By Phil Goldstein
Looking back on who I was as a boy and an adolescent, I think it’s safe to say I didn’t do many traditionally “manly” or “masculine” things. I didn’t play a sport, except for two years of Little League and a short-lived attempt at cross country running. I wasn’t in the Boy Scouts. I didn’t know how to pitch a tent, make a fire, use a knife, shoot a gun, tie a rope. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I didn’t even get my driver’s license until just before I left home for college.
Instead, I did a lot of things that society largely coded — and to a significant degree, still does — as effeminate. I wrote poetry. I acted in plays and musicals. I loved reading and art. I wasn’t gay, but, if you were a product of the culture of the late 1990s and early 2000s, even in a relatively liberal part of suburban New York, one could be forgiven for thinking so. Even my mom asked me if I was gay, when I was a sophomore in college.
I don’t know if I was the way I was because my older brother had sexually abused me,or in spite of it. I like to think that it’s the latter, but it’s difficult to tell when you are abused during such a formative time in your life as a child and a person. My older brother molested me from the time I 10 to 12 and a half, a fact I kept hidden from every single other person on the planet until I was 30 years old.
Set aside the fact that according to statistics from CHILD USA, the average age of disclosure of CSA is 52 years old. Set aside the academic literature that details how shame, confusion, fear, and a lack of emotional vocabulary inhibits many survivors of child sexual abuse from telling others about the abuse — if they ever do. Growing up when and I how I grew up, in the 1990s and early 2000s, it would have been monumentally humiliating to admit to anyone that my older brother abused me. If I had told a friend, the friend might have told another friend, and then it would spread like wildfire. Even if I had told a trusted adult — a teacher, guidance counselor, parent of a friend, rabbi, etc. — the odds are that, at some point the news would have leaked out to my peers.
What middle school boy is going to willingly admit such a shameful thing, and subject themselves to the humiliation that would likely follow? To have it be known that my older brother made me perform oral sex on him and that he performed oral sex on me would have been the most mortifying thing imaginable. What girl is going to want to go out with such a boy? How is that boy going to ever be able to go into a locker room at school and not have every other boy stare, gawk, harass or worse? The social stigma around abuse — that it would mark me as “not a real man”— were just some of the factors that inhibited me from saying anything to anyone. So, I didn’t.
As I grew older, after the abuse stopped, I pretended like it had never happened. I wanted to will it away, out of existence. But the insidious effects of abuse kept surfacing in embarrassing and harmful ways, even if I didn’t recognize them. Most significantly, in my 20s, I started experiencing erectile dysfunction. It was profoundly embarrassing, and let to the dissolution of a relationship and the end to several dating endeavors. But I never connected the ED to the abuse, at least not consciously.
I grew more desperate to figure out a way to address the ED. I started taking Viagra. Then Cialis. None of it seemed to work. Then, when I started dating the woman who would later become my wife, the ED issue reared its head again. I tried, at first, to downplay my history of ED because I was afraid that we’d break up if I told the truth (a lie that would come to haunt me). Eventually, she persuaded me to seek out a therapist to try and resolve the issue.
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 assumed I’d get in trouble — which shows how little I knew about therapy.
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 start widening the circle of people who knew.
Shortly thereafter, I started seeing a new therapist who specializes in helping those who have experienced trauma, who I am still working with today. I gained more courage to tell others, including my then-girlfriend, my friends, family members and my parents (who, thankfully, believed me but expressed no interest or ability into delving into how and why this happened in our family).
In therapy, I unpacked what had happened to me. I sketched in the details of a childhood I had kept deliberately hazy, to avoid confronting the painful truth of what had happened to me. And I realized that I had not done anything wrong — before, during, or after the abuse. I had been betrayed by someone who I trusted, someone older and stronger than I was. I was afraid and scared of what was happening, so I disassociated during the abuse. Most significantly, I was a just boy and should have been doing things that boys from 10 to 12 normally do. I was robbed of my innocence and of discovering sex and my changing body my own.
I decided to go public about the abuse because I didn’t want to live with the shame of what had happened — to continue thinking, believing and acting as it was something I should be ashamed of — and I didn’t want others to, either. And I started writing poems, dozens of them, about the abuse, which eventually became a book.
Speaking out about the abuse, being public about it, and talking about it in interviews and podcasts, is something I have been proud to do. I do it because I hope it will help others. People close to me in my life have told me that they think speaking out is courageous, something for which I probably don’t give myself enough credit for.
To me, being a “real man” means being vulnerable. It means not shying away from difficult truths about your past and who you are as a person. It means dealing with messy, complicated emotions. It means going to therapy if that is what is right for you (I highly recommend it!). It means standing your ground, calling out abuse and abusers, and not caving to the demands of those who would prefer to sweep abuse under the rug at the expense of the emotional wellbeing of survivors.
There are a lot of things that our society still ascribes to masculinity. I hope, over time, that image of masculinity changes to reflect the aforementioned qualities. It’s starting to. And the more it happens, the more that abuse survivors, and men in particular, will have the room to heal.