One in six boys in the US will become victims of sexual assault before they turn 18. Michael Samish, a therapist at the Nashville Sexual Assault Center, talks about common reactions, myths, and assumptions about male sexual assault survivors. He also educates us on available resources.
Rosemary Cope: Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness Wellcast. I am Rosemary Cope with Work/Life Connections. We are speaking today with Michael Samis, who is a therapist at the Sexual Assault Center in Nashville. Michael received his Master's Degree in Social Work from the University of Tennessee College of Social Work and also is a Licensed Master Social Worker. He specializes in working with adults and teenage survivors of trauma and sexual violence. Michael has a particular passion for serving the LGBTQI communities. One in six boys in the U.S. will become victims of sexual abuse before they turn 18. To put it in a different context, there are likely as many American men who experience childhood sexual abuse as there are men who develop prostate cancer, but only one sparks fundraising efforts and awareness campaigns. Sexual assault can happen to anyone, no matter your age, your sexual orientation, or your gender identity. Men and boys who have been sexually assaulted or abused may have some of the same feelings and reactions as other survivors of sexual assault, but they may also face some additional challenges because of social attitudes and stereotypes about men and masculinity. Michael, can you highlight some common reactions men and boys may experience who have survived sexual assault?
Michael Samis: Sure, Rosemary. Like you said, many of the main reactions, symptoms, pain, experiences of survivors applies to both biological sexes and all gender identities, but there are some very key things that I am finding, and also the research is finding, that is unique to the male survivor, be that a boy or grown man. So, I am going to go over a few of those, and I think, like you said, a lot of that is less biologically and more environmentally-driven. So, one of the first ones I want to talk about is confusion. You know, one of the main things that any survivor experiences is confusion, but particularly to the male survivor. One reason for that is simply lack of awareness, like - was I assaulted? Was what I just experienced, in fact, abuse? And another reason for that is because of the, somewhat of the common belief that abuse doesn't happen to boys, abuse doesn't happen to men, when, in fact, it does. Another thing is some uniqueness with males in terms of emotional response. Shame and guilt is, though, of course, very present in survivors of both biological sexes and all gender identities, but around this shame is the sense of people will not think I am real man, or, like we were talking about before, people will think I liked it, or people will think I am gay. All of those are some very common thought processes sort of activating the sense of shame emotion. And then again, also, guilt is another one. One common thing with men is - I really should have put up more of a fight, or I did something to cause this. Those are some ... among many others, those are some key drivers of the shame and guilt emotions. Also, I just want to mention, something unique to the male experience of a survivor is around disclosure, so disclosure after the abuse happens. The research shows us that boys and men are less likely, in fact, to disclose, and so that, of course, affects what happens after. Reasons for that is that actually when boys or men do disclose, they are more frequently dismissed and not believed. They also have this sort of internal belief that, "I should be able to handle this on my own and I shouldn't disclose this." Again, that also goes to people will think I am gay and also fear of isolation, fears of others believing that, in fact, the victim will become an abuser. So, that is also driving a person to not disclose. Some of those longer-term effects - sexual behaviors tend to be present with men later on after the abuse happens. Addictions happen at a higher rate with men. Depression with male survivors often looks like irritability and anger. So, sometimes being aware of that with your loved ones is a helpful thing, and, of course, PTSD as well.
Rosemary Cope: Might that also lead to some addiction issues also?
Michael Samis: Absolutely, yeah. Addiction is very much connected to posttraumatic stress with all survivors.
Rosemary Cope: And shame.
Michael Samis: And shame, absolutely, trying to regulate those emotions.
Rosemary Cope: And you have mentioned it briefly in your answer, but are there myths or assumptions that people have about men or boys being sexually assaulted, and how does being sexually assaulted affect someone's sexual orientation?
Michael Samis: So, let's take ... let's break that apart. Let's talk about the myths first. There are a large number of myths about sexual abuse, just, you know, all-around a lot of stigma, which partly drives the lack of disclosure. It is getting better now, but I am going to focus on a few here. One is the simple myth that "real men can't be abused," and that is connected to a very narrow definition of masculinity that we have in this country. Another one is, "If he enjoyed it or any part of it, it wasn't abuse," or "If he enjoyed it, it was okay," and that simply is not the case. That is the brain kind of playing tricks on us after the fact, so keeping that in mind, and as I mentioned before, the myth that, "Boys who are abused will go on to abuse," when, in fact, the research shows us that most do not, and there is also around that, people who later become teenage and adult offenders have been sexually abused themselves ... well, that is sometimes true and sometimes not true. Regarding the second part of your question, the relationship between surviving sexual assault and sexual orientation. So, here it is easiest to sort of talk about what we do know, because there is a fair amount we don't know, but what we do know very clearly is that there is no evidence to indicate that sexual abuse or any other social factor, for that matter, can cause a certain sexual orientation or gender identity, for that matter, which are two distinct spectrums, though I will point out that many anti-LGBTQ+ groups, some of which you can find on the Internet pretty easily, try desperately to make that case, that those two things are connected, when, in fact, science shows us that they are not, at least so far. And the other thing we do know is that sexual abuse causes confusion. Confusion about both sexual orientation and one's gender identity are normal responses to the abnormal event of sexual abuse. It is completely normal and I see it all the time in my practice, that, you know, a survivor says, "Does this mean I am gay, does this mean I am lesbian, does this mean" ... and then, even gender identity issues, which are normal in any case, survivor or not, but it is easiest and most important to tease those things apart. Treat abuse as an abuse of power.
Rosemary Cope: That is the main issue.
Michael Samis: Right, absolutely.
Rosemary Cope: Michael, if someone I love needs support, or if I need support, are there some resources available for me to get more information?
Michael Samis: Absolutely. Before I even talk about resources, I want to say one last thing, which is that the first thing if a loved one comes to you with disclosure of abuse, or someone you know or care about, the first step before any resources is - please believe him or her. No matter what happens in that moment, whether you are filled with doubt or denial, please just believe them. That is the most important thing.
Rosemary Cope: Because who wants to reveal something like this when it is not true?
Michael Samis: Exactly.
Rosemary Cope: Why would they put themselves through that if it wasn't something that was so keenly felt within them?
Michael Samis: Yes, absolutely. So, once you believe them, some things I like here in Nashville, of course, is where I work - Sexual Assault Center. I am truly proud to be a part of this organization. Website is www.sacenter.org. Phone number for an intake is 615-259-9055, and for someone in crisis, we have a 24/7 number as well, which is 1-800-879-1999. An online resource I really like (it goes back to the statistic that you gave us earlier, Rosemary), and that is 1in6.org, and there is also a national sexual abuse number, which is 1-800-656-HOPE.
Rosemary Cope: Excellent. Thank you for shining the light on some of those myths and misconceptions that we have. There are so many resources in our society for females who have had this experience, but I think that we do need to shine the light on what is available for men because it can happen to anybody.
Michael Samis: Absolutely. Yeah, that 1in6.org website is specific to the male experience.