Sometimes it's hard to know exactly what you're looking for...
Men often think they should know, and be able to say, exactly what they feel, need or want.
However, when it comes to unwanted sexual experiences, this is not always the case.
Men tell us that sometimes they:
- are unsure of exactly what happened…
- have very little memory, or don’t trust their memories…
- find it too distressing and traumatic to think about what happened…
- have a clear memory of what happened but are conflicted about how they are expected to feel…
This can make it very confusing for them to know where to start.
We have found that slowing things down can help.
Have a look at each of the steps in the tabs above and see if these help.
BUT BEFORE YOU DO – JUST TAKE A MOMENT…
Thinking about the past can stir up uncomfortable feelings.
It’s important that you do this at your own pace and feel in control of what’s happening.
To help you do this, click the ‘Timeout’ tab to get advice about managing feelings of stress or anxiety.
Memories around unwanted sexual experiences can be very confusing…
From our experience, men describe their memories of what happened as any one, or a mixture of the following:
- Clear memory: where they have a consistent sequence of clear pictures, sounds, smells and feelings associated with a particular event or events…
- Partial memory:where they may have some fragmented images and sensations, but there are gaps or there is no clear sequence to what they remember…
- No memory: occasionally, men just have a vague sense of unease in certain situations – but don’t have any clear recollections that they can put into words…
This memory disruption is normal and may be a way of protecting ourselves – sometimes it is just too uncomfortable to remember things clearly
Memory is a complicated process. Humans don’t just record facts and store then ready to recall at will.
An unwanted sexual experience is a traumatic event so the memories around it can be further complicated by what is known as a ‘trauma response‘.
Remembering a traumatic event or experience
Some people who have experienced trauma go on to develop PTSD. This stands for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, although it sounds like an illness, PTSD is simply a collection of symptoms to describe what a person is experiencing.
As well as flashbacks and nightmares, PTSD can be associated with repetitive and distressing images or sensations – and physical sensations such as pain, sweating, nausea or trembling
Although it can be life-changing to be diagnosed with PTSD, it DOES NOT has to be a life-long condition – there are many things you can do to take back control and live a more fulfilling life.
Naming a traumatic event/experience
Giving a name to what happened can really help..
Trauma not only complicates memory recall – it can also make what we do remember difficult to talk about.
From our experience working with men, we have learnt that the simple act of giving what happened a name – however difficult that might feel at first – makes it easier to start dealing with it.
This name doesn’t have to be permanent. (In fact, our experience is that men often change how they describe what happened to them as they begin to understand it in different ways). Neither does this name have to be factual. The name just acts as a ‘box’ with a clear shape and boundary that can contain the experience – allowing us to decide when and how we choose to look at it.
The sense of control this can give, enables us to explore the consequences that might result from any trauma in the past without being overwhelmed. It allows us to separate the original event and its subsequent impact.
Some men find naming what happened difficult
This appears to be the result of two key barriers:
The first is their fear that by doing so, it:
- will make what happened ‘real’…
- would mean that they would be forever defined by it…
- would mean that they would have to do something about it…
The second is that they often find it difficult to identify with the commonly used terms.
Men say these don’t feel ‘right’ for them. They feel they are terms traditionally associated with women and when they are applied to men, they can question a man’s strength or sexuality. Both of which challenge our society’s concept of what it means to be a ‘real’ man.
As a result, Mankind has adopted a new term, ‘unwanted sexual experiences’.
This does not carry the same level of stigma or emotional charge.
We hope that not only will this give a safe term to start with, it is also open enough to allow men to find their own definition over time.
Managing your expectations
We understand that it can be really frustrating to hear that. However, we also know that it doesn’t mean that you can’t still get to a place where you are comfortable, and your feelings are manageable.
How does that sound?
If you have got this far and you feel like you are in the right place, then you may decide to go on to Step 2, ‘Making sense’…
How the past shapes the present…
Finding a description that can make us feel safe to explore our feelings is a great first step.
However, it is just that – a first step. The next step is realising what these memories and feelings mean for our lives now.
Understanding how our PRESENT lives are affected by traumatic events from our PAST is a key step in processing any trauma and reducing the power it has over our lives.
As we said in step one, recovery is not about being able to remember everything.
Nor is it about finding a way to be able to block it all out.
The past will always exist – however, how you think, feel and respond to that trauma can change.
Trauma can create complicated feelings...
The feelings that can arise when a man has experienced sexual abuse can be very complicated.
Men can feel very conflicted and confused about how they feel for a number of reasons:
- Not having a clear memory or knowing exactly what happened.
- Not being able to work through their feelings because of overwhelming panic, shutdown or detachment.
- Not being able to talk to other people and get alternative perspectives for fear of their reactions to hearing about what happened.
- Not being able to recognise and believe just how powerless they were as a child.
These blocks can trap men in a confusing cycle of self-defeating thoughts and feelings, which usually centres around guilt, shame and blame.
When someone is subjected to an unwanted sexual experience, the person doing it will usually manipulate the situation to make it seem like they are blameless, and that it is the other person who is wrong. They may say, or imply, that what is happening is because of how the other person looks or behaves, or what they say – they will do anything that justifies their actions and blames the other person for what they themselves are doing.
The truth is that when someone is manipulated or forced, they are not guilty of what happened – it is not their fault. However, living with embedded feelings of guilt, even when these are false or unjustified, can make them seem very real.
This conflict of knowing on one level that it was not their fault, but feeling like it was, can often lead to feelings of intense confusion.
We feel ashamed when we feel guilty about something we have done. Shame tells us that we are weak, stupid, or dirty. It tells us that there is something wrong with us, something dishonourable and unworthy.
In this way, shame can be very effective at silencing men by making them afraid of what others might think of them. They take the fact that they feel guilty to mean that what happened was bad and shouldn’t have happened. Men often fear that, if anyone else finds out what happened, they will also think that he is bad, that it was his fault and that he is right to feel ashamed.
The truth is that when someone is manipulated or forced into doing something they didn’t want, the shame belongs to the person who was doing the manipulation and forcing. However, the silence that shame creates means that the truth of this gets distorted.
Like guilt, the knowing on one level that it was not their fault, while simultaneously feeling so ashamed of what happened, can cause men to experience profound feelings of confusion.
Blame: Blame is a way of trying to regain control over the confusion by attempting to take responsibility for what happened. Sometimes it just feels easier to say, ‘It happened to me so there must have been something about me – there must have been something I did to make it happen’ Read more about blame here or download our ‘Blame info sheet’
When someone is subjected to an unwanted sexual experience, the person inflicting it often tells him it was his fault. Men often feel that they should have been able to stop what was happening so may end up believing that they were partly responsible and are, therefore, to blame.
The truth is that when someone is manipulated or forced into doing something they didn’t want, it was not their fault. It is the other person who is using their power or position unfairly to do this forcing or manipulation who is always to blame.
Realising how these feelings of guilt, shame and blame can arise from somebody else’s manipulation of the truth can help men begin to break free from the confusion and start to move forward with their lives.
If we are unable to process and safely discharge these feelings, they can have a huge negative impact on our lives.
Negative thoughts and feelings: Unwanted sexual experiences are often associated with feelings of:
- Low self-esteem
- Social alienation
It can also cause men to feel confused about their own sexuality.
Troublesome behaviours: These thoughts and feelings can trigger issues with:
- Aggression & antisocial behaviour
- Substance & alcohol misuse
- Self-harm & suicidal thoughts
Issues with work or relationships: The combined effect of these negative thoughts and behaviours can have knock on effects such as:
- Relationship breakdown
- Poor parenting
- Work issues & unemployment
- Housing issues & homelessness
- Crime & imprisonment
In this way, the trauma an unwanted sexual experience creates not only damages the lives of the men it happened to – it also hurts the people around them.
Reversing the damage...
It is important to note that these difficult feelings and unhelpful coping strategies don’t happen to every man that has had an unwanted sexual experience.
However most men have experienced one or more to some extent.
The fear created by trauma makes a deep impression on the part of the brain called the amygdala and makes it hypersensitive to danger. This means that it can perceive a threat when it is not present, making the world seem like a dangerous place.
Next to the amygdala is the hippocampus. This part of the brain deals with memories. Trauma can interfere with this part of the brain so past memories feel like they are happening now so creating the same sense of fear although there is no danger present.
The front of the brain called the prefrontal cortex can be affected by trauma stopping the ability to control emotions. Decrease in blood flow to the left side can disable memory and ability to form language. Increase in blood flow to the right side can exacerbate feelings of anger, sadness and sorrow. See here for more explanations of how the brain is affected by trauma.
The good news is that the brain is not fixed, it is often referred to as ‘plastic’, meaning that it can reorganise itself by forming new connections between neural pathways and brain cells. Therefore it is possible to learn new ways of reacting to situations to create a calmer and more positive outlook on life.
Mankind is committed to helping men move forward with their lives
We know that it can sometimes feel like it’s just too big… that it will never get better… that you’ll never be able to get past it.
However, we have worked with hundreds of men who felt this way and have turned their lives around.
And we know that it can happen for you too.
By beginning to understand how trauma can influence how we think and how we behave, you can start to recognise the patterns and take back control over your feelings and the decisions you make.
A key element of this is understanding what is possible. Use the sections below to explore some of the issues involved in moving on.
Be aware of how you are feeling as you do
Remember to have a break and ground yourself with one of the exercises if you find yourself getting anxious
Hopes and expectations
When men first come to Mankind to talk about their unwanted sexual experiences, they are often not sure what to expect but they tell us that:
- they want it never to have happened…
- they want to be able to stop thinking about it…
- they want to be able move on with their life…
Over time, most of these men come to accept the fact that they can’t change what happened – the past is the past – and instead, we have to work within what is possible.
Accepting what cannot be changed is a pivotal step in the recovery process as it allows men to focus on what they can change.
Although we cannot change the past, by changing how we look at things, we can break out of the cycle of negative emotions we have been caught in and start to change our future.
By getting here, you have taken a courageous first step to a new future – the question now, is what do you want to do next.
The final section below looks at some of the possible options that available.
Thinking about the future can be exciting – but it can also be scary Take your time and remember to ‘check in’ with yourself at regular intervals to assess how the activity is affecting you
Deciding what is right for you
For some men, just getting clarity over what happened is enough…
For others, recognising the impact that their experience has had on their life may prompt them to want to take action…
There is no right or wrong way Only you know what is right for you – and every man’s path to recovery is different.
- For some men, that’s counselling…
- For others it’s reading about the issue and finding self-help resources that they can do on their own….
- For some it’s just a matter of time and gradual processing…
There are lots of resources available that don’t require you to talk to anyone.
There are many good books on the subject for men.
- DABS maintains a current list of books that are available. See the list here
- A great first book is ‘Victims no Longer’ by Mike Lew. This was the first book written specifically for men and remains a classic self help guide.
Find out more about Mankind’s services:
- If you live close enough to Brighton to attend sessions at Mankind then click here to find out more about our services.
- If you would like counselling but live elsewhere then click here to find services in other regions.
We have found that once men begin to recognise the impact that unwanted sexual experiences have had on them and the people around them, they want to talk to someone. This may be a partner, family and/or friends so that they can understand them.
If you do decide to tell someone, then you may find that the National Helpline – 0808 800 5005 – can help you think through any worries you might have before you do.
If you’re ready click on the button at the bottom-right of the page to go to our main site and find out more about what we do – and what we can do for you.
REMEMBER: Even if you do not want counselling at this time, you can always come back if and when you do…
Feeling overwhelmed can be very scary, but there are things you can do to help yourself manage difficult situations.
Most of them involve noticing your breathing – how we breathe can have a big effect on how we are feeling, as the way we breathe controls the supply of oxygen to our body and brain. When we are feeling anxious, learning how to take control of our breathing can help reduce the anxiety and feel more in control again.
Take a look at the links below and find the one best for you: