Guest Blogger: Billie Andrews

08.02.14 | Blog

Boys Don’t Cry: Why men don’t identify as sexual abuse survivors

I would recommend that Mr X undergoes approximately 12-18 months of intensive personal therapy and drug rehabilitation to help him work through his experiences. I am not even sure such a service exists but Mr X will be in the fortunate position of being able to fund this from any compensation he is awarded.

This is where it started for me; after working with a client for some years in my capacity as a Substance Misuse Practitioner, he presented me with a report from his Psychologist. He was claiming compensation from the Local Authority after suffering horrendous sexual abuse whilst in the care system. I was and still am horrified that we as a society failed this man throughout his life and now he is being told he can pay for his own recovery. During my 8 years of working in the substance misuse field, I have worked with a number of adult survivors and have found, even through my own experience that women seem to be more comfortable identifying themselves as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. A number of men I have worked with have struggled to make this connection; some have disclosed to me as the first person they have confided in about the abuse they suffered as a child, yet they are still reluctant to contact support services to make sense of their experience. This is when I started to make links with the charity Survivors Manchester, a male specific service that works with victims of sexual abuse and violence. I knew immediately this was where I wanted to be so I started my journey of becoming a counsellor.
I’ve decided to look at why I find myself drawn to this subject matter and to look at whether sexual violence against men is an issue. I have chosen to focus on two of the main issues I have come across through my research; perceived masculinity within a patriarchal society and questions abuse raises for survivors around their sexuality.
Starting counselling training and undergoing personal development, I learned early on that I was a feminist – something of a revelation for me, although perhaps less so for those around me. It’s not as label I like – I see my family rolling their eyes as I begin on “yet another rant for the underdog and the injustices of society”. Once I accepted this label, I started to think that maybe I shouldn’t be aiming to work with male survivors but instead look at female services, but no, something didn’t quite fit there. So why, as a feminist do I find myself fighting the corner of men who have been silenced? We live in a patriarchal society – masculinity dominates and those characteristics that go with it are revered. Being aggressive, tough, competitive and potent are all characteristics we are taught to aspire to, while being emotional, frail and needy; feminine, is something to be avoided. When I think about myself, I probably have more typically masculine traits than I do feminine – it’s true I was somewhat of a tomboy growing up – I enjoyed climbing trees and playing football; I remember spending hours with my Dad learning how to fight, watching him play various sports, I was even given a boy’s name! There was a big emphasis on being strong and tough in my family; we were taught to get on with it.
It is perhaps the personal connections that I have made with this essay that has surprised me most – I thought, rather naively that I was passionate about providing a service where there was a lack of services and fighting for the underdog but I realise now it’s about much more than that. I want to give people a voice that have never had a voice; I want to give people the space to experience their pain who have never had that space before, I want to give people permission to be vulnerable because I have never felt able to be vulnerable.
So is male rape really an issue? Certainly when I have told people what I am reading at the moment, I have had a few doubting looks and some questions around does that really happen? As a society, we really do struggle to see men as victims. From my own experience, as a child, I remember being talked to about the risks of sexual violence and the potential of being a victim, yet when I asked my partner, he doesn’t remember this ever being a threat to him. The word victim has connotations of being weak, vulnerable and an easy target, all of which can be considered more feminine traits. We struggle to see men as victims so when men are targeted, they have no frame of reference to think of themselves in this way. The abuser silences their victims, society perpetuates this silence.
It is estimated that one in five women will be a victim of sexual violence from the age of 16 (, while estimates for men being a victim of sexual violence range from one in six ( to three in twenty ( Finkelhor, Hotaling, Lewis and Smith (1990) estimate that 16% of males have experienced some form of sexual violence throughout their lives. We need to be careful using statistics – statistics show what we know, but we only know what we know, our unknown is infinite. We also know that men are much less likely to disclose (Etherington, 1995; Lab, Feigenbaum & DeSilva, 2000) or even identify themselves as victims so in reality, these figures are likely to be much higher. There are 78 charities and organisations that offer support to females victims in the UK; there are just 5 organisations that offer support to men. In August 2013, the Ministry of Justice announced that they were providing £4 million per year over the next three years to organisations that provide direct support to victims of historic or recent sexual violence. This appears to be positive news, until you read the small print; the Rape Support Fund is dedicated to services that purely support women and girls over the age of 13, excluding the 5 male charities from even applying for this funding.
I would ask the reader to consider what it is to be a man and what maleness represents for them. We see men as resilient and self-sufficient; emotionally closed; men are in charge; they are highly sexed; they display controlling behaviour. Men are strong, unemotional and dominant (Lew, 2004); whereas women are gentle, passive and emotional (Sullivan, 2003). We teach our children that boys don’t cry; that is a weakness to show vulnerability, helplessness or pain. Even the way as parents we comfort our children is different for boys and girls. If a girl cries, both Mum and Dad will offer comfort and warmth, however, if a boy cries, he may be mocked or told to ‘be a big boy’. Some Mum’s will cuddle their sons less for fear of making them soft or a ‘sissy’ (Etherington, 2000). Feelings such as anger and rage are often encouraged as these are seen as more masculine emotions so boys learn from an early age that this is a safe way to express themselves. Rogers and Terry (1984) found that men have an internal need to control and dominate others around them. Men have difficulty expressing and at times, even identifying feelings (Real, 1997).
Men seeking, or rather not seeking help is not unique to sexual violence, we know men are under represented in GP waiting rooms across the country. If we look at health promotion literature, women are the target audience. Men are much less likely to seek medical attention, highlighted in that men have a 50% higher death rat for melanoma, despite there being a 50% lower prevalence rate of the disease in men (Banks, 2001). Male suicide rates are 3-5 times higher for men than women, with suicide rates amongst men being the highest they have been since 2002 ( Men tend to seek treatment rather than preventative measures in terms of physical health.
Patriarchal society can be traced back thousands of years to the Cavemen – men are the hunter gathers and to be successful at this, man needs to be strong. It is even seen in the Animal Kingdom – the strong dominant male is the most successful and goes on to produce the most offspring. A man’s physical strength again makes it difficult to view men as victims – surely their physical power will be enough to ‘fight off any potential attack’; but this view continues to silence men; we know that abusers often do not need to use physical strength. Rarely does sexual abuse stand alone, emotional and mental abuse is usually lurking somewhere behind the scenes; abusers use coercion and manipulation and often, victims see themselves as complicit in their own sexual abuse. To be penetrated is to be treated like a woman; it is emasculation in its true sense of the word.
This inherent masculinity makes it difficult for men and boys to speak out. Patriarchy isolates boys and men (Struve, 1990) and it is the perception of masculinity that silences males further (Lew, 1988). Males internalise the abuse they have suffered and, as do many victims of sexual abuse, they assume responsibility for what has happened to them. Survivors will often perceive that they are weak and frail because they ‘let it happen’. Men will often report that they feel less of a man as a result of the abuse so choose to stay quiet so others do not know of this perceived weakness. Some survivors will align themselves with their perpetrator and take on controlling and dominant characteristics. They make seek to control others around them and can behave in an aggressive and violent manner. Male victims display much more problematic behaviours than their female counterparts, such as substance misuse, aggression, criminality and suicide attempts (Garnefski & Arends, 1998). It is not surprising that survivors often come into contact with the criminal justice system rather than support services in the community. With this in mind, it is vital that services start working alongside prisons and the probation service to ensure victims get the support they need in order to become survivors.
Even our laws attribute blame to ‘the receiver’ as far back at the AD342, when Emperor Constantine declared that it would be death penalty by burning alive for passive homosexuality; it’s all about male dominance. Male rape only appeared in statue in 1995 so we are only just beginning to recognise this as an issue. Homosexuality was only removed from the DSM III in 1980 as a mental illness. As a society, we have struggled to understand sex between two males and continue to stigmatise.
While reading around this subject matter, the issue of sexuality kept reappearing and this is something that I have found of great interest. Women and girls who are victims of sexual violence often view themselves as ‘damaged goods’ and identify more with shame and humiliation, while male victims are much more likely to have issues around their sexuality and experience anger and rage (Lisak, 1994; Alaggia, 2005). Being sexually abused as a boy or man leads to persistent concern with regards to one’s sexuality (Myers, 1989; Najleti, 1980 as cited by Lisak, 1994). Etherington (1995) found that some parents were relieved when they found out their child was ‘just a victim of sexual abuse rather than him being gay’.
Boys and men who are abused will often experience an erection or ejaculation; this leads to feelings of involvement and responsibility. Some survivors may feel that they somehow attracted their abuser and that this was something internal to them, for example, an effeminate look, displaying signs of vulnerability or being perceived as easy prey. It also raises questions for the victim as he may not perceive his experience as negative – if he was aroused, he may feel that there was a sense of enjoyment there. This can lead to questions around sexuality with many victims fearing they may be gay. It is important to recognise that ejaculation is not the same as orgasm and arousal is not the same as enjoyment, you can have one without the other (Zilbergeld, 1995). Survivors can report that they were ‘addicted’ to the abuse – we need to remember that sexual experiences are arousing and survivors may not find them traumatic, which leads to a further struggle of identifying as a victim.
There is also the myth that is known as ‘Vampire Syndrome’, which is the belief that those who are abused will go on to abuse. A great deal of research around paedophiles shows that there is often some form of sexual abuse in their past, however, the vast majority of this research is conducted with convicted offenders, making the data somewhat skewed. There is a fear that survivors will be perceived as potential sex offenders, so it is no wonder that people chose to stay quiet rather than face further stigma. Groth and Hobson (1983 as cited by Etherington, 2000) have found that survivors do not go on to become offenders. We need to stop viewing survivors as potential offenders; ‘if we give men permission to come forward as victims, we will see a reduction in those presenting who not gone on to act out sexual violence (Gerber, 1990, p. 153 as cited by Etherington 2000, p. 218).
Finally, I would like to consider how our ‘Britishness’ contributes towards the silence of sexual abuse. We’re prudish as a nation and we don’t like to talk about sex, but actually, that is what we need to be doing. We teach our children that sex is shameful and to talk about it is to be corrupt (Lerner, 1986), but we need to be talking about sex and sexual abuse so we can facilitate disclosures (Jensen et al., 2005). We need to teach children what is safe and what is not safe and help them develop healthy boundaries with adults; we need to handover control to our children. In doing this, we give children a frame of reference to talk about their experiences. Many survivors of sexual abuse report that they simply did not have the language to report what was happening to them. Getting it on the agenda does not instil fear into our children; it protects them and it gives them the confidence to speak out when something is wrong. We need to break the silence – men and boys are victims too.
If we go back to feminism and me being a feminist, there is no doubt feminism massively helped women to be heard and got sexual abuse on the agenda, but in doing so, it turned men into perpetrators and failed to see them as potential victims. Men are also victims of patriarchal society – we ignore their emotions and encourage men to ‘take it like a man’. We need to stop seeing men as having all the power and the aggressors in asserting their control. Boys should be encouraged to express their feelings and their experiences in much the same way as girls are encouraged. Men experience shame and internalise this as blaming themselves, we need to give men the space to be acknowledged as potential victims so they are able to hand over responsibility to perpetrators. We need to stop viewing vulnerability as a weakness and instead view it as something to aspire to, for it is only in being truly vulnerable do we allow ourselves to be truly seen (Brown, 2012).
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