Brave Beautiful Men Shedding Toxic Masculinity & Sharing Truthful Messages

By Holli Kenley

Photos By Chris Haylett

For the past eleven years, Co-Founder of Creative Change Conferences “It Happens To Boys” Carol Teitelbaum, LMFT, has  provided a safe platform for bringing healing to an invisible and deeply injured population in our societies – men who were sexually traumatized as boys. Male presenters of notoriety and men known only to those who are blessed to know them unveiled their narratives of past abuse and ensuing recovery, dismantling normative destructive life-messages of what is it “to be a man” and reconstructing new life-messages based on honesty, compassion, and self-love. As each presenter told his truths, each emphasized the importance of breaking through the cultural and societal barriers of toxic masculinity, unwritten norms which define adherence to male gender roles and restrict the kinds of emotions allowable for boys and men. Thus, on a warm fall day in October 2019 in Southern California, USA,  individual professionals in the mental health field, recovery organizations, and lay audience members collectively embarked on a day of healing and hope, bearing witness to  Brave Beautiful Men Shedding Toxic Masculinity & Sharing Truthful Messages.

Carol Teitelbaum, LMFT, who specializes in the treatment of male survivors of sexual abuse, opened the Conference. Although we have become more accustomed to acknowledging and advocating for female victims of  sexual violence, Carol reminded the audience that we are uncomfortable with  admitting and addressing the fact that one in four males in the United States is sexually abused by the time he is eighteen. As secrecy, silence, and stigma continue to shroud male victims, they are driven further into their shame. Over 86% of males who have been sexually victimized suffer from addiction, along with depression, low self-esteem, relationship and intimacy dysfunction, and compulsive pornography use. After her opening remarks, Carol turned and introduced her husband, Robert Teitelbaum, survivor and author.

As Robert began sharing his narrative of parental neglect and  childhood sexual trauma, his voice was soft and powerful. Although Robert has disclosed his story many times, his words were filled with emotion. Those in the audience could sense his vulnerability and his strength. We heard his tenderness and his courage. As his narrative unfolded, Robert shared an extraordinary detail in his relationship with Carol. Shortly after meeting her, Robert openly revealed his past sexual abuse.  While it is often quite difficult for any survivor, male or female, to disclose past sexual abuse or trauma to a partner, it is highly unusual for males to do so. They are ashamed. They feel guilty. They feel responsible for the abuse. Their toxic masculinity tells them to toughen up and take it like a man. Thus, the abuse is repressed and it is kept at bay through unhealthy thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Robert has chosen to do just the opposite. Through his words and his works, he has dedicated his life sharing truthful messages of human strength and dispelling myths around male emotional weakness.

As the day progressed, two prominent men, John Lee and Dave Pelzer, graced the audience with their wit, intelligence, and their vulnerabilities. John Lee, author of “The Flying Boy: Healing The Wounded Man” and other numerous emotionally rich books, spoke candidly of his struggles, victories, and all that goes between. When he referenced the Men’s Movement (in the United States) of the 80’s, his voice quivered and he wept quietly. He recounted all that has not been accomplished in addressing rigid roles defined by toxic masculinity and how much work has yet to be done in providing safe environments for men to be emotionally vulnerable. He expressed how his heart aches that so many men are hurting, unwilling to address their demons and thus resorting to unhealthy behaviors and relationships. Along with a personal commitment to continue his work, John challenged the men in the audience to heal themselves, to work their programs, and then to step out of their comfort zones and take action.

Dave Pelzer, international speaker and New York Times best-selling author of “A Child Called It” and a series of highly inspirational  books, captured the audience’s hearts as he continued the theme of the Conference –  speaking your truth. As Dave recounted his narrative of horrific maternal abuse and the long-term physical and psychological effects, he emphasized the importance of finding his voice and of embracing healing born out of  transparent disclosure. Throughout his presentation, Dave wove messages of light into the darkness, lifting our spirits with humor and reminding us of the power of perseverance and resilience. And in sharing a very personal struggle over the past year, Dave’s voice was soft but steady, reminding us that he, too, has had his failings and his faults. Dave told us of his responsibility in disappointing a significant person in his life, and he reminded us that it is up to each of us to move forward in self-forgiveness and self-love.  As Dave concluded his presentation, the room felt lighter. The messages of toxic masculinity were replaced by timely and tender messages of truth.

Mid-day and at the end of the Conference, two male survivors  – Scott and Daniel –  each shared their narratives of sexual childhood abuse. Their abuse was chronic and lasted for years. The perpetrators were family members and older, stronger bigger children in their neighborhoods. Because neither Scott or Daniel felt he was able to share what was going on and because of the plethora of shame-filled messages each carried with him, eventually both young men turned to alcohol to cope. Daniel described his explosive anger and his inability  to manage it as he matured. Scott described his feelings of unlovability and self-hatred. After years of self-destructive behaviors, both men embraced recovering journeys. Both found acceptance, belonging, and unconditional regard in groups for men recovering from sexual abuse. Both began expressing their emotions in healthy ways, honoring their truths and themselves. Both are currently enjoying the companionship of healthy loving partners and families. And most importantly, as both of these brave beautiful men openly detailed the injustices in their lives, they couched them in emotional integrity – relinquishing the bonds of toxic masculinity and reclaiming themselves in truthful messages.

Working with females and males of childhood sexual abuse, I know the difficulty in sharing one’s story. I understand the deep levels of shame which suffocate an individual’s being, and I am acutely aware of the secrecy, stigma, and silence which prevent its release. I also know, that whether female or male, there must be a culture where individuals’ emotions are valued in order for victims to feel safe to disclose. We are making progress. At the same time, we must continue working towards a healthy climate of shedding restrictive roles and embracing the emotional freedom that comes with sharing truth.

Publisher’s Note: Holli Kenley is an American Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of “ Daughters Betrayed By Their Mothers: Moving from Brokenness to Wholeness” and “Power Down & Parent Up!: Cyber Bullying, Screen Dependence & Raising Tech-Healthy Children 

Chris Haylett, is a Canadian photographer, known internationally for his work with clients such as Levi’s, Dockers, Macy’s, Target, Eddie Bauer, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. His work has appeared regularly in the NY and LA Time’s Fashion Supplement, Elle, Shape Magazine and Vogue.

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