Skip to main content

Healing and dealing with triggers and fears as a male sexual abuse survivor

Share |
DAN asks:

I'm a 18 year-old male. I was raped twice in my life (6 and 10 years old) and I took it pretty well. My life was quite normal until now, and had no problems with girls. I never had a girlfriend, never been the type who commit, but I'd had a lot of sex with a lot of girls. Two weeks ago I had contact with the man who attacked me when I was 10. Since then I've having nightmares and have been remembering all what happened. I've been drinking and went back to drugs. I wouldn't want to, but it's the only way I can get some rest. Last weekend happened something that really scared me. I was drunk and high and without noticing I found myself rubbing a guy's leg. I pretty much wanted to make out with him and other stuff. I can't become gay, it's not fear I hate myself so much, I hate the pervert who abused me, I hate everything right now. Yesterday I cut my wrists but it wasn't deep enough. I don't want to die but I find hard living right now. This evening I cut my face. What happened the weekend means I'm gay? Am I becoming gay? What can I do to prevent it? How can I stop remembering? It's just too embarrassing to talk to anybody. If I was a girl I could do it, but come on, I'm a man. Men don't let these things happen. I'm just trash.

Heather Corinna replies:

Before I say anything else, I want to be sure to connect you with a couple of avenues for help because I am very concerned about the state you're in right now.

Clearly -- and it's really common for this to happen -- seeing your rapist has triggered a lot for you and clearly, you are in a state of very serious crisis at the moment. I'm worried about the ways you are injuring yourself, and I'm worried about your use of drugs and alcohol at the moment to try and manage your emotional pain.

RAINN offers private phone and online counseling for rape survivors that is totally anonymous. I hear you feeling ashamed about your rape as far as being male -- and I'll talk more about that in a minute -- so that might be a way you feel safe getting help. To phone in for some counseling and support, the number is 1-800-656-HOPE. To get private online counseling, you can visit this link.

Another resource I think is fantastic and could be very good for you is the National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization.

I also want you to try and stay aware of how safe you are or are not right now. If you feel like -- and it sounds like this is the case -- you may be a danger to yourself, I'd consider taking yourself into an emergency room for care and assessment. I want you to be sure the cutting you have done doesn't need medical attention, too: the cuts to your wrists or face could present a risk of infection if you don't have proper first aid administered.

I can talk more now about what you've asked, but I'd just be sure you prioritize your own care before you read more. If you need help or care right now, what I have to share will be here after you have taken care of that.

Rape isn't about "letting" something happen. It's about a profound violence someone else does to us, and it's something that happens to men and women, boys and girls. Many people who are raped do things to try and prevent their rapes or stop them, but those efforts just don't always work: even for those who were shocked silent or still, which happens a lot, that doesn't mean that person "let" rape happen. Too, a six-year-old or ten-year-old boy isn't a man, but a child, and men suffer from trauma just like women suffer from trauma. The idea that men should somehow be able to just shrug trauma off is a pretty dangerous idea that's caused a whole lot of men more pain than they were in in the first place. And by all means, ideas like that do absolutely make it tougher for men to heal from sexual abuse and even talk about it in the first place.

The National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization has a good paragraph about that, which says,

Myth #1 - Boys and men can't be victims. This myth, instilled through masculine gender socialization and sometimes referred to as the "macho image," declares that males, even young boys, are not supposed to be victims or even vulnerable. We learn very early that males should be able to protect themselves. In truth, boys are children - weaker and more vulnerable than their perpetrators - who cannot really fight back. Why? The perpetrator has greater size, strength, and knowledge. This power is exercised from a position of authority, using resources such as money or other bribes, or outright threats - whatever advantage can be taken to use a child for sexual purposes.

I want to be sure you understand some basics about what is going on in case you're confused by what's happening. I'm a survivor too, and, like you, I had a handful of years where I did pretty well all things considered, and then years later, very unexpectedly found myself having a ton of flashbacks and body memories I wasn't at all prepared for. I remember it being incredibly scary and confusing, and I know I would have been helped by some knowledge of what was happening and why. Not knowing what was going on or how to deal with it actually derailed my life big-time for a while, so I completely understand how terrifying and overwhelming it can be to be in this kind of space.

A "trigger" is something -- a place, a smell, a set of words, a person, a certain sexual activity, a physical feeling, any number of things -- which can put us back into a place of feeling traumatized, sometimes so much so we become very disoriented, and/or bring back memories of our abuse. For those of us who were abused as children, it can be common for us to repress some memories (it's one of the ways our minds offer us some protection, in sort of holding off on some things until we're better able to handle them, and also part of why you were likely doing as well as you were for a time there) and have them come back later due to a trigger.

While triggers can tend to make us very uncomfortable and be very painful, they do tend to be routes through which we can do some healing. While I know how hard what you're dealing with right now is, it is likely to be something which, in time, helps you better heal yourself and become stronger. And we really can't shut these dams once they open: in other words, there's nothing you can do to stop remembering something your mind is remembering.

So, what we have to learn is how to manage triggers and the memories and feelings they manifest, and that is a skill or set of skills most of us can learn. It just takes time, patience with ourselves, courage and some help.

It's normal, when things like this first start to happen, to try and just numb out and push how you're feeling away, and drugs or alcohol or self-injury (as well as sex), are common ways to do that. The trouble is that a) those things can get dangerous, especially when we're not in a state to be moderate about them, b) they're only a temporary band-aid and c) they can create a whole new set of problems for you to deal with in your life when you've already got your hands more than full with what's on your plate right now. Because being triggered is so disorientating, what you need to do is try and re-orient yourself, not get even more disoriented.

I don't know what the situation was in which you had contact with your abuser, but above and beyond all else, if you have control over that now, I'd strongly suggest not seeing him again, particularly not alone and particularly not before you get more stable.

What I'd recommend to better manage how you're feeling right now is to first see a doctor about your having trouble sleeping. If you don't yet feel able to talk about why you're having trouble, that's okay: you can just say THAT you are, and if you need a medication to sleep right now, you can get one which is much safer for you than mixing drugs and booze. Sleep deprivation is always going to make us feel worse and put us in a more troubled psychological state. To start coping with this, to work through this, you do need to be able to take basic care of your body, like getting enough sleep and enough to eat.

Make sure that you put yourself in safe, comfortable spaces right now. I'd say that includes putting anything you can cut yourself with in a place you cannot access. This isn't the time to go out clubbing or be around people you don't know, but a time to be in places where you feel safe, with people you love and trust and feel safe with.

It can also be helpful for many survivors dealing with triggers to find some sort of object to center yourself with at times you get triggered: what that object may be is going to be about what has meaning for you. If having an object doesn't ring true for you or work for you, you might try some deep breathing or a mantra you use: a group of words you learn to say to yourself when you're feeling like this to help you re-center, something like, "I am safe, I am whole, I am strong."

It can also help to remind yourself at times like this that that little boy you were who was harmed was not safe then, but is safe in you now. I know that might sound cheesy, but we do tend to carry the children we were around with us when we're older, and if we were harmed as children, when we feel unsafe, we can feel more like those children than the people we are now. That kid wanted to be safe, and you have the power to help him feel safe now.

Some other things that can help when we're triggered and are healthy are things like taking a walk, cuddling a loved pet, opening the windows to get some air, listening to music which comforts us, doing some kind of mundane self-care task like cooking a meal, having a bath or shower, even just washing your face or brushing your teeth. Again, it's really important when we're having flashbacks to do what we can to bring ourselves back to the present, and do things which remind us that we are remembering things which are in the past, not experiencing them again in the present.

I suggest starting a journal for you to write all of what you're feeling in. Doing that usually helps us process all of this better, and if and when you can start getting some counseling -- something I always strongly encourage rape and abuse survivors to do -- it can be really helpful to have a record of this process. While I completely understand the desire to try and make these feelings and memories go away, they're not going to, and to work through them, we generally need to acknowledge them, honor them and fully experience those feelings. Numbing out tends to just put off the inevitable, if it even does that.

Ideally, it's going to help a lot if you can find some people to reach out to and talk to about this. You're also welcome to come talk about this more with us or other survivors at our message boards if you like. I'm really glad you were able to start here, and hope you'll also try that hotline I suggested, but it'd be even better if you could also reach out to someone in-person you trust. That might be a parent, a best friend, a trusted teacher or healthcare provider. That could also be a counselor, and if you do call that hotline, they can help connect you with counseling resources in your area when you're ready for that.

You say you were "quite normal" until now, so I want to make sure you know that you probably weren't as okay as you thought you were: rather, you likely just hadn't gotten to a point where you were really dealing with this. I say that so that you can try and cultivate some patience with yourself, and know that what's going on now, how you're feeling now, isn't abnormal, or isn't you losing your marbles. It's you seeming to be at a point where all of this is actually coming to your forefront and becoming something you have to deal with (and believe me, I know it sucks that WE as survivors are the ones who have to deal with it when we didn't choose this) when you didn't yet in the past.

I hear your concerns and fears about your sexual orientation -- about being gay -- and want to speak to those.

The first thing I want you to understand is something about rapists which the study of rapists almost always holds to be true: rape isn't about sex. It certainly isn't for the person being raped, and while a rapist may experience sexual pleasure or orgasm from raping, that's not mostly what it tends to be primarily about for them either. For rapists, raping is about power, and who they rape tends to simply be about who they have the opportunity TO rape, not about who they find so attractive. Who rapists choose to rape may or may not be within even their own orientation. For instance, plenty of adults who rape children are not pedophiles and do not actually feel strong (or any) sexual attraction to children: rather, it's simply that children are often easier than adults to access and abuse because children are more trusting and often less aware of when abuse is actually about to occur or is occurring. Children are also usually easier to silence and less likely to report rape than adults, and rapists know this all too well.

Some men who rape women are gay, some men who rape men are straight: rape tells us very little about a rapists sexual orientation. For more about rapists and who they are, you can have a read at this page.

It's worth noting that men who are gay are not all rapists, not even close. In fact, statistically, far more rapists are heterosexual than homosexual. In other words, while you don't even know if your rapist was gay, do know that being gay is not something that inclines a person to be a rapist more than anything else.

It's very typical for men who have been raped by men to struggle with homophobia, in part because it's presumed that men who rape men are gay (which like I said, isn't even an accurate presumption), and also because it's often assumed that male rape can "make" men "turn" gay. But there has never been any evidence to support that fear as factual.

Here's another one of those debunked myths on that topic from the National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization:

Myth #5 - Boys abused by males are or will become homosexual. While there are different theories about how the sexual orientation develops, experts in the human sexuality field do not believe that premature sexual experiences play a significant role in late adolescent or adult sexual orientation. It is unlikely that someone can make another person a homosexual or heterosexual. Sexual orientation is a complex issue and there is no single answer or theory that explains why someone identifies himself as homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual. Whether perpetrated by older males or females, boys' or girls' premature sexual experiences are damaging in many ways, including confusion about one's sexual identity and orientation.

Many boys who have been abused by males erroneously believe that something about them sexually attracts males, and that this may mean they are homosexual or effeminate. Again, not true.

What our sexual orientation is is not determined by rape. You didn't have sex as a child: you were raped, you were sexually abused. Given how little information I have about you, I can't possibly know what your sexual orientation is. You say you have had sex with lots of girls, but that actually only tells me so much, especially since one thing that can be common with sexual abuse survivors is some sexual compulsivity. Since you don't talk about love relationships with these women, it is possible that a lot of the sex you have been having has not just been about attraction, but about a reaction to your abuse. That can happen. In your case, too, some of the urge for that sex might have been to prove your masculinity, since you clearly express some things here that make it sound like -- which is so common for male survivors -- you do have concerns about masculinity, and how you think men should be or behave.

Of course, even if I knew the sex with girls you have been having was or was not a reaction to your rapes, that still wouldn't tell me much about if you are gay or not, save that what you seem to be saying is that save this recent incident, you have only had interest in women, which suggests heterosexuality or, at most right now, bisexuality.

Being gay is about having a sole or primary emotional and sexual attraction to other men. Finding out about what our orientation is is also something that we need time to suss out: wanting to make out with one person once is nothing close to enough information to be able to tell that (and if it helps you to understand that, know that many people who ARE gay or lesbian have, or have wanted to, made out with someone of the opposite sex once or far more than once). When someone is in the middle of psychological trauma is also not at all the right time for us to consider any of this: how any of us behaves in a trauma often is not a sound reflection of our normal behavior.

But.

What I want you to know is that whatever you discover your sexual orientation to be in time, that does not make you like your rapist, just like being male does not make you like your rapist, or having the same color of hair or same shoe size doesn't make you like your rapist. There's also nothing I can tell you to do to prevent being or becoming whoever you are sexually, because based on everything we know about orientation, we all pretty much are who we are, and can't choose who we are or are not attracted to.

In time, whether you are straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual or something else, if you're being true to yourself and you are treating yourself and others with care and love, it really is all okay. I want you to know that we also cannot control what our sexual orientation is, we can only choose how we do or do not pursue or enact our feelings of attraction to others. I'm not hearing anything in what you have said that suggests to me you are gay, but even if it turns out that you feel or discover in time you are gay, there is nothing wrong with any orientation any of us are.

I also want you to know that I think right now -- while I understand how paramount it probably feels -- isn't the right time to worry about being gay or not or to try and figure your orientation out. I also don't think it's likely a good time for you to be sexual with anyone else, no matter their gender: that could very well be very triggering for you right now, and you also aren't in a good state of mind to care for another person in that way right now, either.

I think it's a time to put all of your energy into taking care of yourself and getting any help you need in doing that. You say that you are trash, but I disagree with you. I'm of the mind that the people who abuse us, misuse us, do us violence and harm who can certainly make us FEEL like trash are -- if anyone is -- the refuse at hand. Not us. Not me. Not you.

So, I hope you can get that even a little, and be sure that YOU are not now treating you like trash. While none of us are in any way responsible for the abuse others do to us, we are responsible for how we care for -- or abuse -- ourselves. Right now, you have the power to either do things that will make you feel worse or things that will make you feel better and support the fact that you are valuable, not trash.

So, right now, please seek out some help and care. If you need more help finding that, or need some extra support, we are absolutely available for that and glad to provide it, so please ask for more help if you need more help, and know that no one here will ever think you less of a man for either surviving abuse or asking for help to care for yourself.

In fact, I'm of the mind that when any of us can ask for help we need and act to heal from really tough things, we're being pretty darn mighty.

written 07 Jan 2009 . updated 21 Jan 2014

More like This

WANTED FOR: Pain and discomfort of the testicles, pelvis or vulva after sexual arousal or stimulation General frustration An all-too handy excuse for sexual guilt-tripping Background Though women...
People often write into Scarleteen reporting that, for them or their partners, vaginal entry -- most typically with penis-in-vagina intercourse or manual vaginal sex ("fingering"), and usually (but...

Information on this site is provided for educational purposes. It is not meant to and cannot substitute for advice or care provided by an in-person medical professional. The information contained herein is not meant to be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or for prescribing any medication. You should always consult your own healthcare provider if you have a health problem or medical condition.