The dark cloud over Penn State revealing a sexual abuse scandal also holds a painful overcast shade for male victims of sexual abuse. The news of the cover-up and victimization of boys at this prestigious university has understandably caused a flurry of confusion, surprise, and concern for parents, educators, football fans, and all who care about children. Having worked in the sexual abuse treatment field for three decades, I've seen the difficulty for boys and men in reporting sexual abuse. Why is this so? Cover-ups, denial, and internalizing feelings seem to dominate rather than vulnerable exposure of abusive acts perpetrated on male victims. In general, people don't like to believe these things happen. It is difficult to understand that adults can be sexually attracted to children. For most healthy individuals, this concept does not compute.
But, let's take a look at why it is particularly difficult for males to report sexual abuse when it involves them. We know from studies done on sex offenders in prisons, that boys and girls are sexually abused at alarmingly high rates and most are shocked by the statistics. It is also well documented that sexual abuse of boys is underreported. Why?
It is difficult for any child to report sexual abuse because they feel guilty, they may have received threats from the offender, they fear they won't be believed, and they don't want to cause family problems. But for male victims, there are additional barriers to disclosure:
1. In our culture, boys are socialized not to be victims. "If I am a victim, can I then also be a man?" Big boys fight back and are not supposed to be victims or it somehow obliterates their identity of "manhood."
2. Guys are expected still, to tough things out and not ask for help. Fewer men, for example, seek therapeutic treatment and many are still adverse to this concept unless dragged to therapy by their families or spouses. Family therapist, Terry Real, wrote eloquently about this issue in his much-needed book about male depression titled: I Don't Want To Talk About It. Asking for help is still seen by many males in our culture as a sign of weakness.
3. It's likely an understatement that our society is still somewhat homophobic? It's getting better, but we have seen much in the current news about this issue still rearing its ugly head in military circles, same sex marriages, and legislative changes and discussions. So, for a young boy who is molested by a male offender, the issue of sexual identity comes into play. We see young males in therapy asking the question frequently: "If I am abused by a male and I am also male, does that mean I am gay?" Little children, ages 8-10, ask this question frequently in therapy, and teen male victims often just choose to suffer in silence because of this fear. "Will my peer group label me as gay if I tell?"
4. When young boys are touched in the genital area, they can have an erection. It is visible to them, different from female victims. The touching can feel good to both boys and girls and then cause great confusion. "Did I want this?" "If it feels good, is it my fault?" "If there is pleasure, I must be the one in the wrong."
5. When young boys are sexually abused by female offenders, there is another interesting mind assault. If a young male is getting attention sexually from an older woman, he is often seen as lucky. Boys can be experimental with sex and that is often regarded, as "boys will be boys." And if the offender is the child's mother, you can only imagine the difficulty in reporting, and the devastation for the child.
6. Often boys report that they don't view the sexual acts perpetrated on them as that abusive. They minimize or deny the impact to avoid feelings of helplessness or confusion.
So taking these reporting issues for boys and putting them in the context of the male world of football, one can see the great impediment to reporting something as vulnerable as being sexually abused. If I'm a big tough guy...this did not happen to me. It is more typical for young male victims to use coping strategies like becoming aggressive to overcome the feelings of helplessness, or trying to numb the feelings with drugs or alcohol. In many cases they internalize the trauma and become depressed.
In a college football environment, the players are still young, developing men. The coaches, as well as other instructors, play an almost parental-like role with these young people. The power differential is obvious and the effects devastating when the power of the leader is misused in a secretive, abusive, and flawed manner that actually encourages a wall of silence for compliance that results in reward.
The bottom line is that it is up to adults to protect young people and the need for further education for parents and educators in this arena remains a constant call for clarity and direction. While much has been done in prevention and education regarding child sexual abuse, unfortunately there is more to do. We can start with creating emotionally safe environments for males to disclose sexual abuse and let it be known to boys that this can happen to them too. Boys should be taught more realistic roles to emulate other than the classic tough guy.
And finally, let's not forget that sex offenders are the prime narcissists in this culture. Their lack of empathy is palpable. They are most concerned with getting their own sexual and power needs met and therefore the impact on the victim... is not on their radar.
(Some resources taken from Virginia Child Protection Newsletter, Volume 29, fall 1989)
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