How people define their own experiences and the labels they assign them (or don’t), are very important—and we’re not interested in imposing labels. Instead, we’re offering a framework for thinking about past sexual experiences that may have caused or contributed to current problems.
How Can I Know If I Was ‘Sexually Abused’?
For many guys, this is not a question that’s easy to answer. For some men, it may not even be a helpful question to ask, at least not at first.
Why? Because of what a “yes” answer could mean, or appear to mean, for you and anyone else involved in those childhood or teenage experiences.
Labels like “abuse” can, in some situations, get in the way of understanding oneself and what’s going to be helpful going forward.
That’s why we suggest a (greater) focus on:
- Whether an experience is having unwanted effects on you now.
- How to understand those effects in the most helpful ways.
- How to overcome those effects to achieve your goals in life.
Defining an Experience
“Unwanted or abusive sexual experiences” is how we refer to past sexual experiences that can cause a variety of problems, long after they happened.
Our words are carefully chosen, because we strive to:
- Respect every man’s experience and point of view.
- Avoid any definitions or labels that could drive away any man sorting through his own unique experiences and options.
We also want to emphasize what “unwanted or abusive sexual experiences” does not mean…
By “unwanted” we do not mean that the experience had to be unwanted when it happened. For example, a boy may feel that he wants sexual contact with an adult (especially if the adult has manipulated him). Instead, when we say “unwanted,” we mean:
- Looking back now, is that an experience you want to have happened, to be part of your life?
- Do you want to be having negative thoughts and feelings and behaviors that, looking back now, you suspect or believe are (at least partly) caused by that experience?
The “or” in “unwanted or abusive” does not imply that any unwanted sexual experience was also “abusive.” We don’t believe this is true. We’re just hoping that “unwanted” works well enough when it comes to describing past sexual experiences that may have contributed to problems you have now.
Processing the Experience On Your Own
For some of you, that’s why you’re here right now. You’re trying to sort out, on your own terms:
- “What was that past sexual experience really about?”
- “What effects has that experience had on me?”
- “Is that a reason why I’m struggling with _________?”
The question, “What was that sexual experience really about?” may be the most basic, and could take a while to process. It implies other questions, like:
- Was the other person in a position of power or authority over me?
- Was I manipulated into doing sexual things, or into believing I wanted to, even when I really didn’t?
- Did sexual activity change what had been a positive relationship into one that involved secrecy and shame?
- Was the other person using me and not really considering my experience or my needs?
- Did the other person take advantage of vulnerabilities I had at the time – feeling isolated and lonely, feeling excited and curious but ignorant about sex?
These questions speak to possible exploitation, betrayal, and disregard for your well-being – experiences that can cause a variety of problems, right away and moving forward.
Also, if you were a child, these questions apply to experiences with other children or teenagers, not just adults. No matter how old the other person was, if dominance, manipulation, exploitation, betrayal or disregard for your well-being were involved, the experiences(s) may have contributed to problems in your life now.
Important: The idea here is not to push anyone to condemn or even to label the other person or people involved, who may also have been good to you, and who you may still like, even love. Also, such experiences may have involved attention, affection and physical sensations that, at the time, you found pleasurable and in some way wanted (e.g., in a confused way mixed up with shame).
The point of trying to sort things out, if you choose to do so, is to understand whether – and if so, why and how – the sexual experience(s) may have helped to cause some problems you have now (like problems with shame, anger, addiction, or depression).
To sum up, we’re providing resources for sorting out what makes sense to you, and for sorting out the options for dealing with your unique experiences and moving closer to the life you want.
Ultimately, maybe no definition or label can address the needs or concerns behind your question. It may be that what’s most helpful to you is sorting it out with someone who has the experience, knowledge, and attitude to help you find your own personal answers and meanings. If you’re interested in finding out whether or not there might be a trained therapist in your area, consider chatting with a trained advocate through the national helpline for men, available 24/7.