As a victim advocate, I can tell you from firsthand experience that working in the field of sexual assault prevention and response can be an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling experience. My job description stands out in a sea of corporate and capitalist careers: support survivors of sexual trauma, help them find their strength, listen to and believe their stories wholeheartedly, intervene during moments of crisis, encourage them to push forward, connect them to the resources that they need and deserve, advocate for their rights and dignity that are so often disregarded by systems of oppression. For some survivors, I am the only person willing to do these things.
My work is made harder by the inability of other people empathize. My work is challenged by systems that were not built for survivors of sexual assault. But often, my work is hindered by my own human weakness, empathy fatigue, and emotional burn out. I often have to remind myself that the weight of their needs on my shoulders does not compare to the pain and suffering they endure–to the undue burden forced upon them by their abuser. A boulder that may get smaller over time, but still, a weight they will carry forever.
For an advocate, what is even more straining than survivors with many needs and little support, are survivors who refuse my services–not because they don’t actually need them (sometimes that does happen, and it’s wonderful to see survivors who have developed in their healing enough to not need you) but because they feel your services aren’t meant for them. The reasons for this feeling of exclusion are various and vast. Some of them can be prevented by diligent advocates who make it their mission to include marginalized populations, such as those who are differently abled, non-English speaking, LGBTQ+, POC, impoverished, sex workers, and many more who are underserved and abused by response systems (medical providers, law enforcement, criminal justice system, etc.). But one group of survivors that I find to be one of the most challenging to serve is those who identify as men.
Usually men who reach out to my center by calling the hotline are easier to support. They have come to the realization that they were abused and they want to heal. In my experience, men are more likely to seek services for abuse they experienced as children. However, men who are raped as adults–especially those raped by women–have a harder time coming to terms with the assault and reaching out for support. For many women, the main barrier is thinking the assault was their fault or they deserved it. For many men, the main barrier is the expectation that men cannot be raped at all. Men have a harder time identifying their assault as sexual violence and the trauma they experience afterward as sexual trauma. When they are capable of naming it, they are often hesitant to do so publicly, to reach out for help. Allowing themselves to be vulnerable would question their masculinity, their entire schema of who they are and their place in the world.
These are the men I struggle to serve the most. Their refusal of my services is almost too heavy for me to carry.
Not too long ago, I responded a hospital call-out for a male survivor. Hospital accompaniment is one of the many services I provide for survivors. When someone is sexually assaulted, they have the option of going to the hospital to get medical treatment and a forensic exam completed. They don’t have to report to law enforcement in order to get a sexual assault forensic exam. Most SANE programs (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) will hold onto a rape kit for upwards of a year in case the survivor decides later that they want to report to law enforcement and pursue charges. Hospital accompaniment is an incredibly important service advocates provide, not only because going through this process can be scary and confusing for survivors, but it is also the gateway service for many of our clients. This is often how they first find out about our centers and what additional services are available to them after they leave the hospital.
So, back to the male survivor I responded to.
I arrived at the hospital and made my way into his room. I explained who I was and why I was there. I told him about the services we offer at my center and that, like anything should be, my presence today was completely up to him. I would not stay if he did not want me there. We don’t tell survivors this because we secretly hope they will decline our services and then we get to go home and go back to sleep (call-outs often occur in the middle of the night). We tell survivors this because we want to give them options. We want them to choose for themselves and not force them to do anything they don’t want to do– even if that means declining services they probably really need.
As I expected, he told me he would rather be alone. I made sure to tell him that many people feel ashamed after experiencing what he just went through, but he had nothing to feel embarrassed about. I told him that he deserved to receive services and to not have to go through this process alone. My invitation for him to be vulnerable seemed to upset him even more. I told him I would leave, but asked if I could have his contact information so I could follow-up with him to check in and offer additional services other than hospital accompaniment. He refused. I left my card and a pamphlet on his end table and left disheartened. I desperately wanted him to have all the resources at his disposal to help him heal from his sexual trauma. No one should have to travel that journey alone.
The burden of knowing why he rejected my services was harder for me than any advocacy work I would have done for him, had he let me stay. I had to leave, not knowing if he’ll ever reach out to me–or anyone else–for support.