Author: Carol Teitelbaum/Wednesday, September 29, 2010/Categories: Gender Specific
What Makes Boys Afraid to Talk about Sexual Abuse?
What Happens to These Boys?
Our society’s denial of the reality of child abuse and our collective
need not to know should not be underestimated. The abuse of children is
an ugly reality.
Since this project with Prevent Child Abuse began three years ago, we
have been asked the question, “Why focus on men when more women are
abused?” (By the age of 18, one in four women and one in six men will be
The answer is simple but not so obvious to the general public. The
cost to our society is great when we don’t provide treatment for men who
were abused as children.
Imagine having a secret burdened with shame, fear, and rage tucked
away deep inside of you. Now try facing everyday problems,
relationships, work, parenting, and finances in a healthy way. Anyone
abused as a child carries scars inside that never quite heal, especially
if that person has not been able to talk to about it. When survivors
feel “emotionally triggered”, they often act out in rage or use drugs
and alcohol to numb pain, while also falling prey to eating disorders,
suicide, and other negative behaviors that affect us all as a society.
A high percentage of untreated abused men go on to abuse others — as
the saying goes, “Hurt people hurt people.” But if we start the healing
process at the core, we can prevent other girls and boys from being
As part of our project, we started the “It Happens to Boys” men’s
group for men who have been abused. We started with four men and now
have 17. Many of the men in our program are in 12-step recovery groups,
and we are finding that many men are not receiving the help they need
for their abuse issues in recovery facilities. They mention that they
participate in one trauma workshop and that they dealt with their abuse
in their fourth step work and now they are done, only to be triggered by
something later and to relapse. However, the men who actively work on
their abuse issues, have a place to talk and feel safe, bond with other
men, and help each other, are doing quite well in their recovery.
Survivors of sexual abuse have an increased risk of using alcohol and
drugs as a coping mechanism. Survivors are 13 times more likely to use
alcohol, and 26 times more likely to use drugs. But why? The New Britain Sexual Assault Crisis Service’s Counselor Advocate Training Manual
states that “the abuse of alcohol and other drugs is a way some
survivors choose to cope with their assault. The abused substance can
temporarily help the survivor forget the assault and dull feelings of
pain, fear, self-blame, and other emotions.” (1)
Clear recognition of the profound effects of early abusive
experiences and the complex issues these survivors experience
underscores the need for a sophisticated understanding of the treatment
process for childhood abuse survivors. Too many of these survivors do
not seek treatment because of the shame they experience or because they
have locked their memories away. When these memories are locked away,
the emotions in these memories can be triggered by anything in the
environment and thus making the survivor act out or in, depending on
If a person experiences a trauma and was unable to process it, the
emotions tend to remain in the emotional part of the brain, the
amygdala. The amygdala is specialized for reacting to stimuli and
triggering a physiological response, a process that would be described
as the emotion of fear. If the information and emotion does not transfer
to the hippocampus, where it is rehearsed and remembered, it stays in
the amygdala. The survivor’s emotions can then become triggered,
rendering the survivor in an emotional state of fear, re-creating the
emotions of the traumatic event.
For example; If you were abused by a male and he wore a certain brand
of aftershave, you could be walking around a store not thinking about
your abuse, but you smell that aftershave and feel that triggered
emotion, and now you are raging at a salesperson because they did not
give you the right change.
According to John Lee, author of The Anger Solution, “When we get triggered we tend to regress to an earlier stage of life and we rage”.
Both men and women can experience anger, shame, anxiety, numbness,
fear, confusion, sadness, self-blame, helplessness, hopelessness, and
suicidal feelings. However, the New Britain Sexual Assault Crisis
Service’s Counselor Advocate Training Manual states that “Men
may show more hostility and aggression rather than tearfulness and
fear”. As a reaction to their feelings, male survivors may turn to
alcohol or drugs, as well as other self-destructive behaviors. They may
lash out at others around them. (2)
Many women and men who have been subjected to severe physical or
sexual abuse during childhood suffer from long-term disturbances of the
psyche. They may be invaded by nightmares and flashbacks — much like
survivors of war with PTSD or, conversely, may freeze into benumbed calm
in situations of extreme stress.
“Among both adolescent girls and boys, a history of sexual or
physical abuse appears to increase the risk of disordered eating
behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting or use of laxatives to avoid
gaining weight. Among those at increased risk for disordered eating were
respondents who had experienced sexual or physical abuse and those who
gave low ratings to family communication, parental caring, and parental
What Can We Do?
The men in our group are vigilant about their behavior; they never
want to repeat what happened to them with their own children. They are
helping themselves and reaching out to other men and boys to help in the
education and healing process. They are working tirelessly, speaking
wherever they are needed.
1. Elizabeth Stannard Gromish “Why Survivors turn to Alcohol and Drugs”
2. Elizabeth Stannard Gromish “Men can have emotional problems after an assault.”
3. Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, et al, University of Minneapolis, International Journal of Eating Disorders 2000;28:249-258.
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