One in four boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18. But we don’t often see these incidents reported within our penal society when the abuse occurs — only later, when as adults, these men come forward after hiding their secrets in shame for many years. Some of these men don’t make it before they have a chance to heal, prone to lifelong depression and spiraling behaviors that end in suicide, shattered relationships, death, or despondency.
What Makes Boys Afraid to Talk about Sexual Abuse?
Our society has done a good job of ingraining the instructions on “how to be a man” in our young boys’ minds. “Some boys and men have difficulty disclosing sexual abuse or seeking treatment for it when it does occur because they perceive that socially defined gender roles cast males as strong, tough, and not in need of protection; thus, they perceive that the abuse casts doubt on their masculinity (Alaggia 2005; Garnefski and Diekstra 1997; Holmes and Slap 1998; Kia-Keating et al. 2005).”1 This means many young men grow up feeling like they should be able to protect themselves and handle anything. When someone takes advantage of them, they often feel as if they have failed to win the masculine badge. Sometimes this makes them feel like the abuse is their fault so they sweep it under the rug, pick themselves up by their bootstraps, and simply move on, repressing pockets of confusing emotions and shame.
Gender confusion may play a part in the silence as well. If a young boy is molested by a woman, he may feel like no one will believe him or worse, that if he complains about being the warped object of a woman’s touch, he may be seen as less than a man for not liking it. If another man molests a young boy, he may worry that he is gay or that others will think he is if he tells. Because our current social system portrays females as victims and men as perpetrators, young boys often don’t receive the attention they are due in this regard, both in the prevention and aftermath of such abuse.
What Happens to These Boys? The problems that arise from silence in these cases can be chronically devastating. When a person experiences trauma and constricts the natural channels of processing, the emotions become frozen in the amygdala portion of brain, which controls physiological responses to external stimuli. Instead of transferring normally to the hippocampus, these emotions get locked, where they are played over and over again like a broken record. They have the perpetual capacity to be triggered there through random things, such as the scent of a candle that reminds the victim of the abuser’s bedroom or the notes in a song that was played during moments when the abuse occurred. When these triggers occur, the natural and automatic reaction is to regress to that earlier stage in life where the emotions are immature and rage is fostered.[i]
This frozen development causes a whole slew of difficulties in an abused person’s life. “Studies of the impact of sexual abuse in children (of both genders) have found the most common negative outcomes to be emotional and behavioral problems, posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidality, anxiety, substance abuse, aggression, self-esteem issues, academic problems, and sexualized behaviors (Beitchman et al. 1991; Finkelhor and Berliner 1995; Garnefski and Diekstra 1997; Kendall-Tackett et al. 1993; Putnam 2003; Walrath et al. 2006).”2
Many of these boys grow up having severe relational problems when it comes to finding authentic intimacy with others. This, coupled with emotional problems, can oftentimes lead to varying degrees of self-medication alongside forms of denial – most oftentimes resulting in alcohol and drug addiction or eating disorders in which food is used to stuff down the pain or purge the internal chaos in some grasp at control. Sometimes a reenactment of the childhood abuse can occur in which the grown victim now becomes a perpetrator never having dealt with their misplaced and undefined sexuality and emotions – one of the leading causes of violence in our society.
Our society’s discomfort with the sexual abuse of minors has caused a tragic reality in which our young boys are being subconsciously ingrained to keep the ugliness behind closed doors. But the eventual cost to society in dollars spent on addiction recovery centers, jails and prisons, and counseling for these misled young men tells a larger story that begs reconciliation with society’s mass ignorance in the way we allow boys to speak up, process, and heal.
Although the scars of abuse never fully depart, the therapeutic setting has proven to heal and soften the effects on a productive life. When boys and men are encouraged to talk about what happened to them in a safe, nonjudgmental place and are able to hear similar stories from other men, they have a chance at leading fruitful lives. Instead of constantly being triggered by the subconsciously tucked away emotions of shame, pain, regret, guilt, and anger that have thus far guided them through life, they are able to understand the roots of their behavior and make positive, conscious changes.
What Can We Do?
“While there have been recent significant advances in public awareness efforts, along with prevention and intervention programs for child sexual abuse (CSA), disclosure of sexual victimization remains a difficult undertaking. By some estimates, between 60-80% of CSA victims withhold disclosure, suggesting that many children and adolescents endure prolonged victimization and do not receive necessary therapeutic intervention (Hébert, Tourigny, Cyr, et al., 2009; Jones, 2000; Paine & Hansen, 2002). Studies that examine latency to disclosure report a mean delay from 3-18 years (Hébert, Tourigny, Cyr, et al., 2009; Smith, Letourneau, Saunders, et al., 2000). In the most recent Canadian study on prevalence and disclosure of CSA (Hébert, Tourigny, Cyr, et al., 2009), researchers concluded that almost 58% of victims delayed disclosing for five years or more, and 20% of their sample never disclosed to anyone.”3 The biggest thing we can do to help wash the stigma off male abuse is to talk to our children, parents, teachers, community leaders, and members about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in healthy sexual and relational boundaries with others. Then it is equally important to teach all of our children that no matter what, if these boundaries are crossed, it is important they let us know.
(1) Ramona Alaggia and Graeme Millington, “Male Child Sexual Abuse: A Phenomenology of Betrayal,” 2008
(2) Ramona Alaggia and Graeme Millington, “Male Child Sexual Abuse: A Phenomenology of Betrayal,” 2008
(3) Ramona Alaggia, “An Ecological Analysis of Child Sexual Abuse Disclosure: Considerations for Child and Adolescent Mental Health,” J Can Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2010 February; 19(1): 32–39.