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 most broadly 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.
- When possible, avoid definitions or labels that could drive away a 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.
Classifying Unwanted Experiences, Including Violence and Abuse
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?
It’s about your experience, your options, the life you want.
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 our free and anonymous online helpline for men, available 24/7.
What words people choose, how they speak, how words are interpreted or understood, and how the listener reacts can all have an effect on whether a given situation feels safe or threatening to whoever is present.
Some words, which are commonly used by others in discussions about sexual abuse and assault, are rarely (if ever) found on 1in6.org—words like “predator,” “perp,” “perpetrator,” “pervert,” “abuser,” “molester,” “sex offender,” “rapist,” and “victim” among them. We even use “survivor” sparingly.
It’s important to note that getting in touch with anger and loss can be a valuable part of healing. Using any of the above words (and others) about those involved—and experiencing the emotions and the images they evoke—are valid, useful, and perhaps even necessary steps for a man in the process of understanding his feelings and the dynamics of his abuse or assault.
In addition to feeling anger, men—including men who’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault—can also feel sadness, fear, betrayal, shame, hope, tenderness, and love.
Furthermore, anger is the primary emotion that social norms for males encourage men to express. In reality, though, men have a much more dynamic emotional life. Men—including men who’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault—can also feel sadness, fear, betrayal, shame, hope, tenderness, and love.
We’ve found that once men in their healing processes come to terms with anger, holding onto defining words like “abuser,” “sex offender,” “perpetrator,” and “victim” runs the risk of forever locking the people who were involved in the abusive interaction into set roles. Always thinking of the person who abused you in that role can also keep them seeming larger than life – and you smaller.
With healing comes the realization that in the present, you needn’t continue to relate to them as an all-powerful adult (or older child); or yourself, forever as a powerless child.
The traumatic experience is something that happened to you, not who you are.
One of the most liberating aspects of healing from unwanted sexual experiences is learning that the traumatic experience is something that happened to you, not who you are. And so, we’ve chosen to focus on experiences, behaviors, and actions, and to avoid using words that suggest an unchangeable identity for anyone involved.
The underlying goal for all of 1in6’s work is to help create an environment where men can safely speak about their unwanted sexual experiences—in an effort to heal. One of the great benefits of our site is that people can explore their experiences at their own pace, alone, and anonymously. The 24/7 helpline provides a resource for immediate support if a visitor feels overwhelmed by their feelings or memories.
You’ll notice that we sometimes use the term “unwanted sexual experiences” rather than just “sexual abuse.” We think it’s important when working with men, to create a space where a man doesn’t have to define what happened to him as “abuse” or see himself as a “victim” in order to start exploring what impact a confusing experience had on his life.
And, we know that a man might still have a complex and sometimes close family or community relationship with the person who harmed him. That’s another reason we avoid the dehumanizing (and therefore possibly confusing) imagery that using terms like “predator,” “perpetrator,” “molester,” ”sex offender,” and “abuser” about those who sexually abuse may stir—especially when reaching out to men who may not have that view.
Talking about someone’s abusive or harmful behavior toward you may feel even more possible if it doesn’t require placing them in one of those categories. And we also know that as much as 40 percent of sexual abuse of children is committed by older or more powerful children—often in reaction to, or as part of, the older child’s abuse experience. Imposing a dehumanizing identity on a man for behaviors that he, as a child, may have felt were not within his control just adds further damage to the man’s ability to heal.
“Person first” language can be a good way of honoring the range of those feelings (i.e. “…the friend of my family, who sexually abused me; “ or “…the person who abused me,” rather than “my abuser,” or my “molester”; “people who sexually abuse children are…” rather than “sex offenders are…”) Using real descriptions of who they were in relation to you and what they did actually highlights the betrayal of that relationship, which the abuse caused. It also may become more possible to discuss actions that hurt you with someone who you may still care about.
Different Words for Different People
We also know that the same words can be soothing for one person and triggering for another.
For instance, it may be hugely helpful for a man, who has carried around an undeserved sense of shame for a lifetime, to openly and graphically describe the details of his abuse, with someone who is able to offer full focus, comfort and support. But what is cathartic and releasing for the man speaking, may be triggering and overwhelming for an unsupported listener or reader. What may be useful, healing, and appropriate in a therapeutic setting may be harmful for someone sitting at home alone, or in an audience where there is no support accessible.
The same words that can be soothing for one person can be triggering for another.
When screening content for our recommended books and films, we keep that in mind. We evaluate what feelings the words or images are likely to evoke.
Words can trigger anger or outrage, or a sense of hope. They can stir horror, disgust, sadness, powerlessness, recognition of victimization, or a sense of having options for healing, determination, or happiness.
The FrameWorks Institute has done ground-breaking research that suggests that the portrayal of painful images or descriptions of injuries may be very effective at attracting attention and stirring emotions pretty intensely, but may ultimately trigger, overwhelm, or paralyze the individual who hears them.
Defenses have a positive function. Ironically, breaking through someone’s defenses to help them focus on how harmful and devastating abuse can be, may cause them to raise the defenses higher, if they don’t see a way out. This may be especially true for men.
Words can stir horror, disgust, sadness, powerlessness, recognition of victimization, or a sense of having options for healing, determination, or happiness.
It’s crucial for healing for a man to find a safe place for discharging anger, for expressing despair, or talking about the depth of the impact as well as the hope and desire to live a healthy, happy life.
Throughout our website, we offer information and resources to help men find that safe place.