As a divorce attorney who is gay, there’s really very little I haven’t heard from people about what they do, what they have suffered and what their deepest darkest thoughts, fears and actions are. People, men especially, open up to me in ways that they rarely, if ever, will open up to their closest friends and spouses. I’m honored that people trust me with their secrets, their hurts, their mistakes.
But it’s difficult to hear sometimes the abuses that have been visited upon others, especially when that abuse comes in the form of sexual abuse and trauma. Most often that abuse has come from a close friend or family member, which frequently means ongoing interaction and pressure to keep a secret.
For boys or men who have been sexually abused by men, the desire to keep quiet, to not talk about what happened, has additional pressures because they often begin to question their sexuality. Are they gay? Did they want it? When the abuse comes at the hands of an older woman there is a societal storyline that says the boys are “lucky to get a head start” or that they are more “manly” because they had sex early. But the boy may not be ready to handle the emotional side of sex and that can lead to all kinds of problems later in life: a false sense of bravado, overcompensating, lack of ability to have real and lasting intimacy along with intense personal guilt and shame. These are all possible side effects of early sexual trauma.
These were some of the topics at the SCRIPT conference I attended this past week at the California Endowment. The conference coordinators were Dr. Debra Warner from The Chicago School of Psychology and Aquil Basheer from the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute. SCRIPT stands for Summit on Community Resilience Intervention, Prevention and Training.
My friend Christopher Anderson from MaleSurvivor.org was there to present his experiences of being abused as a boy, and his three-point plan for how to respond when someone discloses trauma to you. By learning how to respond appropriately we reduce the risk of increasing the hurt, and increase the chances of starting the healing. His plan is labeled BPT, which stands for Believe, Present and say Thank You.
When boys or men first disclose there is a common reaction to not believe them, or to minimize, and that is why so often men wait decades to disclose. We need to believe their pain is real, no matter how outrageous the story, because we can at least be compassionate. Men often hide their shame around this with humor and bravado. I know because right after the conference I was on the phone with a friend and we started talking about a crazy weekend he had in Vegas as a young man. He made some comments that I shrugged off as humor, but five minutes later I circled back and asked if he was really joking or did it really happen and he opened up about being sexually abused.
Be Present means not to try and “fix” it. That’s a hard one for many people because we want to “help out” and don’t realize that just listening, acknowledging the other person’s courage and pain in that moment is the best help we can offer. When I was on the phone with my friend and he opened up to me, just being present was what made a difference in allowing the conversation to continue.
Saying Thank You seems odd at first, but in reality, they’ve given you a gift. A gift of trust. The way to repay that gift is with a simple “Thank you for sharing that with me.”
The numbers on male survivors of sexual abuse and rape are hard to pin down, partly because the government uses different definitions for what is male rape, but the general consensus is that one in six men will have some type of sexual abuse or rape in their lifetime. You know someone who has been abused, you just may not know that you know.
But at least now you know how to respond when they decide to share with you their pain.
David Pisarra is a Los Angeles divorce and child custody lawyer specializing in fathers’ and men’s rights with the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He welcomes your questions and comments. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 310-664-9969. Follow him on Twitter @davidpisarra.