This essay was written for CHILD USA by Phil Goldstein.
Phil Goldstein is a poet, journalist and content marketer. His debut poetry collection, How to Bury a Boy at Sea, is being released by Stillhouse Press in April. His poetry has been nominated for a Best of the Net award and has appeared in or is forthcoming in The Laurel Review, Rust + Moth, Two Peach, 2River View, Awakened Voices, The Indianapolis Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal and elsewhere. By day, he works as a senior editor for a content marketing agency, writing about government technology. He currently lives in Alexandria, Va., with his wife, Jenny, and their animals: a dog named Brenna, and two cats, Grady and Princess.
Silence can be suffocating. Until I was 30, I had never told a single person I had been sexually abused as a child. It never entered my consciousness that it was something I would do — or even could do. I’m so glad that I eventually did.
From the time I was 10 to about 12 and a half, my older brother molested me. I never told anyone for a whole stew of different reasons: I was ashamed of what had happened; I feared the consequences of telling my parents, another adult or even a friend; I didn’t have the words to articulate that I had been abused; and, perhaps most of all, I wanted to pretend like it had never happened.
When stories of child sexual abuse or incest would come up in the news, I would feel a twinge somewhere deep inside, and images of what my brother did to me would briefly dance in my mind. Then I would bury it down deep again. Real men don’t admit things like this, I thought. You can never tell anyone — imagine all the terrible things that would happen if you did.
That began to change when I was 30 and had started a relationship with the woman who would later become my wife. We were having issues related to sex and intimacy, and she urged me to speak to a therapist. I had never been to therapy before. I always thought I was someone who didn’t “need” to go to therapy — what did I have to talk to a therapist about?
The intake form for that first therapist asked whether I had ever been the victim of neglect or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. I checked yes next to “sexual abuse” because I didn’t want to lie and then have it come up later in the sessions. I thought I’d get in trouble. I brought up what happened in my first session, and the therapist thanked me for trusting her with that information, but I said I didn’t want to talk about it, because that’s not why I was there.
A few months later, when she left her practice, she told me that, in her experience, someone who has been sexually abused as a child is bound to have that ripple out into all facets of their life, including their intimate relationships. She urged me to tell my girlfriend and my parents. At the time, I was incredibly anxious about doing so, but now I can’t imagine a world in which I didn’t.
I started seeing a new therapist focused on trauma, who I am still working with, and I eventually widened the circle of people who I told about the abuse, including my friends, family members, my then-girlfriend, and my parents (who believed me but expressed no interest or ability into delving into how and why this happened in our family).
When I started my journey, I didn’t know that 1 in 13 boys (and 1 in 5 girls) are likely to experience child sexual abuse. I had known that child sexual abuse was rampant in the Catholic Church, but I felt like I must have been the rarity outside of settings like that. I felt like I was on an island, adrift at sea, deeply alone. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In the years since, I have come to recognize many things about the abuse and about myself. I didn’t do anything wrong. Someone wronged me, hurt me, and betrayed me. I did not have the emotional wherewithal or vocabulary to tell anyone about the abuse at the time, and it is completely normal and understandable for children not to tell. I was stunned when I learned, via statistics from CHILD USA, that the average age of disclosure of CSA is 52 years old.
I also had the incredible opportunity to participate in a group therapy setting in the fall of 2019 with five other men who were also sexually abused as children. We talked about the persistent stigma around men disclosing that they were sexually abused as children. We discussed how our culture still largely sends the message to men that you cannot be a “real man” if you admit to being abused, or that it means you must be gay (even if you are not), or that you must have wanted the abuse, or that you’ll somehow be thought of as “less than.” And we discussed how we were all in different places in our healing journeys but that we all could relate to feelings others had about the abuse and about ourselves.
None of the above misperceptions are true. Men who have been abused are not less than men who have not been abused. They are not defective. They are full human beings who have been through a horrific trauma. They deserve compassion and support, not ostracism or scorn. I feel such a deep connection to that group of survivors. Those men are warriors.
I’ve sought to heal through therapy and through creative writing, and poetry specifically. In April, my debut poetry collection, How to Bury a Boy at Sea, will be published. The writing helped me process and come to terms with the abuse. I hope it can be used as a healing tool for survivors, their loved ones, therapists, and educators. And I hope it helps other survivors, especially male survivors, feel less alone and more understood. There are, unfortunately, many more of us out there than other survivors likely know. And there are so many incredible people, resources and organizations, including CHILD USA, that can help if you decide you are ready to seek it.
The more men who come forward and speak about child sexual abuse, the less power the stigma holds. I’m glad I decided to stop being silent, because I realized I had nothing to be ashamed of. Being abused is something horrible that happened to me; it is not who I am.
When men do speak out, we should support them by believing them. We should never place the blame or burden for their own abuse on them.
To all who have been abused, and men especially, please know that I hold you in my heart. You are not alone. None of us are.