OPINION: Male survivors of abuse need safe space to heal

Robert Marshall Jr. knew something was wrong when he grew jealous of his two children.

They were growing up with the kind of life he had always wanted but never had, he said.

His children were loved and protected. His own boyhood in Brunswick was filled with sexual trauma that he had only come to understand as an adult.

“I started talking about it because I was trying to get help. I am college-educated and I didn’t know where to start,” said Marshall, 32, who began a healing journey with therapy, writing and confronting his abusers. “I realized it happens in communities around the world but ... men don’t have the freedom, spaces or resources to talk about these things.”

Through his nonprofit, Iammaninc.com, Marshall brings men together to discuss their sexual trauma. He was afraid no one would attend the first event in 2019, but almost 100 men showed up. Single and married. Black, Hispanic and white. LGBTQ. They were fathers, grandfathers, mostly in their 40s and 50s, many of whom had sworn to take their secrets to the grave, Marshall said. “We automatically have a type of man in mind that this happens to ... but the truth is, sexual abuse or trauma has no specific look.”

Marshall will bring “We Survived Live“ to Atlanta in October in the hopes of helping other men begin to heal. Therapists and health professionals will be on hand for anyone in need, he said, but the event is primarily to allow space for sexual abuse survivors to share their stories.

Almost one in three men have experienced some form of sexual violence involving physical contact in their lifetimes, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. More than half of male victims experience these types of violence before age 25, and the perpetrators are both male and female.

We don’t generally hear about this type of abuse unless it makes big headlines. Even in the most well-known cases — the Catholic Church, Boys Scouts of America, or any other organization or institution that caters to children — male victims find it difficult to come forward or seek redress.

In the 20 years since the Catholic Church abuse scandal surfaced, victims are still seeking remedies from dioceses nationwide. In March, WSB-TV reported a ruling from the Georgia Supreme Court that allows a victim to pursue litigation for allegations that fall outside the statute of limitations, offering hope to other victims who want justice. Earlier this month, a bankruptcy judge approved a $2.46 billion reorganization plan for the Boy Scouts of America that would help to compensate more than 80,000 men who have come forward with abuse claims, according to the Associated Press.

But state laws still carry outdated definitions about what constitutes sexual abuse. Rape in Georgia is defined as a male perpetrator and female victim. Locally, Atlanta police adopted a gender-neutral definition of rape for reporting purposes in 2017.

“I understand that women are more likely to experience sexual abuse and trauma, but I am in the space where I believe the laws need to be more inclusive to men,” Marshall said. Some of the men he has worked with over the years have taken an advocacy approach to change state legislation, but Marshall said his deepest desire is to humanize the lived experience of male survivors of sexual trauma.

Marshall was 7 years old when he was sexually abused by a barber whose business was inside a home. Years later, when Marshall confronted him with allegations of abuse, the man admitted having been charged with child molestation. He is a registered sex offender who is currently incarcerated, Marshall said.

Marshall was later abused by a local pastor over a period of several years, including during a trip to a youth leadership conference, he said. The man would tell Marshall to pray for forgiveness. When Marshall confronted him later, the man did not acknowledge Marshall’s allegations.

“I wanted understanding and an apology,” he said. “You can’t change what happened to you but it is your responsibility to pursue your own healing.”

As a teen, Marshall formed a relationship with a woman 10 years his senior, he said. It wasn’t until he left Georgia to attend college that he understood the relationship was inappropriate. People in the community knew about the relationship, he said, but just accepted him dating an older woman.

“There has to be a reevaluation of what it means to be a man, what it means to be masculine and what it means to be a victim,” Marshall said.

When he shared his story with his wife, she encouraged him to dig deeper, Marshall said. Men, he said, often do not get the help they need until it is too late. “There is a lot of social support for women and children, but where do broken men go? Either to jail or the grave,” he said.

At the live events, Marshall asks the men in attendance if they have reported any of their abuse to the police. No one in the room raises a hand.

“I want to create a safe space for boys and men to process traumatic childhood and life experiences,” Marshall said. “I am here to help boys and men become who they were created to be before that trauma derailed their lives.”

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