At least one in six men have been sexually violated (1in6.org). That might seem higher than you expected, but experts say the number is probably even higher. Here are some of the reasons why -
This last point is a really important one to clarify. Sexual violation is not about sex or sexuality. Sexual violation is an act of violence inflicted by the perpetrator in an attempt to overpower, to control, or to punish the survivor. Sexual desire, and/or sexual orientation have nothing to do with sexual violation. I cannot express this point enough, and yet still I hear this confusion.
If you have experienced sexual violation, or you know someone who has, one of the most intense resulting symptoms is shame. Shame goes to the core of you, tricking you into the belief that there is something intrinsically wrong with you. This is distinguished from guilt, which is regret for an action you did or did not do. Shame is about you, whereas guilt is about the external action.
Along with shame, you may also experience humiliation, rage, sadness and fear. You may be easily angered or easily upset, and you may have flashbacks, or become emotionally numb. There is no right or wrong way to feel about sexual violation, and you should be treated with enough respect to allow for these feelings. Experiencing an emotion is neither right nor wrong, it is what you do with it that is judged. So, for example, some people may judge you for feeling angry. You are entitled to feel angry, but you are not, of course, entitled, to use that anger to punch someone.
It can help to understand a couple of these symptoms -
Emotionally numb – The term for this is dissociation. To survive the experience of sexual violation, your brain might have shut down for a moment. It did what it needed to, otherwise the experience might have been overwhelming. The trouble is, the danger has now passed, so you need to reconnect with your emotions, your thoughts, and your body. With the help of a trained professional, such as a psychotherapist, you can learn some grounding exercises, to become aware of your whole self. It is important to know that you have not necessarily become emotionally numb forever. It was a survival mode that should, with the right help, become a temporary state.
Hypervigilance, easy to become startled or get angered or upset – If you were sexually violated, your body probably went into fight or flight mode. Your sympathetic nervous system kicked in, sending the blood pumping around your body, and readying your body to fight or flee. The trouble is, you were not able to get away, and so your brain and body are still stuck in that fight or flight mode, stuck in hypervigilance. It is as if your brain and body have unfinished business, leaving your brain on edge, and causing you to jump at even the slightest sudden noise, smell, touch or thought. You are still ready for attack, long after the danger has gone.
All of this can have an impact on your intimate relationships, your sense of trust of other people, the way you work, your concentration levels, your sleep, and your appetite. It is also a constant drain on your body. You may deal with it by isolating yourself, or trying to keep things under excessive control (which, in turn, leads others to tire of you, dismissing you unkindly as a ‘control freak’). You may even engage in substance abuse, as a way of escaping this constant sense of panic.
What can help
Talking to a trained professional, such as a psychotherapist, is an important step to take. With the help of a psychotherapist, you will do three things –
There are different types of psychotherapy available, and one particularly effective approach for trauma is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR). EMDR is recognized as an “A” level of treatment for trauma, recommended by the World Health Organization and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.
There are other types of therapy, and most will focus on your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. It is important to include work on the body, as that acts as a bridge between your thoughts and emotions. You hold a great deal of your trauma in your body, causing all sorts of physical symptoms including stomach cramps, constipation, migraines, and nausea.
No matter what approach your therapist takes, it is essential that you look out for your negative, self-critical voice. If you are the survivor of sexual violation, and you are carrying shame, this critical voice will be turned up to full volume. Work with your therapist to turn down the volume on this critical voice, replacing judgement with understanding. Understand that your thoughts, emotions and body may have done all sorts of things to survive the sexual violation. For example, you might have engaged in escapist behavior, such as denial or substance abuse, or you may have lashed out (at others or yourself) with the rage that you were feeling. Understand that this was what you had to do to survive. These might not have been constructive coping mechanisms, but they were all you had to survive, and now is the time to replace these with more helpful coping mechanisms.
You can also talk to friends and family, but it is important that they give you the right type of help. Set out below are some thoughts on how they can help, and you might wish to show these to your friends and family –
You are not alone, and male survivors of sexual violation are not as rare as societal myths would have you believe. When you are ready to talk to someone, this might offer you an opportunity to experience a different way to relate to someone. For example, the clear and consistent boundaries offered by a psychotherapist can offer you the safety to learn how to trust someone else. This will take time, but remember that you are in control. You can decide how much you share, and when. This can teach you about other people, that not everyone poses a threat, but it can also teach you more about yourself. We can learn so much about ourselves through our interactions with other people.
Having the hope of that safe space, where there are clear and consistent boundaries, can offer you a place to rest, at least for a little. It is a place where you do not have to remain alert for the potential of an attack. It is a place where you do not have to fight hard to be someone you are not. And it is a place where, eventually, you can show just a little bit of your vulnerability.
Be kind to yourself
Go gently, and be kind to yourself. Remember that the shame you carry is not yours, it is the perpetrator’s. The shame will intensify the negative, self-critical voice, but with a little bit of help, you can work hard to turn down the volume. This will give you time and space to replace the unhelpful coping mechanisms with more helpful ways to manage those symptoms. Start today, with a simple relaxation or grounding exercise, and see where you go from there. Let me know if you need anything.
Chris Warren-Dickins LLB MA LPC
Psychotherapist, (Licensed Professional Counselor), Ridgewood NJ 07450
www.exploretransform.com 201-779-6917 firstname.lastname@example.org