HBO aired its much-buzzed-about two-part series Leaving Neverland this week and it’s all anyone can talk about. Centering on allegations against Michael Jackson, the documentary details the sexual abuse two men say they faced at the hands of the King of Pop when they were prepubescent boys in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Though many have already begun to call into question their claims, including Jackson’s estate, the film has placed the subject of male sexual abuse survivors front and center. But the topic is still very much taboo as societal stigma around male abuse survivors persists.
“The big thing that we always remember in our work with sexual assault is that shame is the master emotion,” Seth Stewart, 1in6’s development and communications director, told Out. 1in6 is an organization with the mission of helping “men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences live healthier, happier lives.”
“So anyone that has gone through that sort of traumatic experience feels and processes a high high degree of shame. And because shame is probably one of the most isolated emotions because it internalizes these feelings of badness… It creates one of the first and hardest barriers to healing and recovery.”
And when it comes particularly to men who’ve experienced such instances, “you’re dealing with a certain set of lenses of masculinity,” Stewart continued, describing how societal beliefs about what it means be a man — independence, emotional restraint, etc. — "creates a further complication.”
1in6 takes its name from CDC research that asserts 1 in 6 men will have an unwanted sexual experience by their 18th birthday. Stewart added that, as we’re having broader conversations about about sexual assault with the rise of #MeToo and Time’s Up, it takes men two and half times longer than women survivors to disclose.
When asked what steps everyday people can take to support male survivors, Stewart said simply, “It’s really about creating an environment of safety.”
“The best way to do that is the simplest and hardest thing at the same time, and that is creating a sense of complete acceptance. If someone is disclosing to you, or you suspect something is happening, it’s about communicating verbally and nonverbally, ‘I am here for you. I care about you.’”
“It isn’t about running to a solution,” he added. “It isn’t about getting someone to disclose every detail of an experience. It isn’t even about pursuing justice when it comes to those that have offended or perpetrated. It really is just about laying the groundwork to say, ‘Right now, in this moment, it is completely safe and acceptable for you to say what you need to say or express what you need to express.’”
It’s also important to allow someone to “create their own language landscape” to describe what they went through because “many men who experience abuse or assault are reticent to categorize it as such,” having compartmentalized the instance as “hazing or humiliation.”
While other options to support sexual assault survivors of all genders can include policy measures or donating to resource-providing organizations, Stewart says, “the biggest shifting of the needle really is about survivors telling their stories.” It’s why he found the Leaving Neverland doc to be necessary viewing.
“Research proves that when survivors hear other stories, they're more likely to start to open up and seek treatment,” he said. “That’s what’s going to move the needle socially, culturally, and politically.”
If you or someone you know has had an unwanted sexual experience, 1in6 has a 24/7 helpline staffed by advocates trained to work with men that can be reached at 877-628-1in6.