping, such as alcoholism, drug addiction and sex addiction.  They need our support, and they need the support of other male survivors and loved ones to help them overcome their blocks to functionality. 

If you work with male clients, think about the real possibility that 1 in 6 of these men are survivors.  How many are we missing?  

Male survivors need to hear a message of hope.  I for one believe it is ethical and responsible to tell survivors they can survive, they can heal, and yes, they can thrive.  Men need to hear this message of hope.  Too often I think therapists are so cautious that the message male survivors hear instead is, this is a life sentence... it will get better, but you will always suffer from the effects of your abuse.  I am not suggesting we be Polyanna, and tell them it is easy and simple to heal.  Far from is a journey, one with lots of bumps in the road; and many brothers and sisters who will identify, who will offer help, and who really will understand.  I hope you will join forces with me and be a beacon of hope for the 1 in 6 men abused as children and the 1 in 8 adult rape victims who is a man.

Howard Fradkin, Ph.D., LICDC has counseled over 1000 male survivors in individual, couples, group psychotherapy and weekend workshops over the course of his 30-year career as a Psychologist. As Co-Chairperson of the MaleSurvivor Weekends of Recovery, ( he has co-directed 40 Weekends of Recovery since 2001 for over 880 men. Dr. Fradkin has also trained hundreds of professional colleagues. Dr. Fradkin’s first book, Joining Forces: Empowering Male Survivors to Thrive, was recently published by Hay House in November, 2012.  He is the Co-Founder of Affirmations: A Center for Psychotherapy and Growth, in Columbus.

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