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Section 24
The Rescuer, Daredevil, & Conformist Coping Strategies

Question 24 | Test | Table of Contents

Like Batman and Robin: The Rescuer Strategy
It is striking to see the lengths to which some boy victims of abuse will go, later on, to form a close relationship with a man of similar age to that of their abuser. It is as though they tell themselves that this one, at least, will be able to love them "properly," will rescue them in a way and, possibly, help them in turn to become rescuers. It must be understood that, in a child who has been abused, the entire relational system has most likely been disturbed, creating the certainty of isolation. The youngster will thus, sooner or later, attempt to rebuild significant emotional ties. This is the moment when what I call the Batman and Robin syndrome makes its appearance.

Everyone knows Batman and Robin, those comic book heroes who later went on to television and movie fame. They form an inseparable pair, the elder serving as mentor to the younger. Now, the Batman and Robin duo is the model of the ideal relationship that numerous abused boys more or less consciously seek. They are on the lookout for a protective, even restorative, relationship with an older man. A very close relationship with a reassuring figure appeals to them as a way to take care of their wounded masculinity, to regain trust in both themselves and in others. What greater positive victory over fate could there be, really, than to meet an older person who would, this time, protect them. Frequently, a relationship like that of Batman and Robin aims at compensating an abused boy for a former loss: the loss of a father, an uncle, a friend, or a big brother - whether or not this person is the abuser - who in the past had seemed to love him before abandoning him. Certain abused youngsters hope to find the recognition shown them by their aggressors before their real intentions surfaced.

In the years following the abuse, and in spite of certain apprehensions, several of the respondents had such a privileged relationship with an adult. Their goal, more or less admittedly, was to find in this man a role model and guide (as Batman is to Robin) whom they would admire in return (just as Robin admires Batman).

The problem is that the search for a mentor does not bring an end to their mistrust, still less to their ambivalence towards adults: once bitten, twice shy. The higher the youngster's expectations of an adult in whom he has invested all his hopes, the greater the risks of again being let down. This time, the least false step, the smallest slip, appears like a new abandonment or betrayal. True heroes being rare, the young boy's idyllic dream will only rarely come to pass. One can imagine the drama when the adult shows himself to be incapable of shouldering the role that has been foisted on him. His pupil, rightly or wrongly, comes to believe that he recognizes in him another exploiter.

To be appreciated and loved for himself alone and not for his body is what most men who have been victims of sexual abuse in childhood long for. In a way, what most frightens the ex-victim is what most attracts him: a man who will love him truly for himself alone. With such a man the ex-victim believes he can transform the promiscuity that caused him so much pain during the abuse into a real intimacy; he will turn the enslavement into a relationship of equals. His masculinity having been called into question, he counts on re-establishing it through a friendship that will manifest a virile companionship. However, this particular type of friendship also presents difficulties, if not hazards.

The sexually abused male child or adolescent may, in spite of himself, establish relationships that favor his renewed exploitation. This is all the more likely if he has a tendency to fall back on the seductive behaviour precociously learned in the context of abuse. Some respondents have been cruelly disappointed to learn that their rescuer might be interested in them on a sexual level. Not all adults are potential aggressors but the motivations of an older person who wraps himself in the Batman costume are not always clear. He too carries a certain amount of baggage; no one knows what is hidden behind the mask of the hero.

Some adolescent or young adult respondents, especially if they are of a homosexual or bisexual orientation, will view their privileged relationship with such adults as not excluding mutually satisfying sexual relations, while others are allergic to any contact that might suggest a sexual relationship or, worse, provoke a context of abuse. In each case, relationship is meant to obliterate the past; the young people intend to prove to themselves that men are not all the same, since at least one of them has been able to show them sincere affection.

About one-third of the respondents had been at one time in a Batman and Robin type of relationship. If in some cases the rescuer strategy resulted in setbacks, if not in repeated traumas, in other situations the results were happier. But such relationships can be full of pitfalls, and for good reason. Because of the confused emotions they have acquired, ex-victims of sexual aggression often experience a certain ambivalence on the emotional level. What they admire one day they may detest the next. For example, some deplore the emotional dependence inherent in the symbiotic relationship they have sought out. Others, having offered sexual relations to an adult who is important to them, regret the latter's positive response to their advances: once again, they see themselves as exploited or betrayed, since love has only been extended to them in order to take advantage of their body.

To complete the parallel with Batman and Robin, it is essential to point out how much many ex-victims dream of becoming "rescuers" of other children. Among the respondents of working age, a number have indeed chosen careers in the helping or teaching professions. All these men spoke of great satisfaction in being able to give what they were unable to receive: the reassuring attention of an adult. Sometimes, however, the fear that they might themselves commit abuse has held them back from fulfilling their aspirations. "I would have liked to work with youngsters, but it was so impressed upon me that those who are abused become abusers that I didn't want to take any risks," said one respondent who hesitated for a long time before going into teaching at the primary level, a profession in which today he finds great satisfaction. Several men wanted to work with other victims of physical or sexual abuse. Some have, in one way or another, realized this plan. While such an attitude is the opposite of the avenger's desire for "an eye for an eye," it probably has the same origin. It speaks of the same need to wipe out the past, to reinvent the world.

Eroticizing Different Elements of Abuse: The Daredevil Strategy
Since the process of being traumatized involved the experience of learning about sex, it is not surprising to find certain elements of abuse in the sexuality of some victims. The secrecy, forbidden acts, exhibitionist nudity, the danger of being discovered in illegal situations, for example, tend to be eroticized. By incorporating such aspects of their abuse into their own fantasies or sexual relations, these ex-victims, boys or men, may transform the earlier trauma into pleasure. What was painful can be transformed into a source of euphoria and the tensions provoked by risk can become a source of sexual arousal.

Thus, the exhibitionism some respondents engage in can be one way of rendering less fearsome, or making seem more ordinary, the nudity forced upon them by their aggressor. Some respondents allude to situations where they have taken pleasure in having sexual relations in front of witnesses, masturbating in front of strangers (for example in parks or public toilets, or in view of the windows of women living alone), or in making erotic photos or dancing nude. That this theme recurs so often, although initially there was no question on this topic, suggests that it may be a relatively well known practice among male victims of sexual abuse in childhood. The question also arises as to whether exhibitionism (that is, imposing one's sexuality on someone else as the aggressor did in the past) is not, at least in certain cases, another way to commit an aggression, albeit solely on a psychological level.

The erotic connotations that attach to what is forbidden often manifest themselves in recurring intrusive images. Scenes or practices associated with past abuses then come constantly to mind but with erotic overtones. This is the case with certain sadomasochistic practices. Causing pain to the partner during sex means seeking to dominate or to feel that one is dominating. Some exvictims are stupefied to see themselves reproducing, in the context of their present consensual sexual or love relationships, sexual acts that formerly disgusted them. These young men seem to demonstrate through their apparent temerity in matters sexual that one of the strategies allowing a coming to terms with the abuse is to integrate some of its aspects into erotic practices.

Many boys who have been sexually abused have never learned to recognize any limits whatsoever on the sexual level, since their aggressor so blithely went beyond them. The abuse they experienced revealed to them an adult sexuality they describe as "primitive" and "out of control." For some, sexuality seems to be the shadow side of the human being, a zone in which the most uncontrollable instincts are manifest.

In their anguish at seeing their sexuality modeled on that of their abuser, some young people are apt to go from one extreme to another: from shamelessness to the strictest modesty, from celibacy to multiple partners. So it was with Francis, who made a "chastity belt" for himself, wearing it under several layers of clothing so that his father might not totally undress him. However, after drinking or doing drugs at parties, this same adolescent was apt to play the role of exhibitionist. In the same fashion, Bruno would go from declaring he was homophobic to displaying sexually provocative behaviour around men, frequently visiting areas known as homosexual pick-up spots. Several respondents made it clear that their sex life was given over to the most varied practices: they would alternate being disgusted by sexuality to being insatiable, even compulsive. What was forbidden would now take one form, now the opposite.

The eroticization of what was secret or forbidden seems to be associated with behaviour learned within the framework of abuse and thus reinforces the age-old tie between sexuality and taboo. One can imagine that repeated sexual abuse of a child by an adult constitutes such an invasion of the child's integrity that the relationship of the youngster to his own body will later pose a problem: he no longer knows what it is he hopes for, how far he can go, what are the limits. At different stages in his life the same individual may be sickened and disgusted by sexuality, now obsessed by it; now homophobic, now homosexual; now abstinent, now a Don Juan. But he is always dissatisfied, because he does not really know what it is he desires or what is good or bad for him.

Looking Normal: The Conformist Strategy
In his novel The Conformist, author Alberto Moravia describes the life of Marcel, a young victim of sexual touching who by accident kills his abuser and thereafter tries to blot out the double memory of the aggression and of the murder by proving to all that he is "like everyone else." Like Marcel, the ex-victim who opts for conformity tends not only to deny what has happened to him but also to model his conduct on what he thinks is close to the most conventional of "normal appearances."

Matthew, who was almost eighteen years old when I interviewed him, is a good example of this strategy. His self-assurance cannot disguise his insecurity when he is faced with any reference to homosexuality or to masculine vulnerability. Vladimir presents an even more conclusive case: as early as adolescence, he becomes a pimp for a network of young girls he recruits from among his girlfriends. He plays tough and acts like a real Don Juan, but deep down he is asking himself whether perhaps he is homosexual. In the evenings, while his "girls" are working, he walks past gay bars telling himself he should perhaps try his luck and go inside. Behind his well-built macho image hides an insecure youngster who is ambivalent about his sexual orientation. Boys like Vladimir could even be described as having a heterosexual façade that serves to scare off any possibility of homosexual relations which they have involuntarily encountered in their abuse and which, to a certain point, they have now eroticized.

According to some Freudian writers, among them Serge Tisseron, the victim of a seduction often internalizes the contradictory characteristics of his seducer. In particular, he may have appropriated the shame of the seducer and acquired the idea that he, the victim, was responsible for his seducer's arousal and also for the seduction.8 As a result, some young men, like little Marcel in Moravia's novel, will do whatever it takes to erase from their lives, their appearance, and their behaviour whatever had interested the man who abused them. Unlike those who become exhibitionists, for example, they try to fade into the background, to remain unseen, even to make themselves ugly by self-mutilation, or by deliberately starving themselves to become skinny or overeating to become obese. They go out of their way to prove to themselves and show to others that they are not in the least the kind of person who could be abused, that the abuse ought never to have happened and, therefore, could never have happened.

The conformist is the most inclined of all to deny what has happened to him and that may be how he really sees it. Of course, it is difficult to tell whether the amnesia, partial or total, experienced by some respondents in the years following their abuse results from a conscious strategy or not. As a defense mechanism, however, it has allowed them to forget the abuse they suffered or to minimize its after-effects for a period of time. Some men have been in therapy for years before realizing that the symptoms they were trying in vain to repress were linked to buried memories of sexual abuse that had occurred decades earlier.
- Dorais, Michael, Don't Tell: The Sexual Abuse of Boys, McGill-Queen's University Press: London, 2002.

Personal Reflection Exercise #10
The preceding section contained information about the rescuer, daredevil and conformist coping strategies. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

What do most men who have been victims of sexual abuse in childhood long for? To select and enter your answer go to Test

Section 25
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