An Extremely Sensitive Subject Explored: Sexual Abuse of Males
So why would I be interested in such an “icky” subject as sexual abuse of boys and men? Simply this: Over my many years of teaching post-secondary students (mostly eighteen to thirty year olds) and over my many years of friendships with men and over my many years of watching television and reading newspapers (mostly in the United States) I have come to be aware of this problem as much more common than most people think. I suspect that its “ickiness” turns many people off to the point that they really don’t want to hear about it or even think about it.
Occasionally a big scandal involving it makes headlines. I think, for example, of the scandal regarding Catholic priests abusing boys and then the scandal regarding coaches at a particular American university abusing boys (or condoning it). But, generally speaking, sexual abuse of females gets much more attention in popular culture—to the point that in between occasional public scandals—sexual abuse of males is hardly thought about.
In recent years, however, a few organizations have formed to promote awareness of male-on-male sexual abuse (and occasional female-on-male sexual abuse). One that I can recommend is 1in6 and The Bristlecone Project (the two are related). Now there are numerous Youtube videos that reasonably (not with any prurient intent) discuss the subject with victims speaking out—usually from many years after the abuse happened to them.
Over my now almost forty years of teaching post-secondary students many male students and non-student male friends have talked with me about their experiences of sexual abuse. In most cases they have never told anyone else and don’t want anyone else to know—especially their families. I especially remember a young male graduate in his early twenties who came to back to my office to talk about his emotional struggles. (He was receiving professional therapy as well.) He desperately did not want his family to know what had happened to him. He had never told anyone except his therapist, but a few church friends from his teenage years had come to him and asked him to testify against their youth pastor who was going on trial for sexually abusing boys in the youth group. It had been going on for years. This young man desperately did not want to testify because he did not want his family to know what had happened to him. I asked him why that is the case and he indicated (as have others) that 1) he was afraid he wouldn’t be believed, and 2) he was afraid people would think he wanted it to happen.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
According to the organization(s) 1in6 (1in6.org) and The Bristlecone Project one in six males are sexually molested or suffer sexual abuse (unwanted, unwelcome sexual attack) sometime during their lifetime. Most survivors tell no one when the abuse is happening because of the reasons given by the former student whose story I told above. But I suspect another reason is simply the “ickiness factor”—most people simply don’t want to know about this phenomenon because of what they consider its extreme abnormality.
Our American society is finally coming around to wanting to hear the stories of female victims/survivors of sexual abuse and assault so that they can support them. You can hardly turn on the television without seeing and hearing something about the very much needed and much to be applauded #MeToo movement. Finally females are being strongly encouraged to expose their attackers and are, in most cases, being believed. This was not always the case and, of course, we have a long way to go with regard to male-on-female rape being reported, investigated, and the attackers punished.
But there are many people talking about that issue; what is still rarely talked about publicly is the on-going phenomenon of sexual predation toward males. Most people still think it is generally-speaking confined to the Catholic clergy and a few sports coaches. It isn’t. In fact, I know (from victims’/survivors’ reports and from reports by former fraternity and sports team members) that sexual humiliation is quite common in hazing rituals in many all-male organizations. This is usually brushed off as unfortunate but not really sexual abuse or rape because the victims/survivors participated voluntarily. But many of them say they had no real choice because of the context–where and how it happened to them. (A recent example of this that was not at all consensual took place at a Christian liberal arts college in the Midwest. So far as I know it did not make any national headlines—as it would have if the victim-survivor had been female.)
I suspect such incidents are much more common than most people suspect because very few victims/survivors ever come forward to report it. In this case (I suspect) it was only taken seriously at all because there was a video of the attack for evidence.
I think that the frequent incidence of male victimhood of sexual assault is buried beneath a societal denial of its reality. We would just rather not know. Also, I think many people think males, even boys, “get over it” and it does not affect them long-term as it does females. Counselors and therapists, however, know better.
During my now almost forty years teaching in American higher education I have seen very little to no attempt to “reach out” to male victims/survivors of sexual abuse. Almost all the attention has been and continues to be aimed at female victims/survivors. For example, Title IX training exercises rarely mention the phenomenon; the focus is exclusively on sensitivity toward and help for female victims.
Now, whenever I have mentioned this here before, or in classes, or anywhere, I get some pushback as if I am attempting to take some of the attentive spotlight off female victims/survivors. That is not at all the case. This is not a zero sum game. More attention to male victims/survivors of sexual abuse does not have to mean less attention to female victims/survivors. And yet, some people seem to have that assumption and operate (in their ways of responding) from it—rejecting my concern as an example of male backlash against the attention finally being given to female victims/survivors of sexual abuse. It isn’t and never has been.
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