Information for understanding the potential effects of unwanted sexual experiences and making sense of their complexity.
Such experiences almost always involve a betrayal of trust by someone who has power over the other person, whether that person is a child, teenager, or adult. The violation of trust is even greater when the other person had responsibility for the person’s care and protection.
So any man who has experienced such betrayal is likely to have difficulty trusting others.
Unwanted or abusive sexual experiences typically cause, when they happen and/or soon afterward, intense negative emotions.
Those emotions include fear, anger, sadness, and shame. Such feelings may not go away, and may get worse, if the individual has no one safe to tell what happened or help him deal with his feelings. In some cases, the individual may try to get help but is blamed for what happened, told they are lying, or worse – which adds yet another layer of painful and overwhelming emotions.
In response to these extreme negative emotions, people who have these experiences often attempt to ignore and block them out. This usually leaves them alternating between being emotionally numb and feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
In short, when it comes to emotional experiences and behaviors, unwanted and abusive sexual experiences can cause major problems with negative emotions and what therapists call “emotion regulation.”
Such problems with trust and negative emotions can lead to lots of relationship problems.
Especially in intimate relationships but also in friendships and work relationships, problems with trust and overwhelming emotions can lead to outbursts, conflicts, and sudden endings.
For those who hide their negative emotions and pretend everything is OK, there can be major stress, inner turmoil, and a constant feeling of disconnection and being unreal.
Not surprisingly, unwanted or abusive sexual experiences can lead to sexual problems too, including fear of sexual intimacy, difficulties performing sexually, and sudden feelings shame and guilt – even when an intimate relationship or sexual interaction is otherwise going well.
Unwanted or abusive sexual experiences themselves, and their emotional aftermath, are completely the opposite of how males are “supposed” to be.
Males are told that they’re supposed to be strong and in control, not manipulated or controlled by others; they are expected to be sexually dominant, not sexually dominated; and masters of their emotions, not overwhelmed by feelings like fear and shame.
It’s totally normal, then, for men who’ve had such experiences to worry about being “real men.” It’s totally normal to fear that others will see them as “unmanly.”
When such a sexual experience involved another male, these concerns can be huge, and there can be fears of being gay. Or if one is gay or bisexual, to fears that it’s because of the childhood sexual experiences.
For more on these issues, see Masculinity, Self-Esteem & Identity.
Men often ignore and under-estimate the effects of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in their lives. This tends to increase problems and prevent healing.
But sometimes men go to the other extreme, and believe that such experiences are the only or complete cause of problems that have other causes as well.
Such over-estimation is not uncommon, and very understandable. It can happen as one begins seeing connections between past sexual experiences and present life difficulties.
There are some typical ways men can end up over-estimating the effects of harmful sexual experiences, and under-estimating other major contributors to their problems and suffering.
For example, if you tell other people about your sexual experiences – partners, friends, family members, even therapists – they may believe that those experiences “explain everything” (or almost everything) that you are struggling with. The popular media send this message all the time, by featuring lots of stories and research about sexual abuse while ignoring the long-term effects of other harmful or traumatic experiences.
Unwanted or abusive experiences can happen to children who live in families and homes that are, like all families and homes, imperfect. And some are more imperfect than others. Experiences like the following can have huge effects on a child, and certainly can magnify or complicate the effects of harmful sexual experiences:
We cannot emphasize too strongly that many of the problems caused by unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood can also be caused – and made worse – by other harmful experiences including emotional abuse, physical abuse, harsh and cruel punishments, and emotional or physical neglect by parents and other caregivers. Alone or in combination, such experiences can lead to problems in many areas, including:
From very young males learn to relate to their feelings – especially “vulnerable” ones like sadness and shame – in ways that limit awareness and understanding of emotions, and prevent them from responding to emotions in healthy ways.
Such “masculinity training” can contribute to emotional and behavior problems, and can prevent healing from the effects of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences (and other harmful childhood experiences).
For more about this, see How Being Male Can Make It Hard to Heal.
No matter what unwanted or abusive experiences you had as a child, and no matter how great the effects of those experiences in your life now, there is always much more to who you are.
There is a danger of creating – and getting stuck in – a view of oneself that revolves around having been a “victim,” or being a “survivor,” or any other potentially limiting way of defining or labeling yourself.
Finally, there are many things, including educating oneself and therapy, that can help men heal from harmful effects of unwanted or abusive experiences. But if improving your current life and creating a better future take a back seat to focusing on the past, then healing will be slowed down and maybe even prevented.
Unwanted and abusive sexual experiences are never disconnected from the rest of a person’s life. So their consequences can be quite complex – and take time to sort out, understand, and deal with in healthy ways.
Let’s get a sense of this complexity and bring some order to it…
These experiences happen to boys who are developing in many ways, including:
These things are interwoven. What’s going on in one affects the others. For example, the kinds of relationships we have are determined by how we think, by how we deal with our emotions, and by what we believe and value. And our thoughts, emotions, and values are influenced by our beliefs about how boys and men are supposed to be.
Unwanted boyhood sexual experiences can impact – and shape – many aspects of development. This has been shown by decades of scientific research. It’s discovered every day by men who’ve had these experiences and the people who know them well.
Several things can influence the impacts of such experiences, especially:
Other factors that that play out differently for every guy:
Some of the those reflect how abusive the experiences were, and some the kinds of the relationships in which the experiences and the child’s reactions played out. They’re all very important.
Lots of research has been done on how such things determine the consequences of unwanted or abusive childhood sexual experiences. Researchers talk about “risk factors,” which make bad effects more likely, and “protective factors,” which make bad effects less likely.
Every man who’s had such experiences is different, and has a unique combination of risk and protective factors that have influenced the effects in his life.
You may be wondering:
Such questions and doubts about one’s memories can get in the way of understanding what happened, how it’s affected you, and how to achieve the life you want.
To help clear things up, here’s some basic information about human memory and memories of stressful or traumatic experiences.
Our brains do not simply record and “play back” events exactly as they happened in the past. Instead, almost every instance of recall involves some processes of reconstruction by the brain, which means it involves some distortion too.
Yet this does not mean that memories are “only constructions” and can’t be trusted at all.
Recent research suggests that one brain system records what actually happened and another how someone makes sense or meaning of what happened. Other research shows that people usually accurately recall the “gist” and “central details” of highly stressful experiences. For example, someone may remember who the other person was and the nature of the most disturbing or arousing sexual act or acts (central details), but not all of the furniture in a room where it happened or the details of each act.
The fact that human memory is not like a DVD does mean that memories may not be completely accurate, and that any particular memory could involve a mixture of actual and imagined events (or parts of events).
Of course, the picture is more complex: Someone may block out or “edit out” disturbing emotions and sensations. A boy may focus his attention on spot on the ceiling, or imagine himself in a completely different place altogether. In those cases, the “central details” of the experience, for that person at that time, are things that would typically be peripheral details or not even part of the memory at all – and the main details of the sexual acts may not be registered at all.
Researchers distinguish a variety of different types of memory. When it comes to memories of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences, three types are key: episodic, implicit, and procedural.
Episodic memories are what we typically have in mind when we think about remembering something that happened in our past. They are memories of specific events, times, and places, and include the emotions associated with them. These are memories that we recognize as memories of events in our past, as in, “I remember the time I rode that huge rollercoaster at Great America.”
Episodic memories can be partial or fragmentary. Someone may remember only snapshots or brief “clips” of an event. Or remember visual images and sounds but not feelings, or feelings and sounds but not images, etc.
It is not uncommon to have such fragmentary memories of unwanted or abusive childhood sexual experiences. Such memories can be quite confusing, and can lead one to wonder what – if anything – might really have happened, and whether one’s memories can be trusted at all.
But as explained above, just because a memory is fragmentary does not necessarily mean that the fragments aren’t memories of real experiences. Sorting things out can take time, however, and can require help from a therapist who understands how to avoid creating distorted memories.
Implicit memories are memories that contain information about a past event or experience but are not recognized as being about that event or experience. These memories are typically fragmentary sensations or emotions that get triggered by experiences that the brain associates with past experiences but – and here’s the rub – the connection is not recognized.
For example, someone might become afraid or angry when touched by an older woman. Or someone could have sudden disturbing images of rape when being sexual in a loving way. When such experiences happen, they can be very strange and upsetting, and can seem “irrational” to the person having them. He may think, “What’s wrong with me?” or “Am I crazy?”
But when such experiences are implicit memories, then what’s happening makes complete sense and is definitely not a sign of insanity. It’s just how the brain works sometimes. Eventually, such experiences may be recognized as fragmentary memories that are connected to past unwanted or abusive sexual experiences.
Still, implicit memories can be very disturbing. Also, sometimes it’s just not possible to know, for sure, whether such experiences are memories of actual past experiences.
Procedural memories are memories of how to do something. Importantly, it is possible to have procedural memories based on experiences for which one has no episodic memories. For example, a child may know how to perform a sexual act without (consciously) remembering having performed it in the past.
Most procedural memories, however, are habitual responses to feelings of being harmed or betrayed (all over again). Many of the self-defense and self-blaming behaviors and thoughts that people have – retreating in fear, striking out in anger, self-criticism – are repetitions of childhood responses to being exploited or harmed by others (not only in sexual ways but physical and emotional ways too).
These kinds of procedural memories cause many (probably most) of the problems we have in our relationships. They are “conditioned responses” that are deeply etched into our brains, and are particularly likely to come out when we’re feeling stressed or vulnerable. Learning how to recognize such behaviors and nip them in the bud is one of the biggest challenges to becoming a healthy, happy and mature adult.
Some people will primarily “remember” what happened with thoughts and behaviors that involve reliving responses to experiences that they cannot (fully) remember as episodic memories. Some will only suspect that they had such experiences because they are having what may be fragmentary episodic, implicit, and procedural memories.
Such confusing memories are more likely if the sexual experiences happened when one was very young (before age 5), drugged in some way, in a state of intense fear or “numbed out.” Each of these can prevent experiences from being fully encoded by the brain systems that support eposidic memory.
Understandably, it can be very disturbing to have such limited memories of potentially life-changing experiences in one’s past. And it can be very difficult to accept that one may never know more. However, for a variety of reasons, it is generally not a good idea to seek understanding and healing by “recovering” memories. (For more information, see Personal Concerns and Questions About Your Memories? at former advisory board member Dr. Jim Hopper’s web page on recovered memories.)