This is a guest blog from Tim Mousseau who is an author, advocate, speaker and survivor of male sexual assault.
At the age of 22, I found myself in the unimaginable experience of processing my experience with male sexual assault. From initial reactions to my trauma to the healing that followed, there were countless times my experience felt stifling. A large part of this stemmed from my fear of coming forward and an inability I felt to communicate what had happened to me with those in my life. Other pieces of my shame related to some negative responses for people I knew who questioned my experience, blamed me, or asked how I let this happen.
After the initial shock and quite some time, I began to heal. After even more time, I began to approach life through a new normal. One that allowed me to not only accept this part of my identity but to learn how to talk about it with those in my life. Even then there were times that my experience felt isolating. And I know now what I didn’t then; that I am not alone in this. But when you are a man dealing with a sexual assault, support can often feel far away.
Male Sexual Assault – the Facts
Even though research done in the United States shows that roughly 1 in 6 men will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, research also shows that on average, it can take men up to 20 years to disclose their experience. Part of this we know stems from the stigma around male sexual assault, especially when we consider that roughly 90% of all assaults, regardless of the gender of the survivor, occur at the hands of men. These facts of perpetration play into the fear that many male survivors experience about perceived implications of how others will label them as a result of who assaulted them.
Additionally, we know that about half of men who experience sexual violence are assaulted by an acquaintance making it difficult to turn towards their existing communities for support. All of these facets contribute to an intense cultural taboo where men are not talking about their assaults. This is then furthered by myths of the idea that men are taught their worth is in part tied to their sexual relationships. Unwritten societal rules that then tell us sexual assault diminishes this worth. One of the reasons we know men wait so long is because they want to establish new relationships and community before coming forward. Tragically, the end result of this can be isolation that not only intensifies the trauma but also adds to the stigma in general.
Shutting down after a sexual assault
I know this because, for some time after my assault, I shut down. Building trust was difficult in both friendships and romantic relationships. I didn’t want to consider the idea of any sexual contact. Not only that, but I was afraid to talk with my friends about what had happened to me from fear of how they would treat me differently or the questions they would ask. Processing this huge breach of trust caused me to withdraw. All of sudden not only was I mistrusting of others in regards to things sexual but with anything emotional. I shut down. I was cautious around everyone and forced myself to process everything alone. Breaking out of this isolation was crucial for my recovery. After receiving little support from the police, one of the most helpful things for me was seeking professional help in the form a therapist at the urging of the few people close to me. Where talking to a therapist helped, one of the even more significant steps was getting connected to other survivors.
One of the best things about talking, first in a professional sense and then with other survivors, was the ability to feel normal again. To reconcile that where my experience with male sexual assault was now a part of my identity, it was not the defining component. In the beginning, in isolation, my assault felt overwhelming but talking in those controlled settings helped. It helped me learn about how to talk about my experience privately and publicly.
Understanding your boundaries after male sexual assault
Although the prospect of sharing more about my assault outside of contained situations came with alarm, one of the positives of talking about it lay in defining my boundaries. What we know about all forms of sexual assault is that it can trigger PTSD, impacting your behaviours and perception. For me, some of these changes manifested in how I viewed the idea of sex with partners. Suddenly, I had to re-navigate what I wanted from relationships and what I was comfortable with. By talking about my experience, I was able to determine what I eventually would share with partners. It helped me decide how to disclose, when, and what to ask for in sexual relationships. This was important in helping me feel safe again. It was also helpful for my partners in ensuring I could separate our sexual behaviors from harm I felt in general around sex. I know at times this was never easy to disclose, but it was important.
Physical arousal and male sexual assault
Learning what we as male survivors want to share with others is essential in understanding how to maintain comfort around sex. One of the common misconceptions about men in regards to consent, a sexual assault in question, and sex post-assault is that physical arousal is equal to consent or shows a desire for sexual activities. People often forget that the penis reacts to stimuli regardless of internal emotions, fears, or trauma. Learning this helped in how I navigated conversations around my own assault and also moving forward. It helped me in talking with partners about when I wasn’t okay with having sex or needed space, despite what my body might be exhibiting physically.
Above all else, one of the healthiest parts of my journey, one I often share with others who have experienced male sexual assault, is that talking about our experiences can help us feel normal again. Beyond the perceived stigma I feared, it was always alleviating to find out that those around me didn’t treat me any differently. I found that controlling the way I broached the topic and sharing what I wanted to help in guiding these people to healthier conversations.
How to support a survivor of male sexual assault
Now that I am open about my experience, one of the biggest questions I am asked is by those who know and love male survivors but are unsure of how to support them. The one thing I recommend above all else is to ask them directly. Everyone heals from trauma differently. If you are concerned about someone in your life, sometimes the best question is asking “how can I support you through this?” The act of treating a male survivor with compassion and an openness to meet them where there are in their journey can be invaluable in supporting them through this experience.
For those who have experienced male sexual assault, above all else know you are not alone. Whether it is a mental health professional, male survivor support groups, or loved ones, this journey is never one you have to bear on your own. I know that the support of others can never take away what has happened to us, but I also know the support of others saved my life in helping me come to terms with my trauma. And if you’ve been assaulted, it can help you too.