By Peter Pollard
During my 30 years working with boys and men who have experienced trauma and violence, one of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered to providing healing resources is a near-universal reluctance among providers, policy-makers, child welfare and justice systems (and, yes, among most men and boys themselves) to validate the impacts of victimization on males.
Widely endorsed masculine norms make it emotionally and physically unsafe for males to be identified as a victim. Over the years, I’ve been privy to many of the self-defeating strategies males use to survive without disclosing their vulnerability.
Like females, boys and men experience a full range of emotions, including empathy, fear, sadness, protectiveness, joy, love, vulnerability and grief.
But those masculine norms, enforced by both males and females, shame boys and men who acknowledge or display the full range. Research shows shame frequently generates self-loathing, defensiveness and powerlessness. And when boys and men feel emotionally or physically powerless (even when they don’t look powerless), the only coping responses society offers them to feel safe are:
•Numbing behaviors - addiction to work, food, exercise, substances, etc.
•Isolation – emotional and/or physical withdrawal
•Shaming others to deflect shame
•Violence against others and self –physical/emotional/sexual assault; suicide
•Extreme risk-taking – potential “accidental” self-harm or suicide
Some of those responses may help them momentarily feel less vulnerable.
Some may make them appear threatening.
None of them leads to healing.
Tragically, some may be hurtful toward others or themselves.
It should go without saying that no trauma anyone has experienced ever excuses harm to others.
So, if we really want to help boys and men who’ve been victimized to heal and to use different coping strategies, we need to expand their safe options.
Otherwise, we continue to end up with vulnerable, traumatized males “choosing” violence, “choosing” addictions, and “choosing’’ homelessness as coping strategies.
Currently, boys and men are much more likely to turn up in the principal’s office, an emergency room, or a court room than a therapist’s room asking for services as a victim. And we wonder, “what’s wrong with this guy?”
The understanding that those negative behaviors may signal that they’ve experienced trauma holds great promise of shifting that declaration to the more trauma-informed question of “what happened to that guy (or girl”) and ultimately, for changing those norms.
In my years listening to young boys who I removed from their families because of abuse or neglect; to young men of color in communities with high rates of poverty, few opportunities and intolerable rates of violence; to adult males recovering from lives disrupted by unwanted or abusive sexual experiences, I gained a deeper appreciation of how many factors are at play in any behavioral outcome.
I’ve realized that when a man or boy’s behavior makes no sense to me, they’re most likely making decisions about survival based on safety calculations that I can’t even conceive of. When I view his behaviors through the lens of what constitutes safety in his world, rather than mine, I arrive at a richer understanding of his challenges.
Hopefully then, my efforts to meet his needs becomes more grounded in his reality.
Contrary to conventional wisdom in the field, I’ve found again and again, that when a male’s own trauma is validated, he’s in a safer place to acknowledge his own vulnerability, and to be accountable for any harm he may have caused to others or himself. He’s then better able to consider and learn about more healthy and hopeful coping responses ------ or in other words, to heal.
And, after all, healing people heal communities.