We've all heard the stories on the news. Young boys being molested by priests, teachers and coaches. The stories are horrific. Children being manipulated into having adults fellate them, performing oral sex, being penetrated or vice versa. As a society we often focus on the disturbing details of the act itself; but what happens to these men after the abuse?
For men in particular, sexual abuse still carries a level of shame and stigma undercutting the very notion of masculinity long after the incident(s) has passed. Many male child sexual abuse (CSA) survivors go on to have suicidal tendencies, problems with relationships, psychological disorders and trust issues. I spoke to survivors, experts, and psychologists to find out how childhood sexual abuse effects men.
The Truth About Sex Post-Abuse
One might think that if you had been abused, you would want nothing to do with it ever again. But alas the psychology of the human mind is far more complicated. Reenactment is a common coping mechanism amongst male sexual abuse survivors that involves "reenacting" aspects of the abuse whether it relates to homosexual activity or simply gravitating towards activities reminiscent of the abuse. But why would anyone do this? "It is the mind's way of remembering the abuse and trying to work out the painful feelings associated with it," explains clinical psychologist and CSA survivor, Dr. Michelle Stevens. Says Dennis Bensie, (gay, single, 49) author of Shorn: Toys to Men. "I like to indulge in fantasy rape scenes. I like me being in peril in a way. I like to be 'the damsel in distress.' I set myself up to be the victim. It makes me face the abuse in a way. It brings it to the surface and I can deal with it."
Daniel, (bisexual, engaged, 24) who was severely abused and humiliated by his stepmother and her friends adds, "I can't really get pleasure from gentle sex. Because I get so rough, my ejaculation is much delayed. And my libido is so high, so my fiancé can't really satisfy me in bed very often."
Adds Michael*, (straight, separated, 44) who engaged in oral sex with other men, "I had always had thoughts of homosexual activity. There was an adrenaline rush. But then when it was over I threw up. The same as I did when I was molested. It was like, how much can I degrade myself? It was never about sex. In retrospect, I do think perhaps I was trying to correct something or change the ending." But Michael is quick to clarify he doesn't consider himself gay or even bisexual. "I'm not attracted to guys. When I see a girl in a bikini, I'm like wow that's hot. Men don't give me butterflies like my wife does. I don't look at men in romantic terms."
Whether or not this is actual reenactment or sexual orientation confusion, remains to be debated but undoubtedly CSA muddles one's mind. "I run a treatment group and a third of my guys have aspects of sexual identity confusion," says Rick Goodwin, Executive Director of 1in6 Canada, an organization that supports male CSA survivors. "One was a man married to a woman who had sex on the side with men. There was also a gay sex worker who when he got angry would have sex with a woman. You could call it reenactment but I would call it sexual-identity confusion."
Adds Christopher Anderson executive director of MaleSurvivor.org, "The survivor who is reenacting same sex contact is taking back his power. It becomes a powerful cycle that can be hard to break out of. That sense of not being able to take control or ownership of your sexuality can be very confusing for survivors."
Regardless both Anderson and Goodwin point that it's hard to know where a survivor's true sexuality lies without proper therapy. "If these characteristics are brought on by trauma then I don’t think people can have healthy relationships. Therapy can help people clarify their orientation. We're careful to distill what's trauma-laden and what's not," says Goodwin.
The Truth About Relationships And Trust
It's not just sexual issues that can create problems for adult male victims of CSA. The ghosts of abuse past can affect not just a man's sexual proclivities but his ability to relate to others. A combination of lack of trust, the need for control, and an emotional mindset that gets stunted after the abuse, creates the perfect storm for unstable relationships. Says Henry*, (straight, married, 48) a victim of the Horace Mann sex abuse scandal, "I went through a lot of 3-6 month relationships in my 20s and 30s where there was this seesaw effect. In the beginning, I presented myself as a good listener and someone who could open up easily because I had no boundaries. But then I would pull away because I would need my own space. At some 13-year-old level of thinking, I decided I needed to be in control of my life. I wouldn’t let anyone get the best of me."
Explains psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman "[The victim] feels like damaged goods and doesn't believe anyone will love him. He's afraid that his secret will reveal itself and that his partner will abandon him once they find out." Steve, (straight, in a relationship, 45), couldn't agree more. "I used to push people that truly care about me away. The fear of them walking out or abandoning me at some point becomes too great. Instead I chose to surround myself with people who would never care about me. It seemed so much safer."
Dustin* (gay, single, 33), agrees. "When I meet a guy that I’m attracted to, I feel worthless and like he's going to leave me. I have a long history of having this desperate feeling that I will only be OK if I'm in a relationship. When my last boyfriend left me at 26, I was shattered. My identity dissolved. I'm still not 100 percent percent over it."
Dennis adds, "I was sabotaging so I could be a victim. And then I would beat myself up about it. I was flipping my boyfriend into the role of the molester so I could get mad at him.” For most of us who haven’t been abused it can be hard to understand but Anderson explains it more clearly. "Powerless is at the core of abuse. So when someone is abused and made to feel powerless it makes it difficult to see the rest of the world as a safe place. It undermines one capacity to trust. Especially when it comes to intimate partnerships."
This sense of powerlessness can also cause victimized men to put up walls after the smallest slight. "When I was 16, I met a girl I fell in love with," says Geoffrey (straight, single, 49). But she just wanted to be friends and I was so devastated from the rejection I put up walls. All my relationships since have suffered since. I made so many excuses because I just couldn't get hurt again. I dated someone for five years but I just couldn't take it to the next level. I was terrified."
The Truth About Psychological Disorders, Addictions And Other Coping Mechanisms
Abuse can impact men by imparting them with psychological disorders or compulsions they might not normally have. These compulsions, disorders, or addictions serve as a coping mechanism for the pain that has been left untreated for so long. Borderline Personality Disorder is one such disorder.
Says Michael, who was diagnosed with BPD, "You're basically saying 'You don't want me' and you're pushing them away to prove they don’t want you. Depression, suicide attempts, dangerous sexual experiences; it’s all about self-destructive behavior. Your number one fear is being abandoned. As long as borderline feels safe, their nice self comes out."
"I've exhibited signs of depersonalization," adds Henry. "It's where you feel you don't exist. If you don’t exist you don't relate to anyone. It starts to play on you. Some of this stuff never really goes away. And it's hard to tell where it begins and where it ends."
As childhood sexual abuse happens before a child is fully developed, it can be hard to discern as Henry pointed out, where one's natural inclinations start and where the sexual abuse has taken root. Dennis believes his paraphilia, (intense sexual arousal to abnormal objects, situations, or individuals), is due to his sexual abuse. "I'm sexually aroused by cutting men’s hair against their will. It's a revenge fantasy for me. Since I was molested against my will, I like cutting hair against their will."
Facing The Myths And Misconceptions
One of the biggest misconceptions about sexual abuse is that all men who were abused turn out to be molesters. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. "Not every boy who is molested turns out to be an abuser," Christopher points out.
"Despite what you see on TV, most of us don't become predators because of it," says Daniel. "More often than not, what will happen is we'll be hit with crippling intimacy issues, a sex drive that's either hypersexual or asexual, and we're hit with guilt and the belief that we did something to bring it on, often long after we've learned the difference."
However even though CSA survivors are unlikely to become molesters, there is a small portion of those that do. Says Geoffrey who was incarcerated for 95 months for engaging in an ongoing sexual relationship with a minor, "It was truly not about sex, but about feeling accepted and unconditionally loved. Although I had many good friends, I was still feeling very lonely. I wanted affection and attention and when it appeared that [the victim] felt the same way, I decided that [having sex with him] would be the easiest way to fulfill my needs. Having the embrace of another person felt good. As it progressed, I told myself that although very inappropriate, it was mutual. Of course a child of that age cannot truly understand the situation and cannot give consent."
He attributes what happened to not getting help sooner. Stuffing all of his feelings down, they eventually exploded like a pressure cooker. "You've got to talk about it. Men don't like to talk about it for fear of being perceived as gay. Or people might say ‘you liked it’. Talking about it, letting go of the shame, being able to forgive yourself, and ultimately being able to forgive the perpetrator for yourself not them, is important. When you don’t forgive someone, they hold you hostage. My situation was the perfect storm.”
Another myth? The idea that one cannot maintain an erection unless they are turned on.
"An erection is a physiological experience not a psychological one,” says Christopher. "Especially at a young age. The body responds sexually no matter who you’re with. The physical or emotional are two separate things." Remarks Daniel, "an erection doesn’t mean consent. You can get one just as easily while angry as aroused. It's an automatic response."
"One thing that really needs to be said is that it's okay to admit you've been assaulted and get help," Daniel continues "According to RAINN, 10 percent of U.S. sexual assault victims are males, and I can tell you that the stats are too low. Most men who become victims won't report it, partially because, like me, they were told never to show weakness and never be a victim."
"You have to want to be happy," Dennis remarks. If you can't deal with [the abuse] on your own, you need to get help. It's a lot of work. You're never done."