How the internet helps abuse survivors
As Men’s Health Week 2011 focuses on improving men’s health using new technologies, Duncan Craig, Founder and Service Director for Survivors Manchester reports on the findings of his recent research into the use of online resources and the internet by adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
In the absence of specific face to face services for men, male survivors of childhood sexual abuse are increasingly turning to specialist websites as a way to safely break the silence and begin their own unique healing process. That, at least, is the conclusion of the research I’ve been carrying out for my Masters degree at the University of Manchester.
I was abused as a child and young adult and spent over fifteen years finding ways of blocking out the feelings of shame, guilt, disgust and anger. But in 2007, whilst studying counselling – also at the University of Manchester, I had to deal with the legacy of the past and finally admit to myself that I was a victim.
I suppose I always knew what happened in the past was wrong, but I had retold the story to myself many times as a way to protect myself from the truth. Who the hell wants to remember that! But when I began my clinical practice training and came face to face with the issue of sexual abuse, I knew that I had to face my own demons.
I had briefly hinted at my past whilst working with my clinical supervisor, but it was on the Internet that I first began to really admit that I was a victim, no Survivor, of childhood sexual abuse. I would pretty much wait till I was on my own, then log on to these specialist sites and read the message boards, blogs and stories that men had written, sometimes staying up until the small hours. It was like people who I had never met were somehow able to see inside my head and write how I was feeling. Having hung around the chat rooms for a while, I soon felt brave enough to speak up, just starting with an ‘hello’. Most of the people on these sites were in America but that didn’t matter to me, all that mattered was that I was speaking to someone that knew how I felt and had been through something that I had been through. Someone that understood silence, someone that understood shame, someone that understood how it feels to scrub yourself in the shower so much, your skin hurts but you can still see the dirt. It was so liberating and if I could, I would have stayed up all night every night and talked and talked. I didn’t want to close those windows because it felt like I was breaking a connection.
What starts the healing journey?
As I began to learn more about my own issues and how abuse had affected me, I began to be able to listen more to and understand other men. I started reading key text books, research articles and so began a foray into what is now my Masters degree subject, the sexual victimisation of men.
I knew that I wanted to find out what it was that male survivors find therapeutic in order to begin their healing journey, but I wasn’t too sure how to approach it. However, after many conversations and debates with two fantastic and extremely supportive university lecturers, Dr Lennie and Dr Hanley, I decided upon an investigation into the use of the Internet and online resources by adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I called the study ‘Virtually Helping’”.
It was important to me and to the integrity of the research project that I carried out the actual data collection online. The research design had to be conducive to the subject. So I designed and built a microsite that used text and audio to inform potential participants of the research and process, enabling them to anonymously make an informed choice about their engagement in the research. I advertised the research on various specialist websites, Facebook groups and through support organisations newsletters and feeds and in April 2010, data collection started.”
I immersed myself in the data. The results were fascinating: 70% of participants were UK residents; 31% of participants were aged 40-49; 30% were aged 50-59; and 20% were in their 20s. This age range certainly fits with researchers stating that on average men take in excess of twenty years to disclose childhood sexual abuse.
When asked about internet useage, those aged 50-59 were the group that stated they most used Facebook, whereas those in their 40s used social networking sites the least. Unsurprisingly, the majority of participants accessed specialist survivor sites at the end of the day, from 7pm – 2am, staying online on average in one ‘sitting’ for 1 hour and 8 minutes. Those in their 50s were more likely than any other age group to be online between 9pm and 12am.
Some 72% of participants stated that they used the self-help sections and 50% stated they used the message boards. Those in their 20s and 30s stated using chat facilities more than anyone else.
Why is the internet is used?
The study also revealed some interesting facts and three main overriding reasons why online resources were being used. These were:
the use of online anonymity to discuss issues, often shrouded in shame, that participants find difficult to discuss face-to-face in an offline environment;
the importance of being able to connect with others that have had similar experiences to one’s own that allow one to feel less isolated, whilst still retaining a level of anonymity; and
most interestingly, and contradicting the need for anonymity, the fact that there is little or no face-to-face or offline alternative to online support as a male survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
All the participants had really thought about what they wanted to say and spoke up. It was an incredible honour for me to be reading these words. One man said ‘online support is sort of anonymous so it is easier to talk about deeply shameful and embarrassing stuff that I can’t get out to real people’; another said ‘I found it difficult to express myself about issues one to one in person’.
The internet not only offered access to a support tool when the participant needed it, “accessible 24/7”, but it was a highly important practical tool in itself for one individual who stated: ‘I first disclosed the abuse by posting it on a male survivor message board and emailing my friend a link to it’.
The research found that 73% of participants stated they still use the site they originally found citing ‘sharing takes away the loneliness’; ‘I feel I learn from others experiences’; ‘I would be dead without the support I receive’. Whilst 87% of people found that specialist sites helped – ‘Put me in contact with others to begin breaking the isolation”, and “allowing me to discuss online with fellow survivors things I couldn't talk to my friends and family about.’
It’s evident that when given a space that a male survivor feels safe to express himself in, he will find his voice and break the silence. Even those that decided they did not want to participate in the full survey by stating that they choose not to consent or those that did consent but were then unable to comment further, have still been able to have their voices heard and presence registered.
The research concludes it appears that the anonymity of online is important for male survivors. But rather than choosing to use cyberspace to heal, maybe they have been forced to go online because of the very real and obvious lack of face to face and offline specialist support for men.
Still a desire for face to face support
This study has found that although some male survivors desire face-to-face support in their healing at some point, the internet and specialist websites are providing an important step in the healing journey. Providing that websites are both functional, informative, inclusive and easy to navigate, male survivors of CSA are beginning their healing journey using the internet and online resources. Further research in the areas of help for male survivors and use of technology in men's health has to be explored.
Childhood sexual abuse is one of the most under-reported crimes worldwide, especially if the victim is male. Unable to speak out, many boys carry this ‘secret’ into adulthood, remaining silent through the use of maladaptive coping mechanisms. Our fathers and sons, grandpa’s and brothers, uncles and cousins deserve the right to be able to break the silence of sexual abuse and regain the power and control that was taken from them. The Survivors Trust state as their motto, ‘there’s no excuse for rape and sexual abuse’; I believe that there is no excuse to continue to allow men to suffer in silence. As we say at Survivors Manchester, Break the silence… it stops with us!.
- Read ‘Virtually Helping: An exploration of the use of the Internet and online resources by adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse’ in full online
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Page created on June 9th, 2011
Page updated on June 10th, 2011