Since beginning this blog almost ten months ago, I have posted a couple interviews with individuals I believe are heroes for their commitment and service to shining light into the dark places as they serve children and survivors of sexual abuse. I am amazed and immeasurably blessed at these quiet champions and think it is critical that they be introduced to the wider world. In an effort to facilitate this introduction, I have decided to start a monthly interview feature entitled, ‘Heroes in our Midst’. – Boz
Two years ago, I was privileged to meet a man who is giving his life to serving a large population of sexual abuse survivors who have been kept in silence for generations. Chris Anderson is the executive director of MaleSurvivor, an organization that serves male survivors of sexual trauma and their loved ones. This first of a two part interview with Chris will address the challenges faced by male sexual abuse survivors and the work of MaleSurvivor. Part two of the interview, which will be posted next week, will focus on the unique struggles that male survivors of sexual abuse face within faith communities and how those communities can actually be a resource for authentic hope and healing.
Boz: Tell us a little bit about MaleSurvivor? What is it and when did it start?
Chris: MaleSurvivor was founded in 1994 by a group of social workers, clinicians, and other interested professionals who recognized the lack of any formal organizations working to raise awareness and address the unique needs of male victims of sexual abuse. Nationwide, approximately 25% of men – 1 in 4 will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime.
In our 20 years we have grown into a unique non-profit that brings together professionals across disciplines and survivors to build “communities of hope, healing, and support.” From the very beginning MaleSurvivor has worked to tear down barriers that keep male victims silent and ashamed. We helped establish one of the first, and currently the largest, online discussion board for male survivors and their loved ones. In 2001, MaleSurvivor held it’s first “Weekend of Recovery” – a unique experiential retreat that brings together a small group of male survivors with a trained, compassionate, and experienced group of mental health professionals for a powerful healing experience. Since that time MaleSurvivor has run over 60 retreats in locations all over North America and we have had over 1000 men attend a Weekend. Lastly, we continue to work to build relationships with professionals around the world to train others in how to better engage with and support male survivors of any form of sexual abuse.
Next weekend (10/31-11/2), we will hold our 14th International Conference on Male Sexual Victimization at the Newark Airport Marriott. Hundreds of survivors and professionals from many different backgrounds and areas of expertise will come together once again in a celebration of hope, healing, and support. We will have over 40 workshops and special sessions to address sexual trafficking of boys and men, military sexual trauma of males, and international efforts to help male survivors in conflict zones and other parts of the developing world. And our opening plenary speaker will be Matt Sandusky. There is more information on our website, including the full agenda.
Boz: What is your connection with the issue of sexual abuse and how did you get involved with MaleSurvivor?
Chris: As with many of the people who play key roles in the organization, I am a survivor of sexual abuse myself. I had never heard of the organization, or really even thought much about the issue of male sexual abuse until my own life started falling apart in my late 20s. My first marriage ended, and I found myself battling depression, crippling anxiety, and began struggling again with suicidal urges that I thought I had forever overcome.
I discovered MaleSurvivor in the nick of time, and realized – for the first time in my life – that the sexual abuse I had experienced as a child was a far more disruptive and harmful experience than I had ever before known. I grew up in a pretty chaotic and dysfunctional home, and in my case, I only specifically remember being sexually abused twice by a neighbor (but in all honesty, there is a large chunk of my childhood that I do not remember very well). I always believed that if I could just make it through to adulthood and make a “normal” life for myself, then everything would be ok.
I attended my first Weekend of Recovery in 2007, and the experience literally changed (and saved) my life. I walked in to the meeting room almost shaking with nerves and I made eye contact with one other person. I stopped. For the first time in my life, I saw in someone else’s eyes what I saw when I looked in the mirror. That same pain, fear, and exhaustion all reflected back, and for the first time I can remember I didn’t feel alone. During the course of that weekend I told my story, I listened to other men share their stories with me, and I really began to heal. The therapists who ran the program were hands down the best I had ever worked with (and I have spent my whole life in and out of therapy). At the end of that weekend I felt that whatever else I did in my life, giving back to MaleSurvivor would be part of it.
Being a part of this work has become my greatest passion, and every day I am grateful to have fought through so much and be placed in a role where I can, hopefully, help to make a difference for others.
Boz: Do you think enough attention has been given to the issue of male sexual abuse? Why or why not?
Chris: Absolutely not. In many ways, I think the biggest challenge male survivors face is the impact of the male stereotypes that others have historically created to define what it means to be a “real” man. The average man is expected to be (among other things): strong, independent, rugged, virile, invulnerable, and overwhelmingly sexual. There is no place for the word “victim” or “rape survivor” in that picture of what a man is or should be.
Also, in many cultures, there is a kind of honor given to men who are strong and silent, who don’t complain about the harms they have received. In fact, some cultural stereotypes hold that a “real” man takes care of anyone who hurts him or his family by taking matters into his own hands. In others, any mention of behavior on the part of an elder, or respected person would be shameful or disruptive and are also especially looked down upon.
Another factor has been, ironically, the tremendous success that the movements for women’s rights and to end violence against women have had. Now, let me be clear – I am not at all saying that violence against women is unimportant. As a matter of fact, advocates for female survivors have blazed trails for male survivors. I honor the vitally important and irreplaceable work that has been done to raise our cultural awareness of the widespread problems of sexual violence against women. However an unintended consequence of the effort to raise awareness of the needs of women has been that we have turned the issue into one of men vs women, as opposed to persons who are toxic and abusive versus the rest of us.
MaleSurvivor believes that all survivors – no matter their gender, faith, age, wealth, sexual identity, etc – are equally deserving of the full measure of our compassion. Further, the work of ending violence requires us to learn how to better support all survivors so that we can empower them to do the work of healing.
Boz: In your opinion, are female perpetrators of male victims viewed and treated any differently than male perpetrators? If so, why?
Chris: Yes. As difficult as it can be for a boy or man who was abused by a male to find support, oftentimes boys and men who are abused by females are simply dismissed and not believed. It is widely believed, wrongly, that a man cannot be forced to perform a sexual act they do not want to perform. Oftentimes, female perpetrators receive far lighter sentences – if indeed they are ever prosecuted at all. And, believe it or not, there are a number of cases that suggest that the more physically attractive a female perpetrator is, the less severe a punishment she will receive. While we are starting to see more stories about female teachers coming to light, there is still a very big problem with mothers and other female family members perpetrating abuse against males that has yet to come to light. It also doesn’t help that there are influential voices like Bill Maher and others who continue to insist that a boy who was forced into unwanted sex or who was raped by a female (be it a teacher, peer, or other) is “lucky”, and any suggestion otherwise is worthy of scorn.
Boz: What are some of the services MaleSurvivor provides to male s survivors of sexual abuse? How would a survivor who is reading this post reach out for help?
Chris: Through our Weekends of Recovery program, the best team of caring clinicians and professionals anywhere lead healing retreats 5 times a year for male survivors 18 and over. We are also beginning to do single day healing workshops, and are always looking for opportunities to bring these events to more communities. We also have discussion forums on our website that are a safe, peer moderated, online community where male survivors and their loved ones can come together and share their stories. We also are expanding our capacity to do training for mental health practitioners, law enforcement, faith leaders and other professionals who interact with male survivors.
The best way to connect to us is to visit us online at our website www.malesurvivor.org. You can also follow our social media pages on Facebook and on Twitter. We are sending out message of hope, healing, and support everyday.