Monday, August 10, 2020
Alisa Zipursky

This story is the longest time coming and I should have written it earlier. With 55% of Healing Honestly’s readership identified by Google analytics as men, y’all have deserved an article (and much more!) dedicated to your experiences as childhood sexual abuse survivors. 

I think the reason why I hadn’t written this story yet, despite the countless emails and private messages I’ve received from survivors who are men, is because I wasn’t sure, as a woman, how to write it. I realized I’d rather try and not quite get it right and work towards being better than not try at all. I recognized that in not trying, I was adding to the continued silencing and erasure of childhood sex abuse survivors who are men. I wanted to share my thinking with you all because the men who’ve been reading my content for years deserve it. I also think that the lack of visibility for male survivors is a paradox we see all over the women-dominated anti-violence movement.

I made a public call for any childhood sexual abuse survivors who are men (trans/cis) or are masculine of center to submit responses to four questions I had for them, with the option for them to use whatever name they’d like. With the responses I received, I began to identify common themes that kept coming up. 

I have tried to present the survivors’ voices here (which have been edited with their permission) as much as possible so we can hear from them in their own words. My hope is that their words offer validation and affirmation to other survivors who are men, and that those of us who aren’t mengain insight into how we can better support and address childhood sexual abuse that harms boys.

I want to extend my deep gratitude to all the survivors who submitted responses to me.  I am honored that you trusted me with your words and your truth. Thank you.

Childhood sexual abuse against boys is incredibly common

Before anything else, we have to talk about how childhood sexual abuse against boys and children assigned male at birth is very common. While there are different numbers out there, there is a common statistic from the CDC that 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday (the statistic for girls is 1 in 4). When we look at sexual violence in adults we see a greater difference between genders, but when we focus specifically on childhood sexual abuse we see that girls and boys are harmed at nearly equal rates. 

“In larger conversations about sexual violence, I think it is fair and appropriate for the focus to be on female-identified survivors - the majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by male-identified persons against female-identified persons,” explains Robby, a CSA survivor who used to work in victim services. “But when you narrow the lens to sexual violence against children, while the statistics don’t even out, perpetrations against male-identified children are incredibly common. Most of the time it feels like male victims are a footnote.”

When survivor services aren’t inclusive for men

Despite how prevalent CSA is among boys, I heard over and over again how services for survivors have failed men and boys. This ranges from an organization using gender exclusive language to services for men not being inclusive of transmasculine survivors, or men not being able to find support groups.

Parker, a CSA survivor put it this way, “ I feel like I'm seen only in name, but not in practice. Like an afterthought to statistical reporting. There are very few groups and places to talk about CSA, but ones geared specifically towards male identified folks just simply don't exist. So we're stuck in a cycle of wanting help, but being unable to find it.” 

Parker further described the challenges he’s faced in getting the support he needed. “Most therapists I've worked with have told me that I'm the first guy they've ever seen or even heard of seeking help for CSA, and many rape crisis programs only talk about women and use strictly ‘she’ when talking about helping people.”

Robby tells about his experiences working within the victim services world and how he discovered that it isn’t just a failure of the organizations to include men in their services, but also that there is a structural funding barrier. “Many states actually have regulations that specifically allocate financial resources for female survivors only. Until a program in Arkansas was able to successfully launch a men’s domestic violence program, there were zero other facilities in the country providing that system exclusively. There were some that had mixed programs, but not many. On a phone call with that organization I discovered just how hard they had to fight their state regulators for funding because they wanted to serve male survivors.”

Charlie, a CSA survivor, also shares with me how isolating online survivor spaces can be. “I will admit that when I see posts about men being the enemy when it comes to sexual violence, it makes me hide more and feel terrible. Obviously I know that men are more often the problem and women are more often the victims, but when I see the discourse around sexual abuse, it makes me feel like I don’t belong. I sometimes hide my gender online to feel accepted in support groups.” 

A recognition of larger gender dynamics

Over the course of the responses, several men offered an understanding that there was a lot of carefulness about not portraying the issue around men’s rights, women being the enemy, or diminishing the sexism that women and girls endure, but simply requesting recognition. 

As Robby puts it, “I don’t think men should be the focus, just appropriately addressed by research and support services.”

Charlie says, “I am often ashamed to be a man who was abused. I don’t feel at home within the male community and I often wish to open up with female survivors. However, I usually feel like I can’t open up. I dread the idea of taking the spotlight away from others. Imposter syndrome is real and probably has a lot to do with that. My story never feels legitimate even though deep down I know it is.”

“Men’s sexual abuse and assault isn’t really a topic that’s talked about or brought up to the spotlight the way women’s are, but it needs to be talked about and not swept under the rug,” shares a survivor who wishes to remain anonymous.

Robby describes this dynamic leaving him hardly ever feeling understood. “I constantly feel guilty when I share my experience with others - I feel like others will only see it as attention-seeking, or selfish, or dramatic, and so I rarely share. I have never met another adult male survivor of child abuse in person, or at least one that I know of, because we don’t talk about it.”

Men who were harmed by women feel very silenced

While the mainstream conversations around sexual violence center cis women and girls being harmed by cis boys and men, we know that women can sexually harm men and boys. This type of violence is often not discussed in any meaningful public way, or if it is, it is done with the lens of entertainment. I have been rewatching Dawson's Creek (ugh, quarantine TV, unsurprisingly, doesn’t hold up) and the entire first season is about 15-year-old Pacey having an affair with his teacher. We are supposed to think of it as an awesome sort of Mrs. Robinson-esq experience for Pacey that leaves him with bragging rights and pride. And that was a show literally designed for a tween audience. 

“There is a sense that men can’t be abused and that if they are it should be a source of pride, especially among young boys. In fact, it is a source of incredible shame and self hatred,” says Charlie.

Nived, a CSA survivor shares, “Although it has become more acceptable for men to be seen as victims, it is less so if a woman abused you.”

Until we can talk about all the ways childhood sexual abuse is perpetuated, we won’t be able to effectively address ending the epidemic. This includes not only confronting the fact that women can, and have, sexually abused children across the gender spectrum, but also addressing the discrepancies in how we gender sexual violence education for kids. 

“We often focus on our girls and women and don't realize how much protection boys need as well,” shares Joshua. “I feel misunderstood when it comes to people teaching boys not to be rapists, as if we are savage animals or inherently rapists. We should all learn about boundaries, especially sexual boundaries. Girls, in addition to boys, should also be taught about boundaries and to have their own sense of responsibility and agency so we don't only see boys as perpetrators and girls as victims.”

Homophobia and toxic masculinity are deeply silencing forces

I heard from so many men about how toxic masculinity has harmed them and how the idea of what it means to “be a man” is constructed to be in direct conflict with what it means to be a victim. Charlie puts it this way, “Society has taught us that we can’t be abused and, if we are, it is not in line with our own maleness. I wish people understood the sensitivity men can have and the damage sexual violence can do to us.” 

Several men also described how homophobia, heterosexual men’s panic at being perceived as gay, and the pathologizing of queer people can be oppressive for them.

“People need to discuss the common misconception that childhood sexual abuse ‘turns people’ homosexual. I am asexual, homoromantic. As a male survivor, it makes it harder to disclose about my abuse because then my sexuality is seen as an outcome of my trauma instead of my natural sexuality,” explains Joshua.

Parker shares, “I especially feel invisible as someone who is queer because I’ve seen that there's such a huge fear amongst many heterosexual male survivors that childhood sexual abuse makes them queer. I’ve also seen men be afraid that our women partners will find out about the abuse and either think that we are queer or that they’ll generally not be understanding because they don’t believe this abuse actually happens to men.”

Sexual violence does not “turn” anyone any sexual orientation or gender identity and, as my friend and founder of Mirror Memoirs Amita Swadhin has taught me, kids can often be targeted specifically because they are queer or gender non-conforming.  We can even see in a 2012 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics that gender nonconformity is an important indicator of children at increased risk of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse.

Robby sums it up powerfully, “I think that the construct of traditional masculinity is completely incompatible with being a victim of anything. It is incompatible with vulnerability and seeking support, like therapy or counseling. It tells us that pride is more important than healing. I think that, especially for male survivors who were abused by men, there is still homophobic-laced shame that we’re taught by our culture to feel about our experiences.”

He continues, “At the same time, this shame exists hand-in-hand with the idea that young boys are more sexualized or more ‘curious’ during their pubescent years and therefore often blamed for whatever happened to them - a simple write off. It’s complex, and it’s something that we have largely left for each man to attempt to wrestle with in the isolation of our own heads. This by no means makes our experiences harder or more difficult than anyone else; trauma comparison is never appropriate and isolates us further from each other. I just wish people understood that that they don’t understand were willing to put in the time and work to help us.”

Men are struggling with the long-term impact of their childhood sexual abuse

A lot of men told me that they are having a difficult time with the long-term impact of trauma on their lives, which read to me as something  that I’ve consistently heard from survivors of all genders. 

“My childhood friends blamed me for changing and treated me like I was ‘no fun’ after what happened. They not only denied what happened, but made me feel as though I was the one that was at fault for changing. Others are confused about how abuse against a man could even happen. It’s hard to feel understood when you can’t get past the fact that something happened at all,” shared Charlie. 

Robby explains, “The family and friends who I’ve shared my experience with do not appear to grapple with the long-term impacts of my trauma and how it affects my life and relationships. My spouse, though she is incredible, often seems to forget how my trauma acts as a lens to my life and our partnership.” 

Joshua puts it this way, “I wish people understood the stigmas we face, the sexual orientation questioning that many women may not experience, the struggle of validating our pain, having healthy relationships afterwards and being taken seriously.”

Messages for other men who are childhood sexual abuse survivors

I asked each person for one message they’d like to share with other men who’ve survived childhood sexual abuse, which you can see below:

“You are valid, your experiences are valid, you deserve to be understood and heard.” -Nived

“It's not a personal shortcoming to have gone through what you and I did. Please don't give up, and try to continue to speak up when you can.” -Parker

“You are in a brotherhood of survivors of different people, you are not alone and it is not your fault.”  -Anonymous

“It gets better. It really does. I have been close to the abyss and for years believed I would never heal.  But, with help, I did heal. While there are so many ways I am continuing to fight against abuse and oppression, I am also happier than I ever thought possible.”  -Eric Jennings

“Your pain is valid, your voices deserved to be heard, and you are not inherently a rapist. You do not have to feel guilt for the actions of the people who harmed you and others.” -Joshua

“Open up in a safe space. It can be so hard to accept that something happened to you and to actually admit it to yourself. The first step is telling someone and finding support. You can start in therapy or find a support group. The only path to healing is by accepting that what happened to you is actually abuse. It may feel like the world is fighting against your story, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Once you open these doors that have been locked shut inside you, life will start to get better.” - Charlie

“Find us. We need to do more to create our own community. It’s not enough to know that there are other people out there; it makes no difference to me until we are proximate and we can lean on each other for support.” -Robby

If you are a man who has survived childhood sexual abuse and there are resources that you’ve found helpful including articles, support groups, organizations (must be inclusive of transmasucline survivors) that you’d like to share with me, I will update this section with them, just contact me through this page.

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