Justin Thielman came from a conservative town. There were no resources for victims of sexual abuse. It wasn’t until he was 20 that he was able to admit to himself the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his father for more than 10 years.
He can’t remember exactly when it began. It was just a way of life.
“It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact age when you realize you are being abused,” Thielman said.
It wasn’t until his early teenage years that Thielman was able to identify just what was happening and that it was not normal; by the time he was 16, he was able to put an end to the abuse for good. It was too late for him to salvage his high school career; he took the GED instead. It took seven years before he was able to continue his education at SF State.
“It took a long time for me to recover to go back to school,” said the 27-year-old. “The years I was not in school, I spent going to therapy. I was trying to figure out who I was and heal.”
For many men, the stigma associated with sexual assault is very different from what women experience because of societal perceptions of masculinity and the socialization of men, according to Ismael de Guzman, coordinator of the Sexual Abuse Free Environment Place at SF State.
“It’s difficult for men to be a victim of sexual violence because there is such a sense of the complete loss of power and masculinity,” de Guzman said.
Thielman spent years in therapy, and when he found the SAFE Place, he came forward as a survivor of sexual abuse. He then got involved with the organization, and began to share his story as a means of healing.
“There comes a moment when you choose that you don’t want to be miserable for the rest of your life,” Thielman said. “You’ve been living in the trauma and have that sick feeling in the gut. It’s time to move on or stay stuck in it.”
For many who have suffered sexual abuse or violence, there can be a stigma for being a victim that is different from other crimes. People close to the victims are also at risk of emotional injury following a violent attack, according to Derithia DuVal, director of Counseling and Psychological Services. She said those close to victims can experience trauma vicariously.
This was the case for Jeff Briz, SF State student and SAFE Place peer educator. Briz was out of town when his girlfriend was sexually assaulted after they had been together for a few months since they began college at San Diego State University.
“When I first heard about what happened, I felt this incredible anger and rage and disbelief and confusion. The initial emotions were so intense and completely took over. I didn’t know how to deal,” Briz said.
According to Briz, his girlfriend had a very hard time being alone and there were certain acts that were off limits in their intimate relationship. They slowly drifted apart.
It wasn’t until Briz moved to San Francisco, began his work with the SAFE Place and sought counseling that he was able to address his anger from the incident. He finally was able to acknowledge what happened and had the tools to move forward.
De Guzman says that one of the focuses of the SAFE Place is providing a space for men to talk about their experiences around sexual violence and change the conversation about it being exclusively a women’s issue; it is a men’s program that focuses on teaching men to be allies.
He said that the SAFE Place’s Men Can Stop Violence program is specifically aimed at shifting the conversation with sexual violence to a male perspective by creating male allies and challenging stereotypical views of masculinity.
Since taking over SAFE Place, de Guzman has seen an increase in male survivors of sexual violence coming in to talk about their experiences, like Thielman. One of the forums that de Guzman has helped create is Cocktales, an annual performance where men express their experiences and emotions around sexual violence and masculinity through monologues or spoken word poetry.
According to de Guzman, it is a creative space that can bring about healing for men who have experienced any sort of trauma or questioned societal perceptions of masculinity.
“Cocktales serves a twofold purpose. It creates a space for men to talk about their own trauma and notions of masculinity. Also, men can talk about the pain as well as the healing and they have the opportunity to feel they are being heard, which can be a vindicating experience,” he said.
Cortney Leung, a 24-year-old graduate student who works with the SAFE Place and a rape crisis counselor, who has worked with a number of victims, sees the power of acknowledging the victims’ experiences in the recovery process.
“There is so much stigma around rape that listening to a victim and telling them, ‘I believe you’ and it’s not their fault can be a very healing experience for them, and then they can cope,” she said.
It took a long time and a lot of help, but Thielman has faced his trauma and has since moved into a place of emotional restoration.
“My story is of healing not for myself, but my family,” Thielman said. “It’s about breaking the patterns and learning to heal by being open and honest.”