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