Ilene Lieberman-St. John and husband
Photo: Mary Ellen Mark
While any kind of victimization is traumatic and life-changing, survivors of male childhood sexual abuse have the greatest challenges. Even in our enlightened age, society dictates that boys and men need to be tough, that to be considered "weak" is a disgrace and to have been placed in a powerless position is shameful. How can a man who has been stigmatized into silence believe that this terrible experience is not his fault?

I want to underscore, from my own personal experiences, that recovery is possible—and even empowering—but it takes tremendous courage, perseverance and understanding on the part of both the survivor and his family. It's a tough road but an unbelievably rewarding journey of self-discovery. I want to share what I have learned from all of my experiences in dealing with trauma:

The Only Way Out Is By Admitting That What You Went Through Still Affects Your Life 
Every journey begins with a single step, and this one is huge. Denial is very powerful, and because of the stigmas mentioned above, admitting the effects of sexual abuse is almost an insurmountable task. However, as loving spouses, we must remember that we cannot force this, only encourage it. Fortunately or unfortunately, timing is everything.

You Are Not Alone: Find a Support Group 
One of the most powerful tools is a support group, where you become a member of a group that really understands what you are going through. Finding your way to this is empowering: You will be heard and believed. It's a validation and justification of your experiences, with the tools to help you recover. Many organizations have resources including moderated chat rooms, referral lists, workshops and retreats, suggested reading lists and support for family members.

Ask for Help: Find a Good Therapist 
Most support groups not only have a referral list but also detail how to go about finding the
therapist that is right for you. Do not be afraid to "phone interview" a potential therapist, putting right up front what the situation is to make sure that they have therapeutic experience in this subject. Spouses: If your husband [or partner] is not ready, find a therapist who can give you the tools to help your family.

You Can Run, But You Cannot Hide: Examine Your Self-Destructive Behaviors 
Suffering is something we all feel we cannot bear, and most victims seek out things they think will take the pain away. This practice of "self-medicating" merely dulls the pain and does not take it away. These are usually self-destructive behaviors, also caused by self-loathing. Why are you punishing yourself?

More ways male sexual abuse survivors can begin to heal
Letting Go: Forgive Yourself
No one is ever ruined for life, even though it feels helpless and impossible. The mantra needs to be: "It was not my fault." Every day is a new beginning, and it's never too late. You must believe this! Don't endow the person responsible for this with continued power over you—break away. The only one holding you back is you!

The Glass Is Full: Turn Adversity into Strength
The remarkable thing is that what you will learn from this will make you a more powerful person. Ironically, [my husband] Curtis would not be the man he is today if it wasn't for his victimization and recovery. My husband is my hero. Though Curtis' personal story is somewhat sensational, he has chosen to share his experiences and has been speaking publicly about abuse and recovery. He has worked with government and social service agencies, local and national law enforcement, judicial offices and parent organizations to erase the stigma of being victimized, help keep children safe, encourage men to speak out and seek help, advocate for victims services and revolutionize sex offender management.

Because he speaks, our daughter Jenny speaks. Diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome in fifth grade, she found many challenges upon entering middle school, with relentless teasing and ridicule from her classmates. However, following her dad's example, Jenny had the courage to speak publicly at her school on what it's like to live with a disability, and as a result, garnered respect and empathy from her school and peers. You never know how far your work reaches. What gift do you have?

It Takes Time: Understand That Recovery Is an Ongoing Process
Unfortunately, recovery does not happen overnight—it's a process that builds upon itself. You must also realize that for every two steps forward, there might be one step back. Allow yourself to feel sad for the slips, but celebrate and focus on the forward movement. From a spouse's point of view, it is not an easy road, and a lot depends upon timing, support, patience, humor, perseverance and love, but most of all hope—hope to believe that all things are possible. Come out of the shadows—you can be who you were meant to be.

Let the healing begin.

More about sexual abuse
Ilene and Curtis share their personal struggle 
The lasting effects of male sexual abuse
How to help your partner cope with male sexual abuse


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