MaleSurvivor is an organization that is doing some amazing work in serving male survivors of sexual trauma. Last week was the first of my two part interview with its executive director, Chris Anderson, who shared about the many challenges faced by male sexual abuse survivors. In part two of his interview, Chris and I discuss the unique struggles faced by male survivors who are members of faith communities. Chris also provides us with some extremely insightful and helpful ideas on how faith communities can actually become places where male survivors find peace, comfort, and healing.
My prayer is that the faith communities are listening and ready to become that place.
Boz: What are some of the unique struggles faced by male sexual abuse survivors? What about those who are a part of a faith community?
Chris: To a large extent I think the fact that male survivors have largely been invisible and unheard has made it very difficult for us to feel safe enough to come forward with our stories. On average, male survivors delay disclosure of abuse for 20 years. That means when a survivor finally does come forward there may be little evidence to support their claims – at first. However when investigations into institutions that employed and empowered abusers are undertaken, they will come up with substantial evidence. But far too often those investigations are never undertaken, or are forestalled by restrictive statutes of limitations. And far too often survivors who do have the courage to finally break their silence are met with suspicion, disbelief, and even anger.
Also, there are a lot of mistaken presumptions about male victims out there. To take one example, many people presume men are hardwired to want sex all the time, and that – by extension – it is impossible for a male to perform sexually if they are unwilling or fearful. Both of these statements are untrue, as is the fear that a boy who is sexually abused is far more likely to become an abuser himself.
Within faith communities, I think that one of the biggest challenges is very few leaders are well trained in sexual violence issues. Faith communities are actually at significant risk for being targeted by serial perpetrators of child abuse because they are viewed as places where forgiveness and acceptance of past wrongs can be easily gotten. There are simple steps communities can take (that are highly unlikely to conflict with spiritual values) that will actually signal to potential perpetrators that this is a community that takes protecting children seriously. But this is information that has not yet been made a priority.
A second issue that I feel really needs to be addressed is the lack of training faith leaders receive in how to compassionately and effectively support any survivor – male or female – of sexual abuse (or any other major trauma). Whatever your faith tradition may be, there is nothing that justifies a victim be forced to reconcile with a perpetrator who has not shown authentic remorse. Nor is there anything that justifies asking a victim what he or she may have done to encourage or entice the person who abused them.
Boz: Do you think there is a role for faith communities in providing help and support to male sexual abuse survivors? How?
Chris: Absolutely. As a matter of fact I feel that faith communities have an essential and inescapable role to play. A chaplain in the US Army once shared with me that the overwhelming majority of disclosures of sexual violence are reported to military chaplains. One reason this is true is because chaplains are the only persons within the military structure who are granted absolute confidentiality privileges. But I think there may well be another factor at play. The fact of the matter is that many survivors may actually feel more comfortable disclosing to a trusted spiritual advisor (assuming the perpetrator here is not him or her self a faith leader) than they will to civil authorities at first. Therefore, faith leaders are often placed in the position of a first responder to disclosures of sexual abuse.
Further, it cannot be underestimated how powerful a compassionate, supportive response to a survivor’s disclosure can be. When a man discloses this secret, oftentimes that he has been keeping hidden within for decades, the fear that he may be struggling with cannot be underestimated. A loving and supportive response that honors a man’s courage for coming forward, and says to him “We believe you.” can be transformative and spiritually reparative.
But think about how faith institutions (and secular institutions for that matter) by and large respond to allegations of abuse. Wagons are circled. Lawyers are called in. And instead of asking survivors what they need in order to feel supported, they are accused of lying, of being disruptive, or otherwise harming the integrity and stability of an otherwise well functioning community.
Boz: Does MaleSurvivor ever work with faith communities on addressing this issue?
Chris: Absolutely. Earlier this year we convened an inter-faith summit to try and bring together leaders from many different spiritual traditions to say this is not just a Catholic issue. Or an Orthodox Jewish issue. Or an Evangelical Christian issue. The fact is every faith, every community – secular or otherwise – is impacted by the harm of sexual violence. As Executive Director, I feel strongly that we have to work hard to engage every community of faith to educate them (and, for the record I’m an agnostic when it comes to matters of faith). Until we recognize this is a universal problem, and empower faith communities with the knowledge and tools they need to be able to appropriately respond to abuse, and protect themselves from becoming targets for opportunistic perpetrators, we cannot rightfully expect them to actually do a better job dealing with abuse. We will continue to seek out partnerships with faith communities in order to get more support out there.
That said, it is also incumbent upon faith leaders to be proactive and bring in organizations like ours and experts like you, Boz, and Victor Vieth, and Rabbi Yosef Blau, and other leaders to train clergy, parents, children, and anyone in the community who works with vulnerable persons about how to implement the best practices for prevention and empathic response.
Boz: What are some practical ways that faith communities can help and encourage men who have been sexually abused?
Chris: Believe them. When a survivor comes forward, the first response any person should have is – “thank you.” There is a huge amount of shame and stigma that many survivors, and male survivors in particular, struggle with. Any person who has found the courage to come forward has likely already spent an eternity replaying the abuse itself and analyzed to death what they should have done differently. They have likely also told themselves a few hundred (perhaps thousand) times that no one is going to believe them if they do come forward. The courage it takes to come forward should be met with nothing short of total and sincere gratitude.
The second thing we should say to a survivor who has disclosed is, “What can I do to help you feel safe at this moment?” Perhaps the person wants to go to the police. In that case, take them. Don’t question whether or not it is appropriate to do so. Perhaps they would like you to tell them you believe them, perhaps they need nothing more at that moment. The point is that whatever our response is going to be in that moment should be determined not by what our “gut” tells us to say or do. Rather, we should empower the survivor to tell us what he wants.
Also, offer space to help men who have been victimized come together in community to begin the work of healing. Sexual abuse is a crime that has a profoundly isolating impact on many victims. Healing from trauma cannot be done in isolation. But there are many communities that, out of nothing more than ignorance, treat male survivors with unwarranted fear and suspicion. I once had a male survivor tell me that a church he attended has made space available to a men’s group of survivors. They were forced to disband because some parents in the community feared that the group posed a risk to children.
Lastly, as regards forgiveness. In my opinion, there is one person a survivor of sexual violence has a moral duty to forgive. Himself or herself. Far too often I have heard about faith communities forcing survivor and perpetrator into some kind of mediation or reconciliation. This is never an acceptable practice. If s survivor chooses to forgive the person who abused them, that is something that a community can support, perhaps even celebrate if the circumstances are appropriate. But it is never something to be forced upon a victim. To do so is only another form of disempowering and re-victimizing that person.
Boz: Do you believe that we are making any progress in preventing and responding to the sexual abuse of men? What are some of the things you would like to see happen within the next 5 years on addressing this issue?
Chris: I think it is getting better. But we have very, very far to go. I would like to see communities make significant investments in supporting all survivors of sexual violence. I would like to see colleges and universities ensure that their efforts to “engage men” don’t simply stop at telling men not to rape. We need to ensure that there are gender inclusive AND gender specific resources and materials available. I would like to see MaleSurvivor experts being brought in to train professionals across a wide range of disciplines about how to effective engage with male survivors. I also want to ensure that our research into sexual violence makes clear that violence against women and men is important and needs to be studied.
I think, perhaps, the most important things would be one major change to how we talk about this issue. Many people conflate rape and sexual violence, often treating the 2 terms interchangeably. They are not. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey counts 7 different types of sexual violence from “rape” all the way through “noncontact unwanted sexual experiences” When people only cite the “rape” statistics they miss millions of male victims. According to the latest NISVS data (from 2011, just published this past September) 25% of males – 1 in 4 men are estimated to experience some form of sexual victimization during their lives. (Incidentally, over 60% of women will as well). We need to recognize that not all sexual violence is rape.
The best way to connect to MaleSurvivor is to visit their website at www.malesurvivor.org. You can also follow their social media pages on Facebook and on Twitter. This weekend MaleSurvivor is hosting its 14th International Conference in Newark, New Jersey. You still have time to register and attend what is sure to be a time of learning, fellowship, and healing.