Why Male Victims of Child Sexual Abuse Keep It a Secret
Male victims of child sexual abuse have an especially difficult time disclosing.
Posted March 9, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
In a previous post, I discussed what I consider to be the six major reasons why former victims of child sexual abuse often keep the secret long into adulthood. Even though it is estimated that 1 in 6 males have experienced childhood sexual abuse, the numbers are undoubtedly higher because many male victims never report their abuse. In this post, I will discuss the reasons why male victims have an even more difficult time than female victims in telling anyone they were sexually abused as a child or adolescent. While they have the same concerns outlined in my previous post, males have some issues that make it especially difficult for them to disclose.
Like female victims, males who have been sexually abused are often confused or misinformed as to what constitutes sexual abuse. The sexual abuse may have felt good and because of this, a male child or teenager may not consider what happened to them to be sexual abuse. For example, those who were molested by a female often don’t consider it sexual abuse. Often sexual abuse by a female goes unreported by boys because they consider sex with an older female as a “right of passage.” For example, male adolescents who are sexually abused by a female teacher often feel as if they weren’t abused at all, but that they willingly got involved sexually with the teacher. When the abuse is finally discovered, many of these former victims will insist that, in fact, they felt they were the instigator of the sexual relationship.
But whether the youth felt he was abused or not, the truth is that sexual involvement with adults is harmful to children and adolescents. At their age, they are simply not capable of making a free choice when it comes to sex with an adult. Many young men who became involved with a female teacher later suffer from significant problems, including hyper-sexuality, aggression against females, and difficulty trusting others.
Michel Dorais, a researcher and author of Don’t Tell: The Sexual Abuse of Boys, emphasizes the control factor when there is a difference in age and power between the victim and the aggressor. While male-on-male abuse certainly can include sadistic or violent aggression, often the perpetrator employs various subterfuges, gradually leading the child to participate in sexual acts. This can make it difficult for the child to realize he is being abused. The victim must come to realize that even though he may believe he participated willingly, his participation was obtained by ruse, lies, force, or fear (whatever the degree of physical, moral, or psychological constraint used).
As Dorais explains in his book, some boys were particularly vulnerable because they were interested in exploring a situation that presented itself to them, whether it was getting closer to someone they were fond of, satisfying their sexual curiosity, or simply not displeasing their aggressor. What characterizes the abuse in such cases is that the experience goes far beyond what the child anticipated, and more importantly, beyond what he was ready to agree to or go through.
When the situation involves two boys of different ages, with the elder taking advantage of the younger, it can be even more difficult for someone to realize he has been abused. The relationship between strength and power is often less evident in such cases than it is when the abuser is an adult. It can be difficult to distinguish between sexual exploration between peers and sexual exploitation. Again, the answer lies in the balance or imbalance of power. An abuse has occurred between peers when the younger has been coerced into sexual activities demanded of him. Sometimes, as in the case of abuse perpetrated by an older brother, it is only years later when time has provided perspective and the younger child has had time to develop more emotionally that what was once considered to be a voluntary act comes to be recognized as being abusive.
This was the case with my former client Todd, who was 26 when I first began to see him. When Todd was about 8 years old, his older brother David, who was three years older, introduced him to masturbation by masturbating in front of him and encouraging Todd to join in. Todd wanted to impress his older brother and so, even though he felt somewhat embarrassed, he did as his brother suggested. This became a ritual of sorts, with the two of them masturbating together for several years. Even though he was too young to actually ejaculate, Todd found the experience to be enjoyable and he especially liked bonding with his brother, who normally either bullied him or ignored him.
By the time Todd was about 9 years old, his brother convinced him to masturbate him. Todd told me he didn’t like doing this and felt very guilty afterward since he was afraid it would make him a homosexual. But when he resisted, his brother would threaten to stop spending time with him. Todd didn’t want that, so he complied. As the years went by, his brother continued to demand that Todd do more and more so that by the time Todd was 12, he and his brother were performing oral sex on one another. This continued until the older brother left home at 18.
For years, Todd felt tremendous shame about what he and his brother did together and always felt like he was a willing participant. It wasn’t until he was in his early 20s that he began to question whether he had actually been victimized by his brother. Todd married his high school sweetheart when she became pregnant, and by 21 he already had a child. When his son turned 5, Todd noticed that he was very uncomfortable when his brother David spent time with his son. He suddenly realized that he was afraid that David might be inappropriate with his son like he had been with him. It was this that brought Todd into therapy.
Former victims who experienced an erection and/or ejaculation during sexual abuse may be especially confused. In his study of sexual abusers, Nicolas Groth emphasized that aggressors make a special effort to ensure that their young male victims experience sexual excitation or orgasm. There are several reasons for this. When a victim connects his sexual excitement with consensual participation he feels all the more guilty or confused and this will discourage him from telling or making a complaint. He is also afraid that his testimony will be discredited since he received physical pleasure. His reasoning would be, “If I was really abused, how could I have felt any gratification?” Groth explains that many people wrongly believe that if a boy or man is in a state of fear or anxiety he will not be able to have an erection or to ejaculate but this is absolutely not true.
In my former client Derrick’s case, an older boy in the neighborhood told Derrick he would teach him how big boys masturbated. At the time, Derrick was 13 and the older boy 16. Masturbation began as a kind of game with the two boys masturbating in front of each other to see who would ejaculate first. But then the older boy told Derrick he would show him how to have “real sex” with girls when he got older. He convinced Derrick to take down his trousers and before Derrick realized what was happening, the older boy was sodomizing him. Derrick described the pain as excruciating: “I thought I was going to die it hurt so bad,” he said. When the older boy finished, Derrick got angry with him and told him he never wanted to see him again. But the older boy told him, “You’ll be back, you liked it. You got a hard-on didn’t you?” Derrick was immediately overwhelmed with shame because he remembered that he had gotten an erection during the attack. This confused him and he remembered telling himself that he must have enjoyed it or he wouldn’t have gotten an erection. He did stay away from the older boy from that time forward but it began a lifetime of self-doubt and concern that he might be homosexual or that he must be masochistic.
Shame and Self-Blame
Sexual abuse consistently causes a child to feel ugly inside and feel as if they are “used property” or “damaged goods.” Since children typically blame themselves for the abuse, victims tend to feel they are “bad,” “sinful,” and “evil.” And the victimization itself causes a child to lose feelings of personal power since they are forced to feel the impact of being utterly helpless.
While all victims of child sexual abuse feel tremendous shame, males tend to feel even more shame at having been sexually abused than females. This is primarily due to the fact that males in our society do not want to identify themselves as a victim. In our culture (and virtually every culture in the world) boys and men are not supposed to be victims and when they are victimized the popular belief is that the boy must have been too weak to fight off his aggressor or he must have secretly wanted the sexual abuse. Even very young boys believe that they “should have” been able to ward off their attacker, even though there is no logic to this thinking. After all, how can a nine-year-old boy fight off a grown man? In his attempt to find an answer to his question, “Why me?’ a former male victim may conclude that he was chosen to be abused because of his physical appearance, his voice, the way he was dressed, his attitude or some other aspect of himself that was too feminine or androgynous. He will thus blame himself for having attracted his abuser, for not having defended himself or not having put up enough of a fight.
Male victims tend to blame themselves for the abuse, even more than females. I discussed the need to maintain the illusion of control in the previous post but this need is especially strong in male victims. Most cultures today do not give males the freedom to acknowledge their victimizations. Even little boys are given the message that they should be brave and tough and strong, not weak and helpless. If someone tries to abuse them they are supposed to defend themselves and push their attacker away. It doesn’t matter if they are only 5 years old and their abuser is a powerful grown man, a male child will still feel he should have been able to defend himself. The fact that he didn’t, indeed couldn’t, do so is so humiliating and shaming that the child would prefer to tell himself he wasn’t abused at all or that it was his fault.
Identifying With the Aggressor
As a way to maintain the illusion of control some males do what is called “Identifying with the Aggressor.” When a male is abused he can feel so ashamed about having been overpowered by another person that he will often identify with the aggressor. He doesn’t want to be identified as a “victim” and so he denies that he was sexually abused. He may either convince himself that he was the instigator or that he wanted it. He will do almost anything to avoid having to face the fact that another human being overpowered him or manipulated him into doing something he really didn’t want to do. Since he refuses to identify himself as a victim, he must identify as an abuser. Thus he takes on “abuser” behavior, including manipulating or even forcing those younger and weaker to do his bidding. In short, he becomes an abuser.
Male victims often do not tell about the abuse because they feel guilty about things they did in response to the abuse. For example, often victims will act out against society by shoplifting, being truant, and by breaking the law in other ways. Male victims, in particular, direct their rage against others through aggressive or antisocial acts in an attempt to affirm their virility and in an attempt to reverse their view of themselves as powerless or victimized. Many male victims become very angry at what was done to them and act out their anger and pain by hurting or abusing themselves, other children, or their pets. Unable to express their anger toward the perpetrator, they may have vented their anger at those who were smaller and weaker than themselves. Since they hated themselves for being weak and helpless, they may have hated others who they perceived as weak and bullied them or sexually abused them.
Fears About Homosexuality
Male victims have an additional problem that females do not usually have to grapple with. Sexual abuse can cause males to worry about whether they are gay—either because they believe that the acts they engaged in with a male made them into a homosexual or because they believe a male would not have been interested in them if they weren’t gay.
Boys who discover they are homosexual after experiencing sexual abuse by a male will often be confused as to whether they, in fact, “seduced’ the abuser or whether the abuser actually played a role in “initiating” them into homosexual sex. Dorais found that the stronger the boy’s impression that he participated actively in the sexual experiences the stronger his sense that he revealed himself to be homosexual, the more he will tend to internalize the burden of the abuse. In short, the more physical gratification the victim experienced, the more the abuse will seem to him to be an initiation into homosexuality.
This was my client Shane’s experience. Shane came to see me because he was severely depressed. He explained that he was gay and that he was involved with a man who physically abused him. He wanted to leave him but he couldn’t seem to do it.
As it turned out, Shane had developed a pattern of being involved with abusive men, most of whom were much older than he. This made me wonder whether Shane had been abused as a child but Shane told me that no abuse had occurred. When I asked him if he had been sexually abused he said no, but when I asked him to describe his first sexual experience, he told me it was with a “much older man.” I pressed him for an approximate age and he told me that the man was probably in his 30s and that he was only 15 at the time. I immediately became concerned about this age difference and wanted to know the details. Shane explained that he had met the man at a local park when the man approached him. In spite of the fact that the man was so much older than Shane and clearly the aggressor, Shane insisted that what happened between them was his initiation into sex, since he already knew he was gay. Even though Shane had never experienced any form of sex with a man before and the man physically forced his penis into Shane’s anus, Shane refused to believe that he had been sexually abused. It took quite some time before Shane came to understand that he had, in fact, been sexually assaulted and that he was repeating the abuse by continually being involved with much older men who physically and sexually abused him.
*Please note: the above examples were based on actual clients' stories but I changed the names and important details to protect their identity.
There are many misconceptions about childhood sexual abuse, including what constitutes abuse, who the abusers are, and how they operate. The goal of this post was to help you gain more clarity about these issues. For some of you, this psot may have answered enough of your questions so that now you may be very clear that you were sexually abused. Others of you may still feel confused and continue to have unanswered questions. In this case, I hope that you will reach out for help, either to a psychotherapist or to a hotline or website. As with most things, the more you learn about child sexual abuse, the abler you will be to decide whether you are, in fact, a victim.
- Contact RAINN at (800) 656-4673. They will connect you with counselors in your area.
- Contact https://1in6.org for more information about male victims of child sexual abuse.
- I also recommend Victims No Longer: The Classic Guide for Men Recovering from Sexual Child Abuse by Mike Lew.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Dorais, Michel. (2008). Don't Tell: The Sexual Abuse of Boys. McGill-Queen's University Press.