What do we mean by “unwanted sexual experience”?
A friend asked me recently, “Why do you make a distinction between ‘unwanted,’ as opposed to ‘abusive’ sexual experiences in childhood? Aren’t they the same?”
The question came in response to 1in6’s mission, which is to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood to live healthier, happier lives.
So often, when we speak of sexual or interpersonal violence, we rightfully focus on the experience of the person who has been hurt–a ‘’victim-centered response.” In my mind, including “unwanted” experiences is the ultimate form of a victim-centered response.
When I was a teenager, I saw my parish priest as a valued mentor to me. It was the late 1960s. Everything—beliefs, values, rules, expectations—was a candidate to be challenged. Most nights, my father and I (in true, adolescent form) argued at the dinner table, dismissing each other’s views out of hand.
In contrast, the priest seemed to respect my intellect and my opinions, gratified my wish to be treated as a competent adult and offered to teach me lessons about the world. Unfortunately, some of those lessons involved sexual interaction with him, something I viewed at the time as an unwelcome addition to an otherwise important relationship.
It’s only been about 40 years since the women’s movement opened our collective eyes to the hidden effects of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Previously, sexual abuse of children was considered a rare circumstance; domestic violence, something to be sorted out at home, within families, behind closed doors.
The effort to change people’s understanding of those abusive acts meant emphasizing the abusive quality of those experiences and the people who perpetrated them. We developed labels like “sex-offender”, “batterer”, “abuser” and “pedophile” that defined these individuals solely by their “abusive” behavior. Because men commit a majority of reported sexual offenses, those labels are often assumed to be referring solely to men, though research shows that women and girls also abuse children sexually.
Since I wasn’t ready to apply any of the “abuser” labels to the priest — who I continued to view mostly positively — I struggled for years trying to make sense of my reactions to those “unwanted’’ experiences, which I assumed must have something to do with my own internal flaws. If a therapist had insisted that I’d been “abused,” I’d have likely strengthened my defenses against that knowledge.
Masculine norms that discourage boys and men from acknowledging having been victimized in any way, let alone sexually, has made it even more difficult for one of every six men to disclose that they were abused. The biological potential of males experiencing a pleasurable physical response, even during a sexually-abusive interaction, increases the confusion. But “liking” the physical feeling is not the same as “wanting” the manipulation or loss of control that preceded it.
Research shows that men often make initial disclosures (or acknowledgement) about abusive experiences much later in life than women, and that many men who have had experiences which would objectively be considered abusive, won’t define those interactions as abusive.
It took me 20 years before I understood and accepted that what the priest did to me was outside my control. Only then, was I able to consciously begin my healing process.
And this is where the idea of “unwanted” becomes important.
Healing from a past experience can begin when an individual recognizes that the experience had a negative impact on their life, their ability to trust, their sense of vulnerability, their strategies for avoiding or numbing painful feelings or on their decisions about how to protect themselves when they feel unsafe. It’s not necessary to prove or convince oneself that the interaction was “abusive” or to label the other person as an “abuser”, “sex-offender” or “perpetrator”.
As I told my friend, “just accepting that the result of a sexual experience in childhood was “unwanted” is enough to start the process of reclaiming a healthy and happy life.
And bottom line, we all deserve a healthier and happier life!
– By Peter Pollard
Peter Pollard is the Professional Relations & Communications Director for 1in6, Inc. Peter previously worked for 15 years as a state, child-protection social worker and was the Public Education director at Stop It Now! Since 2003, he has served as the Western Massachusetts coordinator for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and also does work for a Certified Batterers Intervention Program. See Peter’s portrait in The Bristlecone Project exhibit.
Feature Photo: kenasen1/Flickr