“Hello? Can You Help Me?”: Creating Safe Spaces for Male Survivors of Sexual Assault
It was 2011, shortly after I became an advocate for WC SAFE. I came into the office one morning, anticipating a full day. As I turned on my computer, logged into my email and began to pull up the day’s calendar, the phone rings. It’s 9:02 am. “Hello, thank you for calling Wayne County SAFE, this is Amy. How can I help you?” “Hello?”- A firm, but inquisitive voice responds. “I’m not sure if you can help me or not. I was given your name by my substance abuse counselor, Mr. Martin. He wasn’t sure if you could help, but he told me to call anyway. Um, I’m looking for someone to help me. I went through something with my family member a while back and never got help for it. I ended up using drugs and went out on the streets and well, that’s how I got here. I don’t know what else to say. I’ve never make a call like this before. I feel kinda dumb for asking. Is there someone there who can help me?”
His name was Tony (name protected for anonymity). I can still hear the inflection in his voice. I can only describe it as a commanding confidence wrapped in uncertainty. He went on to explain that after being homeless and on the streets for the past 10 years, at 51 years old, he made a decision to get help and entered into a local facility for substance abuse treatment. Throughout his treatment stay, Tony uncovered some deep emotional scars. For the first time in almost 40 years, he felt trusting enough to disclose to his counselor that much of his pain and substance use/dependence was influenced by the unaddressed sexual abuse he experienced as an adolescent and young adult. Like many adolescent sexual assault survivors, Tony’s mother and father did not believe him when he first told. In fact, he was punished for his disclosure and later sent to live with a distant relative, where more abuse took place. The lack of support from his mother and father after his disclosure haunted him. It caused him to question everything he knew to be true of his experience. “Maybe it really didn’t happen. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. I didn’t fight him off. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I DID like it.” Tony wrestled with his thoughts, feelings, and reactions. He didn’t have anyone in his life to tell him these were normal, common responses. At a very young age, as he had learned to do with so many other things, Tony learned to bury this part of his life, resolving that he would NEVER speak of his experience again.
Throughout my phone call with Tony, he described many instances where he felt isolated and alone. He never sought help for the abuse out of fear that (1) he wouldn’t be believed, (2) he would be labeled and judged, AND/OR (3) he would be turned away. The prompt for him calling today was the fact that in one week, he would successfully complete his 6-month treatment program. But before he could transition into independent living, he would have to stay with his abuser temporarily, until his home was ready. Although Tony had begun to face his abuse in therapy, he had no idea how to face his abuser in real life. He had nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to. He described feeling like a little boy again – stripped of his power, choices and his former defenses.
Call it coincidence or call it an alignment of the universe, but in the months immediately following Tony’s call, I met three additional adult male sexual assault survivors. Each of them had different experiences, but a common occurrence: there were no safe spaces for men to disclose and get help.
At this time, I had been an advocate for survivors of domestic and sexual violence for almost 9 years. It’s safe to say that within those 9 years, I had a fairly extensive background of working with survivors from a wide range of experiences. In my 9 years as a sexual abuse counselor, however, I can count the number of men I served on one hand. Four male survivors to be exact. FOUR. By this time in my career, I had served HUNDREDS (if not THOUSANDS) of survivors and only four of them were male? How can that be? I had 4 male survivors (that I know of) in my immediate family!
I began seeing each of these survivors for individual counseling. Although I didn’t know the right thing to do at the time, I knew that I believed them. I knew that I could also listen and validate their experiences. I will always deeply honor and admire the transparency of Tony and his fellow survivors. In their sessions, they disclosed generations of abuse and silence; concerns about sexuality, masculinity, and pride; regrets about not being able to defend themselves against their abusers; and shame around how their bodies responded to unwanted touch.
My phone call with Tony and subsequent counselor/client relationship with him and other male clients served as the catalyst for our commitment to improving services and outreach to men and boys. We began exploring local, state and national resources for male survivors. We located experienced clinicians who had worked with male survivors and arranged for internal training for not only myself but our staff and volunteers as well. We’ve organized Sexual Assault Awareness month activities with male survivors as our focus and are one of the only stand-alone sexual assault programs in the state that have hired both a male SANE nurse and male Sexual Assault Advocate.
Our hope and intention is to shift the culture from one that stigmatizes men and boys who seek help to one that normalizes and honors them for it. On a systems level, that’s an ambitious goal, but on an individual level (personal, local, organizational), it is achievable. While we still have much work ahead of us, WC SAFE is committed to creating safe spaces for men in our community. It starts with us. One phone call at a time. One survivor at a time.
For every male survivor who wonders “Can you help me?” WC SAFE’s response is “Yes. Yes, we can.” Every time.
Resources for Men:
WCSAFE.org (Wayne County SAFE Advocacy and Counseling Services)
About Author, Amy Dowd
Amy Dowd is a licensed MSW and currently, the Director of Advocacy Services for Wayne County SAFE (Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner) Program in Detroit. Amy has over 15 years of experience as an advocate for both domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. In addition to her direct service and leadership experience, Amy has a passion for education and outreach. Amy has collaborated with several local colleges and universities including University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and Eastern Michigan University in an effort to increase awareness and student engagement on campus. Amy has been invited as a guest lecturer with Eastern Michigan University and University of Michigan’s volunteer program lecturing on topics related to gender based violence, in addition to women and substance abuse issues. Amy has been an advising member to several ground breaking projects in the city of Detroit, including the National Institute of Justice Rape Kit Action Research Project and the Wayne County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force. She is a trainer for the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards in the area of non-stranger sexual assault investigations and has presented both locally and nationally on issues related to sexual assault, trauma, and best practices.
Amy Dowd is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University where she obtained both a Bachelor’s of Science degree and a Master’s degree in Social Work with concentrations in mental health and chemical dependency. She has been a licensed practitioner in the State of Michigan for 6 years.