Surviving Childhood Sexual Abuse Affects the Rest of a Man’s Life….
I didn’t know I was sexually abused until I found out what it was…
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I found it shocking that 1 in 6 boys under the age of 16 have been sexually assaulted. I thought I was alone. Think about those statistics for a moment… look away from your computer, and think of six men you know personally, and consider one of them was sexually victimized as a child. What an incredible burden for a child to bare.
Sexual assault can happen to anyone, no matter your age, your sexual orientation, or your gender identity. Men and boys who have been sexually assaulted or abused may have many of the same feelings and reactions as other survivors of sexual assault, but they may also face some additional challenges because of social attitudes and stereotypes about men and masculinity.
Adult survivors of child sexual abuse carry the emotional damage caused by assaults that won’t simply go away.
If you are a survivor, you might feel guilty about not having been able to stop the abuse, or even blame yourself if you experienced physical pleasure. It is important for you to understand that it was the person that hurt you that should be held accountable… not you.
You may struggle with low self-esteem, which can be a result of the negative messages you received from your abuser, and from having your personal safety violated or ignored. Low self-esteem can affect many different areas of your life such as your relationships, your career, and even your health.
It’s possible that your first experiences with sex came as a result of sexual abuse. As an adult, intimacy might be a struggle at times. Some survivors experience flashbacks or painful memories while engaging in sexual activity, even though it is consensual and on their own terms. Survivors may also struggle to set boundaries that help them feel safe in relationships.
There’s a myth that boys can’t be sexually used or abused, and if one is, he can never be a “real man.” Everyone absorbs the myth that males aren’t victims, to some extent. It’s central to masculine gender socialization, and boys pick up on it very early in life. This myth implies that a boy or man who has been sexually used or abused will never be a “real man.” Our society expects males to be able to protect themselves. Successful men are depicted as never being vulnerable, either physically or emotionally.
But boys are not men. They are children. They are weaker and more vulnerable than those who sexually abuse or exploit them… who use their greater size, strength and knowledge to manipulate or coerce boys into unwanted sexual experiences and staying silent. This is usually done from a position of authority (e.g., coach, teacher, religious leader) or status (e.g. older cousin, admired athlete, social leader), using whatever means are available to reduce resistance, such as attention, special privileges, money or other gifts, promises or bribes, even outright threats.
What happens to any of us as children does not need to define us as men!
There’s a myth that if a boy experienced sexual arousal during abuse, he wanted and/or enjoyed it, and if he ever did partly want the sexual experiences, then they were his fault. Many boys and men believe this myth and feel lots of guilt and shame because they got physically aroused during the abuse.
It is important to understand that males can respond to sexual stimulation with an erection or even an orgasm – even in sexual situations that are traumatic or painful. That’s just how male bodies and brains work.
Those who sexually use and abuse boys know this. They often attempt to maintain secrecy, and to keep the abuse going, by telling the child that his sexual response shows he was a willing participant and complicit in the abuse. “You wanted it. You liked it,” they say.
But that doesn’t make it true. Boys are not seeking to be sexually abused or exploited. They can, however, be manipulated into experiences they do not like, or even understand, at the time.
There are many situations where a boy, after being gradually manipulated with attention, affection and gifts, feels like he wants such attention and sexual experiences. In an otherwise lonely life, the attention and pleasure of sexual contact from someone the boy admires can feel good.
But in reality, it’s still about a boy who was vulnerable to manipulation. It’s still about a boy who was betrayed by someone who selfishly exploited the boy’s needs for attention and affection to use him sexually.
There is a myth that most sexual abuse of boys is committed by homosexual males. People who sexually abuse or exploit boys are not expressing homosexuality – any more than people who sexually abuse or exploit girls are engaging in heterosexual behavior. They are deeply confused individuals who, for various reasons, desire to sexually use or abuse children, and have acted on that desire.
There’s a myth boys abused by males must be gay or will become gay.
There are different theories about how sexual orientation develops, but experts in human sexuality do not believe that sexual abuse or premature sexual experiences play a significant role. There is no good evidence that someone can “make” another person be homosexual (or heterosexual). Sexual orientation is a complex issue and there is no single answer or theory that explains why someone identifies himself as homosexual, heterosexual or bi-sexual.
It is common, however, for boys and men who have been abused to express confusion about their sexual identity and orientation. Some guys fear that, due to their experiences as boys, they must “really” be homosexual or that they can’t be a “real man.” Even men who are clearly heterosexual, and men who others see as very masculine, may fear that others will “find them out” as gay or not real men.
Also, many boys abused by males believe that something about them sexually attracted their abuser and will attract other males. While these are understandable fears, they are not true. One of the great tragedies of childhood sexual abuse is how it robs a person’s natural right to discover his own sexuality in his own time.
It is very important to remember that abuse arises from the abuser’s failure to develop and maintain healthy adult sexual relationships, and his or her willingness to sexually use and abuse kids. It has nothing to do with the preferences or desires of the child who is abused, and cannot determine a person’s natural sexual identity.
There is a myth that if a female used or abused a boy, he was “lucky,” and if he doesn’t feel that way there’s something wrong with him.
This myth, like several of the others, comes from the image of masculinity that boys learn from very early. It says not only that males can’t be sexually abused, but that any sexual experience with girls and women, especially older ones, is evidence that he’s a “real man.” Again, the confusion comes from focusing on the sexual aspect rather than the abusive one – the exploitation and betrayal by a more powerful, trusted or admired person (who can be a child or adult).
Being sexually used or abused, whether by males or females, can cause a variety of other emotional and psychological problems. However, boys and men often don’t recognize the connections between what happened and their later problems.
As adults male survivors of sexual abuse can’t grasp the concept of intimacy. Believing sexual closeness is the way to feel loved but experiencing love as abuse, some of these men solve their dilemma by engaging in frequent, indiscriminate, and compulsive sexual encounters. These are not free, joyous expressions of erotic passion. Sex is pursued incessantly, but with little chance for intimacy. Although strongly desiring love, these men have no sense of feeling loved once the sex act is concluded.
They’re left feeling empty and lonely, while the idea of fully pursuing relationships fills them with dread. Many believe sexually abused boys almost inevitably become sexually abusive men. But, while a significant proportion of male abusers were victims themselves, there’s evidence that relatively few sexually abused boys actually become abusers. Because of the myth, however, many men fear they’ll become abusive or worry that if they disclose their history, others will consider them predators.
Finally, when the abuser is male (and even sometimes when she is female), many boys – whether straight or gay – develop fears and concerns about sexual orientation.
Conventional wisdom says sexual abuse turns boys gay, although there’s no persuasive evidence that premature sexual activity fundamentally changes sexual orientation. Nevertheless, a heterosexual boy is likely to doubt himself, wondering why he was chosen by a man for sex. A homosexual boy may feel rushed into considering himself gay, or may hate his homosexuality because he believes it was caused by his abuse. Whether boys are gay or straight, these manipulative introductions to sexuality can set lifetime patterns of exploitation and self-destructive behavior.
These aftereffects are ugly. Boys who grow up without coming to terms with their childhood abuse often struggle as men with addictions, anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide as well as the inability to develop or maintain relationships.
The good news: healing is possible.
A first step is acknowledging that abuse occurred and articulating what has been silenced. Putting the experience into words is freeing for many men, whether they tell a loved one, a professional, a confidant, or simply write in a journal. Beyond that, there are several options. Knowledgeable professionals can help, some 12-Step programs, and men’s groups focused on victimization and masculinity. The Internet offers several options, including web sites for sexually abused men such as http://www.malesurvivor.org, where men can find one another and talk, anonymously if necessary, about their common dilemmas, or http://www.1in6.org, where additional information is available.
There is no reason to hide what you didn’t cause… get help.