Shedding Light on the Sexual Abuse of Boys and the Men They Become
By Merle Yost, LMFT
A full day workshop on the symptoms and treatment of men sexually abused as boys. Includes emotional incest, female perpetrators and eroticized shame.
What is sexual abuse?
“Sexual abuse refers to any sexual assault or sexual exploitation of a child or adolescent. Sexual abuse is an issue of power and control. The essence of child sexual abuse is the exploitation of a child for the purpose of satisfying an adult.”
Watch an online workshop for partners or family members of men who were sexually abused as children:
How as a society do we create or allow sexual abuse?
There are several factors that are the basis for creating the atmosphere that allows child abuse:
• Seeing children as property: As long as they are seen and treated as possessions they are vulnerable to being objectified and used to meet an adults needs.
• Teaching children they are helpless and not to question authority: This is a set up to keep them powerless and consequently to create victims. If they see themselves as powerless children, this self-belief will often carry forward into adulthood.
• Sexual entitlement: Adults who feel that they are entitled to whatever they want or need to satisfy them sexually, regardless of whom or what it hurts. This is a rationalization that leads to abuse, rape, and other many crimes.
• Shroud of secrecy around sex: Probably the major reason that children are used to meet adults’ sexual needs is the shroud around sex and sexuality that we have created in our society. Many believe that if we teach children the truth about the mechanics of sex, we are telling them to have sex. Congress has repeatedly denied funds for a major research study on the sexuality of Americans because it doesn’t want any information published that would contradict its fantasies about sex and sexuality. Information is considered dangerous, and in a sense, it is. It destroys myths, it allows people to make choices, and permits them to grow up and act as adults rather than keep them as shameful children around sex and sensuality.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
“Men who were raped or sexually abused as children face a unique set of problems. For men, identifying particular acts as abusive is especially difficult because men are expected to be able to protect themselves. Admitting to a situation in which they were unable to do so is tantamount to denying their masculinity. Disclosing an abusive sexual experience also is difficult. If the sexual contact was with a woman, the man's motives become suspect because men are expected to value sexual contact with women. If the unwanted sexual contact was with another male, the man is told that this contact has altered his sexual orientation. Men who have been raped or abused face another problem as well in that abuse and rape are historically defined as an act that men perpetrate against females.”
HOW IS SEXUAL ABUSE OF BOYS SEEN?
Since boys are socialized that to be men, they cannot be victims, they have a tendency to either minimize abuse or deny it all together. Hazing, sexual initiation, and punishment are often used as rationalizations for abusing boys. If a 15-year-old girl has sex with a 32-year-old man, we call that rape or abuse. Reverse the gender and suddenly the boy is lucky to be initiated. It is easier for many to identify abuse if the boy is really young. Forced exposure and body and genital examinations are humiliations and teach children to be ashamed of their bodies. Punishing a child with sexual overtones is a set up for shame and masochism.
As a society, we finally have begun to talk about sexual abuse. While the majority of the discussion has been about sexually abused girls, we are slowly beginning to acknowledge and discuss the sexual abuse of boys. Many men are dysfunctional because they were used as sexual objects, are too ashamed to admit it, and have never been able to understand why it hurt and confused them so much. This is a very difficult topic for many people. I encourage you to continue reading this and to ask questions. I will do my best to answer them or refer you to some place that can.
Responses to Childhood Sexual Abuse
When diagnosing or treating men sexually abused as children, it is essential to remember that there can be at least five different responses to being sexually abused.
A male can exhibit several of these responses to sexual abuse. The same responses can also come from covert abuse, such as emotional incest and boundary-crossing.
People who were sexually abused as children, are psycho-sexually arrested at the age of the abuse. It is possible they create other channels to express their sexuality, but at the core until the abuse is addressed, they are children sexually.
Very much like an animal that has been attacked and overpowered, they will stop struggling and seem compliant. While the external demeanor seems calm and passive, the internal system is on full alert, terrified and overwhelmed. While there is alertness to the possibility of an escape, should it appear, the goal is to survive. However, the system is overloaded, and if the trauma is not discharged, it will lead to PTSD and other symptoms. The perpetrator will see compliance as agreement and project whatever their fantasy is onto the child, but survival is the key driver.
There is still controversy about occluded memory. There is a difference between planted memories and repressed memories. If the child is unable to process, make sense of, or feel the experience, they can repress it, dissociate, split, and do anything to avoid experiencing the feelings and “drowning” in them. Screen memories are common. This method of survival can be a substitute for the actual experience of abuse: putting something in place to directly block the horror of the experience that is not directly connected to the abuse.
An example of this would be a boy sexually abused in his bed at night who developed a screen memory. Instead of remembering the abuse, he had a fear/phobia of tall buildings. When he would look up at tall buildings, he would almost pass out. It was irrational, disturbing, and made no sense. When he worked on the fear of looking up at tall buildings, suddenly the suppressed memory of the abuse emerged.
Eroticized Shame – eroticizing shameful feelings in order to tolerate them.
Eroticized shame is a common response to abuse. If there are pleasurable feelings during the abuse experience, the downloaded shame from the perpetrator can be combined with the pleasure. Eroticizing the shame can become a survival strategy. Since the abuse is often a first sexual experience with another person, that dynamic can become the foundation of their sexual response. Our first sexual experience imprints on us what sex is about and can have a lasting impact.
Focusing on Shame/Humiliation
This is the experiencing of the horror of the abuse without any processing or resolution. There is just pain, a sense of being overwhelmed, and extreme distress. This response is what we think of most often when thinking of sexual abuse victims. As therapists and adults, we don’t like to think that children or adults experience pleasure during abuse, but it can and does happen.
When the shame and humiliation of sexual abuse turns to rage, then the response is eroticized anger. This can be expressed through behaviors that are controlling, abusive, raging, bullying, and/or sadistic. The response to abuse turns the sexual act into revenge and an expression of internal pain.
Men that were emotionally incested are often angry at their partners, because of the earlier emotional intrusion that they cannot understand or come to terms with. The anger is a way of pushing back against any potential intrusion.
Abusing another is never justified, but it is encountered all too commonly in relationships.
THE IMPACT OF SEXUAL ABUSE: SHORT AND LONG TERM
After a boy has been sexually abused, generally there is a change in his personality. Behavioral changes can range from unusual acting out to being very aggressive and violent. The world has become a more threatening place and he is more vulnerable. He is trying to defend himself.
There are likely to be emotional changes as well. An open, out-going boy may suddenly become quiet, passive, and invisible. It may be obvious that he no longer feels good about himself. He has a self-perception of being damaged or broken. His sense of personal power has been taken away.
Often there are physical signs of sexual abuse as well. There may be physical damage from any forced penetration, such as anal tears, resulting in constipation or encopresis. Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting or loss of bowel control, and anxiety or the sudden appearance of phobias may also occur. Any sudden and dramatic change in behavior or mood in a child should be investigated and understood.
There are both short- and long-term effects on boys who have been abused. In the short term, you may see inappropriate sexual behavior, sexually assaulting other children, hypersexuality, and gender confusion. Longer-term effects can include depression, physical ailments, negative effects on self-esteem or their sense of self, or a negative impact on interpersonal relationships. An inability to trust or feel safe with others, especially when intimacy is involved, is often the result of having been sexually abused. A boy’s sexuality is going to be impacted. Most victims get stuck at their sexual emotional age at the time of the initial assault. The assault and subsequent feelings are what represent sex to them.
In my experience with working with bisexual and gay men that are heterosexually married, I have found that many of them were sexually abused as children, usually by a male. They rationalize that the reason that they are sexually attracted to men is because they were assaulted as a child, and they conclude that if that had not happened, they would not be attracted to men.
There is no evidence that this is true. It is mental gymnastics to avoid dealing with the attraction to men. This is a very difficult outlook for many men to escape, but it is important to confront their feelings so they may come to terms with the abuse, the abuser, and their own sexuality.
The last major long-term effect is a tendency toward addictive behaviors. It is common for men in treatment programs or in a 12-step program of some kind to have to deal with the issues of sexual abuse as they are trying to deal with the addiction. The substance or behavior has been a method of self medication for the man to avoid the feeling that he is still carrying around inside.
In my experience, many men that have been labeled as sexual addicts are, in reality, experiencing a repetition compulsion. The circumstances of the initial abuse so stimulated them that their young bodies and minds were unable to process or contain the overwhelming sensations. Consequently, they froze inside, and they associate sex and sexual feelings with these overwhelming sensations; often they feel a power imbalance is part of sex, so they attempt to recreate the situation in an effort to complete the gestalt—they are trying to complete this unfinished experience. The child parts of the men are trying to find a way out of the loop they are in, and to the outside world this often looks like sexual addiction. The acting out behavior could start as a repetition compulsion and turn into an addiction as well.
When a boy has been sexually assaulted, his life changes forever. There can be small to extreme changes in behaviors, moods, and attitudes about people, himself and the world. These feelings do not go away and the impact is not minor, regardless of how the boy appears to be taking it. Children do what they need to do to survive. They may feel that their survival depends upon hiding the experience at all costs. Treatment is the only solution to really recovering. Left untreated, the wounds follow the man into adulthood and impact his relationships with everyone. Admitting the pain is terrible, but the victim stands to gain a life without the pain of the abuse. Men can and do heal from childhood sexual abuse.
WOMEN AS PERPETRATORS
Men who had sex with women when they were still young boys are often told that they were lucky to be initiated so young. It is sometimes viewed as a rite of passage that makes him a man. In reality, there is no better way to cripple a boy/man emotionally.
A situation with a 15-year-old girl having sex with a 30-year-old man would be recognized pretty clearly as sexual abuse. There is the belief that girls mature faster than boys. Why then, would we assume that a 15-year-old boy would be more emotional ready to handle sex than a 15-year-old girl?
The movie Summer of '42 is often seen as a picture glorifying sex between an older woman and a teenage boy. Upon closer examination, he is overwhelmed and confused by the experience. It was not a good or ‘man making’ experience.
We have only begun talking about and acknowledging female perpetrators in the past few years. They were thought to be the rare event, the exception to the rule. As the cloak of secrecy has been peeled back, we are discovering that female perpetrators are not uncommon. For several years, I cut stories out of the newspaper about female perpetrators. In a majority of the cases, it was the husband and wife, dad and mom, acting in concert, to molest their children. The most recent statistics that I have seen support this sampling as being representative of the overall population.
There are four basic ways that women sexually abuse boys: overt, covert, a sexual violation, or boundary crossing. Abuse can easily include more than one type.
Overt abuse is similar to what we think of as typical sexual abuse. With a female as the perpetrator, this might involve oral sex, intercourse, masturbation, fondling, or sexual punishments.
Covert abuse is more difficult to observe. It can include voyeurism, exposure, seductive touching, sexualized hugs, kissing on the mouth in a sexual way, extended nursing that satisfies a sexual need of the mother, or flirting with a male child, possibly to shame or make the woman’s husband/partner jealous.
The sexual violation of a child means the invasion of privacy in a sexual area of the body. This may include enemas, bathing together, washing the child beyond a reasonable age, obsessive cleaning of the foreskin, squeezing pimples, intrusive questions about bodily functions (especially bowel movements), or any activity in which the adult is using the child to fulfill a sexual or erotic desire.
Boundary crossing, which is an essential part of all sexual abuse, deserves special mention because it may be limited to emotional incest, or it may be as complete a violation as a women substituting a boy for a divorced, deceased, or simply absent husband. This includes using the boy as a confidant about personal or sexual issues. Mom complaining that dad “…was a lousy fuck last night” is boundary crossing just as much as the 14-year-old baby sitter fondling her four-year-old charge.
The result of this abuse by a woman can be a false sense of power, inflating the boy to believe that he is more powerful than he really is. He is led into the false belief that he is in control, not realizing or understanding that he is being used and controlled.
Conversely, the abuse can also lead to a feeling of worthlessness. The boy inhales the message that “I have no value, my body is all that has value or what I can do for others.” There is no personal sense of value or worthiness.
Watch an online workshop for victims of emotional incest:
The boy is eventually going to feel abandoned, and will likely feel betrayed. The woman or girl was not there for him in the first place. When he realizes this, then his picture of what has occurred will change dramatically. After the inflation comes the deflation from the withdrawal and realization that what happened was not about him, that he was only being used. All of this results in rage—rage about the impact upon their sexuality, rage about being used, rage about how it has messed up his relationships with other women, and rage at not being able to really trust or let anyone get really close.“
It was an overwhelming experience and the boy was incapable of processing or understanding what had happened to him. He freezes inside, or simply pushes the memory so far to the background that he can’t touch it. Unfortunately, he is shutting off an essential part of himself that will need to be reclaimed before he is able to trust and heal. So the adult is left with fears of intimacy and loads of insecurity.
For many men, the most devastating blow is the impact upon their relationships with women. The abuse experience can leave them ambivalent about sex and about women. While it cannot change their sexual orientation, it will leave them deeply conflicted. Being close to a woman is likely to bring up old unresolved feelings, which get in the way of having a real relationship in the here and now.
This is a brief overview of the kinds of abuse that some women do to boys and the impact that abuse can have on the boys as they become men. If you have any questions, please send me an email and I will do my best to answer them.
Impact on Relationships
The impact of the childhood sexual abuse on the interpersonal relationships of men is the last area about which I will write. Relationships are probably the most affected area of their lives. A boy that is sexual abused understandably distrusts both the sex of the offender as well as the parents or adults that did not protect him from the offender.
A man who was victimized as a child will often live the life of a victim, unless he is treated. He will unconsciously set himself up to be the victim time and time again. He will probably not see the circumstances, or if he does, will be unable to do anything to stop it. No matter how promising the job or situation, in a short time he will be a victim. Someone will be after him or everyone will be against him. In relationships, he will pick partners who victimize him, or he will pull to be the victim if the partner does not cooperate. It is the lens though which he sees the world, and until the abuse is addressed, it will not change or get better. Childhood experiences can set the tone for a life time.
Memory is a key issue in child abuse. Some men have very clear memories of being abused. They can tell you how, when, and who. For others the memory is repressed in some way. There may be a screen memory covering the actual abuse; for instance, a memory of footsteps, a larger-than-life figure, and then a memory of leaving their body. The memory of the abuse is repressed, tucked away, because it is too painful and has more feelings than the boy can handle. These feelings can be reactivated through being touched in a certain way, triggered by being in a certain situation, or even provoked by a smell that takes him back to that moment when it happened. For some, the memories come flooding back, while for others, it may be a piece of the experience or dark images. The mind will let in what it can handle at the time.
Memory is not perfect. In all circumstances, our memory is framed by the way that we understand the world and how we believe it operates at that time. The younger the child, the less data or experience that he has had to explain the events and their meanings. It is possible to put two things together that in a broader context would be completely unrelated. As a therapist, it is my job to honor the client’s feelings and give him a place to express them, not judge whether those feelings are correct. The fact that he has the feeling is enough. My goal is to heal the wound and move through the feelings rather than create a victim.
Men often try to cope with the pain of sexual abuse through acting out. One method of acting out is to have psychosomatic or recurring illnesses. The child’s strategy is based on the belief that if he is sick, then he is less attractive. It also gives him more attention from others, potentially keeping him safe from the perpetrator(s).
Other forms of acting out include self mutilation, suicide attempts, repetition compulsions, or re-enactment of the abuse. I have seen many men repeatedly, unconsciously attempt to re-enact the abuse they experienced as a child. One man was in a public bathroom as a boy and a man approached him, exposed himself, and masturbated in front of him, to climax. The boy grew into a man and spent years going from bathroom to bathroom, recreating this scene. Unconsciously, he is attempting to resolve the feelings that so overwhelmed him. Consciously, he is recreating the high of the initial sexual experience that came to represent sexual feelings to him. All of these behaviors impact his relationships and his ability to form and keep them.
A primary complaint that brings couples into therapy is sexual problems in the relationship. This is frequently a sign that one or both partners have a history of sexual abuse. When asked about their sexual history, most men in this situation remember clearly their sexual experiences as a child. However, they are emotionally disconnected from the experience, or think that it was normal for a child to be used for others’ sexual pleasure.
In such a relationship, the partner who was abused as boy learned to survive the experience and the feelings by disconnecting from sexual emotions, so sex became an experience of having an orgasm and nothing more. Meanwhile, his partner is starving for emotional intimacy. The one who was abused has no idea what his partner wants, and if he gets too close to emotional/sexual intimacy, it scares him to death.
Some of the results of a history of sexual abuse can include rigid, mechanical sex; loss of sexual feeling or arousal as the victim approaches sexual contact; sexual promiscuity or sexual anorexia; sexual addiction; or taboos against sex at certain times of day, certain places or in certain positions. One man was forced to into submissive sexual postures with his father, trapped between his powerful legs. Anytime that he feels trapped during sex, the sexual abuse feelings are triggered. Another example would be if the abuse happened in the living room as a child, it may be a difficult, if not impossible, for the victim, as an adult, to have sex in the living room.
Probably the most common experience for a man who has been abused is leaving his body during sex. This can be just fantasizing in his head during sex, to completely leaving the room. His body may still be there, but his conscious self has left, gone into hiding, because something about this situation feels unsafe. This is an example of dissociation.
RELATIONSHIPS WITH WOMEN
A heterosexual boy who has been sexually abused by a woman will believe that women are only interested in his body, that he is an object of their satisfaction. This leads to distrusting women. He both loves and hates women. He both wants to be intimate, yet at the same time, is terrified to do so. Even if the abuser was a man, the abuse can destroy the boy’s ability to trust anyone sexually. Remember psychosexually, he is probably very young—it is common to be stuck at the emotional age when the abuse happened. Any adult trying to be sexual with him is a threat. This may not be conscious, but it can sabotage a relationship.
RELATIONSHIPS WITH MEN
A boy that is molested by a male will likely avoid relationships with men. Men are seen as potential abusers. All men want is sex. Men cannot be trusted. These are all beliefs that a boy can have about men while growing up. I believe that a lot of the homophobia that exists today is the confusion of pedophilia with homosexuality. The vast majority of pedophiles identify as heterosexual. Mom, dad, and relatives are the most common perpetrators. Unfortunately, we have tried to scare children with the belief that the strange man on the corner is going to hurt them. While it does happen, homosexuals are not the problem and are simply victimized as well in the process. Consequently, men who were sexually abused as children often have a difficult time having relationships with other men. They have to trust the others to be friends.
While sexual abuse can impact relationships with both men and women, it is particularly difficult for boys that are gay who are molested by men. This can really impact their acceptance of their sexual orientation. I have worked a lot with bisexual and gay men who are heterosexually married. In at least 80% of the cases, the man was sexually abused as a child. This sets up a dilemma for the boy-man. He concludes that the only reason that he has sexual feelings for men is because he was molested. He believes that if he had not been molested, then he would not have those feelings.
This is a difficult dilemma for many men to resolve. They marry, hoping the feelings will go away. However, something is missing or they are acting out with men on the side, never coming to terms with their sexuality. When and if they do, it often ends in divorce and many destroyed relationships. A wonderful book on the topic of gay and bi married men and the effect on their relationships is The Other Side of the Closet, by Amity Buxton. It is presented mostly from the spouse’s point of view, but it is very insightful for both partners. Being sexually abused as a child does not change the sexual orientation of the child, but it can confuse and delay the natural psychosexual development of a child until the abuse is addressed and healed.
A man who was abused as child is wounded. He feels broken or empty inside. He believes that he is unfit to be loved. Either he is unable to get into a relationship or he chooses relationships where he will be used, abused, or in some way continue to be a victim. No amount of love from the outside can fill that hole or emptiness inside. No amount of distractions, like sex, work, or eating will make the feeling disappear for more than a short time. The wound has to be confronted and healed from the inside.
Because the child's body has been assaulted, it is often the body that is used to discourage further attacks. I have already described using illnesses, but in this case, I am talking about body building, weight gain, or anorexia as method of making the body unattractive, trying to make it either disappear or be so intimidating that no one would dare to attack. A body builder may look better than someone who is overweight, but the built body can be just as much of a defense against intimacy as obesity or emaciation. One difference is that there may be support or acknowledgment for the body building; consequently, it may be harder to get past the body armor to get close to the feelings. I am not saying that body building is bad. I think that it can be a useful tool to help a man feel better about himself, but if it is the basis of his sense of safety, then there may be a problem.
Finally, here is list a series of symptoms that frequently show up for different men. All are methods of coping and trying to deal with the feelings. They include dissociation, body shyness, excessive clothing, cleanliness compulsion, anxiety, panic attacks, chronic depression, and shame.
I want to elaborate on the role shame plays, particularly eroticized shame. Depending upon the experience, boys can experience significant pleasure during the abuse experience. These feelings of pleasure may be combined with shame, guilt, embarrassment, pain, humiliation, confusion, and disgust. Not every boy has all of these feelings, but they usually have some combination of them. Given that the abuse is often the first sexual experience that the boy has had, he is imprinted with this potent combination of pleasure and shame. Under normal circumstances these emotions and sensations would not be combined. If they are sufficiently combined in the abuse experience, then the boy is programmed to believe that they should always be combined in sex. Shame is one of the more intense emotions that we experience, and combined with sexual pleasure, it is incredibly powerful. For most people, this is not a particularly healthy or desirable route to sex and pleasure. Sexual abuse is not the only way to combine these experiences, but it is a common route.
Briefly, I want to say a few things about treatment and recovery from sexual abuse. It is possible. The earlier that treatment begins, the better. It is never too late to heal. Recovering from sexual abuse is not fast, nor particularly easy. There are a lot of pain and feelings that have to emerge and be expressed on the road to recovery. The goal is to recover your childhood, reclaim your body, and heal your self-identity.
Watch an online workshop about the treatment of men sexually abused as children:
Find a competent psychotherapist, preferably one who has experience working with male victims of sexual abuse. Just because a therapist works with women who were sexually abused does not mean he is experienced or competent working with male victims of sexual abuse. While there is a lot of overlap in treatment, there are substantial differences as well. Individual psychotherapy is the best place to start. Group therapy in addition to individual is very healing, but group work alone is not enough.
The article is a combination of my 25 years of experience in working with male survivors. I have also consolidated information from Mic Hunters Books and Michael Lew’s Books. Please read their books for more detailed information. When looking for a therapist, I strongly encourage you to find an EMDR therapist in your area. You can start your search at EMDRIA.org.
All quotations are taken from : Hunter, Mic (Ed.). (1990). The Sexually Abused Male, Vol. 1: Prevalence, Impact & Treatment. Lexington, MA.: Lexington Books
Merle Yost is available for speaking engagements and workshops:
He has both a two hour and a 7 hour workshop available also called: Shedding Light on the Sexual Abuse of Boys and the Men They Become. Click here for more information.