Tyler Perry and his sexual trauma — what we can learn from this

Tyler Perry and his sexual trauma — what we can learn from this
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Megastar and media mogul, Tyler Perry is on the cover of this week’s PEOPLE talking about the horrific abuse he experienced as a child. In addition to the brutal beatings he received from his father, he also explained how four different individuals sexually abused him by the time he was 10 years old.

It’s not easy to talk about sexual abuse or assault. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Sexual violence is a traumatic experience so invasive to one’s body and spirit, that it feels almost unspeakable. It’s hard for any survivor to come forward, including boys and men. But as a society, we need to create the conditions that would enable individuals to talk about such abuse, and receive the help and healing that is available. 

Men with histories of sexual abuse have higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, major depression and panic disorder. They are also were more likely to report suicidal ideation and a history of suicide attempt.

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Sadly, men who have been sexually abused also have a pervasive pattern of other life difficulties. They have greater problems than non-abused men at all levels of education — grade school, high school and college — as well as more negative job experiences and more troubles in relationships. The truth is no part of your life goes unscathed after sexual assault. 

In a sample of heterosexual men, those who had greater childhood sexual abuse severity had lower age of first alcohol intoxication, which in turn predicted greater current alcohol consumption over time. This typically was followed by greater use of alcohol before sexual intercourse, leading to an increased number of reported sexual partners. But, with all these other horrible consequences, including self-loathing, it should be no surprise that childhood sexual abuse increases one’s likelihood of risky sexual behavior in adulthood.

On top of that, if you’re a male childhood sexual abuse survivor you’re more likely to experience adult sexual victimization. This re-victimization deepens and widens the pain and often leads to increased hostility and depression.

And, to add further injury, to further deepen the wounds, their abuse is often invalidated or minimized by society and health care professionals. As an example, you can see this stigma in a large sample of children between the ages of 8 and 16 who were reported to Child Protective Services for alleged sexual abuse. Though there were no differences between boys and girls PTSD symptoms or trajectories, caseworkers viewed the children and their abuse differently.  Despite no differences in three objective measures of abuse severity, caseworkers rated girls significantly higher than boys on level of harm. This denial or minimization is not just taking place at an individual and societal level, it’s impacted the health care workers who should know and do better.

Men may not label their traumatic experiences as sexual victimization. In fact, in one survey, the majority of men who endorsed behavioral indicators of child sexual abuse —meaning they identified all the signs that professionals use as indicated that an assault has been committed — did not self-label their experiences as rape, or see themselves as sexual abuse victims. This also keeps them from recognizing their pain and working through it.

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There are so many myths and stigmas about men and sexual abuse it’s hard to keep them all straight. One is that men should have sex on the brain – thinking about it all the time, wanting it always and never turning it down. 

Thus, when they experience non-consensual sex, it gets interpreted by society, and sometimes by the men themselves, as that they are lacking masculinity. In fact, in a sample of male veterans who had been sexually assaulted and were applying for PTSD disability benefits, those who endorsed a greater belief in these male rape myths had lower beliefs in one selves. If a person doesn’t believe they have the power within themselves to succeed or accomplish things, if they hold themselves in such low regard, this increases the severity of their psychiatric symptoms. 

Men with such histories have described themselves as experiencing profound and excruciating suffering, affecting their entire life. Because of perceived societal prejudice, they live in repressed silence. Shame, that painful feeling of humiliation, inferiority and disgrace, so often accompanies such abuse. And likely makes it harder for men to see themselves as worthy of help or deserving of healing.

We need to find ways to help men get around stigma, gender and knowledge-related barriers that keep them from getting the help they need.  Outreach interventions and providing gender-specific psycho-education can help.

Men who experience childhood abuse, particularly sexual abuse, can make tremendous progress in psychotherapy based on gender-specific issues. Part of this involves helping men to understand the impact of abuse in the context of traditional gender socialization. Male veterans with military sexual trauma who complete trauma-focused intervention have significantly reduced PTSD and depressive symptoms. 

Our group is conducting a large psychotherapy study trying to help male sexual abuse survivors who are also sexual and gender minorities get the help they need to heal.

As trauma psychologists, we thank Tyler Perry for sharing his abuse history as well as his shining a light on his recovery. 

Sexual abuse is a violation that is so deeply painful and personal. But, that’s exactly why we must talk about it. Sexual abuse survivors should no longer live in shrouds of secrecy and shame.

Joan Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11. Amy Ellis is the co-director of the trauma resolution and integration program at Nova Southeastern University.