Part one: Research evidence about boys and men's experiences of disclosure of sexual abuse
1.1. Disclosure: A process, not a static event
Disclosure of child sexual abuse or sexual assault is not easy. How disclosures of these nature occur, and how they are responded to, can significantly influence a man's future well-being (O'Leary, Coohey & Easton, 2010). Each time a man discloses, there are opportunities for responses that support and validate him. Equally, responses that fail to recognise the difficulty and vulnerability of disclosure can add to the trauma, and further silence the man from speaking about the abuse.
Disclosure is best understood as a process and not as a single or static event. There are often steps that men take before making a decision to disclose sexual abuse. For example, the issue may have been only disclosed to a partner. This may lead to disclosure to a professional, or reporting the issue to authorities. Disclosure may have occurred in childhood, but the issue may have never been discussed since. Discussion of the issue presents further complexities for the man beyond the actual acknowledgement of the abuse. Often men feel uncertain about the next steps that follow disclosure, and discussion can lead to further disclosures of other instances, or details of sexual abuse not previously identified. This process can take time, and relies on a context of trust and safety.
In the psychological literature, Roland Summit's (1983) seminal paper 'The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome' influenced the way disclosure of child sexual abuse was conceptualised. It closely examined those complex interplays between persons who perpetrated abuse and victimised children, which led to non-disclosure and the retraction of disclosures. Whereas prior to this, disclosure was generally regarded as a static, one-off event, the literature now proposed different categories of disclosure. For example, it was identified that disclosure occurred immediately, later, or never (Gomes-Schwartz, Horoqitz & Cardarelli, 1990). It was also recognised that disclosure occurred within different categories of intentionality, or purposeful choice by the victim. In fact, the minority of disclosures of childhood sexual abuse by children were found to be 'purposeful' or 'intentional', and the majority were described as 'accidental disclosure'. Accidental disclosures resulted from someone noticing physical evidence, behavioural change, the child being asked if someone had touched them, or someone else talking about the abuse (Berliner & Conte, 1995). In addition to purposeful and accidental disclosure, Campis, Hebden-Curtis, and Demaso (1993) introduced another category of disclosure, that which occurs from a 'precipitating event', such as acting out sexually with another child, or refusal to attend school.
Alaggia (2004) interviewed 24 male and female adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and found that only 42% of disclosures were purposeful, accidental or elicited by a precipitating event. For the remaining 58% of disclosures, she described three new categories:
- Behavioural disclosure – through non-verbal behaviour and indirect verbal cues.
- Disclosures intentionally withheld – deliberate choices not to disclose, including false denial.
- Triggered disclosures – where disclosure is triggered by associations or life events following a period where there was no recall of the abuse.
These contexts and categories for disclosure underline the complexity and heterogeneity of the process.
Royal Commission: Final Report findings
In the Royal Commission Final Report, Volume 4: Identifying and disclosing child sexual abuse describes what was learned about survivors’ experiences of disclosing child sexual abuse. The Royal Commission drew on private sessions, research literature, evidence from case studies and input from subject matter experts and stakeholders to describe the range of complex factors that affect the disclosure of child sexual abuse and the multiple barriers to disclosure victims and survivors face.
Identifying child sexual abuse in institutional contexts is a critical step in protecting children from potential or ongoing abuse, providing support to children in need, and holding perpetrators accountable for their behaviour. Given the covert nature of child sexual abuse, victims’ and survivors’ disclosure is often the only way that another person might become aware that sexual abuse is, or has been, occurring.
1.2. Gender differences in disclosure of sexual abuse
Research indicates that over 70% of men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse have not told anyone (Holmes & Slap, 1998). Boys are less likely to disclose at the time sexual abuse occurs than girls (Paine & Hansen, 2002; O'Leary & Barber, 2008). Typically, men discuss their sexual abuse for the first time ten years later than women do – on average 22 years after the assault (Easton, 2014; O'Leary & Barber, 2008; O'Leary & Gould, 2009). Men are one and a half times less likely than women to report a sexual offence to police (Pino & Meier, 1999). Men are also more likely than women to make a selective disclosure where certain specific details are withheld (Hunter, 2011).
Royal Commission findings - Disclosure
“[G]ender roles and social expectations may influence how male and female victims disclose abuse, and deal with its aftermath. Social attitudes relating to masculinity and homophobia, attitudes to female sexuality and virginity, and the shame of male victims abused by females make it more difficult for victims to disclose (see Volume 4, Identifying and disclosing child sexual abuse). Research indicates that male victims generally take longer to disclose than female victims. In Volume 4, we discuss how males may be reluctant to disclose because of factors related to male socialisation, such as an over-emphasis on self-reliance, contempt for victims in general, contempt for homosexuals, ideas about sexual prowess, and a masculine obsession with heterosexuality and independence. Social views that perpetrators are exclusively male, or that sex of any kind with a female ‘should be every man’s dream’ can make male victims of abuse by female perpetrators reluctant to disclose. As some research suggests, the act of disclosure is beneficial for the mental health of victims, and not disclosing may mean an increased risk of mental health impacts.
“Some research also suggests that there may be differences in how male or female victims respond to the trauma throughout their life course. It suggests that female victims stereotypically become more entrenched in an internalised struggle with the effects of the abuse, resulting in greater contact with mental health services. Men may suppress the effects through externalised behaviours, such as violent outbursts.”
Research on disclosure
- Boys are less likely than girls to disclose at the time the sexual abuse occurs.[xlix]
- Between 70-90% of males who have been sexually abused report not telling anyone at the time.[l]
- Males disclose being sexually abused in childhood on average 22 years after the assault – 10 years later than women.[li]
- Men report their first in depth discussion of the abuse after 28 years, and their first helpful in depth discussion 30 years after the abuse.[lii]
- Men are more likely than women to make selective disclosures and to less people.[liii]
- Men are one and a half times less likely than women to report rape to police.[liv]
Relevance for practice
Disclosure for men is often difficult, and is not an event that resolves or protects boys and men from further trauma. Rather, there are often indirect or inadvertent disclosures, often accompanied by long delays. Past experiences of disclosure, as well socio-cultural experiences, often discourage disclosure. Men may not always link their behavioural or emotional difficulties to the trauma. When disclosures are made to practitioners, it often occurs in a vexed context, and therefore is an important opportunity to provide a response that is safe and affirming. Understanding the difficulty of disclosure requires a good comprehension of the barriers and experience of disclosure discussed in the next two sections.
1.3. Men's experiences of disclosure - As boys; As men
Understanding boys and men's experience of disclosure of sexual abuse requires an appreciation of the impact of the response.
Watch playlist: Male survivors
A child may make a conscious decision of whom they might to disclose to, or the identity of the confidant might be more situational or coincidental. When a child disclosures sexual abuse it is often to a parent, family member, or friend, rather than to a professional, or someone who may have knowledge about child sexual abuse. As a direct result of this, responses to these disclosures are often inadequate, and in many cases add further trauma and vulnerability.
It can sometimes be very difficult for people to believe a child who discloses sexual abuse for a variety of reasons. The perpetrator might hold a position of trust and status. The child might already have a history of behavioural issues. The person being disclosed to may simply be unable to accept or process the information, for example, if the perpetrator is another loved one.
A person might then respond by questioning the child about their involvement in the abuse, which implies the child was somehow culpable. The child can be dismissed as seeking attention, behaving badly, or misunderstanding what actually occurred. A child who discloses to a friend or sibling might be met with ignorance and embarrassment, which would then add to child's own sense of confusion and disempowerment.
Due to the taboo nature of talking about child sexual abuse, there can be a tendency for the confidant to want to keep the matter private, and in doing so discourage the child from further raising the issue. Such as action might result in some protective action. For example, a child who discloses a baby sitter sexually abused them might receive the response: 'Well, he will not come to look after you again, but you are not to tell anyone about what he did'. In extreme cases, such as institutional abuse, disclosure to a confidant who is already aware of the abuse within the institution might use the child's disclosure as an opportunity to further abuse. Boys' negative experiences of disclosure can profoundly impact on increased trauma, and also affect how they approach disclosure and discussion of the issue in later life.
Disclosure in adulthood might follow a disclosure in childhood, but it might be the first time the man has ever mentioned the abuse. It is important to distinguish this context of disclosure in order to understand the man's past experience. There are likely to be times in the man's life that memories of abuse vary in intensity, or are even present in his recollection or consciousness.
A significant body of contested literature exists on repressed memories of child sexual abuse. It is not within the scope of this module to examine this complex area, but there is substantial agreement in the literature that adults may not disclose child sexual abuse until well into adulthood, and prevalence rates would suggest some adults never disclose. Given that the research indicates males are more reluctant to disclose sexual abuse across their life course, delayed or nondisclosure is especially applicable to men. Men’s recollection of sexual abuse might not be specific, but more of a sense of something happening. For example, this quote from a man highlights this:
“My memories didn't all come back, I knew I had always been interfered with but I also knew that I had been hurt but I couldn't work out how I got hurt, I knew there was a lot of pain there was it wasn't until I was about 34 years old that all that came back.” (Victorian Department of Human Services, 2000)
Events over time might spark memories of the abuse, prompting further disclosure. Part of this can be difficulties in coping with the burden of effect, as men explain:
“I felt a lot of confusion in making people, like the immediate family, aware of the situation; a lot of confusion in myself wondering whether I was making excuses for past behavioural patterns. Am I using it as an excuse for having periods of depression and things?”
“It came back in flashbacks. I didn't want to believe it for a start-off and I had two nervous breakdowns that really shook me up, I was really crook. I thought "what the hell is wrong with me?" I was going down-hill and I started crying and going on, I was having another breakdown.” (Victorian Department of Human Services, 2000)
Relevance for practice
Disclosure is a critical issue for practitioners to understand in order to effectively respond to men who were sexually abused in childhood. There is a strong interaction between the high likelihood of receiving an inadequate response to disclosure, along with the feeling of being silenced as a child, and men's apprehensions to discuss their experiences in adulthood. These difficulties often require specific acknowledgement and unpacking. The delay or reticence in disclosure needs to be situated with the barriers and lack of safety that exist for men discussing sexual abuse, at the time it occurs or later in life. Therefore, care should be taken not to leave the man feeling that they 'should' have told earlier. Instead, a sense of self compassion should be encouraged - leaving the man with the understanding that with the resources they had available at the time, their decisions were perfectly understandable.
Self reflection activityTake some time to reflect on your own practice and consider the following questions:
1.4. Identifying barriers to disclosure
There are considerable barriers to disclosure of child sexual abuse. These include not just threats, manipulation, and strategies of control by the perpetrator, but also cultural, situational, and contextual factors which impede speaking about the abuse. Many of the barriers addressed here apply to both women and men, but are experienced differently in the context of gender.
Boys and men, like girls and women, commonly do not speak of childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault due to:
- Physical and verbal threats from the perpetrator.
- Fear of what people will think or do.
- Guilt, shame, self-blame, embarrassment, believing that they were in some way responsible or complicit in the abuse.
- Having no-one to tell, especially if they have tried to tell in the past and not been believed.
- Confusion about what happened — not having the words to describe the abuse.
- Believing people already knew and were not concerned.
- Feeling it is too painful to talk about, wanting to just forget about it.
- Feeling as though one's behaviour or presence with the abuser provoked the abuse.
- A wish to protect others, to keep the abuse secret in the hope that someone else won’t also be harmed or upset.
Attachment and disclosure - The Royal Commission
“Dr O’Brien told us that children develop with respect to their networks and not in isolation – as members of community, families and peer groups. If people in these support networks invalidate their disclosure, for example by minimising the abuse, this has significant impacts on them. In some cases, such as sibling abuse, the sexual abuse breaks bonds of attachment, leading to feelings of betrayal:
“’Those bonds exist naturally in sibling groups and to an extent they exist naturally in peer groups as well. This is part of why we don’t see disclosures sometimes, because a child may be reluctant to sever a bond with somebody that they trust and love, and it’s also part of the reason why harm can be so profound in these contexts, because trust has been violated, profound trust. At a point at which children’s attachments are so important, when those attachments are broken and violated, the betrayal is enormous.’”
Beyond these barriers relating to the context or circumstances of the abuse, there are also barriers that relate to the effects of sexual abuse and the socio-cultural environment in which it occurs. These include:
- Stigma associated with being sexually abused. [lv]
- Dominant masculine stereotypes.
- Ideas that men should be powerful, strong, able to protect themselves against overwhelming odds, be self reliant, not acknowledge weakness or be unable to cope.
- Homophobia, questioning of sexuality.
- Concern that he will be considered 'homosexual' or 'gay' and treated negatively.
- Uncritical acceptance of the idea that males who have been sexually victimised 'automatically' go on to perpetrate abuse. [lviii]
- Research indicates that most males (95%) who have been sexually abused in childhood do not commit offences. [lix]
- Concern they will be treated differently as males and may receive a limited or inadequate response. [lx]
- Sexual abuse remains, in some cultures, a taboo, or something shameful that should be hushed up. [lxi]
The next section examines some of the complexities of how some of these socio-cultural barriers impact on boys and men in the disclosure of sexual abuse.
Extended reading and learning
Understanding how barriers to disclosure impact on boys, adolescent males, and men is illustrated from the three studies linked below.
Qualitative research has explored the contexts for disclosure by children and adolescents. For example, in a qualitative study of children’s perspectives on disclosure, it was found that it was difficult for children to initiate a conversation about something secret, confusing, and distressing, and where there are few 'conversational routines' in a family for talking about such themes (Jensen, Gulbrandsen, Mossige, Reichelt & Tjersland, 2005, p. 1395). Children felt it was difficult to find situations where there was enough privacy and support to safely share their experiences. When they did disclose, they did it in situations where the theme of child sexual abuse was in some way 'addressed' or 'activated'. That is, there was direct questioning or information on child sexual abuse presented to the children. Jensen et al., (2005, p. 1395) suggested that, 'disclosure is fundamentally a dialogical process that becomes less difficult if the children perceive that there is an opportunity to talk, and a purpose for speaking, and a connection has been established to what they are talking about.'
For adolescents, a qualitative study found that the main impediments for not disclosing to a family member were fear of not being believed, shame, and fear of causing trouble to the family. The main impediments for not seeking services were ignorance of the existence or the function of protective agencies, wish to keep the secret, lack of awareness of being abused, mistrust of adults and professionals, and fear of the consequences of disclosure. When they did disclose to professionals, the adolescents in the study reported they received very limited support (Crisma, Bascelli, Paci & Romito, 2004).
A qualitative study on 16 men who had experienced child sexual abuse highlights some of the ways dominant men's culture can prevent males from disclosing abuse. Participants described personal and socio-cultural reasons for their struggles with disclosure. This is an important distinction in the differentiation of disclosure experiences for men compared to women. Socio-cultural constructions of masculinity often mean that for men, there is a lack of acknowledgement or acceptance that males experience sexual victimisation.
These studies indicate how important it is to create opportunities to dialogue about sensitive and shameful matters of sexual abuse and assault. Understanding a man’s disclosure experiences, including any personal or socio-cultural barriers he may have encountered, is a vital step towards alleviating his (potentially silent) suffering.
Crisma, M., Bascelli, E., Paci, D., & Romito, P. (2004). Adolescents who experienced sexual abuse: Fears, needs and impediments to disclosure. Child Abuse & Neglect, 28, 1035–1048.
Jensen, T. K., Gulbrandsen, W., Mossige, S., Reichelt, S., & Tjersland, O. A. (2005). Reporting possible sexual abuse: A qualitative study on children’s perspectives and the context for disclosure. Child Abuse & Neglect, 29, 1395–1413.
Sorsoli, L., Kia-Keating, M., & Grossman, F., (2008). ‘I keep that hush hush: Male survivors of sexual abuse and the challenges of disclosure. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55(3), 333-345. DOI: 10.1037/0022-018.104.22.1683
1.5. Socio-cultural barriers to men's disclosure
Some literature has focused on the challenges of disclosure for males who have experienced sexual abuse or assault (Alaggia, 2005; Sorsoli, Kia-Keating & Grossman, 2008). This research has demonstrated that socio-cultural dynamics have different effects on men and women in relation to their ability to speak about violence and abuse (Jones, 2000; Sorsoli et al., 2008).
Alaggia’s (2005) gender analysis of the unique themes in male and female disclosure narratives indicated that for men the themes that inhibited or precipitated disclosure were connected to sexuality or gender, and included fear of being seen as homosexual, feelings of isolation due to the belief that men are rarely victims, and fears of becoming an abuser. Issues of self blame and guilt further restrained both men and women from disclosing (Alaggia, 2005). Research on 147 Australian men who reported being sexually abused in childhood indicated that feeling unable to speak about the abuse could exacerbate the effects of abuse, and this was associated with specific issues related to a negative male identity or feelings of inadequacy as a man (O'Leary, Easton & Gould, in press).
Therefore, a gender analysis suggests that men’s ability to speak about sexual violence is further influenced by:
Dominant stereotypes of masculinity
Within the dominant socio-cultural context, there is a gendered structure to the way that society operates. This mostly advantages men within patriarchal structures and social processes. To maintain this dominance, there are assumptions about male identity, such as the notion that men should be able to defend themselves and be in control. These messages start at an early age, where boys are often given the message that being a victim is more an outcome of not being a strong enough or 'real' man. Dominant stereotypes of masculinity maintain hegemony (Connell, 2005) that gives greater value to men having positions of authority and control, being heterosexual, and white. These stereotypes of masculinity are persuasive across cultures and are incompatible with the experience and common effects of sexual abuse on boys and men. Within dominant masculine culture, there is no opportunity to discuss one's own vulnerability or fears, and those that do can be stigmatised and excluded. This powerful social force in the construction of gender has a substantial role in creating a barrier for boys and men disclosing sexual abuse. Closely linked to dominant stereotypes of masculinity is homophobia.
The majority of sexual abuse of boys and men is committed by other men. Dominant masculine stereotypes actively demean non-heterosexual identities. If a man was sexually assaulted by a man, he may be concerned that people will think he is gay and discriminate against him. Combined with feelings of inadequacy in regard to dominant stereotypes of masculinity and homophobia, the man may worry that the 'abuser' chose him because somehow the abuser recognised he was gay. The persuasive nature of homophobia is not only a powerful barrier to disclosure, but can add to the trauma and confusion men experience as a result of child sexual abuse. It is of course very important to note that the actual acts of sexual abuse are not inductive to men's identity, but fundamentally about the perpetrators own needs and power.
Confusion regarding sexuality
In the presence of both dominant stereotypes of masculinity and homophobia, many men who have experienced child sexual abuse can feel confused about their sexuality, and this can inhibit men from disclosure. If a man was sexually assaulted by a man, he may be concerned that people will think he is gay and discriminate against him. If a boy was sexually abused by a woman, he may feel that people will not take his complaint seriously, or that by making a complaint he weak or not heterosexual. Further, it is not uncommon for males to experience an erection or ejaculation during the abuse. This can add to the confusion and shame, and thereby be a barrier to disclosure.
Concerns that a man will become a 'perpetrator' of abuse
There can be a perception in the community that boys who are sexually abused are likely to become perpetrators. For men who have been sexually abused in childhood, this concern can be barrier to disclosure because they worry about how they will be perceived or treated, especially if family, friends, or support agencies are aware of the abuse. By disclosing the abuse, men may feel they will be judged as if they are a perpetrator.
Lack of recognition that males can be sexually abused or assaulted
Until relatively recently, it has often been assumed that only females are sexually abused or sexually assaulted, and that it rarely happens to males. This perception can lead to feelings of isolation and a sense that there will be little or no support available. Combined with some of the other barriers, feelings of isolation are common amongst men who have been sexually abused, and fears of being seen as a 'freak' can be a barrier to disclosure.
Lack of visible support services for men
Because of the relatively recent increase in the acknowledgement of the significant number of men who have been sexually abused, the visibility and availability of services is limited. This limits the opportunities for men to speak about sexual abuse, and feel they have support structure in place. The fear that they will be left isolated or alone may leave men feeling reluctant to risk the act of disclosure.
Relevance for practice
Barriers to the disclosure of sexual abuse are numerous for males. All the barriers are related and cumulatively contribute to men's reluctance to disclose. The context of the actual abuse, as well as men's diverse socio-cultural relationships, mean that disclosure experiences are unique. Nevertheless, there are some common societal barriers that make it hard for men to disclose sexual abuse without the risk of being judged based on misconceptions and myths.
Self reflection activity
Take some time to reflect on your own practice and consider the following questions:
Record your thoughts on this page.
1.6. Dispelling unhelpful myths about the sexual assault and rape of men
There are a number of commonly accepted myths that can make it difficult for a man to publicly name an experience of sexual assault or rape. These myths minimise the seriousness of the crime, and help persons perpetrating sexual violence to evade responsibility for their actions. These myths can affect the way a man feels about himself following an assault, preventing him from seeking assistance, and can influence the way that he is treated should he come forward and ask for help.
These myths have a common cultural validation; they are kept alive and circulate within our society by the way we talk, write, act, and organise service responses. Myths require research to available to debunk myths as assumptions or beliefs that are not based on evidence. The trouble with these unhelpful beliefs is that they:
- Make it harder for men to talk about an experience of sexual assault.
- Make it harder for men to find support.
- Make it harder for men to report an offence to police.
- Make it harder to prosecute someone who commits a sexual assault.
Myths related to sexual abuse can be promoted through media and social interactions.
According to the South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault (SECASA, 2013), amongst the unhelpful myths and beliefs to watch out for are:
Myth: Men can't be raped or sexually assaulted.
Reality: Men can be and are sexually assaulted. Any man can be sexually assaulted regardless of size, strength, appearance, age, occupation, race, or sexual identity. The idea that men can't be raped or sexually assaulted is linked to unrealistic beliefs that a 'man' should be able to defend himself against attack. It also has a history in the fact that according to the Queensland Criminal Code, up until 1997, the offence of rape could only be committed against a woman.
Myth: Only gay men are sexually assaulted.
Reality: Any man can be raped, whether he identifies as straight, gay, bi, transgender, or of fluid sexuality. Rape is an act of force or coercion where someone's personal choice is ignored. Just as being robbed does not tell you anything about someone's sexuality, neither does rape. However, research does suggest that gay identifying men are more likely to be the subject of sexual violence.
Myth: Men cannot be sexually assaulted by women.
Reality: Although the majority of sexual assaults of men are committed by men, women do sexually assault men. Sexual assault is not always enacted through overwhelming physical force: it can involve emotional manipulation whereby a man can be coerced into sexual act out of fear of potential repercussions for his relationships, work, etc. The number of men identifying sexual abuse by a woman as a boy or young man has increased over the past few years. Ideas that men should always want sex with women, and that, as a young man, you should feel lucky if you have sex with an older woman, also make it difficult for a man to publicly name sexual assault by a woman.
Myth: Erection or ejaculation during sexual assault means you 'really wanted it' or consented to it.
Reality: Erection or ejaculation are physiological responses that can be induced through manipulation and pressure on the prostate. Some people who commit sexual assault are aware how erections and ejaculations can confuse a man, and this motivates them to manipulate their body and penis to the point of erections or ejaculation. They also can use this manipulation as a way to increase their feelings of control, and to discourage reporting of the offence. Developing an erection or ejaculating does not indicate that a man wanted or enjoyed the assault, nor does it say anything about sexual identity (e.g. if a man develops an erection when a cat sits on his lap, it doesn't mean he is interested in sex with cats!). See our page on 'Men and arousal'.
Myth: I asked for it – He asked for it.
Reality: Sexual assault is a sexual act perpetrated without full and free consent. It doesn't matter where you go, who you choose to spend your time with, how you dress or act, it does not make you responsible for being sexually assaulted. Agreement to engage in an intimate sexual encounter does not mean you agree to anything and everything. It is within your rights to say 'NO' at any time — even whilst in the middle of penetrative sex. This myth is supported by society's tendency to question and blame the person who is assaulted, which in turn can invite self questioning and self blame. It is the responsibility of all persons involved in sexual contact to ensure that there is full and free consent at all times.
Myth: Most rapists are strangers.
Reality: Most men know the person who assaults them in some way. Often he/she is well known to them. They may be a friend, neighbour, boss, or a relative, father, uncle, aunt, brother, sister, partner, or ex partner. They may be a tradesperson or a professional e.g. doctor, teacher, psychiatrist, police officer, clergy or public servant.
Myth: Some people physically can't commit rape.
Reality: A person's physical strength, sex, sexual potency, and sexual preference does not affect their ability to rape. Sexual assault can be committed through coercion or manipulation, by using fingers or objects such as sticks, marker pens, or bottles. Rape is not all about physical force: young people and old people do sexually assault young and old people.
Myth: Men who sexually assault can't control their sexuality.
Reality: People can control their sexual desires if they want to, however strong they might be. No 'desire' gives anyone the right to violate and abuse another person. Far from being caused by lack of control, many sexual assaults are pre-planned, and involve considerable abuse of power and control.
Myth: Sexual assault and rape in gay couples does not exist.
Reality: Rape in same sex relationships does occur, just as rape in straight relationships occurs. Through physical, psychological, or emotional coercion, some men are forced by their partners to engage in unwanted sexual acts. The fact that the man has been in a longstanding sexual relationship with his partner does not remove his right to say 'NO!'. Unfortunately, many men within the gay community are reluctant to come forward and name a sexual assault, out of an understandable fear that they will not receive appropriate care and support. This, again, highlights how the problem of sexual assault of men is compounded by societal homophobia.
Myth: Male rape only happens in prisons.
Reality: Rape does occur in prisons. The fact that men are subjected to raped in prison is something that was highlighted in the late 1960s and continues to occur today. A major Australian study identified that about a quarter of young men will be sexually assaulted whilst in prison. However, rape also occurs outside of prisons, in the general community and in the armed services, colleges, universities, in the city, and in regional and rural areas. In the 2005 Personal Safety Survey, more men reported being sexual assaulted after the age of 15 than ever before!
Myth: Men who have been sexually assaulted will go on to perpetrate sexual assault.
Reality: The majority of men who experience sexual violence do not perpetrate abuse or assault (they are horrified by such a suggestion). This is one of the most difficult myths for men: it can make men very reluctant to talk about experiences of rape or sexual abuse. There is no evidence to suggest an automatic route from experiencing abuse to going on to commit sexual offences. However, particular experiences (additional to sexual abuse) and models of masculinity are associated with an increased risk of someone perpetrating abuse. See our page Addressing the Victim to Offender cycle. A new module on this topic is coming soon.
Myth: Men who are raped are damaged and scarred for life.
Reality: Men can and do survive sexual assault, physically and emotionally, and go on to live full lives, enjoying rewarding relationships as friends, partners, or parents. Although sexual assault can have a profound impact on men, they can and do find a way through, and live the kind of life they would like. The media and many professional publications concentrate on stories of damage, recounting horror stories of what happened and the associated problems, without providing equal time to detail how men get on with their lives.
Watch video: 'If A Man Was Sexually Abused, Will He Abuse Others?'
Self reflection activity
Take some time to reflect on your own practice and consider the following questions:
Record your thoughts on this page.
Part one of this training module presented evidence from research and personal accounts of boys and men's experiences of disclosure of sexual abuse. This evidence based literature has demonstrated that the overwhelming majority, between 70 – 90%, of males who have been sexually abused, report not telling anyone at the time. This reluctance to disclose applies to all contexts, including that boys and men are less likely than women to report a sexual offense to police, or to make a complaint. On average, men typically first discuss having been sexually abused 22 years after the assault, which is 10 years later, on average, than women.
It is important to note that the information presented in this section relies on research and practice experience in a mostly western anglicised context. Different cultural contexts will mean some of the socio-cultural barriers to disclosure have different emphasis or manifestations. Although cross culturally many of the dominant ideas of masculinity have strong resonance. In some cultural contexts, such as some Indigenous nations, there are important formal structures in terms of men's and women's business that should be considered when understanding both the barriers of disclosure, and ways to report sexual abuse of males.
There are significant personal reasons for struggles with disclosure. There are powerful socio-cultural reasons as well. These relate to homophobia, and the way dominant masculine stereotypes are constructed, which do not allow for acceptance and acknowledgement of male sexual victimisation. Uncritical acceptance of the belief that males who have been sexually victimised will 'automatically' go on to perpetrate abuse also forms a major barrier to disclosure. The lack of recognition that males can be sexually victimised also creates a significant barrier, along with the lack of visible support available for men.
When reading of men's personal accounts of experiences of disclosure, as a child and as an adult, they often recall unhelpful, unprotective, ineffectual, and in some cases punitive and blaming responses. Often the boy was told not to tell anyone else, which reinforced the silence. There was a significant theme of people knowing but not doing anything, and certainly not reporting the abuse to the police. There was also a sense of things not being discussed, and lingering confusion about who knew what. Where they did disclose as adults, there were some helpful caring reactions, but also reactions of denial and disbelief, confusion, minimising, and requests that the man 'puts it behind him'. There were also threatening responses by those who had perpetrated the abuse, such as violence or lawsuits.
Powerful myths about the sexual abuse and assault of men were examined in the final section of Part one of this module. By dispelling these myths, we can take steps to make our society a safer place for men to acknowledge and disclose victimisation, and to seek help.
The next section focuses on triggers for men in disclosing sexual abuse as an adult, and a range of considerations for practitioners in providing responses to men when they access services and seek help. Importantly, it explores decisions facing men about disclosing to partners, friends and family.
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