1in6 Thursday: Returning to the Question, Continuing the Conversation
Now that the high drama of the Sandusky trial and conviction is starting to settle, I would like to return to the question Patti Giggans posed in this JHF blog some weeks ago: What good can come out of the Sandusky sexual abuse trial of 2012?
It is clear that Patti is not alone in wishing to tap into the increased awareness produced by the Penn State Scandal to improve community responses to young men who have been sexually abused. Last week 1in6 encouraged us to redouble our efforts, “More than ever, we must reach out to young men who may have been victims of sexual abuse; we must be receptive to disclosures; we must be ready as professionals to provide care and treatment to survivors who seek help.” I would like to contribute to this developing community conversation in relation to where to from here.
For 15 years, I was a police officer in the Metropolitan Police in London. Back in early 1990s, I had a specialist role investigating sexual offences and in particular supporting male rape victims through the court process. This meant being there as a “chaperone” from the moment of the initial report, supporting the person through the medical/forensic examination, taking a full and comprehensive statement (never less than 8 hours), walking with them through the long court process (2 + years). In my work with young men who have been sexually abused, I came to understand the inadequacies of legal systems in providing a sense of enhanced well being. The prosecution and conviction of those who commit sexual offences can only ever be one part of our response to sexual abuse: recognizing that very, very few cases ever appear in court. If anything, the focus on the criminal justice system distracts us from putting resources and energy into developing more effective services and systems to offer support and enhance the well being of the person who has been sexually abused.
Although we understand that no one size fits all, that everyone’s journey is different, we are beginning to develop an understanding of what men who have been sexually abused find helpful and what is unhelpful. For a start, we know that if a man receives a supportive, encouraging response when he tells someone about the abuse, it helps. The reverse is also true, in that a poor response can lead to a man closing down, sometimes for decades. So addressing those unhelpful myths and providing people with tools to assist them to respond appropriately is paramount.
We now know that suppression of thoughts and feelings, becoming isolated and withdrawn, holding on to anger, denying it even happened and “accepting that this is my lot in life” are unhelpful, as long term strategies to better live our lives. What research tells us is helpful for men who have been sexually abused includes the following:
- Practical information and assistance;
- Talking with someone who is supportive; partner, friend, worker, counselor, therapist;
- Working to develop concrete life skills that address the impact of sexual abuse, connecting with and exploring feelings in ways that build capacity to tolerate emotional distress. (It’s not about trying not to feel or not remember, it about not being overwhelmed by feelings and memories;)
- Talking in a safe supportive environment with someone who has experienced sexual abuse or significant trauma. Well-being is enhanced not just through receiving support, but through having the opportunity to talk with and help others;
- Developing a sense of hope, positive re-interpretation and growth. Practicing optimism, self-understanding, viewing survival and life accomplishments in a positive manner.
This list is a useful reference and guide for us in developing communities and services that better assist men who have been sexually abused. Of course, it is an incomplete list—more a basic sketch—with each area requiring greater explanation, expansion and adaptation to respond to each individual’s circumstances and resources. Also, we now know that the above strategies are best implemented within a framework that that is concerned with enhancing our overall mental health and well-being. Such a framework is concerned with the well-being of the whole person and recognises that we all face difficulties and require assistance at different points throughout our lifespan, we all benefit from regular exercise, eating the right mix of healthy food, sleeping well, quiet time to breathe, supportive relationships, being connected within our community, having meaningful work to do and possessing a sense of purpose and direction in our life.
We are now learning what enhances the overall well being of men who have been sexually abused. Whilst it is important that we work to develop more effective prevention strategies and hold those who commit offences to account, it is equally important that we work together to develop ways to reach out, engage and better assist those who have been sexually abused to live vibrant and fulfilling lives. We now have an understanding of what works and what kind of services and support we need to develop. Our future choices and actions will decide, what good can come out of the Sandusky sexual abuse trial of 2012.
Dr. Gary Foster established and manages the Living Well Service in Brisbane, Australia. For more information see www.livingwell.org.au.
The mission of 1in6 is to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood live healthier, happier lives.
1in6′s mission also includes serving family members, friends, and partners by providing information and support resources on the web and in the community.
The views expressed above are not necessarily those of the Joyful Heart Foundation or 1in6.
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