New Hope for Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse

Jerry Sandusky’s  conviction on 48 counts of sexual abuse may not be the most important outcome of the arrest and recent trial of the former Penn State’s football coach.

Frequent, widespread and honest conversations about the sexual abuse of boys that have taken place across the country in the nine months since Sandusky’s arrest in November 2011, have forever positively changed our collective understanding about men who experienced sexual abuse in childhood. For the estimated 336,000* adult men in Maryland who had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood, this new awareness has created an unprecedented  opportunity for healing – healing that for many men,  before Penn State, seemed impossible.

Even the public tears shed by the courageous witnesses who testified against Sandusky taught us all some valuable lessons that have changed the emotional landscape for men and boys. We learned that brave men cry; brave men can be vulnerable; brave men can ask for help.

Research shows that 1 in 6 men have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood.  But these injured boys grow up in a culture that discourages males from showing emotions like sadness, fear or weakness.  As a result, these boys, and the men they become, usually keep their pain to themselves, often for their entire lives.

Instead, they find other ways of coping with these deep feelings – often ineffective ways. Some turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the feelings. Others may find distraction in what are seen as more socially-positive outlets –  like constant work or physical activity; or in risky professions or recreation that will reassure them that they live up to society’s distorted expectations for men.

So men who were abused as children are much more likely to show up in the emergency room with a physical injury, or in a rehab program to address an addiction or in a courtroom to answer for a violent expression of their internal hurt and rage, than they are to appear at a mental health or rape crisis center asking for help.

Look around the office or classrooms where you spend your days;  the bar or restaurant where you socialize; or the bleachers at the next concert or athletic event you attend. Think “1 in 6 men.”  Imagine how our families and communities would change if the men with these experiences of sexual trauma could face that hurt and begin to heal.

But huge barriers remain. Deeply ingrained myths about the impact of sexual abuse on men get in the way of those men who need help, and of the family and friends who care about them, and who want to offer support.

Countering those myths and removing those barriers is our collective challenge. Here are some facts to help start that effort.

  1. Boys and men can be sexually used or abused, and it has nothing to do with how masculine they are.
  2. If a boy or man liked the attention he was getting, or got sexually aroused during abuse, or even sometimes wanted the attention or sexual contact, this does not mean he wanted or liked being manipulated or abused, or that any part of what happened, in any way, was his responsibility or fault.
  3. Sexual abuse harms males and females in ways that are similar and different, but equally harmful.
  4. Boys and men can be sexually abused by both straight men and gay men. Sexual abuse is the result of abusive behavior that takes advantage of a child’s vulnerability and is in no way related to the sexual orientation of the abusive person.
  5. Whether he is gay, straight or bisexual, a survivor’s sexual orientation is neither the cause or the result of sexual abuse. By focusing on the abusive nature of sexual abuse rather than the sexual aspects of the interaction, it becomes easier to understand that sexual abuse has nothing to do with his sexual orientation.
  6. Girls and women can sexually abuse boys and men. The survivors are not “lucky,” but exploited and harmed.
  7. Most boys who are sexually abused will not go on to sexually abuse others.

Read more about the Myths and Facts that impact male survivors.

The greater willingness to talk about the sexual abuse of boys since Sandusky’s arrest has created a huge opportunity to change the way we think about men who have been sexually traumatized, and how we respond to those men’s ineffective coping strategies.

  • Mental health and rape crisis centers can craft outreach messages that make it clear that men who experienced childhood abuse are welcome.
  • Employee assistance programs and school guidance offices can become more attuned the possibility of childhood sexual trauma as a factor in a man’s depression or inability to function effectively.
  • Police, courts and probation officers can be more aware of the underlying turmoil that may be driving a man’s repeated trouble with authorities.

For all survivors of sexual abuse, healing is about regaining control over their choices and their lives. For men in particular, the need to maintain control over the pace of the healing is critical. It may be tempting to push a man who is known or suspected of having experienced abuse to acknowledge that experience and get into treatment. Instead, he should be encouraged to move forward at a pace that feels safe. Sometimes that can feel frustratingly slow to those on the outside.  But real healing from sexual manipulation is a slow, careful process that restores a man’s solid sense of being in charge of his own life and ultimately leads to lasting change.

* 336,000 represents  1 of 6 of the 2,017,064 men over age 19 in Maryland as reported in the 2010 U.S.Census.

Peter Pollard is the Training and Outreach Director for 1in6, a national organization that supports men who had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood to live healthier, happier lives. Peter is  also the Western Massachusetts director of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and previously worked for 15 years as a child protection social worker.

The 1in6 website is the most extensive resource available on the Internet for information and resources (in both English and Spanish) about the impact of sexual abuse on men.  The 1in6 Online SupportLine offers anonymous, confidential, individual, instant message-type chats 24/7, with volunteers specifically trained to provide support and resources for male survivors of sexual abuse and for those who care about them.

Download the PDF version of this article here.

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