How Men Who Abuse Women Hurt Other Men
It haunts me to think of the stories I’ve read and continue to read about women who’ve been traumatized — sexually, emotionally, and often physically — by men. I myself have written and shared some of my own experiences.
However, not much seems to be written about the fact that when men abuse women, they hurt other men: the men who care about those women.
Women have fathers, brothers, male friends, husbands, boyfriends. Women have sons. We need to be mindful that these men are traumatized when the women they love are hurt.
I want to acknowledge those men here.
I can begin by acknowledging the men in my life who were affected by what happened to me. My father, my brothers, my sons, my male friends, and my romantic partners who tried to navigate my past.
It must be hard to carry, the knowledge of what another man has done. You’re left to help her pick up the pieces and witness what it has done to her. How it has changed her. Or hear about what has been done to her when you meet her later in her life.
My awareness of men on the outside looking in, feeling helpless
I worked as the director of a women’s center on a college campus and joined with a colleague, an officer with Campus Safety, to establish a sexual assault awareness program on campus. This particular program was designed for students talking to students, a coed peer education program with administrative advisors as the lead presenters.
When we approached fraternities on campus to present to them, they balked initially. They claimed we were inferring they were rapists by insisting that the presentation would be helpful for their brotherhood. However, a myriad of disturbing incidences that continued to accrue on campus led the administration to require fraternities to host our presentation, with all brothers in attendance.
We prepared for a strained welcome.
The presentation was designed around helping young men develop an awareness not only of what constituted sexual assault, but what sexual assault did to a woman. I had updated the presentation to focus on how to help a sexual assault survivor. I think it was this change that prompted what started to happen.
Young men began approaching me after the presentations, taking me aside, telling me that their girlfriend, female friend, sister, even mother, had been sexually assaulted, sometimes recently and sometimes not, and they didn’t know what to do to help. They were sincere young men, visibly concerned about these women in their lives.
It opened my eyes to how difficult it was for men to watch the women they loved hurting. For one thing, another man had hurt her. That made it confusing and angering. For another, the nature of the aftermath tended to be more emotional and invisible rather than physical, the scars primarily on the inside.
I think those kinds of scars in women can scare men. They don’t know what to do and are afraid to make things worse.
Men can feel helpless when a woman they love is hurting
I remember a time during this past year when my son was sitting next to me as I broke down in tears. He awkwardly rubbed my back and said, “Mom, I don’t know what to do with this crying stuff.”
He is a loving and kind young man, but women crying undoes him.
I don’t think he’s alone in that. I think men tend to struggle with expressing their own emotions, so seeing a woman so freely expressing hers unnerves them. Or maybe they’re just afraid they’ll do or say the “wrong” thing.
I’ve helped my son gain confidence in his ability to be helpful when the women he cares about are hurting and upset. I’ve taught him that just by being there, being present, listening and validating, is comforting and healing. And enough.
We need to be mindful of the men who are NOT the problem
My sons were little boys when I was doing those presentations at the fraternities. They accompanied me to a Take Back the Night march at that same college campus. A woman came to the podium and began expressing her anger and rage towards the act of sexual assault and men who do it.
My sons were sitting with me and a male student who worked for me. One of my little guys turned to me and said, with sadness in his eyes, “Is she talking about me?”
I stopped short. I told him no and hugged him. I hugged both of them. The male student with me also reassured them that she was not talking about them, or him. (He worked tirelessly on the issue; his mother and sister had endured sexual violence in another country.)
My son’s question unsettled my heart. I realized I had to be sensitive to how I approached the subject with my sons so they didn’t feel like the enemy.
The men in my life who love me are not my enemy.
How men are affected when a woman they love gets hurt
When I had to call my family and tell them I’d been raped, I told my brother first. I’m the oldest of five, and he’s the third. He’s very mathematical and pragmatic. He asked the important questions. My mom wasn’t home, so he said he’d tell her.
Many years later, he told me what that had been like. My mom had become hysterical. He’d had to try to calm her down.
Then my mom had to tell my dad.
My dad struggled with it. Privately. He would shut down the conversation immediately if I started to say anything about the rape, how I was doing, what it had done to me. I was hurt by that. Devastated.
My dad is a quiet and gentle man. He rarely got angry with my siblings and me, hardly ever raised his voice. He and I were close. The rape tore us apart. We found our way back, but I really hate that about the rape.
My other brother, second oldest of the five of us, never knew what to say to me. After the rape, he’d call, ask me how I was doing, then launch quickly into what was going on with him. His girlfriend took me aside around that time and told me he was picking fights with random men in bars, taking his anger out on them.
Something I’ve always encouraged women healing from sexual trauma and abuse to do is to feel what you need to feel, all of it. I also help them develop positive ways to cope with those feelings. Men need to be counseled to do the same when a woman they love is hurt by another man. They need help and guidance, too. They need ways to cope.
How it continues to affect the men in my life
I was raped before my sons were born and eventually I told them what had happened to me. The anniversary of it used to result in a panic attack every year for over a decade. I needed to explain why, and also some other behaviors I had.
My younger son, when he was a teenager, about sixteen, told me having a mom who’d been raped gave him a different perspective on life. He didn’t go into much detail, but I’ll never forget him saying that.
My older son goes on hyper alert when he knows any woman he loves is anywhere alone.
Men can help more than they realize
It’s awful that women must endure such trauma and pain. Yet it’s also unconscionable that men must watch the women they love suffer and feel helpless in making things better for her.
I think men need to know they can make it better. And, it’s simpler than they might imagine.
Listen. Silence is okay. “I’m sorry this happened to you,” is okay. Hold her. Lie with her. Let her cry. Dry her tears. Let her be angry.
She’s not angry at you. She’s angry it happened.
And, take care of yourself. Find ways to release your own pain and anger. In a healthy way.
In conclusion…I appreciate you, we appreciate you
I hope that we as a country and a world will figure out how to combat the unacceptable behavior of too many men.
In the meantime, let’s embrace the men who also are hurt by this behavior, witnessing the women in their lives endure the aftermath of sexual trauma and abuse at the hands of other men.
To those men who love and support women, let me say, I appreciate you. I know it’s not easy for you. I’m grateful for you all.