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Why Aren't Male Victims of Sexual Abuse Speaking Out?

How do men handle unwanted sexual experiences?

Since the #MeToo movement first went viral in 2017, we have become more aware sexual victimization than ever before.

Along with the successful prosecution of prominent abusers such as Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, countless survivors of sexual violence have come forward with their own stories of abuse, assault, and harassment. While the overwhelming majority of these victims have been women, reports of men who have been sexually victimized have also come to public attention. These include multiple reports of sexual victimization in the Catholic Church and other religious organizations, as well as several prominent American universities.

But despite these recent revelations, both men and women continue to face barriers in reporting abuses. Along with the fear of retribution, victims also have to cope with their own sense of shame as well as the fear of not being believed. Though the actual prevalence rate of sexual abuse is often impossible to determine given the number of victims who choose to remain silent, prevalence rates reported in different studies often vary widely depending on the type of abuse and the populations being studied.

With childhood sexual abuse, for example, a 2005 cohort study of 17,000 participants found that 16 percent of males and 25 percent of women reporting experiencing sexual abuse prior to the age of 18. Other studies looking at victims of all ages consistently show that women are far more likely to be sexually victimized than men and, as a result, most research studies conducted to date have focused on female victims.

One of the difficulties in trying to get an accurate picture of sexual victimization in males concerns the numerous misconceptions that stem from our heteronormative culture. Such misconceptions as: "it is impossible for men to have unwanted sexual experiences with women" and "'men always want to have sex" make men much more reluctant to report unwanted sexual encounters or sexual harassment whenever it involves a female perpetrator (though this is slowly changing in larger urban areas). When the perpetrator is another male, other misconceptions come into play, including "heterosexuality is proof of manhood with stigma associated with homosexual encounters."

To a large extent, whether or not a male will report an unwanted sexual encounter often depends on the context in which it occurred. For adolescent and young adult males, peer pressure to have sex can often lead to males feeling forced to comply no matter how they might otherwise feel. In a sense, their right to say "no" has been taken away from them, much as it can be for women in similar circumstances.

Even in cases of childhood sexual abuse, there is often a double standard in which abuse involving older females having sex with boys is considered less traumatic (and often "more educational") than equivalent abuse of girls by older men. As for cases of adult males abusing boys, there is also a culture of silence that can make families less likely to report the crime due to fears that the child's sexuality might be questioned if the offense became widely known.

For males of all ages who have had unwanted sexual experiences, the psychological impact can last for years. Not only do males generally underreport these experiences, but, in many cases, shame and embarrassment may make them unwilling to admit to themselves that the sexual encounter was unwanted. Also, as with female victims, male victims are often afraid of not being believed or even facing ridicule for speaking out.

A new research study published in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinities presents the results of a qualitative study examining unwanted sexual experiences in college-age males. A team of researchers led by Stephanie R. Griswold of Trinity Christian College in Illinois conducted a campus-wide mail survey at a religious liberal arts college in the Midwest region of the United States during the 2009–2010 academic year. In total, 1,330 male students received the survey with 590 male respondents responding. Most ages ranged from 18 to 22.

Along with collecting demographic data for all participants, the survey questioned participants about possible unwanted sexual experiences, i.e., being "sexually involved with any person when you wanted to say no but didn’t or couldn’t? This may or may not have been in response to peer pressure (e.g., “locker room” pressure, date pressure, etc.). This might include kissing, touching, intercourse, or any degree of physical intimacy with any acquaintance, family member, friend, date, or stranger." Participants were also asked if they told anyone about it afterward and how much support they received.

The questions were designed to be open-ended to allow participants to describe their experiences. Using an open coding system, a codebook was developed to identify specific themes that were consistent with previous research studies. All told, 102 of the 590 participants (17 percent) admitted to have had an unwanted sexual experience. Of those who reported having been victimized, 65 reported telling someone else while the remainder did not

Analysis of the 65 narratives provided by males reporting having been victimized identified four main themes:

  • Silent reluctance. Having a sexual experience due to being unable or unwilling to admit reluctance. Many victims described "freezing up" or otherwise feeling pressured to participate sexually when they would have otherwise refused. In many cases, victims reportedly felt compelled to participate due to broader expectations about how males are expected to behave in certain situations. Since these unwanted experiences typically involved emotional rather than physical coercion, many victims are often afraid to speak out due to fear of being disbelieved or ridiculed.
  • Childhood incest/molestation. Of those participants who reported having been victimized, 23 percent narrated an experience of childhood incest/molestation ranging from early childhood to adolescence. In their narratives, they often described how ashamed and guilty they felt and at least two participants admitted considering suicide. Though the abuse had occurred years earlier, many participants said they continued to experience emotional difficulties that affected their daily lives.
  • Sexual assault. Only eight of the narratives (12 percent) described being physically forced or harassed into sex. This included forced sexual interactions to any degree (e.g., kissing, intercourse), rape, or sexual intimidation. Although physical aggression is usually associated with a male perpetrator, seven out of eight of the reported narratives involved a female. For example, one narrative stated: "A very outgoing girl attacked me almost daily in a class by trying to feel me up. She often verbally suggested we should have sex.”
  • Regret. Another common theme reported by many participants was a sense of regret for taking part in sex despite being willing at the time. All but one of these experiences were with females and some occurred in the course of a dating relationship. Religion was often invoked as a reason for feeling regret, including the belief that the sexual encounter was "sinful," but many participants also blamed alcohol for engaging in sex that was later regretted.

Along with the narratives describing unwanted sexual experiences, participants also described what occurred when they tried telling someone about the experience afterward. While a large minority (35 percent) failed to disclose, most of the participants who did disclose described it as being beneficial. Along with the emotional release of just telling someone what happened, many participants described how the support they received helped them gain new perspective. Still, the group that was least likely to disclose to somebody else were those that experienced childhood incest/molestation, largely due to the lingering shame and guilt that often made them reluctant to let anyone know what had happened to them.

In discussing their findings, Griswold and her colleagues stressed how important cultural myths about male sexuality are in shaping how men react to unwanted sexual experiences. For men especially, social pressure can often lead to them engaging in sex even if they are unwilling or reluctant. Whether the pressure came from the sex partner, (usually female), or from their peers, the fear of appearing "less masculine" is extremely strong and often leads to extremely negative consequences. This fear was also prominent in males who have experienced childhood sexual abuse, especially when it involves abuse by another male, which adds to their reluctance in speaking out.

There were limitations in this study, especially since the participants all came from a Christian college which has all students sign a covenant affirming Christian beliefs. This includes strict guidelines concerning extramarital sexual relations, alcohol and substance use, and pornography. The religious beliefs of many participants often came out in their narratives and raises questions about how well these results might be applied to college-age males in general.

Even with this in mind, it seems clear that while females are most likely to be victimized, unwanted sexual experiences can also occur to males of all ages. Though more research is needed, this study demonstrates the role that misconceptions about male sexuality can play in victimizing males and females alike. While recent reports of widespread sexual abuse and/or harassment in religious and educational institutions have certainly raised awareness about sexual victimization, there is still a critical need for improved prevention efforts in these settings.

In college-age males and females especially, better educational initiatives are needed to challenge accepted beliefs about male and female sexuality, as well as the risks that can be faced in navigating romantic relationships, sexual encounters, and the role drugs and alcohol can often play. This study also emphasizes the value many victims experience in simply speaking out about what happened to them. All too frequently, health professionals often avoid questioning both males and females about unwanted sexual experiences, something that will need to change to ensure that they have a chance to heal.

But victims of unwanted sexual experiences, including childhood sexual abuse, also need to reach out to family and friends for the support they need. And that support is needed, not only in terms of simply listening to what they have to say but by being willing to support them in whatever follows, whether through treatment or the courtroom.

References

Griswold, Stephanie R.,Neal Kimball, Cynthia,Alayan, Alexandra J.Griswold, S. R., Neal Kimball, C., & Alayan, A. J. (2020). Males’ stories of unwanted sexual experiences: A qualitative analysis. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 21(2), 298–308. https://doi.org/10.1037/men0000247

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