Men Need To Talk About Their Sexual Abuse | Seth Shelley | TEDxUNBC

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Pastor Seth Shelley takes us on an emotional and at times difficult journey about male sexual violence. He brings forward his own story of sexual assault to ask men to open up about their personal stories too. Recorded at TEDxUNBC in Prince George, BC.

Seth speaks to an issue common around the world, sexual assault. However, it is men who also need to share their stories of abuse. Far too many men are silent about their own stories of trauma and eventual healing. It is our society’s ideas around masculinity which prevent men from opening up, and steal their narratives from them. Only through sharing with friends and family do we reclaim our stories for ourselves.

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at Graduating from Summit Pacific Bible College in 2012 with a BA in Religion, Seth has pastored in Western Canada for the past 5 years. Currently he is the Associate Pastor at Timbers Community Church in Prince George, BC where his role is to provide counselling services, preform weddings and funerals, organize events for the community and a variety of other things. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at

Translator: Leonardo Silva
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven A few years ago, my grandfather died. He was an important figure in my life.
He was someone I looked up to. He was in my mind the ideal man. He was an immigrant farmer who built a house
where he raised seven kids, five boys and two girls. My dad also had seven kids,
five boys and two girls. I can remember very vividly something my grandfather would say to us
as we were growing up, if we got upset or we complained
about something. He'd say, "Are you a man or a mouse?" I can hear the tone
of his voice in my mind, and I can see the half serious,
half joking face he'd make when he'd say it. But I can also remember how I felt: a little upset, a little confused, with just a hint of shame
for not being manly enough. But I was just a kid! How could I understand
this old man's wisdom? Was this some kind
of Ukrainian fable or riddle? Obviously, I'm not a mouse,
so I must be a man. And coming from a family with so many men, this wasn't the only half true,
half serious one-liner that we were told. We heard lots of this kind of wisdom,
every time for a different occasion. I had an uncle who would jokingly say, "See my finger, see my thumb,
see my fist, you'd better run." In every community, there exists an idea
of who we are supposed to be. And in my southern Ontario
rural community, we picked tobacco, we played hockey,
we filled the pews at the local church. And we were tough, we were Shelleys. To answer my grandfather's question,
we were men, not mice. Our environment,
our family, our community, they shape us, they offer us an identity, or at least a narrative
that we're to follow, even at an early age. Before a child is five, they will have a fairly concrete
understanding of who they are, with the broad strokes of identity
starting to be formed. Life, however, has a way
of challenging and confronting those family and community narratives
that we grow up in. For me, this became present
in the form of sexual abuse. Right at the beginning of my adolescence, a friend of the family took me into
the basement of our home and raped me. This would continue
over the course of that summer. And in those first few moments,
my understanding of the world changed. My ideas about who I was,
where I was from, the community that I grew up in, they were all changed. And my abuser also began to offer me
a new set of one-liners, a new narrative to follow. He'd say things like,
"This is all your fault," or, "I thought you wanted this," and, "No one's ever going to believe you." What I had believed about myself didn't match the experience
that I was presented with. To make matters worse, I'd never heard
of a boy being sexually assaulted. You see, strangers were
the ones who hurt kids, and they're supposed to be driving
sketchy vans and wearing ski masks, not my older brother's friend. My understanding, which came from books
like Berenstain Bears and company, was that bad guys look bad and they're supposed to try
and get you to steal something for them. But boys are tough,
especially Shelley boys. We weren't supposed to be the victims. Real men are strong. Real men don't get raped. When something doesn't exist in your mind, or when the possibility of it even
happening isn't even a thought, who are you supposed to tell? This wasn't the bad guy
that I was prepared for. This wasn't the life
that I was supposed to be living. "Are you a man or a mouse?" It echoed in my mind. And I'm not even really sure
I knew what that meant. You see, I believed that I was a man. At least, that's how I thought
the world needed to see me. But I felt like a mouse,
maybe even less than a mouse. I had no idea what was happening to me
or how to even rationalize it, and this confusion took me into some
dark and terrible places in my mind. My early teen years were filled
with suppressed emotion and with anger. I had no idea who I was. All I wanted was to be able to share
my experience, what was happening to me, with someone. But I remember at about age 14 having a female relative reveal
that she, too, had been sexually abused. The response, the attitude,
the posture towards her, the community had just decided: she was a mouse. And as someone who had never told anybody
about their own experience of abuse, the thing I remembered the most were the things that people
were saying about her, things like, "She'll never have
a normal relationship," "She'll be messed up forever," and, "What a shame, her future's gone." Without even being given
a chance to counter it, a narrative was forced on her, ideas that I was believing
and accepting myself, all the while still believing
that real men are strong; real men can't get raped. But the reality is that sexual violence
against males is not uncommon. The current stats reflect
that about one in six males will experience some form of sexual
violence at some point in their life. And the actual number
might be very different, given the stigma behind
reporting sexual violence. A stigma, a narrative, a misconception. And so, I see in my own experience a reflection of a greater
issue in our society. Narratives, broad-sweeping narratives, replacing our own individual stories, replacing our identities. There's a pressure to accept
what our community says is true about us, the family we come from,
the place where we grow up. And when we give in to that pressure, we rob from our communities
the ability to listen to one another, primarily because we ourselves
don't know how to share our stories. As a young man, in failing to share
what happened to me, I lost the very idea of me. I was feeling the pressure to be a man, to not be a victim, to not acknowledge
my pain and my grief. Worse, I was unable to ask myself the two most
important questions for any young person: Who am I? Who do I want to become? What had happened to me
was who I was becoming. I was believing what
my abuser said about me, that somehow this was my fault. I was believing what I heard
about other victims of abuse, that I, too, had no future. And even though they didn't mean to do it, I was believing what my community
told me was true about me, that, "There was no other way, Seth. Be a man. Be a man. You aren't allowed to be a mouse." And this is the opposite
of what happens in storytelling. In storytelling, we are the narrator. We're not the characters just placed
in someone else's narrative. The earliest human artifacts
we have are stories: oral tradition, language itself, paintings, religious and philosophical
myths from across every civilization. They're stories that are embedded into
their communities through individuals. The core of any culture is storytelling, honest storytelling. And losing the ability to share
in our own unique experiences, in our own unique languages
and understandings, is the slow death of any community. I grew tired of being told who I was,
of who I was destined to become, of feeling this pressure to not embrace
and acknowledge my pain. Call it foresight,
call it divine intervention, whatever it was, I decided
that I needed to take control of my life, and I discovered that in sharing my story. Working with youth, I have seen firsthand the powerful misconceptions
that surround young people, especially young people
that grow up with fewer privileges. So often, their identity is simply
replaced with their context. Some misconceptions come from the family
or community that we grow up in. Some misconceptions come
from someone who wishes us harm. Some misconceptions come from someone
trying to sell us a product, much like young women believing
they need whatever that product is in order to be thin and have self-worth. But misconceptions steal from our stories
and they rob from our identities. Indigenous Canadians
have so many stories to tell, and they have the firsthand experience of the devastation
that is felt by a community when those stories are silenced, entire communities losing their culture,
their tradition, their stories. It's a profound and devastating example of applying a singular identity
to a diverse group of individuals. For me, there was no healing
without sharing. Learning who I was, who I truly was,
was discovered in telling my story. And we exist here today
as parts of a community, and a community is made up of individuals. And when we replace just one
unique individual experience with someone else's narrative, we lose a part of our community. And as a part of this community, I want to recognize the importance of listening to indigenous
people's stories. Being white and never
experiencing it myself makes it all the more important
to listen and to hear, because our stories are important, not just for the person sharing
but also for the person listening. When we listen to stories of abuse,
of pain and of grief in our community, we are acknowledging that it happened, we are acknowledging that it's not okay, and we apply value to the individual
and the importance of who they are. We open the door
for a deeper level of connection, and we open the door for healing. By sharing my story
and experience of rape, I hope to regain part of my identity, to not allow what happened
to me to define me. When I share my story, I include you as part of my community. And there are times that I share and there are lies and misconceptions
that are confronted in the act of sharing, and it reminds me
of the truth of the situation, even now, in this very moment. So my challenge is that we share
and we shake off those narratives that we feel pressured
to accept and adopt, and we write our own unique stories. And as we share,
we become better listeners and we allow those
in our community to have a voice. I believe to create healthy communities,
we need to be healthy people and we need to provide safe places, places where we can share,
where we can listen, places where we can
embrace our identities, not simply based on circumstance. And so, I wish I had the chance to sit down with
my grandfather one more time because I would love
to hear him ask me again, "Are you a man or a mouse?" And instead of allowing
those childhood feelings to take over, I would just love to tell him my story. And I'd love to ask him about his own. And as we share and listen to one another, we might see past our ideas and the misconceptions
we have of one another and see each other
just a little more clearly. So my challenge is not to look
at each other and ask things like, "Are you a man or a mouse?", but rather, "What's your story?", and watch, and see how it changes
your value, your engagement and your perspective in your community. Thank you. (Applause)

26 thoughts on “Men Need To Talk About Their Sexual Abuse | Seth Shelley | TEDxUNBC

  1. Me too was abused at 8. But it’s up to me to deal with it. You can let what happened define you or choose to leave it all behind and move on. You make the choices in this life.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story Seth. I have found that sharing is a wonderful antidote to shame, and an opportunity to challenge those narratives we have been sold or told throughout life. Your told is a powerful exercise in courage.

  3. I wish I could meet this brave gentleman. Your strength gives me strength. I wish I had half the courage as you— in front of the whole world no less. You sir are for sure a man and not a mouse.

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