Men dealing with the effects of childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault

There is no prescribed way that people are affected by sexual abuse or sexual assault; everyone is different. However, we do know sexual violence can have profound effects on men’s lives. Below is a list of some common problematic responses which are associated with an experience of sexual violence, including childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault. These have been identified through research, and through talking directly with men.

The above list is by no means exhaustive; some men face additional difficulties that do not appear on this list. The degree to which these problems appear and the impact they have differs considerably amongst men.

Problems related to ‘being a man’

Unfortunately, men who have experienced sexual violence have another set of difficulties to deal with; difficulties created by our society’s expectations and assumptions of gender. Dealing with sexual violence often means dealing with a lot of ideas around ‘being a man.’

Below is a list of problems that men who have been subjected to sexual violence often confront. These relate to the expectations of what a man ‘should’ do or be in our community. Child sexual abuse or sexual assault can lead to:

  • Pressure to “prove” his manhood:
    • Physically – by becoming bigger, stronger, and meaner, by engaging in dangerous or violent behaviour.
    • Sexually – by having multiple female sexual partners, by always appearing ‘up for it’ and sexually in control.
  • Confusion over gender and sexual identity.
  • Sense of being inadequate as a man.
  • Sense of lost power, control, and confidence in relation to manhood.
  • Problems with closeness and intimacy.
  • Sexual problems.
  • Fear that the sexual abuse has caused or will cause him to become ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay.’
  • Homophobia – fear or intolerance of any form of ‘homosexuality.’

As is apparent from the above list, some problems are specifically related to gender expectations and the social world in which a man lives. In sorting out any of these difficulties, it is therefore important to acknowledge the social and relational parts of the identified problems, and not to over-problematise the man himself.

Additional factors which influence the impact of sexual violence

The more we learn about child sexual abuse the more we come to see the multiple factors which can influence how much it impacts upon men’s lives.

Research has shown that what occurred, who was involved, and how the man was responded to, all influence the types and degree of problems a man has to deal with.

Factors which have been found to be significant are:

  • The age at which the abuse began – earlier onset is linked to greater impact.
  • The duration and frequency of the abuse – the longer it goes on for, and the more often it occurs, the greater the impact.
  • The type of activities which constituted the abuse – if there is penetration, use of violence, and emotional manipulation all result in greater impact.
  • The nature of the relationship with the person perpetrating the abuse – if the person is a close family member, or someone who was previously trusted, the impact is greater.
  • The number of persons involved in the abuse.
  • The manner in which disclosure of the abuse occurred, and how it was responded to – if a man is confronted with disbelief and lack of support, it can create further difficulties.

Although the above factors have been found to influence the extent of problems related to an experience of sexual violence, please know that none of the identified factors automatically damn a man to a life of misery and pain.

Research suggests the following three factors can also influence the degree of impact sexual violence has on a man’s life:

  1. The basic constitutional characteristics of the child (for example, temperament,
    sense of self-esteem and sense of personal control).
  2. A supportive family environment (warmth, nurturing, organization and so on).
  3. A supportive individual or agency that provides positive support that assists the

Unfortunately, research suggests that currently men are less likely to access and receive support from family, friends, and specialised sexual assault services than women are [4]. It is therefore important that, when men do come forward and seek assistance, their friends, family, and service professionals take time to listen to the man and link him in with appropriate support.

Some words about dealing with problems associated with sexual violence

In more recent years, people have become very aware of the horrors of child sexual abuse or sexual assault, and the significant impact that it can have on someone’s life. When seeking to acknowledge some of the difficulties that men can face as a result of sexual violence, care needs to be taken to recognise men’s capacity to lead full and rewarding lives. Do not fall into the trap of making experiences of sexual abuse or sexual assault the explanation for all life’s problems.

When talking with men around issues related to child sexual abuse or sexual assault, it is useful to keep in mind that:

  • All human beings suffer painful experiences, and some of these occur in childhood.
  • Being sexually abused is one of many painful and potentially harmful events that a man may experience.
  • Whether and to what extent childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault (or other painful experiences) negatively affect our lives depends on a variety of factors (see below).
  • Child sexual abuse or sexual assault, in itself, does not “doom” people to lives of horrible suffering.
  • If a person has been sexually abused and experiences some problems or symptoms, the abuse is not necessarily the primary (let alone only) reason for these difficulties.
  • All caregivers of children are sometimes unable to protect children from painful experiences.
  • We all need love and support to deal with the effects of painful experiences.
  • Everyone must find ways to acknowledge and deal with emotions generated by painful experiences – whether or not we receive support from others.
  • Many coping or self-regulation strategies work in some ways, but also limit us in other ways.
  • Following an experience of child sexual abuse or sexual assault, it is not unusual for people’s lives to become closely connected with problems related to that experience. However, seeing the person as the problem and all of his current difficulties as a result of sexual abuse or sexual assault can be counterproductive.

Putting problems out there: Question the problem, not the person

A useful way of dealing with problems is to put them out there. Make the problems external to you. Note how they came into your life and explore the way that they work and how you might deal with them. It is important to recognise that the origin of problems is not within us but is related to our life experiences and the social world in which we live. This provides us with greater room to move.

When dealing with problems it can be useful to mark out and clearly identify the parameters of a problem. Not all problems that are associated with child sexual abuse or sexual assault are the same. Some problems, like physical injuries, might have a clear link to sexual assault. Other problems, like excessive alcohol or other drug use, may have once been a strategy for managing unpleasant memories – a strategy which has taken over and become problematic in and of itself. The possibility of sorting such problems out becomes more ‘do-able’ if they are understood as a habit that got of hand, rather than directly ’caused by’ the sexual abuse or assault. As such, you are not so much ‘dealing with sexual abuse’ as you are dealing with the effects or outcomes.

When seeking to deal with a problem it can be particularly useful to notice what is happening when the problem is not present.

These unique moments can provide important clues as to how to evade and outwit particularly difficult problems. Noticing these moments can help break the hold problems can sometimes have over us, in that they are no longer seen as all encompassing, but influenced by what we are doing or thinking, by circumstances, and by who else might be around.

Hope for change

Hope for change often involves finding ways to acknowledge the horror and pain associated with the experience, whilst separating out and disentangling the problems from the person. If we see ourselves or the person as the problem, then we can quickly become overwhelmed and get down on ourselves as somehow damaged. If “I” am the problem, then change requires a complete overhaul of me and who I am. That seems impossible!

Such ideas can be diminishing of us and can leave us less able to accept and manage any difficulties. They can make our skills and knowledge invisible, as well as our competency in other areas, and our capacity to live a full and rich life.