Andrew Smiler says American expectations about masculinity keep male victims silent about their sexual abuse.
[Trigger warning: the article is not graphic]
Several famous women have come forward to say they were sexually abused, but very few famous men have done so (see lists one and two). For women like Eve Ensler, Tina Turner, and Maya Angelou, issues related to their abuse have been central to their work or their public persona, at least for some period of time.
Men like Axl Rose, Drew Carey, Ozzy Osbourne, and (football player) Laveraneus Coles have publicly acknowledged that they were sexually abused as children (more here). Not one has made it a central theme of their work or central to their public identity. When stories of abused boys make the news, it’s usually a teen boy being raped by his teacher; discussion of the boy is often congratulatory with commentators extolling the boy’s prowess and fantasizing about the teaching professionals they fantasized about. This makes the abuse both normal and desirable.
Yet millions of boys and men have been sexually abused. The estimate I see most often is 1 in 8 (and 1 in 6 for girls and women). The US has about 300 million people, about equally split between women and men. That 1 in 8 statistic translates to about 18.75 million male survivors of sexual abuse.
Musician Chris Brown recently stated that his first sexual encounter occurred at age 8. With a 14 year old girl. For Mr. Brown, this was his first conquest and helped make him a man. He did not define it as abuse or rape, even though there is no standard by which an 8 year old can legally or morally consent to sex with a 14 year old.
Mr. Brown’s revelation and the blogosphere’s reaction had mostly died down when a study by researchers Michele Ybarra and Kimberly Mitchell briefly grabbed the headlines. They found that about 1 in 10 teens said they had sexually abused someone, with perpetration rates nearly equivalent for boys and girls. That 1 in 10 perpetration rate by girls gives some credence to that 1 in 8 victimization male rate. The numbers aren’t identical, nor should they be: a perpetrator can offend against multiple victims.
I think our cultural expectations of what it means to “be a man” – call it “masculinity” if you will – play a significant role in keeping men quiet. Here are 5 ways in which those cultural expectations can negatively impact boys.
#1: Guys defend themselves. Teens and adults who were physically or sexually abused often believe that they should have been able to physically fight off their abuser. Although victims often recognize that this notion is logically absurd because those adult abusers were much bigger, heavier, and stronger than their child victims, it often takes months or years before they genuinely accept that reality. In a culture where boys are taught to “stick up for themselves,” “end fights, not start them” and the like, it’s that much harder for guys to accept that they were victimized.
#2: Guys (always) want sex. In American culture, we believe that dudes are primarily interested in sex, and don’t really care with whom, where, or when that sex occurs. This notion is central to a subgenre of movies starting with Porky’s and highlighted by American Pie, as well as TV characters from The Fonz through Sam Malone through Joey, Charlie, and Barney. Although only a minority of guys act this way, when we hold it up as the standard, it makes it more difficult for a boy or man to come forward and say “I was raped” because he’s not only admitting his victimhood, he’s saying that he’s different than most guys. Or rather, what we think most guys are like.
#3: Questions about sexual orientation (re: male abuser). In cases of male on male sexual abuse, the most common pattern is an adult male abusing a pre-pubescent boy. Despite the knowledge that they were coerced into sex, male victims often wonder if their experiences (will) make them gay. After all, current day American culture tells us that any type of male-male sexual behavior probably means a guy is gay. Being abused is very different than “experimenting,” but even then we assume that a guy who experiments with another guy is probably gay.
#4: Questions about sexual orientation (re: female abuser). It’s hard enough to admit being raped. For a guy who was sexually abused or raped by a woman, he’s got to get people to move past their idea that he didn’t want sex (see #2) and acknowledge that he couldn’t defend himself (see #1). Ask a teenager to describe a guy who turns down sex and can’t fight off a girl, and they’ll probably tell you he’s a fag.
#5: DIY mentality. Guys are taught to be independent, solve problems on their own, and not ask for help. Its part of the reason they don’t read instructions or ask for directions while driving. Yet it’s clear that for serious trauma, talking it through with someone else can be incredibly helpful. For some issues, it doesn’t matter if that conversations happens with friends who genuinely understand it, a group of others who’ve also been abused, or with a professional. But to address all the ways in which abuse can mess people up, a well-trained professional who understands men and masculinity is the most effective option.
Various women have done their time as “the poster child” of sexual abuse or domestic violence, but no man has yet stepped up to that plate. Being the poster child requires a lot of bravery – a different aspect of masculinity than the restrictive elements listed above. It also requires more comfort with interviewers than Mr. Brown seems to have. And, of course, victim doesn’t fit Mr. Brown’s image.
Although researchers, practitioners, and child protective service professionals have long known that both girls and boys are victims of sexual abuse, efforts to raise awareness, make sexual abuse a public issue, and provide services focused primarily on women. As a result, the default discussion of sexual abuse in the US assumes a male perpetrator and a female victim. In the conclusion of their study, Ybarra and Mitchell went out of their way to highlight that boys and girls perpetrated sexual abuse at very similar rates, contrary to our cultural assumption.
I’m not surprised that Mr. Brown described his experience as conquest instead of abuse. I don’t know who that man will be who uses his fame to say “I was sexually abused” and this is how it affected me, but I’ll be cheering for him.
–photo used with permission of Genna Seymour