We’ve thought a lot about language. What words people choose, how they speak, how words are interpreted or understood, how the listener reacts, all can have a huge effect on whether a given situation feels safe or threatening to whoever is present.
Some have asked why many words, which are commonly used by others in discussions about sexual abuse, are rarely, if ever found on our website – words like “predator”, “perp”, “perpetrator”, “pervert,” “abuser”, “molester”, “sex offender”, “rapist”, and “victim” among them.
Getting in touch with anger and loss can be a valuable part of healing. And using any of these words (and others) about those involved, and experiencing the emotions and the images they evoke, are valid, useful, perhaps sometimes even necessary steps for a man in the process of understanding his feelings and the dynamics of his abuse.
Anger is the one emotion that social norms for males encourage men to express. But men actually have a much richer emotional life. Men – including men who’ve experienced abuse – can also feel sadness, and fear, and betrayal, and shame and hope and tenderness and love.
We’ve found that once men in their healing process move beyond coming to terms with anger, holding onto defining words like “abuser”, “sex offender”, “perpetrator” and “victim”, runs the risk of forever locking the people who were involved in the abusive interaction into set roles. Always thinking of the person who abused you in that role can also keep them seeming larger than life – and you smaller.
With healing comes the realisation that in the present, you needn’t continue to relate to them as an all-powerful adult (or older child); or yourself, forever as a powerless child.
One of the most liberating aspects of healing from unwanted or abusive childhood sexual experiences is learning that the traumatic childhood experience is something that happened to you, not an identity, not who you are. And so, we’ve chosen to focus on experiences, behaviours and actions and to avoid using words that suggest an unchangeable identity for anyone involved.
We use the term “unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood” rather than just “sexual abuse.” We think it’s especially important when working with men, to create a space where a man doesn’t have to define what happened to him as “abuse” or see himself as a “victim” in order to start exploring what impact a confusing experience had on his life.
And, we know that a man might still have a complex and sometimes close family or community relationship with the person who harmed him. That’s another reason we avoid the dehumaning (and therefore possibly confusing) imagery that using terms like “predator,” “perpetrator”, “molester,” ” sex offender” and “abuser” about those who sexually abuse children may stir – especially when reaching out to men who may not have that view.
Talking about someone’s abusive or harmful behaviour toward you may feel even more possible, if it doesn’t have to involve automatically placing them in one of those categories. And we also know that as much as 40 percent of sexual abuse of children is committed by older or more powerful children – often in reaction to, or as part of older child’s abuse experience. Imposing a dehumanising identity on a man for behaviours that he, as a child, may have felt were not within his control, just adds further damage to the man’s ability to heal.
“Person first” language can be a good way of honouring the range of those feelings (i.e. “…the friend of my family/my cousin, who sexually abused me; “……or “….the man/woman who abused me, rather than “my abuser,” or my “molester”; “people who sexually abuse children are…..” rather than “sex offenders are…..”) Using real descriptions of who they were in relation to you and what they did actually highlights the betrayal of that relationship, which the abuse caused. It also may become more possible to discuss actions that hurt you with someone who you may still care about.
We also know that the same words can be soothing for one person and triggering for another.
For instance, it may be hugely helpful for a man, who has carried around an undeserved sense of shame for a lifetime, to openly and graphically describe the details of his abuse, with someone who is able to offer full focus, comfort and support. But what is cathartic and releasing for the man speaking, may be triggering and overwhelming for an unsupported listener or reader. What may be useful , healing and appropriate in a therapeutic setting may be harmful for someone sitting at home alone, or in an audience where there is no support accessible.
Words can trigger anger or outrage, or a sense of hope. They can stir horror, disgust, sadness, powerlessness, recognition of victimisation, or a sense of having options for healing, determination, or happiness
It’s crucial for healing for a man to find a safe place for discharging anger, for expressing despair, or talking about the depth of the impact as well as the hope and desire to live a healthy, happy life.