The Politics of Being a Man Who Survived Childhood Sexual Violence

As I said in the blog post I wrote about the artist’s grant I received this year from the Queens Council on the Arts, I plan to use the blogging I do, as well as my newsletter (click to sign up), to share with you the process of preparing for publication my second book of poetry, Words for What Those Men Have Done, which continues my exploration of how being a survivor of childhood sexual violence has shaped my life. At the heart of the book, for me, is “For My Son, A Kind of Prayer,” which weaves together four different narratives: of my son’s birth, of my own sexual abuse, of the rape of a young girl in the Congo, and of a visit to the urologist. (The link will take you to a draft of the poem on my blog. It has also been published at The Good Men Project, in Voice Mail magazine, and is forthcoming in the anthology Veils, Halos and Shackles: International Poetry on the Abuse and Oppression of Women, which will be edited by Charles Fishman and Smita Sahay.)

One of the longest poems I’ve ever written, this piece presented some very specific challenges, not least of which was finding language that would work as poetry to describe precisely how the abuser I mention in the poem violated me. While this challenge raises the very interesting, and I think importan, question of what it means to make art out of such ugliness, it was not the most difficult challenge that I faced. Rather, the hardest part of writing “For My Son, A Kind of Prayer,” was resisting the temptation to wear my violation as an essentalizing badge of difference, as if the experience of being abused had emptied me of everything I might have in common with the man who assaulted me.

I’ve written elsewhere, and in some detail, about the paradox of being both a man who has been sexually violated by other men and a man socialized to embody, whether I choose to act on them or not, precisely the values of manhood and masculinity that legitimize that kind of violation. I plan to write more about this paradox as my work on Words for What Those Men Have Done progresses–especially, I think, as I prepare the public presentation I need to do in order to fulfill the terms of my grant. Here, for now, I will simply say that my understanding of this paradox first took root in me, as did the process of my own healing, when I was in my twenties and discovered in feminism a language that I could use to name what my abusers did to me as abuse.

For My Son, A Kind of Prayer” does not try to resolve this paradox, but rather to illuminate what if feels like to live within it, which is something poetry can do–that art can do; that I hope Words for What Those Men Have Done will do–that other forms of expression cannot. As I said, I’ll be writing more about this as my work on the book progresses. Meanwhile, I’d like to share with you links to two organizations that provide education, support, resources, and advocacy for men who have survived sexual violence: MaleSurvivor and 1in6. I hope you’ll check them out.

Cross-posted on my blog.

This entry posted in Men and masculinity, Rape, intimate violence, & related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

4 Responses to The Politics of Being a Man Who Survived Childhood Sexual Violence

  1. 1
    Simple Truth says:

    This poem really stirred something within me, such that I had to stop and put it aside to make sure I was still able to try and understand the meaning you were putting forth without substituting my own. It is a very moving poem, and very intellectually honest, and I am glad you share these kinds of things with the world.

    this place—
    where our penises are just penises,
    and our balls are glands,
    noth­ing more—

    This is the line that made me pause and sort myself out. It was a tangle of meanings, to me, this safe space where you are allowed to just be humans with certain appendages that aren’t considered a threat to anyone (except perhaps yourselves if the word “malignant” appears in the conversation.)

    It made me wonder both if you (general you, not you in particular!) know some of that safety outside that room – does your privilege allow you to feel blank (no modifier, no adjectives) outside in the general world – the safety of being the status quo? If so, what is it like not to be targeted for a part of your body? It provoked a jealous hurt that you could escape those labels and judgment, even if it was only temporary.

    The other tangent was a little darker – do you know that the thing you’re labeling as just anatomy is so feared? Does it matter that yours, in particular, is not feared when it’s almost a symbol of rape itself – the erect penis, the penetrating force – a symbol so potent that it occurs repeatedly in all media?

    These aren’t really directed at you personally, Richard. I know you are quite thoughtful about these things. They are just what came to mind when I read your poem. Again, thank you for sharing.

  2. Simple Truth:

    Thanks for that response. You ask good questions, to which I am not going to give here an autobiographical answer. As I said in the post, part of the point of the poem, for me, was exploring what it means to live with precisely those kinds of questions.

    But it makes me happy that the poem moved you to ask them and I hope that your questions move others to ask them of themselves.

  3. 3
    Grace Annam says:

    I have deleted a post by Humberto which consisted of nothing but a link.

    Humberto, if you want to comment, abide by the comment policy, which is in the header of every page on this blog. In the particular case of the comment you may have been trying to make, a simple link like that amounts to calling names, which is mean-spirited and works against Amp’s goal of interesting, inclusive discussion. If you really want to try again with that link, use your words and articulate a point.

    Grace, moderator.