Digital Stories

There are many stories of men’s experience with child sexual abuse that we never hear, stories that could help to challenge that abuse. In 2006, generationFIVE convened a diverse group of cisgender men in New York City and the Bay Area to participate in a digital storytelling process. These men were supported to tell stories of their own experiences with child sexual abuse and other forms of intimate violence – experiences shaped by the ideas and institutions of male supremacy – and to explore the personal and social transformations needed to end this violence. They tell stories of surviving abuse in their own lives and witnessing it in their families and communities. They tell stories of racism and migration, of violent systems as well as violent people, of both trauma and resilience, of what it means to heal our histories and what it takes to challenge male supremacy and other systems of oppression.

How to use these stories
The Challenging Male Supremacy Project has brought together these digital stories as a tool for organizing with men. Talking about child sexual abuse and other forms of intimate violence can bring up a lot of emotions for people. When people watch these digital stories, they may feel grief, rage and helplessness, as well as hope, power and the possibility of transformation. If you are thinking about using any of these stories in a group setting in order to promote discussion of issues relating to child sexual abuse, violence and male supremacy, it will be helpful to:

• Watch the stories yourself, sit with the feelings that come up, discuss with friends and colleagues, and think about the issues that might be hard for you if they come up in discussion. Plan for how you might deal with them.

• Read through the questions and discussion points that accompany each story and choose which questions to ask and the points you want to emphasize for each story.

• Choose a place and a time that will help the group be able to sit with and talk about their emotional responses to the stories. Allow enough time after the stories for people to be able to ask questions and share reactions.

• In the discussion, focus on the importance of nurturing our resilience in the face of the trauma of child sexual abuse. Resilience is the ability to holistically respond to and renew ourselves during and after difficult, traumatic, or stressful experiences. Resilience lets connection and a sense of possibility be re-established. Make time after showing the stories to talk about the sources of resilience in people’s lives and how best to access them. If possible, prepare a list of local resources and support that people can access after the group.

Alan’s StoryAl's StoryTony's StoryNowar's Story

What messages about masculinity did Alan get growing up?
He learns that masculinity is about hardness, invulnerability, and that femininity, by contrast, is “wet” and “soft”, revealing both weakness and fear.

He learns about the importance of maintaining this sense of invulnerability by keeping a distance from people (“intimacy was about not getting too close”) and the world (“pain and suffering were elsewhere”).

What does the story say about being a ‘bystander’ to violence?
In describing the incident when a boy at his school was beaten up, Alan recalls that “we’d all been invited to the fight.” He stays outside the room where the boy is being attacked, and does not directly participate. But he participates indirectly, by not doing anything to prevent or stop the violence from happening. By doing nothing, he is still involved in the violence. As a bystander he is complicit.

The story broadens the discussion of complicity when Alan talks about the violence done in his name – “I come from a nation, a race and a gender whose histories are the violation of others.” He is a bystander to this violence as well, and if he is not working to challenge it, then he is also complicit in it.

Knowing about this complicity and doing something about it are two different things, however. It is sometimes hard for bystanders to know how best to intervene and to not be complicit. Alan refers to this difficulty when he says that: “For a long time I’ve not known what do with this knowing.”

How does the story link issues of privilege and accountability?
In choosing to challenge the violence and oppression that is done in his name, Alan is trying to be accountable for the privileges that he gains from the systems that produce this violence and oppression. The privilege of being a white, middle-class male is the privilege of being granted power within a society that is organized by white, male supremacy. He can use this power either to benefit from his privilege or to challenge the ideas and institutions that grant him this privilege. In choosing the latter, he is seeking to be accountable and refusing to be complicit with the violence that ultimately benefits him.
What does the story suggest about the ways that bystanders can be moved to respond to violence?
Alan recognizes that he lives in a “culture that trains us to watch but not see, touch but not feel.” He is moved to take action by seeing and feeling the stories of resilience shared by survivors of child sexual abuse in generationFIVE’s Community Response Project. By being more connected with their experiences, he is able to connect more with his own commitments and responsibilities to act.

Being moved to take action is also about being open to the vulnerability that comes with being more connected with oneself and with others.

What does the story show about male supremacy in Al’s family and how it contributed to the abuse as well as to people’s responses to the abuse?
The rule of the father – no one questioned the decisions and actions of Al’s father.

Al’s mother was unable to intervene in the abuse, even though she suspected it was taking place. This is because of her economic dependency on her husband; she had nine kids and no independent income of her own. Her economic dependency is related to both her immigration status and class position, as well as to the idea that the man is the breadwinner and the head of the household.

Al’s father’s physical violence and emotional distance with his sons – both linked to ideas about male power and control.

The sexual entitlement and sense of women and girls as the property of men that enabled Al’s father to sexually abuse his daughter.

The silence of all the boys in the family during and after the abuse, produced both by their obedience to their father’s rule at the time of the abuse and the privilege of hiding behind silence and denial after the abuse. It was left to Al’s sister to break this family silence.

What other factors contributed to the abuse continuing and being dealt with only when Al’s sister broke the silence?
The father’s emotional neglect of his children meant that Al and his brothers could regard any sort of attention he was giving to their sister as a positive sign that he was capable of showing affection. The way that the boys confused their father’s abuse with a show of affection reveals some of the challenges of recognizing abuse while it is happening.

Beyond their fear and respect for the father’s authority in the family, the family members also were faced with bystander fright – the denial that is so common in cases of incest child sexual abuse, on the basis that this ‘cannot be happening in our family’.

What does the story say about the connections between religion, sex and child sexual abuse?
Al’s Catholic upbringing surrounded sex with shame and silence; it was hard to even talk about sex and sexuality, let alone sexual abuse.

The central place that the ‘family’ occupies in Christian moral teachings makes it hard to accept that sexual abuse can happen within the family.

In many other respects, the church was a source of support for the family. But the church’s attitude toward the sinfulness of sex inhibited the family from turning to the church to get support either during or after the abuse.

What does Al do to transform the silence of the family into action, both concerning the specific abuse within the family and the conditions that allowed such abuse to happen?
Although Al could not do much as a child, once his sister discloses the abuse he starts a letter writing campaign to his brothers to mobilize them to take action.

He consciously listens to his sister more, making a space for her to talk that the family’s silence had previously denied her. He is actively reaching out to his nephew, to be both a positive role model and a source of support as he deals with the confusions of growing up as a young man in this society.

What does Tony’s experience with the Criminal Legal System tell us about system responses to child sexual abuse and to boys as survivors of such abuse?
The gender stereotypes that dominate the thinking of the Criminal Legal System make it hard for the system to deal with boys as survivors of abuse. Tony is told by the police to make the story of his abuse “more disgusting” in order to convince the jury that a boy could be a victim of abuse and thereby secure a conviction of the perpetrator.

The system is focused on securing a conviction, even at the cost of further traumatizing Tony as the survivor. He is encouraged to lie in his testimony, resulting in his feeling that he is “cursed for lying with my hand on their bible.” This pressure from the police is experienced as yet another violation.

Pressuring Tony to tell a “more disgusting” story about the violence that was done to him helps to ensure that the stranger who molested him can be framed as a monster. This frame fits the dehumanizing stereotype of sexual offenders used by the Criminal Legal System. It increases the chance that the police and court officials can secure a conviction.

How does Tony’s upbringing as a boy affect the ways that both he and his family deals with the abuse?
He is left alone with his experience of abuse; his family does not talk about it and the trauma he experiences. He says: “I am surrounded by my family but I feel ignored and alone.” He is discouraged from, and even physically punished for, crying.

Tony says: “In my neighborhood it was OK for boys to act out their anger.” Often, the one emotion that it is socially acceptable for boys to express is their anger. Tony describes being “full of rage” and that when he acted out his anger he felt safe. It is the School Principal who tells him that ultimately there is no safety, for himself or for others, in the violence he is using. He tells Tony: “If you do not deal with your anger, you are going to kill someone or be killed.”

What part does homophobia play in Tony’s story?
When his male cousin later assaults him, this cousin uses homophobic slurs against Tony to shift attention from his own responsibility for the assault and instead put the blame on Tony and further stigmatize him. During the sexual assault, Tony says that he felt “betrayed by my body.” His own feelings of shame at being implicated in sexual acts with men further isolate and disempower him. As he puts it: “I am embarrassed and angry but I can’t find my voice.”
How does Tony’s experience with abuse affect his experience of his body?
Tony describes several instances of dissociation, such as when he remarks, “He scared me out of my body” and “I see them and only hear my heart beating.”

He says that he felt safe when he acted out his anger through fighting at school, as if this was a way to be back in his body and in control. But this violence is endangering himself and the people around him.

What lessons can we learn from the resilience that Tony gets from his ancestors and community?
The connection that Tony feels to his people’s legacy of struggle and survival is a source of strength to him. Such memories of collective struggle and survival are important resources for people from oppressed communities in dealing with their own histories of violence and abuse. As Tony says, recalling his ancestors’ struggles against slavery and racism: “If they made it out, I could make it out of my pain.”

Tony talks about the “ordinary people” who have been angels in his life. Their goodness, and their love and support of him, have helped to sustain him. The loving connection that Tony has with people in his life is a key source of his resilience.

How do immigration and racism affect Nowar’s family and the violence he was exposed to?
Nowar’s family is targeted by anti-arab racism, as a form of violence directed against his father and his people, and the long history and current reality of US violence against the Iraqi people.

In the face of this racism and violence, Nowar describes his father’s powerlessness (“unable to go back home”) and the feelings of rage and violent behavior to which this led.

The violent stereotypes of Arabs, which are central to anti-Arab racism, make it harder for the Arab- American community to talk about men’s violence within the community, for fear of reinforcing this stereotype.

What does Nowar learn and not learn from his father? How does this affect Nowar’s own relationship to violence?
Nowar lists many positive qualities that he learned from his father – how to be generous and how to put others’ needs before your own.

He also learned about violence from his father: “How to rage and discipline a son by beating him” and “how to belittle your partner.”

He also learned that the way to deal with suffering is to go inward and to bottle up feelings until they explode. He learned how to use anger and aggression to stay in control and that it is OK to take out feelings of anger and hurt on others, and OK for men to hurt women.

Nowar did not learn, until later, about the connections between anger, male privilege and men’s violence; that male privilege gives men permission to act out their anger with violence (women also get angry but have much less permission to act this out through violence).

Nowar did not learn how to express his feelings in a way that took care of himself and others and that helped him deal with these feelings rather than act them out on others.

What does the story say about the roots of men’s violence?
The emotional repression of masculinity prevents men from talking about their feelings, but instead keeps the lid on them until they explode in violence.

Male privilege gives men permission to act out their anger in violence, especially against women.

The inferior status of women in society makes them a target for men’s violence, not least when men’s own status is threatened by other forms of oppression (such as racism).

What roles do women play in Nowar’s story?
The story shows Nowar’s mother as the survivor of his father’s anger and aggression. It says little else about her, so we cannot say much else about the roles that she played in his life.

Nowar’s female partner confronts him compassionately about the way he is acting out his feelings and hurting others by simply asking him: “Where did you learn that it was ok to hurt someone when you were upset?”. In this way, she helps him to be accountable for his behavior and to change the way that he deals with anger.

What does Nowar do to transform? What helps him to transform?
He talks about what is going on for him and his struggle to express what he is feeling and not hurt others.

He seeks the company and support of other men who are struggling with the same issues, so that they can help each other. It is this experience of support from other men, which his father never had, that helps him to transform.