**This article was originally published on the Facebook page of our friends at Hopeshot Moms.**
I once had someone tell me that she didn’t feel like she was able to attend the support group for sexual assault survivors in her neighborhood. She said that it was free, within walking distance, and even held at a time that worked with her schedule. But she felt like her experience wasn’t “as bad” as what some other people had experienced. She felt like it was a group where everyone had broken their leg, and she would be showing up with only a stubbed toe. I reminded her that it’s best to not compare stories like that, because even if she had “only” experienced a stubbed toe, she still should be able to heal from it. She still deserved to be able to walk without the impediment of a stubbed toe. And, no amount of other people’s broken legs had anything to do with her stubbed toe, and her right to heal from it.
I am a big proponent for not comparing our traumatic experiences to those of others, yet I am guilty of it as well. It seems the more work I do with folks who have experienced sexual violence, the more I am able to clearly recognize how fortunate I was to have the support system I had. This holds even more true when my story is in the same light as other men. I was sexually abused by my father growing up. My parents were never married, and I’d spend every other weekend at my father’s house. And even though my mom did everything she could to ensure I was well-educated in topics like sex, harassment, anatomy, and even rape, I didn’t recognize my own experience for what it was. I honestly expected that I would get in trouble if I told my mom…so I didn’t. For three years.
Finally the abuse reached a point where the idea of being in trouble was far more palatable than ever going back to my das’s, so I told her. I told her what had been going on. What he had been doing. And instead of grounding or scolding me, she told me she loved me. She told me she was proud of me for telling her. She told me it wasn’t my fault and that I didn’t ever have to go back there. She got me into counseling and built a community around me to make sure that I was able to heal and move forward knowing that my worth as a person was not impacted by what he had done. Because of the support system she built for me, I was able to talk about my experiences. And so I did.
As I got older I would share my story, and I started to hear other people’s stories. Many were similar to mine, many were different, but I started learning how many people didn’t have the support I was fortunate enough to have. Or their parents didn’t believe them. Or they didn’t even recognize that something was wrong until many years later. Many told me that I was the very first person they ever even told. It was because of these stories that I created A Voice For The Innocent – a community of support for people who had been hurt by sexual violence. I wanted to give the very same community to others that my mom had given to me. Survivors can come on and anonymously share their stories and talk with trained volunteers. From there, we can connect people with resources in their own communities – resources that I didn’t know existed. Resources that, had it not been for my mom, I may have desperately needed, yet wouldn’t have known how to seek out.
Since creating this organization eight years ago, I’ve gotten to do social work in several different capacities, one of which was co-facilitating a Healthy Relationships group with men in a drug and alcohol rehab facility. We would have specific conversations with men around masculinity, around domestic violence, around sexual abuse, and around positive ways to cope with breakups. The third week – sexual abuse week – was always the hardest. I was always floored by the amount of men who had been abused as children and hadn’t ever had support. There were men who I witnessed making the connection from the abuse they endured to the addictions they battled today. I talked with men who were well into adulthood, who recognized that they had been abused, but also had been told their entire lives that boys and men can’t even be victims. That emotions are weak. That depression and anxiety make you “not a real man”. To man up. Boys don’t cry.
People often ask me if I think it’s harder for boys to heal from abuse than it is for girls, and I don’t. I don’t think it’s necessarily harder for any gender, but I do think there are different obstacles. The rigid ideas of manhood and toxic masculinity certainly affected me as I was growing up, but on the other hand, I’ve never been questioned about what I was wearing when abused. I’ve never been worried to walk alone at night, or been taught to cover my drink. I don’t think it’s harder for boys – just different. What I will say is that we need to start creating spaces for boys and men to figure these things out.
We need to continue chiseling away at a harmful definition of masculinity, and we need to remind our boys that they are allowed to have a whole spectrum of human emotions, and teach them the healthy ways to cope with those emotions.
The flipside of comparing our stubbed toes to broken legs is downplaying our broken legs and saying they are stubbed toes. Boys have been taught for decades that this is what it means to be a man, but honestly, I am sick of seeing men need crutches.