The Measure of a Man

Content Note – This post discusses the impact of childhood sexual abuse

As some of you know, I am a fan of The Archers, the worlds longest running radio drama, which takes us daily (except Saturdays) into the world of a prosperous midlands village. It was I think Miss Marple who pointed out that village life simply gives us the opportunity to see the worst, and best, of people under the microscope. Long before the divine Jane similarly compared her work to creating a world in miniature. Simply because a world is small does not mean it cannot contain the entire universe.

I first started writing about The Archers here when I realized that one of the character, Helen, appeared to be in a coercive control relationship. Eventually the story line, impeccably written, even made the national newspapers, and thousands of people who may never have considered how domestic abuse impacts on a person, robbing them of all that makes them a person, were educated and informed in the way only drama can do.

In recent days much of the conversation on the show, and around it by the fans, has been about the behaviour of Jim Lloyd. Jim is 80, a retired don, and not the easiest person to like. Brusque and at times bullying he is the very model of a certain type of man, of a certain age, class and background. You could no more imagine Jim talking about toxic masculinity than you could imagine Lynda sitting down to watch Love Island. So, when he seemed to rush away from his own birthday celebration in great distress, indeed what might be described as a PTSD response, it was completely uncharacteristic behaviour. His subsequent lashing out at those around him, withdrawal from his usual activities, and deep pain made me wonder about historic child abuse, and as this Friday’s episode showed, this was indeed the cause of his inexplicable, to those around him, responses.

Jim has told his son, and best friend that at the age of 8 he was sexually abused by a family friend, and has carried this secret with him throughout his life. One of the things it can be hard for people to understand is how CSA survivors internalise shame and self hate. Indeed it can be said that the shame the abuser should feel is transferred onto their victim, often deliberately so as they are told they are dirty, or wanted the abuse. Survivors also internalise messages from the outside world, victim blaming, and attitudes which say if you did not fight back you must have been willing. As the majority of abuse takes place within families, or by someone already known to a child, guilt and confusion are added into the complex swirl of emotions.

Society holds onto many myths about child abuse, and the most prevalent, and possibly most dangerous, is that of the danger stranger – someone completely unknown to a child who abducts and abuses them. The reality for the majority of survivors is far less straightforward, and they often have to negotiate conflicting emotions and fears of what disclosure might bring about – fears abusers will often play on, with threats of the police and being taken into care if you tell anyone.

Gender also plays a role here. Whilst many of the responses to CSA are universal, and of course while each persons pain, and healing, are unique to them, there are some patterns which emerge. When the abuser is the same gender as their victim it can be incredibly confusing, people may wonder if this makes them gay, and if they are LGB it can cause them to worry that the abuse somehow made them lesbian, gay or bi. Given Jim’s age of course he grew up in an era when homosexuality was still criminal and heavily stigmatized. It can be even harder for survivors of historic abuse to disclose when they believe that certain sex acts (even consensual ones) carry the weight of stigma and shame. The nuanced understanding of an adult that acts no more have a sexuality than they have a morality, that it is consent that matters, is often far beyond a child, who can come to believe that they have not only done something wrong, but that they are wrong.

It can also be difficult for men abused in childhood to come to terms with being vulnerable, given our cultural norms around masculinity. From the harmful admonishment to “big boys dont cry” through to the myth men and boys cannot be raped, CSA can feel emasculating, and like something which a “real man” would not allow to happen. This is of course not true, but it is internalised as a truth by many.

For the BBC to have tackled the topic of historic childhood sexual abuse is brave, and I believe necessary. For them to have done so with a male character who is not particularly sympathetic is quite revolutionary. We still carry ideas of the “good” victim in our minds, and often underestimate the truly devastating impact of trauma. It can weave itself through out a life, especially when, as in Jim’s case, the secret has been carried like a great burden. It seems clear that his trauma has poisoned many of his relationships, his pain has often been turned outwards on others, and his own son has been kept at literal and metaphorical arms length.

One does not have to tell your story to heal, indeed it is a quite discredited form of therapy for working with CSA. However survivors do need to be heard, to be able to speak their truth, and receive empathy and compassion. When this happens it can mean they are able to set down those burdens they have carried, often for a lifetime. Jim has made the bravest of steps, and I can only hope that the script writers do allow him the space and time to begin to heal.

If you are a male survivor of childhood sexual abuse Survivors Manchester exist to support you, and can often signpost to local services. The Truth Project is taking submissions from victims of CSA in an institutionalized setting, and NAPAC can offer help and support. Lastly remember the guilt and shame you may carry are not yours, they are a burden that can be given up.

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