The Superman Facade and Childhood Sexual Abuse (Excerpt from “How To Conquer Your Superman”)

The below excerpt is from my soon to be released guide for male survivors of childhood sexual abuse, How To Conquer Your Superman. The guide is still being written and revised. This means, I would very much like feedback to know what I do right, what I do wrong, and how I can improve. More portions of the book will be released over the coming months as How To Conquer Your Superman : A Guide for Male Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse using DC Comics Superman is planned to be released in March of 2020. Thank you for your support and valuable feedback.

The Superman Façade and Childhood Sexual Abuse

When you hear, Superman what image comes to mind?

When you hear “Man of Steel,” do you visualize a large red “S” emblazoned on a background of gold in the center of the superhero’s chest with matching perfectly curled “S” dangling from his jet-black hair?

How do you feel when you hear the phrase, “Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s Superman!?” Are you filled with hope and confidence that the day will be saved?

You may picture bullets bouncing off the chest of the hero as he swoops in, foils the bad guy’s plan for world domination, and flies away with a smile, never asking for a thank you in return. You may be filled with a sense of unwavering optimism in believing, beyond the shadow a doubt, that everything will work out fine, and good will triumph over evil.

It is for this reason that although Superman was the first superhero, and for many, he will remain the best. He does what is right rather than what is easy no matter how difficult the choice may be. He is a savior and a true hero who is always willing to sacrifice himself to save a single human life. He is strong, kind, confident, and unbeatable. In essence, he is perfect! With these qualities, it makes sense why children double knot bath towels around their neck and run through their home with fists in the air pretending to be the Big Blue Boy Scout.

Being Superman feels good. It feels right. Being Superman and possessing his abilities to run faster than a speeding bullet, and leap buildings in a single bound is everything a survivor wishes they could be and do. This is because, rather than feeling strong and confident like Superman, male survivors of child sexual abuse live in a constant state of fear, anxiety, stress, and worry. Ellen Bass explains in The Courage to Heal how many male survivors have been sexually abused as children tend to feel:

  • Bad, dirty, or ashamed
  • Different from other people
  • That there’s something wrong deep down inside
  • That if people really knew them they’d leave
  • A pervasive sense of shame
  • Alienated or isolated.

These feelings cause some survivors to:

  • Hate themselves
  • Feel compelled to be perfect.

These emotions and thoughts are the exact opposite of what it means to be Superman, and is why male survivors sometimes cope with the effects of these negative thoughts and feelings by creating a Superman façade to fake being confident and in control. 

The Superman façade is born in an attempt to filter the interactions, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors survivors feel about themselves and others through the lens of a savior and what is believed to be right in order to feel safe through predictability. The reason some survivors of childhood sexual abuse may create a Superman façade is because during early development, when consistency and routine are needed to develop confidence in themselves while build positive and secure relationships with caregivers and other adults, children who are sexually abused, or suffer a form of C-PTSD, live in a constant state of unpredictability and fear. These children do not, and often cannot, create secure attachments to adults and other individuals, losing the skills needed to create a positive view of the world. To cope, some latch onto the predictability and safety of superheroes, adopting the behavior of heroes to develop a Superman façade that lives by a “hero code” of their own creation.

Male survivors of childhood sexual abuse live in a reality of chaos, filled with fear, shame, guilt from their sexual abuse, and unreliable adults who are unable to provide protection and safety. However, in the world of superheroes and comics, whether on television or on art filled pages, heroes provide the predictability of safety. They follow a code of doing what is right and punishing the bad guys that they wish adults in reality possessed. No matter if a superhero has the ability to fly, move at lightning speed, or materialize objects with the help of a super-charged ring, each hero shares a code to protect the weak and consistency the child survivor needs. This “hero code” is an unwritten code that guides a hero’s actions, separating their behavior from that of a villain, informing the survivor how not to become like their abuser, creating a definition of safety that is not provided by caregivers. The “hero code” defines the core of a superhero’s character, while also dictating the rules need to function under the guise of a Superman façade. Without the “hero code”, both the hero and the survivor would be lost.

The male survivor who develops a Superman façade as a child survivor develops a black-and-white view of the world, filled with absolute beliefs of right-and-wrong. These young males latch on to the rules of their “hero code” for safety and predictability, but mostly because of the benefits associated with helping others while maintaining a sense of control. Seth J. Gillihan, PhD explains in Cognitive Behavior Therapy Made Simple how helping others leads to improvements in anxiety and depression symptoms. He states how researchers have found that:

  • Focusing on others can distract from one’s own distress.
  • Helping others provides a sense of meaning and purpose.
  • Prosocial behaviors may cause the release of oxytocin, which is involved in trust and bonding with others.
  • Doing nice things may stimulate the release of dopamine.
  • Reaching out to others may lower activity in the stress response system.

Meaning, the Superman façade is an attempt for the survivor to:

  • be liked and accepted by others in an attempt to eliminate feelings isolation,
  • ensure the survivor does not identify with their abuser in an attempt to not become a villain,
  • latch on to predictable and positive examples of caregivers,
  • hides their feelings of shame and guilt with smiles and kindness to eliminate feelings of shame and self-hatred.

To illustrate how the Superman façade can translate into a “hero code” male survivors feel obligated to follow there is no better comic to be used then Actions Comics #775.

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