Get Real! Healing and Dealing with Triggers as a Male Survivor


DAN asks:

I’m
a 18 year-old male. I was raped twice in my life (6 and 10 years old)
and I took it pretty well. My life was quite normal until now, and had
no problems with girls. I never had a girlfriend, never been the type
who commit, but I’d had a lot of sex with a lot of girls. Two weeks ago
I had contact with the man who attacked me when I was 10. Since then
I’ve having nightmares and have been remembering all what happened.
I’ve been drinking and went back to drugs. I wouldn’t want to, but it’s
the only way I can get some rest. Last weekend happened something that
really scared me. I was drunk and high and without noticing I found
myself rubbing a guy’s leg. I pretty much wanted to make out with him
and other stuff. I can’t become gay, it’s not fear I hate myself so
much, I hate the pervert who abused me, I hate everything right now.
Yesterday I cut my wrists but it wasn’t deep enough. I don’t want to
die but I find hard living right now. This evening I cut my face. What
happened the weekend means I’m gay? Am I becoming gay? What can I do to
prevent it? How can I stop remembering? It’s just too embarrassing to
talk to anybody. If I was a girl I could do it, but come on, I’m a man.
Men don’t let these things happen. I’m just trash.

Heather replies:

Before
I say anything else, I want to be sure to connect you with a couple of
avenues for help because I am very concerned about the state you’re in
right now.

Clearly — and it’s really common for this to happen — seeing your
rapist has triggered a lot for you and clearly, you are in a state of
very serious crisis at the moment. I’m worried about the ways you are
injuring yourself, and I’m worried about your use of drugs and alcohol
at the moment to try and manage your emotional pain.

RAINN offers private phone and online counseling for rape survivors
that is totally anonymous. I hear you feeling ashamed about your rape
as far as being male — and I’ll talk more about that in a minute — so
that might be a way you feel safe getting help. To phone in for some
counseling and support, the number is 1-800-656-HOPE. To get private online counseling, you can visit this link.

Another resource I think is fantastic and could be very good for you is the National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization.

I also want you to try and stay aware of how safe you are or are not
right now. If you feel like — and it sounds like this is the case —
you may be a danger to yourself, I’d consider taking yourself into an
emergency room for care and assessment. I want you to be sure the
cutting you have done doesn’t need medical attention, too: the cuts to
your wrists or face could present a risk of infection if you don’t have
proper first aid administered.

I can talk more now about what you’ve asked, but I’d just be sure
you prioritize your own care before you read more. If you need help or
care right now, what I have to share will be here after you have taken
care of that.

Rape isn’t about "letting" something happen. It’s about a profound
violence someone else does to us, and it’s something that happens to
men and women, boys and girls. Many people who are raped do things to
try and prevent their rapes or stop them, but those efforts just don’t
always work: even for those who were shocked silent or still, which
happens a lot, that doesn’t mean that person "let" rape happen. Too, a
six-year-old or ten-year-old boy isn’t a man, but a child, and men
suffer from trauma just like women suffer from trauma. The idea that
men should somehow be able to just shrug trauma off is a pretty
dangerous idea that’s caused a whole lot of men more pain than they
were in in the first place. And by all means, ideas like that do
absolutely make it tougher for men to heal from sexual abuse and even
talk about it in the first place.

The National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization has a good paragraph about that, which says,

Myth #1 – Boys and men can’t be victims. This
myth, instilled through masculine gender socialization and sometimes
referred to as the "macho image," declares that males, even young boys,
are not supposed to be victims or even vulnerable. We learn very early
that males should be able to protect themselves. In truth, boys are
children – weaker and more vulnerable than their perpetrators – who
cannot really fight back. Why? The perpetrator has greater size,
strength, and knowledge. This power is exercised from a position of
authority, using resources such as money or other bribes, or outright
threats – whatever advantage can be taken to use a child for sexual
purposes.

I want to be sure you understand some basics about what is going on
in case you’re confused by what’s happening. I’m a survivor too, and,
like you, I had a handful of years where I did pretty well all things
considered, and then years later, very unexpectedly found myself having
a ton of flashbacks and body memories I wasn’t at all prepared for. I
remember it being incredibly scary and confusing, and I know I would
have been helped by some knowledge of what was happening and why. Not
knowing what was going on or how to deal with it actually derailed my
life big-time for a while, so I completely understand how terrifying
and overwhelming it can be to be in this kind of space.

A "trigger" is something — a place, a smell, a set of words, a
person, a certain sexual activity, a physical feeling, any number of
things — which can put us back into a place of feeling traumatized,
sometimes so much so we become very disoriented, and/or bring back
memories of our abuse. For those of us who were abused as children, it
can be common for us to repress some memories (it’s one of the ways our
minds offer us some protection, in sort of holding off on some things
until we’re better able to handle them, and also part of why you were
likely doing as well as you were for a time there) and have them come
back later due to a trigger.

While triggers can tend to make us very uncomfortable and be very
painful, they do tend to be routes through which we can do some
healing. While I know how hard what you’re dealing with right now is,
it is likely to be something which, in time, helps you better heal
yourself and become stronger. And we really can’t shut these dams once
they open: in other words, there’s nothing you can do to stop
remembering something your mind is remembering.

So, what we have to learn is how to manage triggers and the memories
and feelings they manifest, and that is a skill or set of skills most
of us can learn. It just takes time, patience with ourselves, courage
and some help.

It’s normal, when things like this first start to happen, to try and
just numb out and push how you’re feeling away, and drugs or alcohol or
self-injury (as well as sex), are common ways to do that. The trouble
is that a) those things can get dangerous, especially when we’re not in
a state to be moderate about them, b) they’re only a temporary band-aid
and c) they can create a whole new set of problems for you to deal with
in your life when you’ve already got your hands more than full with
what’s on your plate right now. Because being triggered is so
disorientating, what you need to do is try and re-orient yourself, not
get even more disoriented.

I don’t know what the situation was in which you had contact with
your abuser, but above and beyond all else, if you have control over
that now, I’d strongly suggest not seeing him again, particularly not
alone and particularly not before you get more stable.

What I’d recommend to better manage how you’re feeling right now is
to first see a doctor about your having trouble sleeping. If you don’t
yet feel able to talk about why you’re having trouble, that’s okay: you
can just say THAT you are, and if you need a medication to sleep right
now, you can get one which is much safer for you than mixing drugs and
booze. Sleep deprivation is always going to make us feel worse and put
us in a more troubled psychological state. To start coping with this,
to work through this, you do need to be able to take basic care of your
body, like getting enough sleep and enough to eat.

Make sure that you put yourself in safe, comfortable spaces right
now. I’d say that includes putting anything you can cut yourself with
in a place you cannot access. This isn’t the time to go out clubbing or
be around people you don’t know, but a time to be in places where you
feel safe, with people you love and trust and feel safe with.

It can also be helpful for many survivors dealing with triggers to
find some sort of object to center yourself with at times you get
triggered: what that object may be is going to be about what has
meaning for you. If having an object doesn’t ring true for you or work
for you, you might try some deep breathing or a mantra you use: a group
of words you learn to say to yourself when you’re feeling like this to
help you re-center, something like, "I am safe, I am whole, I am
strong."

It can also help to remind yourself at times like this that that
little boy you were who was harmed was not safe then, but is safe in
you now. I know that might sound cheesy, but we do tend to carry the
children we were around with us when we’re older, and if we were harmed
as children, when we feel unsafe, we can feel more like those children
than the people we are now. That kid wanted to be safe, and you have
the power to help him feel safe now.

Some other things that can help when we’re triggered and are healthy
are things like taking a walk, cuddling a loved pet, opening the
windows to get some air, listening to music which comforts us, doing
some kind of mundane self-care task like cooking a meal, having a bath
or shower, even just washing your face or brushing your teeth. Again,
it’s really important when we’re having flashbacks to do what we can to
bring ourselves back to the present, and do things which remind us that
we are remembering things which are in the past, not experiencing them again in the present.

I suggest starting a journal for you to write all of what you’re
feeling in. Doing that usually helps us process all of this better, and
if and when you can start getting some counseling — something I always
strongly encourage rape and abuse survivors to do — it can be really
helpful to have a record of this process. While I completely understand
the desire to try and make these feelings and memories go away, they’re
not going to, and to work through them, we generally need to
acknowledge them, honor them and fully experience those feelings.
Numbing out tends to just put off the inevitable, if it even does that.

Ideally, it’s going to help a lot if you can find some people to
reach out to and talk to about this. You’re also welcome to come talk
about this more with us or other survivors at our message boards
if you like. I’m really glad you were able to start here, and hope
you’ll also try that hotline I suggested, but it’d be even better if
you could also reach out to someone in-person you trust. That might be
a parent, a best friend, a trusted teacher or healthcare provider. That
could also be a counselor, and if you do call that hotline, they can
help connect you with counseling resources in your area when you’re
ready for that.

You say you were "quite normal" until now, so I want to make sure
you know that you probably weren’t as okay as you thought you were:
rather, you likely just hadn’t gotten to a point where you were really
dealing with this. I say that so that you can try and cultivate some
patience with yourself, and know that what’s going on now, how you’re
feeling now, isn’t abnormal, or isn’t you losing your marbles. It’s you
seeming to be at a point where all of this is actually coming to your
forefront and becoming something you have to deal with (and believe me,
I know it sucks that WE as survivors are the ones who have to deal with
it when we didn’t choose this) when you didn’t yet in the past.

I hear your concerns and fears about your sexual orientation — about being gay — and want to speak to those.

The first thing I want you to understand is something about rapists
which the study of rapists almost always holds to be true: rape isn’t
about sex. It certainly isn’t for the person being raped, and while a
rapist may experience sexual pleasure or orgasm from raping, that’s not
mostly what it tends to be primarily about for them either. For
rapists, raping is about power, and who they rape tends to simply be
about who they have the opportunity TO rape, not about who they find so
attractive. Who rapists choose to rape may or may not be within even
their own orientation. For instance, plenty of adults who rape children
are not pedophiles and do not actually feel strong (or any)
sexual attraction to children: rather, it’s simply that children are
often easier than adults to access and abuse because children are more
trusting and often less aware of when abuse is actually about to occur
or is occurring. Children are also usually easier to silence and less
likely to report rape than adults, and rapists know this all too well.

Some men who rape women are gay, some men who rape men are straight:
rape tells us very little about a rapists sexual orientation. For more
about rapists and who they are, you can have a read at this page.

It’s worth noting that men who are gay are not all rapists, not even
close. In fact, statistically, far more rapists are heterosexual than
homosexual. In other words, while you don’t even know if your rapist
was gay, do know that being gay is not something that inclines a person
to be a rapist more than anything else.

It’s very typical for men who have been raped by men to struggle
with homophobia, in part because it’s presumed that men who rape men
are gay (which like I said, isn’t even an accurate presumption), and
also because it’s often assumed that male rape can "make" men "turn"
gay. But there has never been any evidence to support that fear as
factual.

Here’s another one of those debunked myths on that topic from the National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization:

Myth #5 – Boys abused by males are or will become homosexual.
While there are different theories about how the sexual orientation
develops, experts in the human sexuality field do not believe that
premature sexual experiences play a significant role in late adolescent
or adult sexual orientation. It is unlikely that someone can make
another person a homosexual or heterosexual. Sexual orientation is a
complex issue and there is no single answer or theory that explains why
someone identifies himself as homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual.
Whether perpetrated by older males or females, boys’ or girls’
premature sexual experiences are damaging in many ways, including
confusion about one’s sexual identity and orientation.

Many boys who have been abused by males erroneously believe that
something about them sexually attracts males, and that this may mean
they are homosexual or effeminate. Again, not true.

What our sexual orientation is is not determined by rape. You didn’t
have sex as a child: you were raped, you were sexually abused. Given
how little information I have about you, I can’t possibly know what
your sexual orientation is. You say you have had sex with lots of
girls, but that actually only tells me so much, especially since one
thing that can be common with sexual abuse survivors is some sexual
compulsivity. Since you don’t talk about love relationships with these
women, it is possible that a lot of the sex you have been having has
not just been about attraction, but about a reaction to your abuse.
That can happen. In your case, too, some of the urge for that sex might
have been to prove your masculinity, since you clearly express some
things here that make it sound like — which is so common for male
survivors — you do have concerns about masculinity, and how you think
men should be or behave.

Of course, even if I knew the sex with girls you have been having
was or was not a reaction to your rapes, that still wouldn’t tell me
much about if you are gay or not, save that what you seem to be saying
is that save this recent incident, you have only had interest in women,
which suggests heterosexuality or, at most right now, bisexuality.

Being gay is about having a sole or primary emotional and sexual
attraction to other men. Finding out about what our orientation is is
also something that we need time to suss out: wanting to make out with
one person once is nothing close to enough information to be able to
tell that (and if it helps you to understand that, know that many
people who ARE gay or lesbian have, or have wanted to, made out with
someone of the opposite sex once or far more than once). When someone
is in the middle of psychological trauma is also not at all the right
time for us to consider any of this: how any of us behaves in a trauma
often is not a sound reflection of our normal behavior.

But.

What I want you to know is that whatever you discover your sexual
orientation to be in time, that does not make you like your rapist,
just like being male does not make you like your rapist, or having the
same color of hair or same shoe size doesn’t make you like your rapist.
There’s also nothing I can tell you to do to prevent being or becoming
whoever you are sexually, because based on everything we know about
orientation, we all pretty much are who we are, and can’t choose who we
are or are not attracted to.

In time, whether you are straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual or
something else, if you’re being true to yourself and you are treating
yourself and others with care and love, it really is all okay. I want
you to know that we also cannot control what our sexual orientation is,
we can only choose how we do or do not pursue or enact our feelings of
attraction to others. I’m not hearing anything in what you have said
that suggests to me you are gay, but even if it turns out that you feel or discover in time you are gay, there is nothing wrong with any orientation any of us are.

I also want you to know that I think right now — while I understand
how paramount it probably feels — isn’t the right time to worry about
being gay or not or to try and figure your orientation out. I also
don’t think it’s likely a good time for you to be sexual with anyone
else, no matter their gender: that could very well be very triggering
for you right now, and you also aren’t in a good state of mind to care
for another person in that way right now, either.

I think it’s a time to put all of your energy into taking care of
yourself and getting any help you need in doing that. You say that you
are trash, but I disagree with you. I’m of the mind that the people who
abuse us, misuse us, do us violence and harm who can certainly make us
FEEL like trash are — if anyone is — the refuse at hand. Not us. Not
me. Not you.

So, I hope you can get that even a little, and be sure that YOU are
not now treating you like trash. While none of us are in any way
responsible for the abuse others do to us, we are responsible for how
we care for — or abuse — ourselves. Right now, you have the power to
either do things that will make you feel worse or things that will make
you feel better and support the fact that you are valuable, not trash.

So, right now, please seek out some help and care. If you need more
help finding that, or need some extra support, we are absolutely
available for that and glad to provide it, so please ask for more help
if you need more help, and know that no one here will ever think you
less of a man for either surviving abuse or asking for help to care for
yourself.

In fact, I’m of the mind that when any of us can ask for help we
need and act to heal from really tough things, we’re being pretty darn
mighty.

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  • emma

    That was a really great column, Heather; thank you. Dan, I very much hope you’ll be ok, and I relate to what you’re going through. I don’t know if it’s ok to write this, but I’ve heard this suggestion before: if you feel like self injuring, try holding an ice cube for as long as you can. It might reduce the urge to cut/hurt, and the sensation can help to ground you.

     

    In case going to a hospital isn’t an option for you, well loved books and DVDs – ones with good associations – can provide me with quite a bit of comfort, or at least keep my anxiety manageable. Turn on the lights if it helps, and so on.

     

    Take care,

     

    Emma 

  • http://reddit.com/r/mensrights invalid-0

    Heather,

    I tried calling RAINN myself a few years ago, and they refused to speak to me because I was male. The resources that women just expect to be available for female victims simply are not reliable for male victims.

    Furthermore, the Canadian Children’s’ Rights Council found that 85% of victims of sexual abuse were not believed when the perpetrators were female.

    http://boysite.info/blog/?p=7

  • http://www.reddit.com/r/mensrights invalid-0

    This is the source of the 85% (actually 86%) figure I just noted:

    http://www.canadiancrc.com/Newspaper_Articles/BBC_Child_sexual_abuse_by_women_06OCT97.aspx

  • heather-corinna

    Just so you know, I did hear back from my contact at RAINN, who made clear to me that all of their affiliates are required to sign and adhere to a strict non-discrimination policy.

     

    So, indeed, RAINN does have every intention of serving anyone in need, and should anyone experience an affiliate or RAINN itself engaging in discrimination, they should notify someone at the organization about it.

  • heather-corinna

    pn6: the RAINN hotline is connected to many independent rape crisis call/counseling centers, to my understanding.  I have an email into RAINN per your comment here to clarify, but I have never known anything from them that suggests they, or the hotlines they link to, refuse to help men.  I very much hope that if you were connected to a rape crisis hotline through their call center and were refused support for a rape based on your gender that you let them know, as I have a very hard time imagining that would be acceptable to them.

     

    I also feel very confident saying RAINN is an excellent organization, and as I cannot seem to find any other reports of men experiencing discrimination there, I’d reconsider making the statement that that organization discriminates against men.  Not only may you be closing off an avenue of support for men who need it — and will find it through RAINN — it’s a heck of a thing to say casually.

     

    Obviously, I certainly hope Dan does not get refused service through RAINN (and I don’t expect he will), but the site I linked him to for men also has a wide listing of resources expressly for men in the case that he does have trouble finding help.

     

    In terms of your second stat, Dan’s question was about a male perp, but I appreciate the link, and of course, am always deeply troubled by that kind of information.  I am aware that per child sexual abuse — and all forms of child abuse — we tend to see very different statistics in regard to the sex of perpetrators, and that awareness of the increased number of women who rape/sexually assault children has been a very real problem.

  • http://www.reddit.com/r/mensrights invalid-0

    Just yesterday he linked to false rape stats from India and accused feminists of lying about a 2-4% rate. Which applies to the United States, not India. So don’t listen to him about stats, either.

    As I explained further in the post, the India statistics are an example especially relevant because in India, women are free, as a matter of law, to secure a conviction based on a rape accusation without corroborating evidence.

    http://www.reddit.com/r/MensRights/comments/7nv85/another_study_debunks_the_2_false_rape_canard/c06wlxj

    The fact is, Aerik does not argue fairly. He banned me from a gender neutral forum for arguing in defense of men, and called to have be banned from an egalitarian forum for arguing that white straight Christian males (his labels) also deserve equality.

    http://www.reddit.com/r/egalitarian/comments/7o5cq/teach_young_women_what_consent_means/c06wtsk

  • heather-corinna

    I can’t tell you how not interested I am in inserting myself in the middle of anyone’s personal disputes. 

     

    So, I have no idea what goes on between the two of you, but pn6, if you have a reconding of gender discrimination through RAINN, then the proper avenue to voice that grieveance is to RAINN itself, who I have no doubt will  give it the attention it deserves, and discuss the matter with whatever affiliate you were directed to.

     

    And since that is the only relevant information in all of this per my piece, since I recommended RAINN, I think it’s reasonable to say that any of the rest of this is likely a conversation to be had elsewhere, not here, especially since I think sexual victimization on the part of the OP does tend to trump personal internet disputes between individuals which have nothing to do with the issue at hand.  If you want to be respectful when it comes to rape victims, I think that involves doing things like keeping the focus where it belongs when we are giving the issue needed visibility.

  • amanda-marcotte

    Or were you calling for another purpose?  If you called to promote an agenda instead of seeking help, then of course they don’t want to spend time with you.  If you are a victim and called for help, then that’s a different story.  Which was it?