Men who have been abused
Until the 1980’s the subject of physical and sexual abuse of male children was largely ignored. Corporal punishment was regarded as an acceptable method of discipline. “I was beaten as a boy and it never did me any harm, in fact I’m sure I deserved it” being a common response—while the question of sexual abuse was simply not considered. Most of the research since then has been undertaken in the United States, where many scientific surveys and academic studies have been conducted. The results have been published in a number of well-regarded books and journals.
The evidence in Australia is more anecdotal at this stage, but it is likely that the same pattern of abuse exists here as has been uncovered in the United States. Recent investigations of the NSW Royal Commission have highlighted the abuse of boys but have also rather skewed public debate on this matter. Rumours about politicians, priests, judges and other public figures forming homosexual rings and preying on young boys make lurid headlines but obscure the ordinary reality which is that the vast majority of boys, as with girls, are abused by members of their own family.
A boy is no more capable than a girl of resisting inappropriate physical or sexual invasions by an adult or an older adolescent. He’s rarely physically stronger, he’s emotionally no more mature, and the adult-child power differential is no different. Yet it is very hard to convince people that many boys as well as many girls are abused in Australia. Why? Probably because it’s an unpleasant truth we don’t want to acknowledge. But arguing about the prevalence of abuse of boys in Australia is not really the important issue. What matters is that it should be recognised for the awful crime it is, and that public awareness be enlarged to accommodate unpleasant realities that until now have existed only in secret.
Men display the same symptoms as women victims – including low self esteem, depression, poor relationships, fear of intimacy, drug dependency. However, there may be one way in which an abused man’s experiences differ from those of women: a strong sense of inadequacy and failure as a man. While women often find that they are regarded with suspicion if they are strong, men are seen as being beyond the pale if they show weakness or vulnerability. In our society, men are not supposed to be victims. They are expected to be able to look after themselves, to resist, to fight back. These so-called masculine qualities are deeply rooted in our culture. They may be of dubious value, but all boys grow up in their shadow.
Many male survivors speak of anxiety about their sexual identity and orientation – not surprising when their central perception of ‘what a man is’ has been violated and distorted during childhood. These feelings of guilt, shame and failure seem to be shared equally by homosexual and heterosexual male survivors, and clearly make it harder for men to open up and start to talk about their problems. Male survivors can create elaborate strategies for survival as adults. They study, work hard, over achieve, marry and raise children. But the abuse issue is often a time bomb, ticking silently away deep in their consciousness.
The stereotype of boy victims of sexual abuse is that they fall prey to rich gay pederasts, who seduce them with gifts and rides in sports cars and then involve them in drug-induced sexual orgies. The truth is very different. Most sexual abuse of boys, as of girls, takes place within the family. Another myth is that adolescent boys enjoy sexual experimentation with older men, and it does them no harm. It does cause major, long-lasting effects.
Not surprisingly, it seems that men are still more reluctant than women to admit to having been abused. At our Centres we are contacted by far more women than men, a pattern consistent with reports from other countries. It is therefore particularly courageous of the increasing number of men whoare finding the courage to face their pain.
Harry, men's program facilitator