Building Self-Resiliency in our Work with Sexual Assault Survivors

Self-care is so obvious a prescription for first-line crisis responders that it has become something of a cliché: before you can put the oxygen mask on your child, you must first apply it to yourself. The consequence for not giving yourself oxygen first is clear; unconscious, you won’t be any good to your child at all.

Self-care might be the obvious prescription for this line of work, but- as it turns out- it is not the most instinctive. Many of us were taught at an early age to always adopt a posture of service to others. After all, we didn’t gravitate toward advocating for or providing services to survivors of sexual violence because we are most concerned about ourselves. And for most of us the act of looking inward to assess our own needs can be downright uncomfortable, particularly if doing so has us revisit traumatic experiences.

Recently I had the opportunity to examine the impact of various mindfulness exercises in working with trauma survivors. I was fortunate to attend the Family Justice Center Conference in San Diego, where I explored a variety of subjects, from intervening with adults who have high Adverse Childhood Experience scores to introducing deep breathing techniques to children who are dis-regulated. After the conference, I participated in a two-day workshop in the Community Resiliency Model, which uses the language of bodily sensation and mindfulness as a sort of behavioral first aid for those who are operating outside their “resiliency zone,” a state in which we perform and act at our most optimal. 

In trying to synthesize all of this great information, my mind invariably travels back to how we can equip ourselves and each other with the self-care needed to sustain the work we do at Our VOICE. How can we give care to the care giver? How can we build resiliency as a network of people providing hope and support to victims of sexual violence? How can we place the oxygen mask to our collective face first?

At Our VOICE we strive to give attention to these questions in an intentional way, building resources through both staff and volunteers so that we can be a community of care operating in our “resiliency zone.”

As with the proverbial oxygen mask, it starts with our individual practice first. Inspired by the classes I have taken, I am developing my own mindfulness practice through meditating. I have learned a number of things about myself since starting this practice. Above all, I have learned that the muscle for emptying my mind is very, very weak. I live in my head too much, and I am many more times likely to tick down my “to do” list than I am to concentrate on my breathing. But I am trying. And I challenge each of you to find something that helps you feel centered throughout the day.

There’s no one correct prescription for self-care. Do yoga if it’s your thing. Walk in the woods with your dog. Enjoy time with a supportive friend. Get a massage. Use mindfulness apps like IChill (which describes the Community Resiliency Model and its techniques) or Stop, Breathe, & Think (a guided meditation app for beginners).
Do whatever to take care of yourself. If not for yourself, then for the volunteer who accompanies a victim to the hospital, for the educator who hears a child disclose sexual abuse, and for survivor of sexual assault who comes to Our VOICE for healing and hope.

 

–Val is the Program Director at Our VOICE.

1 in 6, Part 1 – Basic facts

Over several installments, this blog will explore how sexual trauma affects cisgender men. As the men’s counselor and 1 in 6 project coordinator for Our Voice, I have compiled information gathered from websites, journals, news articles, and most importantly, my clients – people who have experienced sexual trauma and identify or present as male. Most of the research (as well as the grant funding my position) focuses on cisgender men, and the blog’s focus will be limited in that way. I will be speaking plainly and directly about sexual trauma, so: trigger warning.

The best statistics, compiled from studies spanning a few decades, tell us that about 1 in 6 men experience “unwanted or abusive” sexual experiences before the age of 18. About 1 in 10 rape victims are male. These statistics are also based on reported experiences – to doctors, on national health surveys, at college campuses – and so we can safely assume that the actual incidence is much higher. (1in6.org)

Men don’t tend to talk openly about sexual trauma. Many of my clients who were abused in childhood have never told anyone – and most of them don’t enter counseling until their 30s or 40s. Some have only told their trusted partners. Almost all of them kept it a secret, only asking for help now, when they recognize how it has impacted their lives, through addiction, anxiety, depression, or difficulties with steady employment.

“Only 16% of men with documented histories of sexual abuse (by social service agencies, which means it was very serious) considered themselves to have been sexually abused – compared to 64% of women with documented histories in the same study.” (1in6.org)

Survivors of sexual assault are:
 3 times more likely to have depression
 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide
 6 times more likely to suffer from PTSD
 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol
 26 times more likely to abuse drugs (rainn.org)

Men keep it a secret, or don’t recognize it as abuse, for a number of reasons. The main one is shame. They ask themselves “how could I have let this happen” or “what would people think of me?” And when some of them have shared, they were shamed for “not fighting” or being “weak.” Another reason men don’t disclose is that they fear they will be looked at as potential perpetrators. Research shows that most survivors of sexual trauma do not become perpetrators. But some male survivors, upon disclosing, have been shunned and told they are not welcome around the listener’s children.

Another reason men often don’t identify as survivors is because the experience may have felt pleasurable physically, even if not emotionally. Some feel guilty because their bodies responded while the rest of them stayed frozen in shock. This can all be confusing for men, who question their sexual identity, or what healthy relationships look like. Most experiences like that, especially with someone years older than the men were at that time, tend to be harmful. Physical arousal is not consent. These experiences sexualize children earlier than they are developmentally ready to integrate. The men I work with who have questions around this often see how it has affected their sexual or romantic relationships in harmful and destructive ways.

Research shows us that sexual orientation has nothing to do with sexual abuse. Perpetrators are pedophiles, and sexual abuse is not gay or straight. Most men who perpetrate sexually on boys identify as heterosexual. Survivors’ sexual orientations are not changed by the gender identity of the perpetrator. (1in6.org)

Most of my male clients suffer from shame, anxiety, depression, addiction, and confusion. Once they decide to disclose their experiences, I’m able to work with them to understand their experiences, and begin to heal from them. Often just telling someone confidentially for the first time is a relief.

Our Voice offers free and confidential therapeutic services to anyone who has had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences, as a child or adult. Services are also available for the loved ones of the survivors – friends, families, parents and partners – to help them understand and support their loved one. Please call our crisis line at 828 255 7576.

How you can respond to a disclosure:
• Empathize: “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
• Validate: “It makes sense you feel that way.”
• Normalize: “It happens to at least 1 in 6 men”
• Support: “It wasn’t your fault.”
• Listen more than you talk

Other resources:
www.1in6.org
www.malesurvivor.org
www.rainn.org
“Evicting the Perpetrator” by Ken Singer
“Victims No Longer” by Mike Lew

–Papillon DeBoer, LPCA is the 1 in 6 Program Counselor and Coordinator