A 2018 Polished Man beneficiary, Survivors & Mates Support Network is helping those who’ve lived through abuse with a community-focused approach.
Twenty-five years. On average, that’s how long it takes men who’ve experienced sexual abuse as children to tell anyone.
During the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, an enormous two thirds of those who came forward were men. “There are many men who don’t know where to turn for help,” says Craig Hughes-Cashmore, CEO and founder of the Survivors & Mates Support Network (SAMSN), a not-for-profit that provides direct support to men who have experienced child sexual abuse.
A 2018 Polished Man beneficiary, SAMSN was founded in 2012 with the goal of building a support network; a place for survivors to turn to, speak freely, share their experiences, and begin to recover. In order to offer the best level of assistance, it employs psychologists and social workers who have in-depth experience of working with male survivors.
One of the reasons for the quarter-century silence is the difficulty of coming to terms with the idea of being a victim of child sexual abuse and a man, says Hughes Cashmore. “It challenges the traditional notions of manhood,” he adds. “This societal mindset leaves many survivors ashamed, silenced, confused and ill-equipped to deal with the challenge of managing this alone.”
Other contributing factors to the gender-wide silence include outdated stereotypes and notions of hypermasculinity (a psychological term for the overemphasis of stereotypical male behaviour), much of which is taught to boys from a young age (‘big boys don’t cry’, ‘take it like a man’) and carried unknowingly into adulthood. Then there’s the common misconception that sexual abuse only happens to women and girls which, as this recent Royal Commission has proven, is not the case.
To help fight this largely invisible and hard-to-detect problem, all SAMSN services are free of charge. They include professionally facilitated peer support groups as well as individual, professional support for help coping with daily life.
Following a trauma-informed approach – which leads with the question ‘what happened to you?’ as opposed to ‘what’s wrong with you?’ – SAMSN’s eight-week support groups help survivors recognise that they reacted to something that was done to them, something that should never have happened to them. “They are victims of crime,” says Hughes-Cashmore.
SAMSN also offer supporters workshops, for those who might be supporting a friend or partner who’s dealing with the long-term impact of being sexually abused as a child. The aim of these workshops is to help give friends and family members the tools they need to offer the best support possible to the male survivor(s) in their lives.
The access to other survivors through the SAMSN groups and broader network means survivors are able to share stories with people who’ve lived through similar experiences. “Isolation is the enemy to recovery,” says Hughes-Cashmore. “Being connected to other survivors breaks down isolation and self-blame and gives men a voice not to be ashamed. Recovery is not about forgetting, it’s about learning how not to let your past define who you are and dictate your future.”
Many of the long-term impacts of child sexual abuse are similar between male and female survivors, says Hughes-Cashmore. These include shame, guilt, fear, isolation, detachment, confusion, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), trust issues and a higher risk of developing addictions.
To date, SAMSN has facilitated 42 support groups across New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory and South Australia. Of the 298 attendees, an enormous 82 per cent have gone on to complete the eight-week groups. Michael, a survivor and client of SAMSN, found comfort in the community aspect of the groups. “I found further ways of coping and healing,” he says. “The healing that can occur [through SAMSN] can turn lives around. Recovery from sexual abuse can’t be done alone.”
Despite the 25-year silence, things are, by Hughes-Cashmore’s estimation, improving. At least in terms of survivors speaking out. While he concedes that it’s impossible to know whether abuse is decreasing, there are certainly more survivors beginning to address what happened to them in childhood. “The breaking down of the myths about child sexual abuse, and belief in those who come forward, has enabled this,” says Hughes-Cashmore.
Outside of supporting organisations like SAMSN and getting involved in initiatives like Polished Man – which at time of writing has raised over $1 million towards ending violence against children – there’s a lot the average Australian can do to help.
On a personal level, it’s important to listen, says Hughes-Cashmore. “Really listen,” he adds.“ And if someone tells you they have been sexually abused, believe them. Stand alongside them – be a mate. You can’t undo what happened, but you can make a big difference in a survivor’s life if you stand with them, through the ups and downs of recovery.” And if you suspect someone of being a perpetrator of abuse, or of being the victim of ongoing abuse, report it.
For men dealing with the effects of childhood sexual abuse, it can be a difficult road to recovery. As a first step, SAMSN recommends reading about the topic. This is a non-threatening way of exploring the issue, and allows survivors to explore themes in a safe space. Seeking help from a qualified professional and experienced therapist is the next important step. And for those who’d feel more comfortable talking to others who’ve lived through similar experiences, SAMSN provides a safe, understanding, community-focused lifeline.
“Recovery is not about forgetting,” says Hughes-Cashmore, who was in his 30s when he went to the police about sexual abuse he suffered as a teenager. “It’s about learning how not to let your past define who you are and dictate your future. And being able to access both professionals and those with lived experience – who have survived – provides a model of hope; of belief that recovery is achievable.”
A message to supporters of SAMSN and Polished Man from Craig Hughes-Cashmore, CEO of SAMSN:
“Thank you for standing with child victims and adult survivors of abuse and violence. Your support means so much to those who weren’t made safe, believed and helped to recover. You are helping to change lives, raise awareness and educate our communities.”