Counseling Today, Features

Breaking the silence around the childhood sexual abuse of Black men

By Lisa R. Rhodes August 30, 2022

In October 2019, Tyler Perry, the multimillionaire writer, actor, and movie and television producer, shared painful details from his childhood in an interview with People magazine. “I don’t think I ever felt safe or protected as a child,” Perry recounted, as he explained how his father, who he later learned was not his biological father, routinely beat him with a vacuum cord.

In addition to the physical abuse, Perry disclosed that by the time he was 10 years old, he had been sexually abused by three different men and a woman — all of whom were known by his family. 

“It was rape,” Perry said in the interview. “I didn’t know what was going on or the far-reaching effects of it.”

Perry is not the only Black male public figure to reveal that he was sexually abused as a child. Other Black male public figures, such as gospel singer Donnie McClurkin, have come forward to reveal the harmful impact of this early trauma. Despite these public disclosures, the silence that surrounds the childhood sexual abuse of Black men is deafening. 

“In many homes and social circles, the topic is still avoided — it’s taboo,” says Robin D. Stone, a licensed mental health counselor in New York City and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. “In some cases, men haven’t shared with anyone that they’ve had this experience, that they have this history.” 

The fact that it is taboo means that Black boys who have been sexually abused rarely, if ever, tell anyone that they have been violated and the silence continues into adulthood. Stone, a member of the American Counseling Association, says the impact of childhood sexual abuse on Black men leaves them with psychological wounds that they learn to “pack away” for years.

The silence surrounding this issue makes it difficult to know how pervasive it is. According to a 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 6 boys in the United States were sexually abused before age 18. And the Children’s Assessment Center acknowledges that race and ethnicity are key factors, with Black children being almost twice more likely to experience child sexual abuse than white children. 

Rebekah Montgomery, a licensed professional counselor and owner of Dove’s Heart Counseling LLC, a practice with offices in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Detroit, agrees that sexual assault and any form of sexual abuse are rarely discussed in the Black community.

“You can learn proper coping skills, you can reframe your brain, but it is still going to be something that can trigger later in life,” says Montgomery, an ACA member who counsels Black male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. “When you awaken those sexual feelings as a child, especially before puberty, you develop unhealthy ideas about what sex is and what’s appropriate and not appropriate.”

Building trust and safety

The counselors interviewed for this article all agree that to build rapport with Black male clients, counselors must be willing to engage in direct, honest and open communication, which creates an environment where the men feel safe enough to trust the therapeutic process. 

“I feel when they come [to counseling], they want to say something [about the sexual abuse], but you have to build their trust because they live in a country where — because of the color of their skin — they don’t trust because things have worked against them in very purposeful ways,” says Damion Davis, a licensed professional counselor in Addison, Texas. 

“In some cases, African American men don’t trust counselors who are of a different race than they are because they assume that there won’t be a cultural understanding,” he adds. “If there’s not a cultural understanding, then they don’t feel comfortable disclosing things.” 

Davis focuses on creating a strong relationship with his clients. During the first session, he works to establish trust with his clients by asking them about their family connections, where they went to school or college, and where they grew up. He also allows clients to ask him questions, such as about his credentials and educational background. And he keeps a photo of his wife and daughter in his office to remind clients that he is human.

“It’s about mutual transparency,” says Davis, an ACA member and founder of the Davis Counseling Center PLLC. 

Montgomery says a personal connection is also important in her efforts to build rapport with clients. She discusses the ethics of counseling, confidentiality and her responsibility to ensure a client’s physical and emotional safety with every client who comes into her office. She also lets clients know that during therapy they can express whatever thoughts or feelings they may have.

“My office is a judgment-free zone. All thoughts and emotions are welcome,” Montgomery says. “I like the office to feel comfortable enough for you [the client] to feel the way you need to feel, at least for that hour.”

Montgomery says she is also open to clients asking questions about her credentials and counseling experience. “They want to know they’re in good hands,” she says. “They need to get to know me just as well as I need to get to know them.”

Counselors should also acknowledge if there’s a gender or racial/ethnic difference between the counselor and client, advises Stone, owner and founder of Muse and Grace Mental Health Counseling Services in New York City. Acknowledging any differences upfront can help create a safe space for male clients to share their experience or to ask the counselor questions, she explains.

“If there’s an elephant in the room, talk about it,” she says. “It’s there whether you name it or not.” 

Montgomery recommends counselors “take on the role of an expert learner” when providing treatment for clients of diverse backgrounds. “You have to be aware enough to listen and learn and apply your therapeutic techniques on a case-by-case basis,” she says. “It has to be an equal exchange of awareness, growth and learning to make it comfortable and [to] help them feel comfortable in the therapeutic environment.”

Disclosing the abuse

The results of this early trauma can lead Black men to seek counseling — but for reasons other than sexual abuse. Montgomery says some of the reasons why Black men come to her practice include anger management, depression, anxiety and sexual dysfunctions. Clients may come to counseling because they were caught looking at pornography while they were at work and are in danger of losing their jobs or because they’re having intimacy problems with their wives, she adds. 

Although these symptoms can often be traced to childhood sexual abuse, many men are often unaware of the origins of their problems, Montgomery notes. “During the therapeutic process, experiences with sexual assault emerge and often get identified as a feasible cause of their mental and emotional concerns,” she says.

The counselors interviewed for this article say a client’s reaction to the realization of childhood sexual abuse can result in a tacit attempt to accept the trauma, conflicted feelings about the experience, doubts about their intrinsic worth or concerns about their sexual orientation.

“Sometimes it’s a confirmation,” Montgomery says. “They’ve already been kicking around the idea. They never thought of it [the trauma] as being [sexual] abuse, but after we confirm that they were sexually abused, they say, ‘Yeah, I kind of figured it.’”

Montgomery says confirming childhood sexual abuse often starts with asking clients how the experience made them feel. “Most Black men recognize that the sexual abuse can cause conflicting feelings,” she says. “At the time of the abuse, they may have been conflicted by their physical enjoyment and the emotional toll the abuse left.” 

“Most men never disclose their sexual experiences, so we explore the unspoken rule of keeping the abuse a secret,” she continues. “We explore [state] laws that define sexual abuse/assault, including the age of consent, the difference between molestation and rape, and [the] potential consequences for someone who sexually abuses children.” 

Davis, a clinical assistant professor of counseling at Southern Methodist University, says he is often the first person his clients have told about their abuse. “It’s really hard [for them] to accept the fact that the abuse happened because it leads to feelings of low self-esteem, inadequacies and, of course, anger,” he notes. “They feel this way because being sexually abused for them is very emasculating. It makes them question their manhood. A lot of people, but definitely Black men, like to feel a sense of control.” But when the abuse happened, they felt they had no control over their circumstances, Davis says. 

It’s OK to express emotion 

Counselors may first have to help Black men understand that they are allowed to have feelings and emotions about the experience. Stone, author of No Secrets, No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal from Sexual Abuse, notes that boys, particularly Black boys, are raised to believe that expressing emotions and anything other than the binary feelings of anger/happiness or weakness/strength is not allowed. 

The taboo about childhood sexual abuse is so persistent because “many boys continue to be socialized in ways that leave them little room to be vulnerable and to express vulnerability,” Stone says. “If they aren’t able to access their feelings, they struggle socially and grow up to be men who struggle socially.”

Montgomery notes that hiding or suppressing emotions has been a survival strategy for African Americans, especially boys and men. Historically, expressing feelings or emotions carries a serious threat of violence and death — from lynching to being shot or killed by the police, she says. 

Montgomery learned that Black men can put up a wall of defense against feelings and emotions when conducting research for her doctoral dissertation, which explored connections between the low use of professional mental health services by Black men in the inner city and their exposure to chronic trauma.

“I was pretty shocked by the results,” she says. All 10 of the men she interviewed for the study recognized that they had experienced some form of trauma, such as police brutality, violence and the implications of racism. But they did not consider how being guarded toward others, expressing pent-up anger, being defensive or declining to address mental health issues such as depression or anxiety can be a problem, she says. 

Montgomery says the men responded to the trauma by developing a “coat of protection” that served as a valuable tool for survival. And she says she sees this same “coat of protection” in Black men who have survived childhood sexual abuse. Her study reinforces the importance of helping this clientele to express and process their feelings and emotions. 

When clients have a hard time expressing how they feel about the abuse or don’t know what word or words may fit what they are thinking or feeling, Montgomery asks them to do a Google search for “feeling words” on their smartphone, and then together they explore educational websites (such as psychpage.com/learning/library/assess/feelings.html) that list different feeling words, along with charts and pictures, to help them define the word or words that best describe their emotions or feelings. 

Some clients have a limited vocabulary to describe their feelings, Montgomery says, and this exercise helps them overcome that by increasing their vocabulary and awareness about the complexity of emotions. For example, they learn that sadness can also be described as disappointment, and someone who is mad may be resentful. And it reminds clients that “they have emotions and feelings and its OK,” Montgomery adds.

“We spend time identifying emotions and giving them a name,” she continues, “and we try to find the word that best fills in the blank” of how they feel about a situation or experience.

After selecting a word from the list, discussing its meaning and talking about whether it matches their emotions or feelings, clients can say, “I’m feeling disrespected right now” or “I’m feeling jealous right now.” And once clients can correctly name what they are feeling and understand its meaning, they will “always know what that feeling is in every situation,” including experiences from their past, Montgomery says. 

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She also recommends using trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy (TF-CBT) with this population. Although TF-CBT is typically used with clients who are under the age of 18, she says these techniques can also be beneficial for Black men who have experienced childhood sexual trauma because it will help them learn healthier ways to cope with the trauma. This approach allows them to process their feelings and emotions rather than avoid them, reframe thoughts and behaviors resulting from the trauma, develop new behaviors and skills that bring a more desired or healthier outcome, and create healthy relationships, she explains. 

Stone says that incorporating poetry and bibliotherapy into treatment can also help survivors process emotions. She often uses James Pennebaker’s expressive writing framework with clients who have experienced trauma. “His research shows that expressive writing helps to ease psychological and physical symptoms related to trauma and other disturbing experiences,” she notes.

This framework asks “the client to write their deepest emotions and thoughts about a disturbing experience for 15 to 20 minutes a day over four days,” Stone says. “I then invite them to reflect on what they wrote (not necessarily to share it with me) and to consider how what they wrote makes them feel, where they feel it in their body and what, if any, changes they may want to make in the way they think or in the way they are living.”

To help clients connect to a fuller spectrum of feelings, Stone also has clients practice connecting their experiences to feelings and then their feelings to bodily sensations. She uses a feeling wheel, similar to the one developed by Gloria Willcox, to help clients explore what their body feels like when they experience certain emotions such as insecure, embarrassed, bored or proud. This helps the client identify feelings and “become more fluent” in expressing how they feel, Stone explains.

Davis recommends counselors normalize clients’ feelings of anger, shame, guilt or embarrassment about the abuse. Normalization, he explains, helps to break down the stigma  associated with being a survivor of child sexual abuse. “It helps them to know that they were victimized, but they are not victims,” he says.

Counselors need to affirm these clients, Davis says, and let them know they can work through the trauma of the experience and deconstruct some of the negative stigma that is tied to being a Black man who was molested. 

“I tell them [clients] how they feel is appropriate because someone has taken advantage of them and together, we’re going to build them up from there,” he says. “I let them know they’re not the only man who has gone through this. … I remind them that the worse part of what they’ve gone through is over. They are in recovery mode.”

Reframing the narrative 

Davis uses narrative therapy to encourage clients to tell their own story about the abuse. This approach, he says, can help clients “define the trauma in their own words and control the details of it.” He says it’s not necessary for him to know the exact details of the sexual act, but it is important to hear the client’s story because survivors attach meanings to the experience and to the abuser.

“Many times, they don’t realize that the meanings they have attached are very negative and they assign it to themselves. They don’t assign it to the abuser,” he notes. So he works with clients to help them explore the meanings they have attached to the experience, and together they begin to pull away the layers so clients can see what happened to them without assigning negative thoughts and feelings to themselves.

Davis also encourages clients to “think about their thinking” and “put negative thoughts on trial.”

He once worked with a client in his 30s who was molested by another man when he was a teenager. When disclosing the abuse, the client said, “I should have known better.” 

Davis helped the client put that thought on trial. They discussed how the client felt sad, embarrassed and angry at himself because he thought he should have known how to prevent the abuse. Davis then asked him, “What evidence do you have that this thought is true?” 

Davis also asked the client to image a child who is the same age he was when the abuse occurred and if he would blame that child for being sexually abused by someone they trusted. The client said he wouldn’t blame that child. So Davis asked, “But you blame yourself?”

Reframing the issue in this way, Davis recalls, helped the client consider alternative truths about his own abuse and realize he was being unfair to himself in his thoughts and feelings about the abuse. 

Montgomery says she tries to reframe unhealthy behaviors in her work with clients who have been sexually abused. One client, in his late 40s, came to see Montgomery because he was angry and didn’t know why he felt this way or how to process those feelings. The client did not recognize that he had been sexually abused as a child or that his feelings of anger were due to the death of his abuser, she says. 

This particular case was complex, Montgomery continues, because the client grew up in an environment wherehe was exposed to women in the adult sex industry, and from the time he was a teenager, some of these women routinely had sex with him. Crime and violence were also a part of his environment, which compounded the trauma, she adds.

Montgomery learned that he had also been abused by a female family member, but he viewed all of these sexual experiences as a “rite of passage” into manhood. Montgomery says the client told her that he’d had sex with “hundreds of women,” but he did not recognize that legally he had been violated by his female sex partners. 

Black men often have a hard time seeing being abused by a woman as sexual assault or rape, Montgomery explains. “If you’re sexually abused by a woman, it’s like, ‘Congratulations! Good for you,’” she says. 

Hypersexual behavior can be a response to the trauma of being abused as a child and it can lead to unhealthy behaviors if not addressed, Montgomery notes. This particular client did not understand how years of indiscriminate sex with multiple partners as a youth was an unhealthy behavior that posed a danger to his well-being, she says.

Montgomery used psychoeducation with him to discuss the risks of hypersexual behavior, such as sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, emotional baggage from multiple partners and problems with true intimacy in relationships.

Montgomery and the client also focused on harm reduction in session. She says they discussed what needs the client felt were being met when he had the desire to have sex with multiple partners and how he could meet those needs in another way. The client decided that when he felt the need for attention or to be loved, he would choose to have sex with only one or two partners rather than multiple women, go the gym or shooting range, or spend time with his children. 

The goal, she says, was to redirect the client’s energy from unhealthy behaviors to more positive choices. “We tried to help him tie his emotions to his behavior,” she explains, and to change that behavior so he wouldn’t cause harm to himself or others. 

Counselors may also have to help Black men who were sexually abused by a man process their feelings and emotions around their own sexual orientation. Because of negative stereotypes associated with homosexuality within the Black community, some Black men “may feel like their manhood was tainted because of what happened to them,” Davis says. Cognitive restructuring and psychoeducation about sexual orientation, he notes, can help clients articulate what their sexual desires are and learn that they, not the sexual abuse, define their sexuality. 

He also tells clients, “An experience that happened to you, that was not your choice or free will, doesn’t define your sexual orientation.” 

Reclaiming power 

Disclosing childhood sexual abuse can also result in victim blaming or self-blame, Stone notes, and blame can even come from peers or family members. There’s often the belief that the survivor “should have done something” to prevent the sexual act or in response to the abuse, she says. 

Stone advises counselors to help clients think about what it meant to be small and/or vulnerable and how much “social capital” they or the people who perpetrated the abuse had in their family or community. “I use ‘social capital’ to speak to the extent that one is known and trusted and has influence in a social dynamic, such as a family,” she explains. 

Boys are most often abused by someone who has social capital in the community, such as a coach, minister or family friend, Stone says. She suggests counselors discuss how much power or social capital the client thought they had in the situation by asking them, “Who do you think would have listened to you? Who might have taken you seriously? Who do you think would have been on your side if you had told them what had happened to you?”

Counselors can also acknowledge the strength it took for the client to survive the sexual abuse and to seek counseling, she adds. “It’s a radical act of self-care” to seek professional help, Stone notes, and counselors need to say so.

Davis says the low self-esteem that clients experience can also lead to feelings of fear and anxiety. “You feel you’re always on pins and needles because you’re waiting for the next thing to happen to you,” he explains. 

Davis uses imagery exercises and reframing thoughts to help men break from a victim mentality and reclaim their power. Approaching it this way allows clients to learn to “separate themselves from what happened to them,” he says. “I have them imagine who they were when the abuse happened, and I have them imagine who they are now, standing by that person.”

He also helps clients understand that because they were children when the abuse occurred, they couldn’t protect themselves. He then asks clients, “What are you and I going to do now to protect that 12-year-old you?” This question, Davis says, can lead to a discussion on ways the client can create healthy boundaries and a sense of safety so they aren’t afraid they will fall victim to sexual abuse again or be taken advantage of by others. 

“Many times, when a person experiences trauma, they get stuck there,” Davis says. “But I help them by reframing their thoughts and [bringing them] to the present day.”

Reaching out to black men

The counselors interviewed for this article all agree that the profession can do more to encourage Black men to come forward and seek mental health treatment. Montgomery suggests that counselors of diverse backgrounds and specialties advertise the fact that they treat people from marginalized groups and that they specifically treat men who have survived childhood sexual abuse. 

The Black men she interviewed for her doctoral study suggested some possible ways to improve the Black community’s access to mental health support services that she says can also apply to outreach efforts concerning sexual abuse for all Black men, particularly boys. These solutions include promoting the idea of positive mental health services in elementary schools; normalizing discussions about mental health, sexual abuse and other traumas; providing interventions for coping with and calming emotions early in life; and encouraging and normalizing help-seeking behaviors.

Counselors need to be “in places where Black men are,” Davis stresses. He plays in a basketball league with other Black men, and because many of them know that he is a counselor, they sometimes ask questions about mental health issues. When they do, he connects them with other mental health professionals who can help them. Davis also suggests clinicians reach out to universities and colleges, Black Greek fraternities and Black churches to find and connect with people who may be in need of counseling services. 

The counseling profession should reach out to Black men, he says, instead of waiting for this clientele to “reach out to us.”

 

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Lisa R. Rhodes is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lrhodes@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

1 Comment

  1. Theo B.

    Definitely recommending this article to readers who need to see it
    Thanks for the in-depth work done here, @Lisa Rhodes (Scholar).

    Reply

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