Heroes in our midst: Chris Anderson & MaleSurvivor (Part II)

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Silhoutte flower with a story silhouettes - courtesy of man's pic via Flickr

Silhoutte flower with a story silhouettes - courtesy of man's pic via Flickr

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.

MaleSurvivor 2Within 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. 

  • Raz

    The lack of comments indicate this is a very uncomfortable subject for your readers, Boz.
    I would like to express my appreciation for the courage of those who dare to speak out about this reality …. there are men in our churches who remain silent about the pain in their past, precisely because they believe that their story would be met with the same deafening silence as your blogposts (Parts I and II) have gotten.
    This has GOT to change, fellow Christians! It has GOT to change!!

  • Stanley Heersink

    My thoughts are that I don’t think that the church can handle this from my experience with my brother. This is a article that was writen about him http://www.thebanner.org/news/2011/01/abuse-victim-dies-leaves-legacy

    If this does not come up right just type in Heersink and abuse on a google search. The sports world is handling abuse much better then the church could ever hope for. The church in this area is sadly broken and its reaction is very surface.

  • Pingback: Male Sex Abuse Victims, an Interview with Chris Anderson: “Men Are Not Hardwired to Want Sex All The Time” | Christian Pundit()

  • Oscar

    If the headline read “Gay man found to have abused children in church” there would be endless comments about how being Gay is an abomination with scripture quotes to support those comments.
    However an article about the effects of sexual abuse on boys is of little concern, as you so correctly point out.

    Perhaps too many of us have become “Trick or Treat” Christians who only take what we can get from others, offering in exchange things that of little value or not wanted and have lost sight of the words of Christ about being Good Samaritans?

    No trick or treat
    Just wash the feet
    And give poor strangers
    Good things to eat

    No fatted calf
    Or festive speech
    Just put out a hand
    For the hurt to reach

    No tithes of gold
    Expect be paid
    Do with sincerity
    For souls badly flayed

    Expect no praise
    Or name in lights
    For rescuing those
    Who dread darkened nights

    Do as your God would do
    For the poor and week
    But expect not they
    In return Him seek

    Let those thee help
    See thy gentle light
    Not by bushel hidden
    Or dazzling bright

    And the reward at last
    One will come to know
    For true peace comes
    From loves simple flow

  • Tom

    When, after 20 years of silence, someone says, “I was abused,” we are supposed to respond without hesitation, “I believe you?” Here’s the question. What if this hurting person, in need of compassion, is wrong? Remember, Chris also recommends reporting this to authorities and pressing for an extension of the statute of limitations. I just think this advice is in need of some serious qualification.

  • David

    The point is that survivors need to be empowered to take whatever actions (or inactions) they see fit. From my understanding, Chris doesn’t recommend reporting. He recommends offering resources and support to survivors so they are able to make the decisions that they want to take. If they want to make the decision to report then they should be supported in that decision.

  • Tom

    I have no interest in empowering false accusations. But it’s inevitably what will happen if you follow Chris’s advice. Consider what Chris says: “… we should empower the survivor to tell us what he wants.” Really? Anything? I’ve heard that since Bass and Davis wrote “Courage to Heal.” Oh, but I guess MS is recommending CtH too. Sorry. I wouldn’t respond if I didn’t think an adequate response to abuse was important. But there’s too much flakiness here.

  • David

    False accusations are terrible there is no doubt about that. They make it even more difficult for actual victims to speak out for fear of not being believed, which is even more hurtful. The truth is that a vast majority of sexual assaults go unreported. From there, only a small fraction of the cases that are actually reported (because victims often opt out of reporting) are false accusations. I’m not denying that false accusations happen, but it is a small sample. They are uncommon because reporting is not a fast nor a pleasant process. It is much better to believe the victim right off the bat and find out later that their accusation was false than to discredit the victim right away and have them suffer for reaching out when they needed someone.

  • Tom

    If you believe false accusations are terrible, then please encourage groups like MS to clean up their act with respect to dangerous memory retrieval therapies and advice about believing everything someone says. After two decades, continued alignment with these ideas could be interpreted as being unconcerned with their negative side effects. True and false accusations are a tricky topic. As with unreported abuse, falsehoods are told outside the courtroom too. Unfortunately, statistics about the rate of false accusations are very hard to obtain and more difficult to interpret. Witness the success of the Innocence Project though and you get an idea of the impact of a false accusation. And if you think it’s hard and unpleasant to report abuse, try undoing a wrongful conviction. So let’s be a little more creative. There are more than two ways to respond when someone claims to have been abused. There is a great deal of nuanced compassion in between “I believe you” and “I don’t believe you.”

  • David

    Reporting sexual assault or defending one’s self against a false accusation is not a competition, as you are alluding. Trespassing against another’s body and tarnishing someone’s reputation are both valid issues. Individuals can be assaulted when they are too young to have the language to express what happened, so they may reveal the events many years later. Males are especially unlikely to be believed that they have been sexually assaulted because of others’ beliefs that males cannot be sexually assaulted. A confidant’s criticism of a victim revealing that they may have been abused could easily lead a victim to giving up on acquiring help. It’s not a confidant’s position to criticize, but to support. I am not talking about Male Survivor I am talking about male survivors.

  • Tom

    I AM talking about Male Survivor, not male survivors. Still, support and compassion should be how we respond to hurting, troubled people. But, dude! It isn’t criticism to withhold judgment till you have the facts. That’s why I don’t find Chris’s statement helpful. It is very unimaginative.

    As to being “too young to have the language…,” this is what I mean by “flakey.” Narrative memory requires language. No language, no memory. The British Psychological Society’s “Guidelines on Memory and the Law” (2008) recommends that all uncorroborated childhood memories of abuse need to be approached with a degree of skepticism, especially the kind of scenario you lay out here. Let me recommend Karl Sabbagh’s book “Remembering our Childhood: How Memory Betrays Us.” Quite helpful.

  • David

    Childhood memories of abuse need to be approached with a degree of (not full) skepticism, you’re right, by the law. Not by a confidant with no specialty in the area. Let authorities do their job because the kind of skepticism you are talking about would be an endangerment to all children out there with predators knowing a child’s testimony holds no credibility.

  • Tom

    David, you just switched to talking about children. This conversation has been about adults who report abuse from a long-ago past.

  • David

    You said “no language, no memory”. Many males are abused under the age of 12. Your thoughts pose a problem for children.

  • Tom

    We’re mis-communicating not disagreeing. I was referring to a dubious claim in survivor literature that pre-verbal children (infants) may provide narrative detail of the abuse once they learn to talk. You are likely referring to the very believable and common situation where young children don’t understand that they are being abused. No argument there. But that’s an issue of social understanding, not language so much. Susan Clancy explains this issue nicely in her book “The Trauma Myth.”

  • Tom,

    I will repeat my comment to your post in the previous part of this article. I have no idea what you are referencing with your accusations that MaleSurvivor (one word, for the record) needs to “clean up their act with respect to dangerous memory retrieval therapies and advice about believing everything someone says”

    Just so that we can all be clear on what I stand for and what I promote:

    – When a person discloses being a survivor, I believe the most compassionate and helpful immediate response anyone can have in that moment is to believe them. We should believe that this is a person who has been hurt, offer them the compassion that every human being who has been hurt is deserving of, and if you feel so moved – honor them for the courage it took to share that painful secret with you. If it is an adult disclosing abuse experienced long ago, there is nothing to be gained with brute skepticism. If it is a child reporting abuse, we have a moral duty to do everything in our power to protect and support them.

    — Believing an survivor does not automatically trigger a criminal justice response. It should, however, open that door for those survivors who wish to pursue that option.

    — With regards to reporting to authorities, I do not push any adult survivor to take that step. Only if a survivor wishes to go down that path, do I feel it is our duty to empower and support them to do so. When a child discloses abuse, I do feel it is necessary for appropriate child abuse agencies to be contacted as soon as possible.

    – Unless you are a trained and experienced professional with expertise in forensic interviewing and investigation of claims of child abuse, you have no business offering an opinion on the truth of falseness of any individual survivor’s disclosure.

    – With regards to SOL’s my personal belief (and I stress this is my personal belief, and not the official position of MaleSurvivor, which has no official position on this issue at the moment) is that there should be no Statute of Limitation on sex crimes against children. None. The lifetime impact of being victimized as a child is itself more than enough of a justification for the removal of SOL’s in my opinion. A more substantive reason however, is the fact that male survivors of childhood sexual abuse delay disclosure for up to 20 years (in no small part because of the attacks of people who insist that they must be “making up” such accusations). This allows perpetrators to continue their crimes without fear of punishment, oftentimes for their entire lives. A lifting of the SOL for crimes of child sexual abuse would enable more serial preferential offenders who target children to be identified and prosecuted.

    – I also stress that there is a huge difference between the pursuit of justice and the pursuit of healing. MaleSurvivor is an organization that believes first and foremost that survivors need to be empowered to do the work of healing. For some (not all) survivors, pursuing legal action against the person(s) who perpetrated against them can be a part of their healing process. For many others it will not be an option (thanks in part to SOL’s)

    If you or other persons have questions/concerns about how MaleSurvivor advocates for survivors, I encourage you to contact me directly via email.

    Christopher M. Anderson

  • Tom

    Hi Chris, Thx for the response. I want to be clear about my objections. It’s not about advocates or advocacy for anyone who was abused. That’s an admirable and honorable thing to do, paid or unpaid.

    What concerns me is bad forensics, in particular the belief in and use of recovered memory therapies. I think most of the world is clear that this kind of thinking increases the chances that people will be falsely accused. But it is obvious that MaleSurvivor is not. So, regarding recovered memory therapies, where does MaleSurvivor stand? As I look at resource pages and bibliographies on your website, what I notice is the very heavy presence of authors who promote those ideas and a corresponding absence of anyone who is opposed. Take Laura Davis and Ellen Bass’s book, “Courage to Heal,” which is commonly called “the Bible of the recovered memory movement.” And that’s just one of many. Did you realize your “book shelves” are saturated with this literature? I guess I don’t see a difference between recommending material that promotes RMT and promoting the idea yourself.

  • Tom,

    Thank you for clarifying. For the record, this is the first time anyone has approached me with this particular concern. I feel at the outset it’s important to stress there is no conspiracy to promote or even a tacit endorsement of RMT by MaleSurvivor. On the other hand, there is no compelling evidence that I am aware of to support your perspective that RMT is an unmitigated wrong.

    What I will share is my personal opinion, and is not the official position of MaleSurvivor on RMT. In point of fact there is no official MaleSurvivor position on MST, as this has never been something that the organization has felt a need to address.

    I agree with you that there is a need to ensure that forensic interviewers are careful to not influence the testimony of the victims and witnesses they speak with. However, I think you need to be clear on the distinction between the needs of criminal justice and emotional healing. MaleSurvivor is an organization that exists primarily to help survivors heal. The role of forensic interviewing, and the proper procedures for such, are a matter that is better left to professional organizations that deal with those matter primarily.

    As a survivor myself, I can tell you that there are periods of my childhood I simply don’t remember. This includes parts of the time period when the most significant sexual abuse occurred. Also, I have spoken with enough survivors who have shared with me that they had lived many years, sometimes decades without conscious memory of the abuse they endured who had the memories “flood” back at some point later on in life. Therefore, I absolutely believe that in many cases, survivors can “block” or “repress” memories of severe trauma and abuse. The existence of dissociation in psychological development and neurological functioning is not a matter that is up for debate. People repress and dissociate.

    The road to healing is long, complicated, oftentimes arduous, and will be different for every single survivor. Not all survivors need to recover all their memories in order to heal, and others may feel a profound need to reclaim those memories. There is no one way that is right when it comes to healing (however there are absolutely persons who do things in the name of “healing” others that are profoundly wrong in my opinion). There are “therapists” out there who engage in what I consider to be unethical practices, and that is actually part of what spurred me to begin my life as an advocate for other survivors. However, there are also people who are more concerned with attacking survivors and discrediting their memories than they are with offering compassion and support to people who are hurting. I feel both courses of action are profoundly unethical and deeply abhorrent because they can cause serious injury to a survivor and their loved ones.

    Lastly, I also want to note that I take exception to your characterization insinuation that MaleSurvivor somehow has an agenda that is harmful to others. Your claim that our “Bookshelves” are “saturated” with material that promotes a specific agenda is disingenuous and misleading. Perhaps you would do well to review the latest booklist from our just concluded conference to see a more up to date reflection of the materials that we feel people should be aware of.


    Regardless, if anyone has concerns about MaleSurvivor’s activity’s or philosophy, I encourage then to email me directly at canderson at malesurvivor.org. I am always happy to discuss how we can make the organization better. But I will not shy away from defending our work from spurious accusations that are not well grounded in fact, or informed by the experiences of the survivors, professionals, and families who have been immeasurably helped by the work we do. In the US there are more than 26 million males who have been or will be sexually abused in their lifetimes, no one org can possibly ever meet the needs of all survivors. But I believe we do the best we can with the limited resources we have.

  • Tom

    Chris, Thanks for the latest book list link. That IS the list I’m working from. And your response in paragraph 4 and 5 above demonstrates MaleSurvivor’s investment in recovered memory ideology much more eloquently than I have.

    I don’t wish to detract from the good work you do, only raise a little awareness about blind spots that continue to plague the effectiveness of the survivor movement. I do appreciate your interaction here.