In Mixed Company: Surviving Beyond Gender

Written by Dana Rock, LMSW, Jordan Gonzales, PLPC, NCC, and Sarah Baniahmad

Many people see sexual assault as a women’s issue. When men are included in the conversation, it normally centers on what they can do to protect or support women. With 1 in 5 women being raped in their lifetime, it is easy to see how this idea came to fruition1. In reality, sexual violence can happen to anyone, including men and transgender individuals. In fact, statistics show that 1 in 71 men have been raped1. A 2015 survey showed that 47% of transgender people were sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime2. These statistics are likely an underestimate, due to the barriers that men and transgender individuals face when coming forward about their assaults.

Our culture holds many myths that make it difficult for male survivors to disclose sexual assault. Our society portrays the image that all men want sex at all times; therefore, unwanted sexual encounters do not exist. If a man has received sex in any form, he should be thankful for it. Men are viewed as strong and able to fight off anything; thus, people believe that men can and will stop sexual interactions from occurring if they choose. In addition, our culture holds males to an impossible standard with regards to emotional vulnerability. In an effort to never appear weak, men are discouraged from talking about their feelings or outwardly displaying vulnerable parts of themselves. All of these factors are part of the seemingly insurmountable mountain male survivors must climb when thinking about coming forward.

At STAR, we serve all survivors of sexual assault, regardless of gender. It is normal for survivors to experience feelings of shame and guilt following a sexual trauma, and group therapy has been proven to be highly effective in helping survivors work through those feelings. Men often face feelings of shame and guilt to an even higher degree due to the myths surrounding male sexual trauma. In the past, groups at STAR were only open to female survivors. To our knowledge, similar sexual assault centers around the country were separating their groups out by gender. However, we did not have quite enough interest to host an all male group, which led to the idea of starting an all gender inclusive group to meet the need.

Several concerns arose as we discussed the possibility of a mixed gender group. Men and women are both more likely to be assaulted by men, which can cause a great fear and distrust of men. Would women be reluctant to join a group that included men? Would men be comfortable enough to discuss their trauma with women? Would these two genders be able to find common ground among their experiences? Would gender-specific concerns go unaddressed with an all-inclusive group?

We talked through our potential concerns and received guidance from a webinar on hosting all-gender groups provided by FORGE, a transgender anti-violence group. Through this training we realized that we were not being fully inclusive to transgender survivors with our current group model. In addition, STAR as an agency has been seeking out ways to become more accessible to male survivors in the community. We ultimately decided that all survivors, regardless of gender, deserved a chance to experience the healing that can come from group. This was an opportunity to show men that we believed them and wanted to serve them just as much as we wanted to serve women. By expanding our current group model to include males as well as transgender survivors, we created more access to services for our entire community.

To date we have completed two all gender support groups in the Baton Rouge branch. We were very upfront about the makeup of the group from the start with all potential participants. To our surprise, group members expressed few concerns about having a mixed gender group and were open to the idea. At our initial meeting, group members discussed concerns of not being able to relate to one another across genders. As co-facilitators, we used this as an opportunity to talk through the many differences that can appear in any support group: different ages, races, ethnicities, religious affiliations, types of trauma, etc. While survivors always bring their unique personalities and experiences to group, the power lies in finding common ground with one another. Sexual assault causes real pain and affects so many aspects of a survivor’s life. Group participants connected on their shared experiences and feelings, such as experiencing shame, guilt, trust issues, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The survivors were able to see that they were not alone in their struggles.

During group sessions, several female members shared that simply having males present helped them shift their perspective of men from a negative light to a positive one. This was reflected throughout group as well as in feedback we received from an anonymous survey given at the end of group. One group member stated, “It is important to have all genders participate in group therapy because sexual assaults happen to all genders.” Another group member shared, “It was very difficult at first, but I think it was helpful to know that men go through the same things.” Experiences and lessons learned in group therapy can help one apply those concepts to the outside world. By allowing all genders, especially males, to participate in groups we are ultimately providing the opportunity for healing to occur on newer and deeper levels for all participants.

As counselors, watching the group experience unfold the same way with different genders, as it had with one gender, reinforces what we have always known about survivors. While their traumas and their backgrounds might be completely different, sexual assault in any form can cause the same lasting effects. At their core, male and female survivors do not have as many differences as one might think. We are continuing to see interest in support groups from male survivors and we are excited about continuing the mixed gender model for our groups in Baton Rouge.

 

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One thought on “In Mixed Company: Surviving Beyond Gender

  1. I am so glad to see this blog and witness this day when this amazing organization openly enters into this particular conversation. I was getting worried, especially since in the infancy of such a conversation, I was not sure STAR was ready or willing to take it on. I’m hopeful now that the objectification some women endure from other women also comes to light. In my opinion coupled with a sprinkle of my experience, I see this as a “step forward” that could lead to more conversations that will hopefully eliminate the locked doors that seem to signify fear over protection. Bravo STAR. Bravo!!!!

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