Tauwetter is an organization for men, who experienced sexualized violence during their childhoods. The story of the non-profit organization is also a personal one.
I met Thomas Schlingmann, one of the founders of Tauwetter, to talk about his childhood experiences, and the work he is doing for men with similar experiences.
Bad experiences are bad experiences, there is no sugar coating that, but what one does with them, is what makes the difference and Thomas Schlingmann did not let his experience of sexualized violence define him.
What others built with me out of the experience, is what changed me, and it is what I don´t want to miss. If this would be possible without such an experience, it would be wonderful.
Thomas Schlingmann was in his early thirties when he began to confront his past experience with sexual abuse. He had been talking to a friend who worked for Wildwasser, a non-profit organization that helps women and girls who were victims of sexual abuse, when he inadvertently brought up his own past. He realized that he was not the only one who had endured sexualized violence and so he took a big step.
Founding an action group was not easy in Berlin in the early 90s, most of all, because I could not find any other men. It was a matter of course for me to be self-organized, because the individual history and the social aspect are interlinked.
He eventually found a group of men who were interested in joining the organization but they encouraged him to begin healing from his past experiences before focusing on social change.
Tauwetter was a self-help group for six years. “The group was very important to me, but my progress was a very slow one. I was someone who could listen very well, and say smart things, but I rarely showed my inner-self.” Thomas Schlingmann gives an example of how difficult it was when his past found its way back to the present. “One of the men in the group had a physical feature that reminded me of my father, who was the perpetrator in my case.” It took him almost two months before he found to courage to confront this man and tell him that he resembled his abuser. He apologized profusely for revealing this unfortunate resemblance, knowing that the other man had no intention of causing him further pain. No matter how hard it was Thomas Schlingmann knew he was on the right path. “How did I know?” He pauses and then laughs. “Ah. I can say it. Where the fear is, there you have to go.”
One would not assume that a conversation about sexualized violence could be pleasant, though we often laughed together. I also found myself apologizing for asking questions that might be awkward or difficult. Because, what I learn during the interview is this: Whoever experienced sexualized violence, or any kind of trauma, is not a victim forever. Nobody has to suffer forever. Life goes on and everyone can rebuild life and grow when the environment is supportive.
It was community and acceptance that gave Thomas Schlingmann the strength to stay on that path he had chosen. “I had people who I could trust, who stood by my side and with who I felt comfortable.” Feelings he rarely had experienced in his family home. He describes his childhood home as “petty bourgeois”, from which he took a leap into freedom, living with the left-winged squatter community of the early 80s, and from there finding people who shared his very personal experiences.
It was the people who took me as I am, who questioned what I told them, pushed me to take the next step, but also accepted when I needed a break. It was solidarity and community. Most of all, it was a way out of the isolation. Sexualized violence throws into isolation. It is important to meet people and talk about what happened.
The self-help group became the organization it is now, when one of the members majored in psychology and wanted to do work related to sexualized violence against men. After a few months he returned to the group because he realized he could not do all the work alone. “In the beginning it wasn´t the idea to help everyone, it was about the solidarity, and about being equals. This is something we try to keep up even now. We can´t deny, that the person who comes to us is the one seeking help and I am the one giving him the help. There has to be a hierarchy but it is a situational hierarchy. Those who come to us are those affected, they reflect their experiences and after a few years, maybe, they can become colleagues.”
I ask him if he sees Tauwetter as his life´s work. “Work reminds me of homework.” Life’s passion, then? “There is a lot of passion in my work, yes.” And a lot of growth too, I assume. “I have to question myself a lot. I´m doing this for a long time and when new men join us, I have to figure out, how we can work on eye level, how we can include their experiences, which are equally important, or even more important, because they are more current? It needs a lot of willingness to confront oneself with his weaknesses, and difficulties, allowing others to question me. It makes growth possible, in the work we do, and personally.”
Accepting their weakness is one of the problems men are faced with when seeking help after having experienced sexualized violence. The image of the strong man is not an individual one but rooted deep in society.
A real man has to be strong, and strength is not only with regard to physical strength, but also assertiveness, being successful. This image is a huge obstacle to accept that sexualized violence happened.
Another problem is the reinterpretation of a situation. “I remember one man who told me that he masturbated with another male person when he was 14. He read in the “Bravo” (Youth Magazine) that this is what boys do. Only twenty years later he realized that the other one was not a boy, but an adult of 40.” Reinterpretation and repression happen a lot, but it ceases with age. Who am I? Who should I be? Teenagers and young men are faced with these questions and having experienced sexualized violence does not fit in the picture of the man they want to grow into. “Once, when they get accepted as they are, the pressure to proof themselves as real men gets less, and then a space opens up to look at themselves and their experiences differently.”
As a journalist, I immediately assume that everyone who remembers sexualized violence needs to talk about it right away, but Thomas Schlingmann explains that sometimes it is better not to break the silence. “I have to think twice who the people I can trust are, who will help me. I should not tell everyone. I should try to find experts or a safe place to share my experiences, but if I can´t find such a place, it´s better to do nothing, and go on looking for that place instead of opening up at the wrong place and to the wrong people. The reactions in this society can still be fatal.”
But it does not have to be fatal. “In most cases the reaction of the partner is positive. When I try to keep up an image, I lock away a part of me and I can´t allow certain emotions. This lets the partner suffer as well. Often they hear with horror but also a kind of relief that there is a reason, a story behind the emotional detachment. They can finally understand.” Thomas Schlingman had similar experiences, not only could he finally name what had happened to him, but he could also explain why he ran into certain problems within his constantly failing relationships. When he told his family what he remembered, they believed him right away. Everyone in the family had suffered under the violent and controlling father, but as the only boy, and the eldest of four children, he was the one who found himself in a special situation.
In the 60s being a boy had another meaning. I was special for my father and in some ways he favored me and tried to shape me. He had hit everyone, my three sisters and my mother, and he was a control freak.
We talk about the pre-smartphone era. Landlines were still expensive, having two even more so. “The telephone at home was linked to the telephone in his office. He only had to pick up the receiver and could listen to every conversation. It shows what kind of person he was.”
The sexual abuse began early, around age eight or nine. Thomas Schlingmann got asked by his father if he was experiencing wet dreams. “I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, and I can´t remember what I answered.” Later, his father took him to his office to show him how to use a condom. Sexualized violence masked as sexual education. “I think that his relationship to himself, to us, was so weird, he could have believed his excuses for his actions.”
For the following years, whenever the mother was not at home, the father put his son to bed, and Thomas Schlingmann remembers, that “He gave me a hand job and I had to give him one. “
Eventually, a teacher recognized changes in Thomas’ behavior. He got bad grades and was often involved in fights with older students. “This teacher had no idea what was going on. We are in the late 60s, early 70s, nobody had heard about sexualized violence against boys, but he knew something was off and he suggested putting me into boarding school. This disrupted the regular sexualized violence, but there were still the holidays.” After boarding school Thomas Schlingmann went to the USA as an exchange student. When he returned he was 16. “If I had learned one thing during the time, it was how to fight back. My father hit me again and I hit back. It must have been a horrible scene for my mother and sisters. After that day he never tried to hit or abuse me again.”
How can we, as society, help people, men and women alike, to overcome the stigma of being seen as victim?
“This is a key question of how public awareness changes. It is always a combination of effort of one person or a group, and the pivot point in society. I believe, the construction of genders has to change, the pressure to be defined by gender and finding identity in the limits of these definitions. If the pressure ceases, it would change a lot. Gender couldn´t be used anymore to depreciate a person.”
A second, just as important, key is the relationship to children. We do have children rights, but we do not have the rights Thomas Schlingmann sees as significant. “Until today, we don´t have a right that allows children to separate themselves from their parents. I´m obligated to pay for my parents when they are old, no matter how cruel they were as parents. I think, we need licenses for parents. Everyone can get a child, but if someone is capable of raising a child, giving it support, this is something we can test and verify. “
And then we talk about another factor, rooted in capitalism. “A society that lives on exploiting and suppressing people logically creates other forms of violence and dominance as well.”
Maybe, as a society, by law, changing things is more difficult than it seems. Though a society is formed by all of us, it is ruled by those with power. Just as in every abusive situation, the one with power dominates the more vulnerable one, a society dominates what actions are taken or which one are ignored for the benefit of the few. But there are actions every one of us can take.
“The one thing is to get involved and the other thing is to question myself. Where do I reproduce structures and ideologies and thoughts that support sexualized violence? Where is my part, when a group of men sits together and makes comments about the woman that walks by? Where do I interfere when boys make comments about girls? Where should I react differently and when should I not be silent?”
Every public institution needs a protective concept, Thomas Schlingmann suggests. “Every institution that works with people needs to reflect where violations of boundaries can happen and how to react if violence took place. It would be a huge win if every institution had a concept to create an atmosphere that prevents sexualized violence.”
Here is what we ask you to do: If you have a child in kindergarten or school, ask if there is a concept for protection. When you visit your grandparents or parents in their elderly home, why not ask for the protection concept of the instution? In every situation where one person is vulnerable and in the mercy of other people, we should keep an open eye and mind, not judge, or suspect everyone of ill intend, but ask questions that may lead to the change we need to protect those in our society who are in need of protection the most.