Chester Bennington’s death sent shock waves across the world, but male sex abuse victims may find strength through his life.
Many fans are shocked and heartbroken over the loss this week of Chester Bennington, the fierce lead singer for the rock band Linkin Park. Police say they are treating his death as a possible suicide, which would make the pain even harder to bear.
There’s a famous saying, “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That may be true. But in this case, as a clinical psychologist and researcher who specializes in trauma, I don’t think I’m overreaching in saying that his troubled past may have been a factor in his death. Chester Bennington had openly said he was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse that haunted him and, he said, contributed to his excessive use of drugs and alcohol.
For far too long, boys and men who have been sexually abused or assaulted have been overlooked, neglected, minimized or stigmatized by society and, at times, by the health care community. It’s time for that disregard to stop.
One study in the United States estimated that one in six males are sexually abused at some point during their childhood. Let’s stop and think about that for just a second. Picture all the boys and men you know, and then breathe that statistic in. That may include your father, your husband/lover, your boss, co-workers, coaches and friends.
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are at an increased risk of developing a wide range of medical, psychological, behavioral and sexual disorders. Indeed, a meta-analysis of published research on the effects of child sexual abuse verified the extensive and subsequent negative short- and long-term effects.
For example, sexual trauma is related to psychiatric disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse and dependence, depression, anxiety and suicidal behavior. In addition, many male survivors of sexual abuse also have negative body image, revulsion to being touched or touching others, lack of confidence in their appeal and attractiveness, sexual dysfunction from low sexual desire to difficulties achieving and maintaining an erection and retarded ejaculation.
Sexual trauma is also linked to medical illnesses, increased use of health care services and poor quality of life. Yet the majority of the research on sexual abuse, including the development and testing of psychosocial interventions, focuses on women. This is not OK and must change in order to help the many people like Chester Bennington.
There are numerous barriers to men reporting sexual assault and getting the help they need. Internalization of socially acceptable norms and expectations for being a man, as well as knowledge-related barriers about abuse and assault, exist for these men.
A large part of my clinical practice over the past 20 years has involved male veterans — those who served in the war zone and have combat-related PTSD; those who have been physically or sexually assaulted before, during or after military service and have assault-related PTSD; and sometimes all of the above. Many of the men I’ve worked with in this capacity subscribe to the male ethic of self-reliance.
They are taught to be tough, fearless and to deny their own vulnerability. They are told to never cry or experience sadness, and that they should always welcome sexual activity. They feel tarnished in terms of their maleness — powerless, out of control and low in confidence.
Many of these men fear being judged for provoking or “inviting” the abuse and blame themselves for not being able to prevent it. They fear that their sexual preference will be questioned. And, as a result, some of these men banish the sexual abuse from their psyche, deny it ever occurred, minimize its impact, normalize or justify what happened to them, or engage in dangerous behaviors like drugs or alcohol to drown it out.
I, for one, don’t want to be a part of this exploitation, betrayal and abandonment of boys and men. As such, my Yale colleagues and I partnered with a non-profit trauma survivor organization that provides resources to male abuse survivors and their loved ones worldwide.
MaleSurvivor has been working to create an environment within which male survivors of trauma and abuse feel empowered to come forward seeking help, and to ensure that those who do come forward have access to trained and experienced support services. Their website currently sees hundreds of thousands of visits annually from people all over the world, and their social media platforms reach millions every month with news and messages of hope, healing and support.
If you meet a male survivor or come to learn that someone you love was sexually abused or assaulted in childhood, please communicate to them that the abuse was not their fault, they didn’t ask for it to happen, and psychologically healthy adults or older children do not treat other people in that way. Tell them there is hope for their future.
Joan Cook is an associate professor at Yale University and president of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Trauma Psychology. She is an Op-Ed Public Voices Fellow. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Written by Joan Cook for CNN.