Fatherhood Programs and Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Assault

Author: CFFPP . Date: April 19, 2013

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month. At the beginning of the month, we explored ways that fatherhood practitioners can talk about healthy sexuality and healthy relationships within their programs as an important step toward preventing sexual assault. We discussed that men who attend fatherhood programs are important leaders in their families and communities and that by modeling healthy relationships, they can help reduce sexual violence. This post considers the same group of men from a different angle. In addition to being leaders, many men in fatherhood programs are adult survivors of childhood sexual assault.

While it might be beyond the scope of a fatherhood program to directly address this issue, it can be helpful for providers to be aware that some of the men they work with are survivors; that for some victims, the trauma of childhood sexual abuse can have lasting effects well into adulthood; and that support is available for adult survivors.

To begin, what does “adult survivor of childhood sexual assault” mean? According to the national Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are raped, molested, or incested against before they turn 18 years old. Children who experience sexual abuse grow up to be adult survivors with past histories of sexual victimization.

If we know that 1 in 6 boys are assaulted against, we can assume that some of the men who participate in a fatherhood program are survivors. What does this mean for fatherhood practitioners? Obviously, practitioners are not expected to be trained to address histories of childhood sexual abuse. However, practitioners can do two simple things to make a difference for survivors in their program. First, know how to respond if someone discloses past abuse (see below). Second, provide referrals to programs that can help men heal from past traumas.

For a variety of reasons, many adult survivors carry the secret of their abuse without ever telling anyone. If someone does tell you that they have experienced abuse, the most helpful response can be as simple as letting him know that you are always there to help and support him. You can express that you are sorry it happened to him and that he didn’t deserve it. Sexual abuse is never the victim’s fault. If you feel you don’t have enough experience or training to know quite what to do or say, it’s okay to share that too. Just make sure he knows you are there for him, that you are concerned about his well-being, and that you will work with him to find the support and resources he needs and deserves.

Far more survivors of childhood sexual assault will access fatherhood programs than will share their stories of victimization. As a result, it can be particularly helpful to include information about local agencies and services for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse in a resource packet, along with all the other services in the community.

Finding a local sexual assault or domestic violence advocate who understands the challenges that men in your program face could be a valuable resource for providing services or referrals for participants who are survivors. Advocates who understand the nature and need for fatherhood services might come to your program to provide education or workshops to your staff or participants. They may be able to work with survivors in your program. And/or they may be able to help you identify other useful services in the community that respond to the needs of adult survivors of childhood sexual assault.

Being a survivor of childhood sexual assault does not mean that a man cannot or will not heal or be successful. At the same time, support and counseling can be helpful and make a positive difference in the lives of adult survivors who are struggling with the lasting effects of childhood trauma.

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