The men of sexual assault

Simon Albaugh, Contributor

Near the heart of the South Carolina Appalachian Mountains, a small European family moved from their nation’s-capital home to give one of their two sons a fresh start.

He had been angry, depressed and socially withdrawn. Frequently getting into fights and struggling to understand what had happened to him, his family wanted him to be far away from the traumatic memories that would shape most of his adolescence.

Before moving to the United States, Jason Traverson’s family (whose first and surname have been changed in order to protect his identity) led busy lives. Both Traverson’s parents had only one or two hours to spend with their sons at night, leaving them alone with baby sitters and older family members.

He was around 10 years old when a family member took Traverson and his brother to school four, sometimes five days a week. But between coming home from school and his parents returning from their demanding careers, the older family member would sexually abuse Traverson.

For the years of abuse, Traverson talked about one thing that made any efforts to end it seem impossibly complicated.

“I could’ve defended myself and I could’ve said something to someone,” he said. “And I could’ve resisted and fought him. But at the same time, I had my little brother there who was two years younger. And he is the most innocent, caring, loving person that I have ever met in my whole fucking life.”

At least one in six men are reported to have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18, according to 1in6.org, a male-focused sexual assault support and awareness organization. However, because of a general consensus among researchers that statistics on this issue are skewed, the number is expected to be higher because of underreporting.

Compare this to the frequency of false rape accusations toward men, with the highest estimates at 10 percent of all accused men falling victim to unfounded accusations and few falsely being found guilty. Since 1989, there have been 52 proven cases of false accusations that resulted in prison sentences across the country.  

While the exposure to rape is equally traumatizing for anyone who experiences it, there are cultural expectations that can make coping or recovering uniquely complex for men.

Jonah Oleksiak, a student at Oakland University who has been working on a documentary of interviews with sexually assaulted men, talked about the most prevalent factors that limit them from talking about the trauma.

“Basically, the idea that men have to be tough, that men have to be more stoic with their emotions or that men aren’t supposed to be emotional… that can make it more difficult for a person to come forward,” he said.

But there are other factors that can make reporting the perpetrator a difficult ordeal.

Lucas Garlene (whose first and surname have been changed) is a musical theatre major at a conservatory in Chicago, Ill. He couldn’t talk about what happened to him and still chooses not to talk openly without anonymity because of the scarcity of theatre programs around the area of Michigan where he grew up.

“I knew that if I quit my senior year [of high school,] I wouldn’t get into schools and I wouldn’t have gotten into a college program,” Garlene said. “So I thought it was more worth it to deal with the harassment than to not be able to pursue what I want to do in the long run.”

That harassment involved nearly obsessive amounts of text messages, repeatedly insisting on being in the room whenever the boys of the program were changing into different costumes and frequent, sly attempts at molestation.

“I was a little sore after class,” Garlene said. “And he said ‘I’ll massage it for you.’ But then he was just kind of inching closer and closer to my genitals, and then he touched it and I was like ‘Alright, I get the point, I’m done, I can do it at home.’ “

Since other boys in Garlene’s acting program reported similar encounters to each other, they all set up a system of rules. One rule was that no one would change in front of the director of their program. And if anyone broke the rules, the backlash was harsh.

There was one eight-year-old boy who joined the program amid the harassment. Because his age prevented him from fully grasping the purpose of the rules, he didn’t care to follow them. And the other boys responded immediately.

“He just had no idea what was going on,” Garlene said. “So we all decided to bully him so he wouldn’t change in front of him.”

During the abuse, the stress can distract men from bettering themselves, like in Garlene’s experience. But if the abuse is severe and prolonged enough, like in Traverson’s, the world can come crashing down until the survivor faces the trauma head-on.

After Traverson moved to the U.S., he found a shift around his sophomore year. Rather than being depressed, his efforts to cope with the trauma turned into anger.

Frequently finding solace in hard drugs such as cocaine, prescription pills and, on few occasions, methamphetamine, Traverson became a part of the wrong crowd. Robbing people, beating them up; his time in high school exposed him to even more violent crime all over again.

“If you already have all that built-up anger and all that stress and all that trauma. It just amplifies everything that you’re doing in terms of anger and stuff like that,” he said.

For Traverson, the drugs and violence continued until he decided to end it. Planning on taking his own life, Traverson tried to consume a lethal amount of drugs to induce an overdose.

He later found himself in the hospital. While recovering from the ordeal, his parents told him he was going to a psychiatric hospital, where he stayed for the next two months. Continuing the anger, violent outbursts and drug use, Traverson moved to worsening wards before landing at rock bottom in D-Ward: The most isolating and intensive-care ward.

“A lot of people make it to that lowest point and then they don’t come back,” he said. “But if you have people that care about you… if they would still save you if you were bleeding out in a bathtub… you can always come back.”

It may have been the isolation, or the shock of reaching the bottom. But in the time he spent alone inside his locked room, Traverson internalized some of the things the people who cared about him had been trying to make him understand for a long time.

It’s always going to be with me and that anger, the anxiety, the trauma is always going to be with me. But at the same time, why should I let it hold me back from doing something amazing with my life?”

— Jason Traverson

“I just realized that even though all this fucking stupid shit happened to me, I’m still alive,” he said. “And maybe I shouldn’t be, but I am. So why would I just fucking throw it away?.. I just had to get to that realization on my own.”

Now, Traverson is a junior in college. He lives in Detroit, going back to South Carolina during breaks to see his parents and his younger brother. Studying as an artist, he’s even been accepted to a design internship at a European company.

But despite the progress that both Traverson and Garlene have made in coming to terms with what happened to them in their past, there will always be some reminder that evil or perversion touched them.

Although Traverson has made progress beyond many people’s hardest efforts, there is still that aspect of what happened that he will never understand.

“When I think about it and lay awake at night, thinking about how fucked up it is that someone could do that, I rarely even think about how painful it was or how uncomfortable it was,” he said. “I just think about the fact that someone is able to do that and enjoys doing that. That’s what scares me the most.”

Garlene, who has been openly gay since high school, talked about the culture of some older men that had given him attention throughout his teens in the hook up app Grindr.

“One guy, I asked ‘are you married?’ and he said yes,” Garlene said. “And then I asked ‘do you have children?’ and he said yes. So I told him ‘I’m not going to do that to your family’… It’s that repression of sexuality that they take out on younger children.”

Garlene explained this “repression of sexuality” in older men can lead them to solicit younger men.

But even though the people who have experienced an extreme hardship may never be the same again, that doesn’t mean they can never be happy or satisfied with themselves ever again.

“I think there’s always something that could help a person,” Oleksiak said. “That it could be very hard and sometimes it can feel impossible. But there can always be something there that can make someone feel better. Not perfect, not even necessarily great, but better.”

And sometimes it doesn’t end at just feeling better.

“It’s always going to be with me and that anger, the anxiety, the trauma is always going to be with me,” Traverson said. “But at the same time, why should I let it hold me back from doing something amazing with my life?