Male Victims of Sexual  Abuse: The Unspoken  Mental Health Problem that Often Goes Unrecognized, Unreported and Untreated

Male Victims of Sexual  Abuse:

The Unspoken  Mental Health Problem that Often Goes Unrecognized, Unreported and Untreated

According to research, at least 1 in 6 men have experienced sexual abuse either in childhood or as adults. And this is probably a low estimate, since it doesn’t include non-contact experiences, which can also have lasting negative effects. Researchers use the term Sexual abuse to describe experiences  in which children are subjected to unwanted sexual contact involving force, threats, or a large age difference between the child and the abuser (which involves a big power differential and exploitation).  Having such an experience does not mean a boy will suffer significant long-term negative consequences. That depends on several factors, including how many times it happened, , how long it went on, who else was involved, whether the boy told anyone and, if so, what was the response he received when he revealed the sexual abuse. .

Non-Contact  sexual abuse is when a child or adult is exposed, to unwanted sexual situations that did not involve physical touching (for example, sexual harassment), exposing sexual parts of their body to them, peeping tom, making them look at sexual photos or movies).

In legal terms, sexual assault is any sexual contact that is against a person’s will or without consent. This includes situations where force, violence, or weapons are used as well as situations where the victim is too intoxicated or scared to give consent. Sexual assault can happen to anyone, regardless of gender or their sexual orientation.

Men and boys who have been sexually assaulted may experience the same effects of sexual assault as other survivors, and they may face other challenges that are more unique to their experience. Some men who have survived sexual assault as teens and adults feel shame or self-doubt, believing that they should have been “strong enough” to fight off the perpetrator. Many men who experienced an erection or ejaculation during the assault may be confused and wonder what this means. These normal physiological responses do not in any way imply that you wanted, invited, or enjoyed the assault.

Many men who have been sexually abused or assaulted fear their masculinity has been compromised,  feeling like they’re not a “real man “even if no one knows about what happened or thinks twice about their masculinity. Having unwanted sexual experiences means being sexually used or dominated, vulnerable, overwhelmed, and being flooded by intense emotions

These experiences and feelings run opposite to how males are commonly socialized and encouraged to be men.  A man’s confidence and self-esteem can greatly depend on how “manly” they feel, and how manly they believe other men and women see them as being.

Men who were sexually abused as boys or teens may also respond differently than men who were sexually assaulted as adults. The following list includes some of the common experiences shared by men and boys who have survived sexual assault.

  • Anxiety, depressionpost-traumatic stress disorderflashbacks, and eating disorders
  • Avoiding people or places that remind you of the assault or abuse
  • Concerns or questions about sexual orientation
  • Fear of the worst happening and having a sense of a shortened future
  • Feeling like “less of a man” or that you no longer have control over your own body
  • Feeling on-edge, being unable to relax, and having difficulty sleeping
  • Sense of blame or shame over not being able to stop the assault or abuse, especially if you experienced an erection or ejaculation
  • Withdrawal from relationships or friendships and an increased sense of isolation
  • Worrying about disclosing for fear of judgment or disbelief.

Sexual Abuse Victims and Self-Harm

Some people self-harm as a response to sexual violence. Self-harm is anything that someone does to cause harm to themselves. This includes cutting or burning, not eating, taking drugs and working to exhaustion. There are many reasons why an abuse victim might self-harm after experiencing sexual violence.

  • Controlling emotions

Sometimes we experience emotions at times when we aren’t ready to deal with them or feel it’s inappropriate – for example, crying at work or school.

You might self-harm to use pain as a way of suppressing or distracting yourself from your emotions.

  • Expressing emotions

When our emotions become too much for us or too painful, it can feel like a pot about to boil over. Causing ourselves harm can be a way of relieving some of this pain and can give us a sense of relief, like taking the lid off the pot of boiling water.

  • Feeling emotions

When we feel numb, experiencing pain is a quick way of proving to ourselves that we can still feel and are still alive.

  • Punishing yourself

Feelings of shame or guilt can sometimes make us believe we deserve to feel pain.

  • Control

As well as controlling emotions, self-harm can give you a feeling of control over your life more widely after experiencing sexual violence it’s common to feel out of control. Through self-harm you might feel you can bring control back into your life – for example, by choosing how you hurt and when. Self-harming can be dangerous and sometimes fatal.


Research & Studies

Most early studies of child sexual abuse and sexual assault focused on females, there is now a developing body of literature that provides information on the sexual victimization of males. In  2005 study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, on San Diego Kaiser Permanente HMO members, reported that 16% of males were sexually abused by the age of 18.  A national study in 2003  of U.S. adults reported that 14.2% of men were sexually abused before the age of 18. A 1998 study  reviewing research on male childhood sexual abuse concluded that the problem is more common than initially thought and under reported , under recognized and under treated. A 1996 study of male university students in the Boston area reported that 16% of men had experienced sexual abuse by the age of 18. Many believe that  it is likely the statistics on male sexual abuse are underestimated. Males who have such experiences are less likely to disclose their abuse than females. Social Service agencies report only 16% of men report having experienced sexual abuse compared to 64% of women with documented sexual abuse.

Common Myths Surrounding Male Sexual Abuse

Many people don’t take sexual assault of men seriously. This is one of the reasons why men have a difficult time reporting what happened and why the rates of male sexual assault are thought to be significantly under-reported. If a survivor’s friends think that male sexual assault is a joke, he will feel isolated and afraid to tell anyone. Sexual assault is a painful, traumatic experience for any victim.

Common Myths:

  1. Boys and Men can’t be sexually abused
  2. It was his fault
  3. Sexual abuse is less harmful to males
  4. Only homosexual men abuse
  5. Being sexually abused means you are a homosexual.
  6. Males abused by women got lucky
  7. Males who are sexually abused will abuse others

The Truth

  1. Boys and men can be sexually used or abused, and it has nothing to do with how masculine they are. Sexual abuse is not a sexual relationship, it is an assault on a person’s body and their mind, forcing them to feel unsafe, vulnerable and exploited,
  2. If the male liked the attention he was getting, or got sexually aroused during the 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 and assault harms boys/men and girls/women in ways that are similar and different, but equally harmful.
  4. Men and Boys can be sexually abused by both heterosexual and homosexual  men and women. 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. Most studies suggest that men who have sexually abused a boy most often identify as heterosexual and often are involved in adult heterosexual relationships at the time of abusive interaction. There is no indication that a homosexual man is more likely to engage in sexually abusive behavior than a heterosexual man,
  5. Whether he is heterosexual, or homosexual the male’s sexual orientation is neither the cause nor 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 a boy’s sexual orientation.
  6. Girls and women can sexually abuse or assault boys and men. The boys and men are not “lucky,” but exploited and harmed.
  7. Most boys and men who are sexually abused or assaulted will not go on to sexually abuse or assault others.

The Aftermath of Sexual Assault:  Why Do I Feel This Way?

Whether you’re a man or a woman, sexual assault is a trauma. The trauma of sexual assault involves losing control of your own body and possibly fearing death or injury. There are certain ways that human beings react to trauma that are the same for men and women. “Rape trauma syndrome” is a term that mental health professionals use to describe the common reactions that occur for both men and women after sexual assault. “Rape trauma syndrome” is not an illness or abnormal reaction,  it  is actually a normal reaction to an abnormal, traumatic event.

Below is a checklist of common reactions to sexual assault. Though each person and situation are unique, this checklist will help you to know the broad range of reactions that are normal .. Of course, there are also ways that men are affected differently than women by sexual assault. Following the list of universal reactions to sexual assault, we’ll delve into some of the reactions to sexual assault that are more unique to men.

  • Emotional Shock: I feel numb. How can I be so calm? Why can’t I cry?
  • Disbelief and/or Denial: Did it really happen? Why me? Maybe I just imagined it. It wasn’t really rape.
  • Embarrassment: What will people think? I can’t tell my family or friends.
  • Shame: I feel completely filthy, like there’s something wrong with me. I can’t get clean.
  • Guilt: I feel as if it’s my fault, or I should’ve been able to stop it. If only I had…
  • Depression: How am I going to get through life. I feel so hopeless. Maybe I’d be better off dead
  • Powerlessness: Will I ever feel in control again?
  • Disorientation: I don’t even know what day it is, or who I am anymore. I keep forgetting things.
  • Flashbacks: I’m still re-living the assault! I keep seeing that face and feeling like it’s happening all over again.
  • Fear: I’m scared of everything. What if I have herpes or AIDS? I can’t sleep because I’ll have nightmares. I’m afraid to go out. I’m afraid to be alone.
  • Anxiety: I’m having panic attacks. I can’t breathe! I can’t stop shaking. I feel overwhelmed.
  • Anger: I feel like killing the person who attacked me!
  • Physical Stress: My stomach (or head or back) aches all the time. I feel jittery and don’t feel like eating.

Treatment, Care, & Bringing Awareness

When boys and men who survive sexual violence then can experience serious psychological and emotional problems , including post-traumatic stress, symptoms of depression and anxiety, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse problems and sexual dysfunction. Untreated abuse can wreak havoc on males’ life years after the abuse took place often causing them much emotional pain, and depression causing them often to have unstable relationships even if they were to marry one day. It  does not only weaken their emotional health but also their physical health.

The American Psychiatric Association guidelines strongly recommend the use of cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive processing therapy, cognitive therapy, and prolonged exposure therapy as part of treatment. The use of brief eclectic psychotherapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and narrative exposure therapy as well as pharmacotherapy. The importance of educating trauma survivors also allows shared decision making. Thus, clinicians should be ready to offer information about evidence-based options. They also should teach coping skills, relaxation techniques.

Clinicians need to build a healthy, trusting, respectful Therapeutic  Alliance with their clients. Allowing them to share their story with as much ease and comfort as necessary.

The website 1 in 6 named for the most recent studies discussing male sexual abuse/assault. Is a healthy tool for the victims of abuse, their families , and those providing services  to this often-unrecognized population. The mission of 1in6 is to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences live healthier, happier lives. Also includes providing information and support resources on the web and in the community.

Jim Katsoudas –

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