Session #4 Re-viewing the past: Silence and secrecy - Self blame, guilt, and shame
- Orient to looking 'back' from the 'present' in a safe, supportive way that acknowledges different contexts.
- Develop awareness of how silence and secrecy were introduced and have operated in men’s lives and ways of loosening the hold in the present
- Develop awareness of how self blame, guilt, and shame were introduced and have operated in men's lives and ways of being.
Housekeeping, announcements, & check In
Re-viewing the past: Silence and secrecy
Placing in context - Grounding conversations about the Past in the Present
Self blame, guilt, and shame
Wrap up: Check out
Resources & materials
- Name tags.
- Notepads & pens.
- Whiteboard markers.
Housekeeping and announcements
Remind the group of the weekly arrival procedures: name tags, welcome to refreshments, cell phones off, etc.
Consider the option to ask the group for a volunteer to start the check in process, and to invite participants to share any comments or reflections they may have in relation to last week’s discussion on being a man, and the barriers men can face to speaking about abuse.
Module content 1: Re-viewing the past
Silence and secrecy
Note: This topic and session can be particularly challenging and hence, as always, it is useful to emphasise the importance of participating in a way that prioritises self care.
Introduction to silence and secrecy
The focus of this session is to look at the silence and secrecy around child sexual abuse, and its impact on men's lives in the past and present. It is about looking at how silence and secrecy operates, and how those who have been abused and their families can be recruited into silence and secrecy, and subsequently left struggling with self blame, guilt, and shame.
Secrecy and silence around child sexual abuse work in the interests of those perpetrating sexual abuse and allow them to continue to abuse and to evade detection and prosecution. Those who perpetrate sexual abuse often use a range of tactics to maintain silence and secrecy, this is commonly referred to as 'grooming'.
“A particular way that those who perpetrate abuse ensure secrecy is by making threats about the consequences of telling – for example, suggesting that ‘bad things’ that will happen to the perpetrator/child/loved ones if the secret is broken. They may also suggest that the child will not be believed if they tell. If the perpetrator has made the child feel very responsible for the abuse, the child may feel unable to tell, because they have been convinced that they are to blame.
It is important to be aware that the grooming process extends to the family and surrounding adult carers, which enables the perpetrator to have ongoing access to the child. It also makes it harder for the child to break the silence around the abuse; as those perpetrating abuse manipulates family members into seeing them in their best light, and encourages a negative view of the child.” Discoveries, P.48.
The tactics used by those perpetrating abuse to maintain silence and secrecy, such as threats and special treats, are typically introduced as a way of maintaining power and control over the child or young person. In seeking to influence the child or young person’s actions to remain silent and to keep the secret, those perpetrating abuse recognise the child has power and agency, not that they are powerless. These efforts to maintain secrecy and silence are very much about shaping the child’s actions and choices, about handing over responsibility to the child for him to see it is in his interests not to speak.
Acknowledging the effects of secrecy and silence
The purpose of this exercise is to invite the men to consider the effects of silence and secrecy on their lives.
- What effects does secrecy and silence about sexual abuse have on children's lives?
- What effects have secrecy and silencing had on your life?
For some groups, the more general initial question is an easier introduction to this topic than a direct invitation to speak about participants own experience and lives.
Facilitators have found the use of 'Picture this' or selected photo language cards as a particularly productive method of warming into this topic. Invite the men to pick a card or cards from the 'Picture this' collection that speaks to them, reflects or expresses the effects silence and secrecy about sexual abuse has. Indicate that the men might share a card, and that in selecting a card try not to over think it. Typically one or two will stand out to the men. Once selected, invite the men to share with the group why they chose a particular card or cards, what it speaks to or represents for them about the impact of silence or secrecy.
Examples of responses
- Abuse is still a secret due to perpetrator tactics.
- Isolation and withdrawal.
- Made me feel 'unworthy'.
- Isolated – easy target – perpetrator’s hone in on person weakened by isolation/more vulnerable.
- Mistrust of memories.
- Confusion of who you are, what’s positive and what is not – no reference point, only the perpetrator is the reference point.
- Punishment of self, denial of self, hard and critical of self to the point of self-hate.
- Affected ability to hold of a job – feelings of insecurity.
- Sense of responsibility, i.e. fear of hurting family, supports the secrecy.
The tactics of silence and secrecy
The focus of this exercise is to identify and explore how silence and secrecy around child sexual abuse is maintained. This review of silence and secrecy of childhood sexual abuse considers and moves beyond the tactics adopted by the person or persons perpetrating the abuse, to acknowledge the influence of context in which the child is cited, and how this shapes the child's options. This unpacking of the tactics of silence and secrecy, in a way that acknowledges the particular context, is a prerequisite for the discussions of self blame, guilt, and shame, which will commence after the break.
It is useful to brainstorm and support a general discussion about how silence and secrecy exists around child sexual abuse, and is maintained. This allows participants to share their general knowledge and understanding without feeling obliged to think about and detail their own personal experience. Facilitators to be clear that they are not asking for explicit details of the physical act of sexual abuse, the focus is on documenting what makes it difficult to tell as a child, and how silence and secrecy is maintained.
- What stops children from speaking about childhood sexual abuse?
- What tactics are used by those perpetrating abuse to maintain secrecy and silence?
- How is silence and secrecy around child sexual abuse maintained?
In documenting the responses on the whiteboard or butchers paper, a record is created of the many tactics of abuse. This is a record that can be developed, added to, and referred to in seeking to prevent child sexual abuse in the future.
Initial responses might focus on and detail the actions of the person perpetrating the abuse, what is often called 'grooming tactics' which includes 'tricks, lies, and manipulation' of those perpetrating abuse. In listing and talking through the reasons for the silence and secrecy, it is important to open up space to consider and explore reasons that the person perpetrating abuse was able to benefit from, but that were not directly orchestrated by them. Secrecy can be secured, or eventuate through, means other than threats or coercion. There is often an initial confusion, uncertainty, not knowing what was happening, a belief that this happened to everyone, or that family members already knew and sanctioned what was going on. In talking with men, it is therefore important to introduce questions that support discussion of the child’s experience and choice making, in addition to clearly identifying the deliberate actions of the person perpetrating the abuse.
Example of common responses
- Threats to harm child or loved ones.
- Fear, mistrust of others.
- Not wanting to get into trouble.
- Uncertainty, Just not knowing. Not identifying the experience as sexual abuse.
- Concern that he won’t be believed.
- Receiving gifts, money, trips, or special treats that make a child feel special.
- No wanting to upset parents, not wanting the family to be broken up.
- Not wanting someone to get into trouble.
- Wanting to just forget it and not think about it.
- To protect others.
- Confusion, embarrassment.
Module content 2: Placing in context
Grounding conversations about the Past in the Present
As stated in earlier, in seeking to detail and better understand silence, secrecy, and the experience of the child, it is important to take time and make explicit the different context, and to consider that, as a child back then, the person did not have the same knowledge, resources, and options that are available now. In facilitating this discussion, practitioners actively work to ground the conversation in the present, to explicitly notice the distance and difference between now and then, to use past and present tense to firmly anchor the discussion and conversations in the present, e.g. 'looking back now, from 2016', 'Standing here in 2016', 'back in 1983', When you were a child... 12 years old, 17 years old, 'Back in the town where you grew up', 'Now, as men in your 30s and 40s'.
It is the facilitators' role to listen for when a person moves from general discussion to talking 'in the first person', sharing something of their own experience in growing up, the context in which the abuse occurred, and their responses. 'Talking in the first person' about a man’s own experience and understanding is part of the group process and very much welcomed. It is important, however, for facilitators to listen carefully and to note which tense a participant is using when talking about the past. If a person moves from past tense to present tense when talking about circumstances of abuse in the past, it is a signal that they may be moving into 'trauma space'- rather than being grounded in the present.
The below series of questions and activities can be used to map out and explore the contextual factors that support the silence and secrecy around childhood sexual abuse, and how they shape children's decisions. The different questions may be introduced as opportunities for individual reflection, paired conversations, large group brainstorms, or discussion. There is no suggestion that group facilitators will ask all of these questions.
Who was the person perpetrating the abuse and what was known about them?
Given that men often say that they feel that they 'should have' stopped it, whatever their age at the time of the abuse, it can therefore be useful to invite the participants to individually consider and reflect on what they knew about the person perpetrating the abuse, and to note size, knowledge, resources, and status.
- What was the person who perpetrated the abuse like?
- What else did you know about the person?
- What else was happening at the time involving them, involving you?
- Was the person in a position of authority/trust?
- What stories did you know about them?
- Were they someone who was seen as aggressive, frightening, friendly, good, a local hero?
- What knowledge and resources did the person perpetrating abuse have compared to you?
- What was the difference in size, height, weight, and strength of the person perpetrating the abuse compared to you as a child?
- How old was the person? Were they male or female, and did this make a difference in relation to choosing whether to speak about what was happening?
In exploring the question of secrecy and silence, it is useful to acknowledge that, for children and adults, secrecy can involve fun, pleasure, and increase closeness (birthday surprises, special treats), yet there is also a secrecy that comes with negative consequences, that can be scary and can eat away at your sense of self. For a child, an interaction with an adult or other child can start as an exciting special secret, and subsequently become a nightmare. It is also important not to lose site that ‘silence and secrecy' is something that children can adopt to protect themselves and to maintain a sense of control. Keeping quiet can save their lives. A difficulty is that, once established, silence and secrecy can become a habit, and the weight of this 'keep quiet about what happened' can have it is difficult to tell.
Participants might take time to reflect on secrets:
- When were you first introduced to secrets?
- As a child growing up, did you differentiate between good secrets and bad secrets?
- Who decides what is a secret or not?
- Who has encouraged secrecy?
- Did someone isolate you, or make you feel that it wouldn't be ok to talk to those closest to you?
- Did your family keep secrets, or discourage you from talking publicly about certain topics?
- What messages did you receive about speaking up about, or naming, a secret? (e.g., you’ll get in trouble, you [or a family member or pet] will be hurt or killed if you tell, the family will be broken up or ruined).
- Did you have someone you could talk to or any history of talking with someone about difficult stuff or 'secrets'?
Highlighting the difference between now and back then
In talking about how silence and secrecy operates, and was introduced into someone's life, it is useful to make visible the deliberate, purposeful actions of the person/s perpetrating the abuse, AND to note the experience of the child or young person in seeking to make sense of what was happening. The purpose of reviewing what was said and done is not to highlight how someone was tricked or manipulated in a way that leaves them feeling 'foolish' for not seeing this before, but to acknowledge how the decisions and choices made by children are 'understandable', given the circumstances, information, and resources available to them at the time. It is also to acknowledge how it is 'logical' that they may have held onto this understanding of what happened for much of their adult lives.
Suggested question for discussion
- How is it different talking about sexual assault now than it was 20 years, 30 years ago? For you for others?
This is an opportunity for facilitators to support discussion and introduce information about the lack of awareness, research, information and support in relation to sexual abuse of boys and men in 1970s, 80s, 90s and even 2000s.
- The 1975 Handbook of American Psychiatry Association estimates that 'child sexual abuse' occurs at ONE case per ONE MILLION. By the early 1980s, estimates at prevalence had increased to 1 in 100. By 1990, estimates were between 1 in 6 and 1 in 10.
- The first articles published about sexual abuse of boys appear in the early 1980s.
- 'Victims No Longer', the first book to introduce and discuss in detail the sexual abuse of boys, and ways men can cope and respond, was published in 1988.
- We know that if boys or young men did try to tell about child sexual abuse, or that things weren't ok back in the past, they were often not believed or offered the support they needed.
- We know that development of sexual assault services for males has been piecemeal, with isolated service responses starting in the 1990s, hence many men have struggled to access specialist professional support.
- We know that some boys who did try to tell or seek assistance back in the 1960s, 70s and 80s have had worse mental health outcomes than boys who kept quiet (this is about them not being believed and receiving a poor response at the time).
This lack of awareness and public knowledge about sexual abuse of boys shaped the options of the men at the time when they were abused and those who should have been protecting them. A useful follow up question to support reviewing of actions in the past in the context of what was available then, is something like:
“In light of this information that historically there has been very limited awareness, knowledge, and support for males sexually abused in childhood, how does make you think again about what was said and done and children’s and adults responses at the time?”
Resisting and protesting against silence and secrecy
Acknowledge: As adults, men can continue to experience the effects of silencing, not just by the offender but also by the structures and attitudes of society. In spite of this, many men still manage to shatter the silence and confront the secrecy, and some have successfully taken perpetrators and whole institutions that have abused and silenced them to court, and they have demanded that the truth be told and recognised.
Some have sought compensation and public apology for the pain and suffering caused. Being here today is one way you are challenging and standing up to the secrecy and silencing, and breaking away from its influence, as well as the influence of perpetrator tactics.
Brainstorm: In what ways have you challenged or stood up to the effects of secrecy and silencing?
- Coming to the group.
- Telling partner, family members, or friends.
- Living independently.
- Leaving home.
- Getting an education.
- Taking the person to court.
- Putting a stop to the abuse.
- Taking some control over my own life.
- Talking about the abuse.
- Writing a journal or blog about the abuse.
If the time is right, bringing into the open some of the ways that the men protested can be useful. Not speaking up or telling someone about abuse can sometimes be read as an acceptance of what was happening or some sense of complicitness. Sometimes people can find alternative ways to indicate what was happening was not ok, by making themselves scarce, by running away, by freezing, by expressing anger, by crying at the time or afterwards.
- Are there things you did to protest – either at the time or afterwards?
- Are there things you did to suggest things were not ok that might not have involved talking?
- In what ways have you tried to let people know that what happened was not okay - as a child, as an adult?
- Did anyone take time to create a trusting environment where you might have been able to tell them?
- Is talking to a therapist/counsellor or coming to a group part of the process of lifting the lid of secrecy?
- What does it tell you about yourself now that you were able to stand up to all the training and pressures of silence and secrecy and to join a group like this?
- What is it like to be amongst a group of men who have been able to stand up to the pressures of silence and secrecy?
Resisting secrecy and silencing
Ask: Is there anything else you would like to add to this list?
Acknowledge: that while the effects of child sexual assault can feel overwhelming at times, the latter part of this session has been about you identifying ways of standing up to the problem of secrecy and silencing in your lives. By coming together in the group, you have collectively made a huge stand, a shout of defiance, and will continue to do so, throughout the remainder of our sessions together and beyond.
Option: Grounding exercise
A fifteen minute break is held following this module.
Module Content 3: Addressing self blame, guilt, and shame
Option: Refresher or grounding activity
Addressing self blame, guilt, and shame
Check in. Invite thoughts or reflections in relation to the previous exercise looking at silence and secrecy. Have the men had any additional thoughts or reflections during the break?
The topics self blame, guilt, and shame are connected to silence and secrecy, and can be difficult and particularly challenging. Self blame, and feelings of guilt and shame, often have men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse judging and negatively evaluating themselves in ways that profoundly impact on their lives and sense of self. Practitioners who work with people who have been sexually abused understand how important it is to address self blame and feelings of guilt and shame, taking time to emphasise:
“You are not to blame. Whatever you said or did to survive, you are not to blame. If you received gifts or special treats, it is not your fault, you are not to blame. The person/s who perpetrated the abuse is/are to blame, they are responsible for their choices and actions in committing sexual offences.”
In taking time to emphasise that whatever a child did to survive they are not to blame, practitioners understand that this does not mean self blame, and feelings of guilt and shame, will simply disappear. It is a starting place to discuss how self blame and feelings of guilt and shame are introduced into children’s lives, how they can operate and shape someone's life, and ways of addressing and distancing themselves from self blame, guilt, and shame.
In introducing a discussion on these topics, there is no suggestion that group participants are expected to discuss the particular activities by others or them that evoke, or are related to, self blame or feelings of guilt and shame for them, noting that men can struggle with self blame and feelings of guilt and shame for things they didn't do at the time, but now wish they had.
Like when introducing the topic of silence and secrecy, the use of 'Picture this' or selected photo language cards can be a particularly productive method of warming into this topic. Invite the men to pick a card or cards from the 'Picture this' collection that that reflects or expresses:
- How does self blame, guilt, and shame impact on and operate in the lives of boys and men who have been sexually abused?
Facilitators are to support smaller and larger group discussions, identifying in detail the ways that self blame, guilt, and shame can impact and operate in men’s lives.
Follow up questions:
- How do those perpetrating abuse benefit from self blame, and feelings of guilt and shame?
- How do those perpetrating abuse work to encourage self blame, guilt, and shame? What are some of the tactics, tricks, and contextual factors that increase self blame and feelings of guilt and shame in the lives of children and adults who have been abused?
- Who should be carrying self blame and feelings of guilt and shame?
Developing a picture of the multiple ways that self blame, and feelings of guilt and shame operate and are introduced in boys and men’s lives are critical for men seeking to separate themselves from these. Knowing what are the particular tactics, triggers, or hooks that evoke judgement and negative evaluation of self helps to be able to deal with them. Some people create a personal list of the words, phrases, behaviours, and actions that promote self blame, and feelings of guilt and shame, into their lives. By doing so, they are better equipped to identify when they are circulating, or starting to take hold, and therefore to reduce their influence. The practice of 'Mindfulness of thoughts and feelings' is a particularly useful exercise for 'noticing' the presence of self blame and feelings of guilt and shame without becoming completely captured and overwhelmed by them.
In discussing self blame, guilt, and shame, it is important to make explicit that when sexual abuse is committed, the boys/men typically would have made sense of the abuse with reference to their own behaviour or characteristics. It is developmentally a characteristic of children’s understanding to place themselves 'at the centre' of their world and to understand experiences as very much related to them and who they are - 'if bad things happen to me, it is because I am bad'. The term 'core beliefs' refers to the relatively stable (but not unchangeable) ways of seeing the world that are introduced and laid down during childhood.
In talking through what happened in the past, the circumstances of the abuse, and struggles with self blame and feelings of guilt and shame, children/adults rarely see themselves as powerless (and to not to fully accept a practitioner telling them they were powerless in relation to stopping the abuse). It makes sense from the young person’s perspective to see things in a way that accords them some agency and control. Children, and adults remembering their childhood, know they were active subjects, doing things and influencing events around them. Their experience is one of action, going out and about, riding bikes, climbing trees, playing sports and games (a core characteristic of masculinity is 'to be a man of action', 'to do things', 'real men don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk', 'the measure of a man by what he has achieved, what he has done').
Self blame, and feelings of guilt and shame, are at their core related to action. Even if someone blames themselves, or feels guilt and shame for not taking action, for not telling or stopping it, for freezing or just lying there. These distressed feelings are predicated on seeing, experiencing one’s self as having a capacity for action, on being an active subject who interacts, influences, and changes the world. Taking apart self blame, and feelings of guilt and shame requires therefore acknowledging and working through the child's experience of agency and capacity for personal power and choice. It involves looking at how this sense of personal power and choice operates and is influenced and shaped, both enabled and constrained, depending on resources (individual – child – adult) and context (place – time). Acknowledging a child's personal power and agency is a necessary prerequisite for conversations that bring to the fore the things that the person did as a child to survive, to escape, to reduce the harm, to indicate this is not ok, to create some safety, to attempt to let people know, to regain a sense of choice and control over aspects of his life, and to resist the abuse.
Discussion: Recognising and understanding the context of children's lives
In seeking to better understand how children and men are recruited into self blame and carrying guilt and shame, it is useful to consider how power relations between adults and children are established, and responsibility is encouraged when growing up. This looking back and making explicit the contextual factors that shape and influence children’s lives and adult beliefs is done in a way that makes it 'understandable' (that it is 'rational' and 'logical') that someone would take on self blame, guilt, and shame. The focus is very much on the meaning making of the child/adult, how it is understandable and reasonable – even honourable – that they will take on responsibility, self blame, and feelings of guilt and shame. Care is to be taken in looking at how someone is recruited into self blame, and carrying feelings of shame and guilt, and that they are not left feeling 'foolish' or 'an idiot' for not seeing before the ‘grooming tactics, tricks and manipulation’ of the person abusing. Disentangling from self blame, and feelings of guilt and shame, involves naming the actions and tactics of the person perpetrating the abuse, understanding the particular context in which it occurred, and the actions, experience, and meaning making of the person who has been abused.
Connecting with being a child back then
In working through self blame, guilt, and shame, it can be particularly helpful to encourage a spirit of 'generosity' towards the younger self, remembering that the worlds of children and adults are very different, and produce different understandings of the dynamics of sexual abuse. In some groups, men find it useful to deliberately take time to remind themselves of how they were different back then from now, to think about the reality of life and growing up in their neighbourhood and/or community. Photographs, momentos, or memories of places and events from a person’s childhood can be used to remember the child. Care need to be taken in connecting and foregrounding the child’s experience, to ensure that it is done in a safe way, where those reflecting are doing so from the present, looking back, with the purpose of seeking to understand their experience in a spirit of generosity, compassion, and care for the child back then.
- Where did you grow up?
- What was the neighbourhood like?
- What was school like?
- What activities were you interested in?
- Who did you play with?
- Did you have any special friends or places you would go?
For some men, it can be difficult to connect with what it was like to be a child. Questions about what children know now can help make this connection.
- Are there children you know who are that age now?
- If so, what are they interested in?
Power relations between adults and children
General questions that make explicit how children are trained to follow adults directions can be useful.
- When you were growing up, how were children and young people told to relate to adults?
- Who was meant to know best?
- Did you have training to follow adults' directions, to trust in them, to do what they said?
- What did you learn at school about listening to adults and doing what you were told?
- What would happen at school/home if you did not follow directions?
- What were the consequences?
- How does this benefit the person perpetrating sexual abuse?
Questions relating to responsibility
Questions relating to how children learn to be responsible can be useful in foregrounding how children are trained to accept and become responsible from an early age (and that any person perpetrating or abuse or seeking to keep it quiet can tap into this).
- When you were growing up, in what ways were you encouraged to be responsible?
- Were there places you were told not to go? How come?
- Were there people you should not mix with? How come?
- Were you responsible for looking after yourself?
- Were you asked to be responsible for looking after your brothers/sisters/friends?
- If things went wrong, and you were involved, who got into trouble?
- Were you expected to take some responsibility for just being there?
- Were there times when you did things that you knew were not approved, that you were worried might come out if you told of the abuse? What were these?
- How does this 'sense of responsibility' benefit those perpetrating sexual abuse?
Self blame, shame, and guilt can be carried forward from childhood. It is also something adults can put on their childhood selves, looking back with their adult knowledge, skills, and resources, without considering the reality and context of life as a child back then. Playing into taking on self blame and feelings of guilt and shame is the emphasis on men being responsible.
- As men now, are you expected to take responsibility for your actions or failure to act, to be responsible for yourself?
One of masculinity's core beliefs is 'being responsible for your actions' or failure to act. If something happens you are expected to take responsibility, even if what occurred was not what you foresaw or intended ('if you do the crime you do the time', 'well you were there, why didn’t you do something?'). As a responsible adult, as a family man, you are expected to protect and provide for others, to anticipate difficulties, and act to keep people safe.
There is something honourable in men accepting blame and carrying feelings of guilt, in that it speaks to the kind of men they are and want to be - 'responsible' men. This is not to suggest that they should be carrying self blame and feeling of guilt and shame for the acts of others.
- Who should be carrying self blame and feelings of guilt and shame?
In the upcoming session looking at questions of justice, it is useful to consider practical steps and options for handing blame, guilt and shame back to those who perpetrated abuse.
Difference between guilt and shame
It is useful to differentiate between guilt and shame (see handout & facilitator resource). This can be done through a short presentation by the group facilitators, or through group discussion, that considers the upcoming questions. In introducing and working through the topics of guilt and shame, it is important for facilitators to be explicit that they are not inviting group members to disclose activities that have them feeling guilt or shame. Session 4 of a new group is not a place for individuals to start seeking to process feelings of guilt and shame. The facilitators have a role in naming and discussing the often debilitating and profound impact of feelings of guilt and shame, and to encourage and support self care and the well-being of all group members.
- What is the difference between guilt and shame?
- What is guilt?
- What is shame?
- In our society, how do we establish if someone is guilty?
- What is the difference between feeling guilty and feeling shameful?
- In our culture what are considered shameful acts?
- What is the difference between shameful thoughts and shameful acts?
- Can both thoughts and acts make you feel bad?
- As men, are there some behaviours or acts that are considered shameful, that would call into question your whole sense of what it means to be a man?
- Or would do so if others knew?
Facilitators might speak of how they have come across 'guilt' and 'shame' working in diverse ways that encourage people to feel responsible and secretly blame themselves. Some people can engage in an act or thought and as a result have powerful feelings of shame, some people can be overwhelmed by powerful feelings, and as a result struggle with shameful thoughts. It is useful to highlight how self blame, guilt, and shame can become debilitating and paralysing.
Shame: Identity and masculinity
Shame is often acknowledged by men as the most difficult and powerful emotion to live with in the aftermath of sexual abuse or assault, significantly influencing their perception and interpretation of sexual abuse and their sense of self. A sense of responsibility and guilt is often present in shame - in fact you can’t have one without the other. However shame is something beyond feelings of guilt. The presence of shame associated with childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault often leads men to strongly identify the internalised view that they are 'bad', 'weak', 'ineffective', or 'defeated' (Cloitre et al., 2006).
“[Sexual abuse] is deeply shameful, makes us look weak, damaged, inferior, unworthy, unmanly.”
This internalising of shame goes beyond simply experiencing a sense of shame; it builds a sense of identity around being 'shameful'. This 'I am shameful' view of self can have significant consequences on interpersonal relationships, contribute to a sense of alienation from the general population, and diminishing confidence concerning social interactions (Cloitre, et al., 2006). It can have profound effects, in that men can move from being ok to feeling completely overwhelmed and suicidal, as at their core they view themselves as a 'shameful person'. The dominant construction of masculinity can add to feelings of shame in men's lives, in that it supports the belief that men are not vulnerable nor victims of sexual abuse. Rather they are meant to be in control, and strong enough to keep themselves and others safe and protected. Hence, if they have been involved in a 'shameful' act, and felt vulnerable and overwhelmed, they are failing in their primary social identity as a man, and are, by implication, 'shameful' people. This emphasises the importance of carefully, addressing feelings of guilt and shame.
Sexual abuse is, by its very definition, a coercive abusive act that involves engagement in some kind of sexual or sexualised behaviour (or sexual content). It is useful to consider how sex and sexual matters are spoken about and understood in society, and how this can encourage ideas of guilt, shame or embarrassment.
- What information about sex did you receive when growing up?
- When did you first receive some sex education?
- What did you learn from it?
- Was sex a taboo subject in your family?
- Was sex openly discussed in your family?
- How was same-sex sex talked about or understood in your family/in our society?
- How was sex talked about or understood in your community, on television?
- How do different religions understand sex and how might that influence people’s responses to sexual abuse?
- Have you seen discussions of sexual matters make people feel uncomfortable or be closed down?
Physiological responses, like developing an erection at the time of the abuse, can feed into sense of responsiblity, feelings of personal guilt, and shame. Societal laws, judgement, and taboos against same sex sexual activity can feed into feeling of guilt and shame, increasing upset and distress. Question of sexuality, erection, and same sex sexual activity will be returned to in week 6.
Re-considering self blame, and feelings of guilt and shame
- In what ways have self blame, and feelings of guilt and shame, influenced your life?
- If self blame, and feelings of guilt and shame, were not there, what difference would it make?
- How would you feel about yourself?
- What difference would it make to how you are in relationships?
- In what ways have you resisted or stood up to self blame, and feelings of guilt and shame?
- What helps you disconnect or gain some distance from self blame, and feelings of guilt and shame?
- Is coming to this group a way to loosen the hold of self blame, and feelings of guilt and shame?
- How do you put aside negative judgement and have the same spirit of encouragement and generosity towards yourself as you have towards fellow group members?
Wrap up: Check out
Review: Processes/content covered/reflections
Mindfulness, relaxation, or grounding exercise
Depending on the needs of the group, the following options for grounding may be beneficial prior to closing the group.
- Mindful Awareness of External World (Living Well app)
- Mountain Meditation (Living Well app)
- Grounding exercise
Provision of handout or resources
Introduce upcoming session content
The focus of the next session is on emotionally-engaged living. Plan to start, however, with a mid-group review. The review is about hearing from the participants to check we are heading in the right direction and covering the ground, as well as addressing their hopes and aspirations for the group in a way that they find useful and supportive. In order to support this process, invite the group members to include on the evaluation/feedback sheet any thoughts or comments they may wish to make about the group process and topics covered, or topics they hope to be covered.
Closing circle exercise: Comments/reflections/self care
Emphasise self care in coming week.
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