By Phil Goldstein
Until I was 30 years old, I had I had never been to therapy before; I always thought I was someone who didn’t “need” to go to therapy — what did I have to talk to a therapist about?
And until I was 30, I never told a soul that I had been sexually abused as a child. It never entered my consciousness that it was something I would say out loud — or even could verbalize.
From the time I was 10 to about 12 and a half, my older brother molested me. I never told anyone about it because I was ashamed of what had happened; I was scared of the consequences of telling, and I didn’t have the words to explain what had happened. Most of all, I wanted to pretend like it had never happened.
I buried so much of myself. I simply thought, Real men don't admit things like this. When I was in middle school and high school, I thought, you can never tell anyone — imagine all the terrible things that would happen if you did. The humiliation.
Then, when I was 30 and had started a relationship with the woman who would later become my wife, thing started to change. We were having issues related to sex and intimacy, and she urged me to speak to a therapist.
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. 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).
When I started my journey, I didn’t know that 1 in 13 boys (and 1 in 5 girls) are likely to experience child sexual abuse. I thought there must have been something different about me, something wrong with me specifically. I felt isolated, scared and ashamed.
In the years since I first started processing my trauma, I have come to recognize many things about the abuse and about myself. I didn’t do anything wrong. Someone wronged me, hurt me and betrayed me. I did not have the emotional wherewithal or vocabulary to tell anyone about the abuse at the time, and it is completely normal and understandable for children not to tell.
I also had the incredible opportunity to participate in a group therapy setting in the fall of 2019 with five other men who were also sexually abused as children. We talked about the persistent stigma surrounding men disclosing that they were sexually abused as children.
We discussed how our culture still largely sends the message to men that you cannot be a “real man” if you admit to being abused, or that you’ll somehow be thought of as “less than” or weak. And we discussed how, while we were all in different places in our healing journeys, we could relate to each other’s feelings about the abuse, our masculinity and our senses of self.
Men who have been sexually abused are not “less than” men who have not been abused. They are not defective. They are full human beings who have been through the crucible of trauma. They deserve compassion and support, not ostracism or scorn. I feel such a deep connection to that group of survivors. Those men are warriors.
In addition to regular therapy (including, recently, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy), I’ve sought to heal through creative writing and poetry. Writing helped me process and come to terms with the abuse. My debut poetry collection, “How to Bury a Boy at Sea,” was published in April. I hope it can be used as a healing tool for survivors, their loved ones, therapists and educators. Most importantly, I hope it helps other survivors, and men especially, feel less alone and more understood.
There are, unfortunately, many more of us out there than other survivors likely know. And there are so many incredible people, resources and organizations, including NAMI, that can help if you decide you are ready to seek it. The more men who come forward and speak about child sexual abuse, the less power the social stigma holds. I’m glad I stopped being silent, because I realized I had nothing to be ashamed of. Being abused is something horrible that happened to me — it is not who I am.
To all who have been abused, and men especially, I urge you to talk with someone about what happened — if and when you feel comfortable. I want you to know that you are not alone.
Phil Goldstein is a poet, journalist and content marketer. His debut collection, “How to Bury a Boy at Sea,” was published by Stillhouse Press in April 2022 and addresses the trauma of child sexual abuse. He currently lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Jenny, and their dog and cats.
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