Busting Myths about Men and Sexual Abuse – Just the Facts, Man! 1in6 Thursdays on the Joyful Heart Foundation Blog
I learned long ago from the Frameworks Institute and others that repeating myths in an attempt to dispel them actually has the opposite effect. Restating a misunderstanding that is already deeply ingrained in our subconscious – even to say it’s not true – reinforces our incorrect belief.
So here they are, just the facts.
The first one’s a big one.
1. Nineteen million adult men experienced sexual abuse
That’s right! 19 million adult men in United States had an unwanted or abusive sexual experience in childhood: 1 in every 6 men. So visualize it. At any single Final Four basketball game, if just half the fans in the stadium were males, (33,500 men), at least 5,500 of them were likely also to be survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Or, odds are, that of the 401 men in the U.S. Congress, at least 67 were sexually abused.
2. “Real Men” experience sexual abuse
You know those tough guys we see as “real men?” Turns out they often experienced sexual abuse when they were boys. Think boxer, Sugar Ray Leonard; NBA veteran , Keyon Dooling; former NHL star, Theo Fleury; three-time, Tour de France winner, Greg LeMond; MLB pitcher, R.A Dickey. They have all joined the ranks of men who have spoken openly about having been sexually abused. Recent research published by the American Medical Association found that prevalence rates of childhood sexual abuse for men in the volunteer military services are twice the rate for men in the general population.
3. Sexual abuse of a boy is abuse…not sex. Both males and females abuse boys
When you think about sexual abuse of boys, focus on “abuse,” not “sex.” That helps us remember that the sexual orientation of neither the abusive person nor the boy who’s victimized is actually a factor in making the interaction abusive.
Whether the abusive person is male or female, straight, gay or bisexual, misusing their “power over” a boy to engage in a sexual interaction is what makes the action abusive. If the boy is dependent for safety or protection, is a subordinate, or is intoxicated; if he’s manipulated, or in fear, vulnerable or a mentee; or if there’s a negative consequence of saying “no”, then he can’t genuinely give consent (no matter what the damaging social norms about masculinity tell us.)
And research shows that most adult men who sexually abuse boys identify as heterosexual, and that many boys are abused by older girls and by adult women. Sexual interaction is just the mechanism for the abuse. The experience is actually one of betrayal of trust, though it sometimes takes men decades to understand and acknowledge that fact.
4. And guess what – healthy sexual intimacy is about trust.
Whether he’s interacting with a male or a female, a boy exploring his sexuality or sexual orientation isn’t inviting manipulation, or abuse by someone he looks up to. Having trusted someone who misuses that trust never makes a boy responsible for his own abuse. Consent is conscious decision between equals. Sexual arousal is a physical response. They’re not the same.
A boy’s sexual orientation is determined by factors unrelated to abuse. When a boy feels confused or ashamed about his sexual attractions, his secretive exploration may make him more vulnerable to abuse. But a boy’s sexual orientation is never the result or cause of sexual abuse. Remember, the dynamic in sexual abuse is about misuse of power, influence, intimidation – or just betrayal of that trust.
5. The vast majority of boys who experience sexual abuse never sexually abuse another person
While it is true that many people who sexually abuse children experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse in childhood themselves, the reverse is not true. Very few of the millions of the boys and men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse, ever engage in abusive sexual interactions with others. The incorrect, but commonly-held belief that tells them otherwise is perhaps the single biggest hurdle for men who want to get help to heal from their childhood abuse. Unfortunately, if they and everyone they know mistakenly believes they’re doomed to repeat the abuse, the motivation to keep the secret tends to outweigh the deep need to get help.
6. Sexual abuse can impact boys’ lives profoundly
Acknowledging that boys are hurt by sexual abuse and deserve trauma-informed help to overcome the consequences in no way diminishes the acknowledgement of harm experienced by women or girls or the need to prevent sexual abuse of all children. Boys can be deeply impacted by sexual abuse: sometimes differently from girls, sometimes in very similar ways.
The coping strategies that masculine norms offer boys who’ve been sexual abused lead to higher risks for depression, substance abuse, re-victimization, suicide, sexually transmitted infections, experiencing or perpetrating intimate partner violence or violence with others, and disrupted relationships, education and careers.
7. Most importantly, men can and do heal from sexual abuse
That’s a fact! Pass it on!
By Peter Pollard
Peter Pollard is the Professional Relations & Communications Director for 1in6, Inc. Peter previously worked for 15 years as a state, child-protection social worker and was the Public Education director at Stop It Now! Since 2003, he has served as the Western Massachusetts coordinator for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and also does work for a Certified Batterers Intervention Program. See Peter’s portrait in The Bristlecone Project exhibit.