Recovery: A Process

Recovery may be seen as a process of moving from denial into identification as a victim and eventually out of the victim identification into identification as a survivor.

First there is acknowledgement that the victimization occurred. This primarily involves overcoming denial of the feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability associated with being victimized. It is both a cognitive and an emotional experience. Second, it is placement of the victimization in its historical context through exploring and understanding the elements that contributed to its occurrence. Third, it is learning to separate the past from the present. This involves recognizing what elements in the past influence current reactions and finding ways to minimize the influence these feelings and behaviors have when they are no longer functional. And fourth, it is taking charge of one's life through the development of a self that is able to provide support and limits much as the adult responsibly parents the child.

Acknowledging the Victimization

The ability to say with some conviction that I am a victim of sexual abuse. If this doesn't occur following continued exploration of the victimization experience and its effects, perhaps he wasn't effected adversely enough to consider himself a victim; i.e. the experience didn't feel traumatic. The victimization may have been a positive experience and/or socially acceptable. This is especially true if the abuser was a woman and he was an adolescent. In this case, the recognition of victimization may not come from the abuse experience itself but from the other ways this experience may have effected his life. Signs of this are difficulty sustaining intimate relationships, sexual dysfunction, compulsive behaviors, feeling continually victimized by women, self worth tied to sexual functioning, and anger at women in general.

Indicators of Achieving this Step

Recall of the abuse sufficient to establish the significance of the trauma.
      This may mean going over the pieces that you have again and again in order to look for the ways he ignores particular details. It is also helpful to explore less obvious assaults on sexuality. The subtle put downs, intrusiveness, shaming, and other abuse of sexuality can have a significant impact and need to be explored.

Belief that he was not the one responsible.
      This may involve recognizing that even if he sought out the experience, did nothing to stop it, or even enjoyed it, children are not suppose to be in charge of setting the limits in sexual encounters with older peers or adults.

Recognizing vulnerability.
      This may involve a more extensive look at his family of origin or other factors that made him more vulnerable to the abuse. Most are very isolated and alone and gravitate toward anyone who will give them some attention. He needs to have some understanding about the external factors that led to his abuse. This help dispel the internal belief that he did something to cause it or that he didn't do something to prevent it.


Get a good sexual history using the four categories of sexual abuse.

Have him write the history and read material to you or in the group. Begin to make some connections between the events that have happened and some the his reactions in the present.

Go over and over the information he provides and expand on it.

Identify as many problems as possible that may be associated with the abuse while not making the victimization the cause for all his problems. For example, relationship, compulsive/addictive behaviors, sexual dysfunction, isolation, poor gender esteem (alienation from masculine identity), poor boundaries (can't say no) or overly rigid boundaries (always says no), codependency, sexual/affectional preference confusion.

Operate primarily in the cognitive realm with some attempts to move into emotional sphere. Don't worry if most of the work takes place without any affect at first.

Recognizing the Impact

Men have been socialized to stay in control of their feelings and to deny vulnerability. There is a tremendous amount of energy that goes into preventing the facade from cracking. While this may have been adaptive for some of the work men have been asked to do in our society, it keeps them isolated. In order for movement to occur in this phase of recovery, the victim needs to allow his vulnerability to show.

Indicators of Achieving this Step

Expression of feelings
      These include fear, anger, rage, grief, sadness, etc.

Recognizing needs
      May involve calling a group member when feeling depressed, asking for support from another man, reaching out to someone else who is in pain etc. This type of vulnerability may be even more difficult than showing feelings. This really involves beginning to deal with the shame by acknowledging that he has some needs and it is possible to get them met in some positive, healthy ways. This often involves moving into the vulnerability and then closing the door and creating distance.

Revealing ghosts of the past
      May involve the revelation that he has also been sexually abusive to someone.

Gender shame
      Acknowledging how he feels about himself as a man.  


Use of men's group.

Encouraging group vulnerability, e.g., doing a group art project, a group abuse history, sexuality discussion, storytelling, guided fantasy (relaxation, healing the inner child, affirmations), role playing a vulnerable situation with other group members taking part.

Encouraging outside contact among members without making this a requirement.

Anger work.

Assignments such as keeping a journal, abstinence contract, etc.

Understanding the Historical Context

Men have been socialized to stay in control of their feelings and to deny vulnerability. There is a tremendous amount of energy that goes into preventing the facade from cracking. While this may have been adaptive for some of the work men have been asked to do in our society, it keeps them isolated. In order for movement to occur in this phase of recovery, the victim needs to allow his vulnerability to show.

Indicators of Achieving this Step

Willingness to listen and explore possible explanations as posed by group members. (Groups are good at this.)

Ability to respond emotionally to particular scenarios. This adds concrete credibility to the impact.

Desire to talk to supportive siblings or other safe people who could provide factual information.


Asking family members, friends, etc., to come into a therapy sessions to provide their input into what was occurring at the time. These individuals should be carefully selected as supportive rather than adversarial.

Bringing in family pictures and other artifacts of his childhood to help piece together the facts as he remembers them.

Separating the Past from the Present

It is often difficult for the victim to separate his reactions to present experiences from feelings that emerge from the past victimization. Sometimes they become so enmeshed that the ability to stand back and be at all objective about the situation is lost. Some examples of the feelings that one can suspect may be associated with past abuse are powerlessness, rage, extreme anxiety, helplessness, and fantasies of escape.

Indicators of Achieving this Step

Separating the past and the present often involves a learning process of gradually increasing the ability to recognize and prevent the same reaction from occurring repeatedly.

Ability to recognize that what he is experiencing may be connected to his abuse.

Can begin to identify situations where he responded with feelings that were clearly connected to his past victimization.

Begins to realize that he has choices.

Can look back after the fact and make an attempt to clear up the confusion. Is able to separate his feelings from the past at the time and make a course correction.


Going over the event in detail and helping him sort it out by seeing the inconsistencies in his evaluation.

Doing feelings work in the group. Being able to attach an emotional response to the victimization helps to separate that piece and avoids having it be continually problematic in the present.

Consolidating the Learning

The real test of any therapy is the ability of the client to sustain the change in his daily life and to continue to adapt and change on his own. He eventually outgrows his need for a therapist and seeks his support from his real world. The abuse at this point begins to recede into the background and more current events become important. These are most often aimed at independence and self actualization.

Indicators of Achieving this Step

Has developed an internal adult that can bring him back from the childlike feelings when they occur.

Readiness and willingness to reach out to others through volunteering in some way.

Can confront his abuser in some concrete way.

Knows what his needs are and can get them met other than sexually.

Has developed a support system that includes male friends.

Compulsive behaviors are under control.


Find some way for him to take on his abuser in a real way. This may involve writing and sending a letter, making a phone call, or having an actual session. The willingness to do this is a big step.

A family of origin session can be helpful in consolidating the changes he has made.

If there is some speaking he can do in front of a safe audience, it will do much to fortify his confidence and diminish his level of shame.

Saying goodbye.
Recovery for the Male Sexual Abuse Survivor: Critical Steps in the Healing Process*

By Peter Dimock, L.I.C.S.W.**
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* Reposted with the permission of the author; available at: (MaleSurvior) 27.01.07
** Peter Dimock is a Teaching Specialist and Professional Education Director at the School of Social Work of the University of Minnesota.
A note from the translator: This article is intended to be an object of interest for professionals working with male survivors of sexual abuse. However, the ideas expressed in the text below can as well prove to be helpful to men in individual/group therapy aimed at recovery.