Working with male victim/survivors of sexual assault

Cairns Sexual Assault Service


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Content type
Practice guide

May 2011

Mary Stathopoulos, a Research Officer at ACSSA, interviews Clare Oppy and Heather Sinclair from the Cairns Sexual Assault Service.

Cairns Sexual Assault Service offers sexual assault counselling to victim/survivors of sexual violence in Far North Queensland. They are funded by Queensland Health and the Department of Communities. In 2010, the Cairns Sexual Assault Service held a forum to inform the community sector that they provide services for male victim/survivors of sexual assault.

ACSSA's Mary Stathopoulos interviewed Clare Oppy, the coordinator of the Cairns Sexual Assault Service, and Heather Sinclair, a counsellor with the service, about some of the barriers in men's help-seeking behaviors, the differences and similarities in providing sexual assault counselling for men and women, as well as broader issues concerning equitable funding for men and women.

The following conversation sheds light on some of the issues, opportunities and implications of initiating a focus on service provision for male victim/survivors.

Clare and Heather, what was the impetus for making your services available to male victim/survivors of sexual abuse? Why is it important to do this?

Clare: For me, as coordinator, I think that we really made the choice to start working with men because there were indicators from Queensland Health that they were changing direction for funding, that services needed to start addressing childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault experiences of men. At Family Planning Queensland (FPQ), we don't have an ideological stance that says that this is a women only space, our clinical services are dealing with the sexual health needs of men as well as women. Our education services provide education to men as well as women, as well as all children. So I suppose for us we have had calls from men in the past and men's experiences need to be addressed as well.

Heather: For me, with my study background being more in forensics, I was very aware that boys and men under-report assault, particularly if it's historical matters. There's a serious gap in service when we're not funded to see men and yet clearly men are half of the population, so from a therapeutic point of view, it is very important to see men as well. For us as a service, we have to make a stance, a commitment to support all victims regardless of gender.

Heather, you mentioned men disclosing historical matters, meaning child abuse from the past rather than recent sexual assaults. Are these the types of disclosures you're seeing from men?

Heather: Yes well because we have an on-call service as well, which is about acute sexual assault.  It is rare that we get a call-out regarding an adult male who has been sexually assaulted. Maybe that's just because the awareness is not there yet that we provide that service for men. But again, I think it's about men not coming forward. But the men that have come to this service have been probably 95-99% seeking support about historical matters and probably in the first instance they have disclosed to their partner just recently. But something has prompted them to finally come and talk to us about it.

What are some of the barriers for boys and men in reporting/disclosing these sexual assaults when they occur?

Heather: Men have a different view, I think. Because they've never talked to anyone about it and probably held on to it for 10, or 20, or 30, or 40 years, and they have their own ideas of what the assault was all about. You see, guys tend to think "Did the perpetrator think I was gay, is that why he perpetrated against me?" Once we start talking and I'm able to talk about the research and how perpetrators operate, they begin to understand that it wasn't their fault. A female survivor of childhood sexual abuse may not question her sexuality for an assault by a male against a female. But with the guys, there's a whole other layer there to do with their sexuality and I think that's the main reason that they don't come forward. Because they're wrestling with that idea themselves and they certainly don't want to be challenged around their sexuality. The layers of shame and blame and guilt, women have that too, but it's somehow different.

Clare: I think there are additional issues, and this would not necessarily be things that we have learned ourselves through hearing men speak, but through the literature that we've read about working with men and liaising with Dr Gary Foster, the issues for men around masculinity and what it means to be a man and the way that we socialise boys. So the gendered norm around being a man means being strong, it means that you don't seek help when something has happened because that would be the antithesis of what it means to be a male.

So I think that there is a really big barrier just in men's health generally and men's lack of access, or their lack of willingness to even access doctors about health matters. So I think that there are real barriers there. I also think that for us, at the service, our lives end up being saturated with sexual abuse and sexual assault language. I still find myself surprised that people hold certain views that perpetuate myths around sexual assault. So you know, this idea that men can't be sexually assaulted, or can't be sexually abused is a barrier also.

What have been some of the differences, and some of the similarities in providing sexual assault services for men as opposed to women that you've noticed in your practice? Are there any tensions with providing services for male victim/survivors within a feminist service model?

Heather: Well I think it's working really well. It's a different sort of a dance when you're working with men than women therapeutically. The conversations go perhaps in different directions and for me, obviously being female, there are certain things I don't necessarily understand about male physiology. So I have to ask those questions. So the conversation is somewhat different but I have to say every guy who has come here has been very engaged, although reluctant perhaps because they're not quite sure what the therapeutic process is about, such as what I'm going to be asking them or digging in to, or you know, people have concepts about what therapy's about.

It's about forming that alliance, as it is with anyone. So once that therapeutic alliance is formed and we start having a conversation, they're very relaxed and very open and we've had some wonderful conversations. They certainly have expressed to me that they've felt a whole lot better.

I think what's interesting though is whereas women will commit, they would say I'm probably going to have to come here for a while and I'll come every couple of weeks or whatever. Guys often think that once they've had the first session, they probably won't come back for a while, if they come back at all. I think they probably believe it's more of a short, one hit deal, versus women feeling that it's maybe a longer process.

Clare: Men tend to come forward when they're in crisis, so when their relationship has fallen apart and they're on the verge of losing their job, or have lost their job. So men actually require more intensive resources at the time that they do come forward. Because I guess the tendency is to focus on everything else in your life and eventually if all of that starts unravelling too then they think, well, okay, maybe I now need to look at the history of abuse, because maybe that's contributing. You know, people do tend to put it away somewhere because it's not nice to think about. In regards to issues concerning feminist-based practice, it does present a challenge because there's definitely a gender issue. There is no denying at the moment that from everything we know, men are primarily the perpetrators and it's primarily women and children who are the victims. But for me I see feminism as being ultimately about gender equality and it's all of those arenas of social, political and economic and racial equality. I think that feminism is about inclusivity and so I think for us it's been really important to acknowledge that this stuff happens to men as well. I don't see us working with men as being a contradiction to feminist-based practice. I tend to think how awful that this happens to men, it's awful that it happens full stop and we don't want to deny people that opportunity to come in and talk about it.

Clare, you mentioned funding earlier. In terms of providing services for male victim/survivors, is there a concern that funding might be funnelled away from services for women and used instead to fund services for men?

Clare: I don't think that we're likely to be doing anything differently about the services that we provide to women. But I think that one of the reasons that we have not been having men through the doors more is due to that lack of funding. So basically what we did was to host a forum last year about working with men so most of the community services within Cairns would become aware that we offer counselling and support to male victim/survivors of sexual abuse.

Unfortunately, we really haven't been able to do a lot beyond that. For instance we really need to create community awareness; having resources available to men; having male-friendly space and thinking about what would that looks like; being able to offer a male therapist as well as a female therapist. The lack of funding impedes all of that which means that services to men continue to be affected.

So after letting community services know that, yes, we will work with men, there's really been very little time or certainly no extra funding to be able to progress that in a really proactive way. To develop the resources that could go up in sporting clubs or in doctors' surgeries or wherever it might be that you think men are going to be able to be reached. We haven't been able to look at our physical environment and say, wow, is there anything we need to do that would make this more male friendly? What do we need to do to be accessible to and to reach younger men? What about older men? What about men with disabilities?

So the men who have come through our doors, I would have to look at how we are capturing them. Some have been parents of children who have been abused that have been coming to our children's counselling service and have then crossed over to the adult side about their own issues. But that lack of funding thus far, I don't think it's impacted on our female clients; it impacts on the quality of the service that we're able to provide to men.

So I think that it was said very, very strongly from Queensland Health that some services will need to work with men and I guess that echoes what Heather said earlier. This is an experience that men have as well. Potentially though, without funding, it's only paying lip service and I really think it needs to be addressed with the same compassion and sense of indignation and need for justice that we approach it with women.


Stathopoulos, M. (2011). Working with male victim/survivors of sexual assault: Cairns Sexual Assault Service (ACSSA Working With). Melbourne: Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, Australian Institute of Family Studies.