Long term effects of abuse
“I came to think that I was totally worthless as a person.”
The more we learn about child sexual abuse, the more we can take steps to prevent it from happening. The effects of abuse do not stop when the abuse stops; they can continue into adulthood. If, however, we respond to child victims by being willing to believe them and take action to stop the abuse early on, this will help lessen the impact on the adult lives of survivors.
The men we interviewed felt that the abuse had a major effect on their lives, and many had gone through periods of severe depression, alcohol and drug abuse.
Many felt frustration and anger. However, there was also a strong sense of optimism about the future as the negative impact of the abuse lessened over time, particularly if they had sought counselling or support.
Generally, they saw themselves as being at different stages of recovery from the abuse and this was reflected in the range of responses and emotions expressed during the interviews.
“I was very bitter, very angry but not allowed and not able to express the anger and bewilderment. Why? What happened? What did I do to deserve this?”
“I understand it’s not my fault, it’s not my responsibility but it’s something that I did feel.”
“It’s taken me about two years to get to the point where I have stopped thinking that I have made it all up, that I was crazy.”
“It’s something that can create behavioural problems that go over 30 years or more. It can affect your work life, your social life, married life, and so on.”
“There's always an ultimate denial of my past but it’s gradually getting less and less over time.”
“I used to get to the stage where I would be suicidal because I would believe that it did not happen therefore I must be nuts. I have gotten through all that now which is a relief.”
“I am angry at having been abused, I don't have trouble tapping that anger, I find it empowering to use that anger. I try to draw strength from that anger and am trying to turn it into a positive rather than a negative situation, use that energy to help continue the struggle.”
“I don't think the average (member of the) public would realise that something like that could have such a devastating and lasting effect. The effects have gone on for 30 or 40 years. Believe me, in three to four years, you don’t forget. But that's what people would think.”
Impact of abuse
Fear and shame
“I was told I would be killed off if I told – even now I have a feeling that I shouldn't tell, I still feel there is going to be a consequence if I tell.”
Fear, confusion, shame and embarrassment played a large part in the childhood of the survivors. This, coupled with the bewilderment and powerlessness they felt, confirms our knowledge that childhood sexual abuse occurs in situations where children are often intimidated and frightened by the perpetrator.
Many times they were unable to actually grasp what was happening to them but knew that it was wrong. Perpetrators often made threats about not telling others of the abuse. As a result survivors often felt alone and afraid and usually did not speak out for fear of the consequences.
“I feel like I have been silenced by my father all my life and that silence has been out of fear of what he would do if I told and the threat of telling has been drummed into me from and early age.”
“I remember him saying that he would hurt me again if I told my folks, that I wanted to do it, that's why he was doing it and that my parents wouldn’t believe me and they would be so angry with me that they wouldn’t want me there and all this sort of stuff.”
“There’s a feeling of there’s something wrong here. I felt very uncomfortable but it was confused because there was nothing happening that hurt me or the person wasn’t aggressive, was very gentle and quite a nice person really and someone that I knew, so it was very confusing about what does this mean, like trespassing into someone’s house when you know you shouldn’t be there.”
“Overwhelming anxiety, being on the edge all the time, this was not a conscious thing, you never knew when it was going to happen.”
“I felt I was no good, weak and unmanly – it was too risky and pointless to tell anyone.”
“I tried to tell my brothers and sisters that I was being sexually abused but they just laughed at me. They told me to tell my mum and dad which I was too scared to do. I was too scared to tell anyone because I felt like I was doing something wrong.”
“He said if I tell my parents he would kill me or he would come back and get my parents.”
“I have no shame of having been abused but I do have some fear of how the community sees me. But I can handle this.”
“Any expression of anger from males poses a threat and causes anxiety. My history with men has been that when they are angry with me, they abuse me.”
Effects on the child
“I have never had a childhood. I feel like I’ve never been a child. At 15 I felt like an old man.”
The participants shared the hopes and fears they experienced as children. Feeling bad about themselves, lacking self-confidence. and a strong sense of isolation from other children were common childhood experiences.
Often they felt that the abuse had robbed them of their childhoods and they talked about the ways they developed to try to cope with the abuse.
This included wanting to hide away, withdrawing from the real world through daydreaming and cutting off emotionally. Adults need to be perceptive to changes in their child's behaviour and recognise the messages that may lay behind this.
“I would read and I would isolate myself from everyone. I was reading like a book a day, I would exhaust myself so I would sleep. I would physically just do lots of things during the day and then read until midnight and I certainly isolated myself through books all my life.”
“I didn’t have any hopes at the time. I was survivirng. I was too caught up in this need to survive.”
“I would go off and hide in my own little world. We had hedges, I have lots of memories of being in the hedges in my own little hide-away living in my own fantasy wold or up the bush building my own hide-away.”
“I thought that I was going to die, so overwhelmed that my very existence was threatened.”
“I was very very isolated and I didn’t have any skills as to how to deal with other kids and I didn’t have any school friends. I developed in high school a friendship with another boy who was isolated as well, no one spoke to him so we both sat behind the library, it was a lovely spot, and we built up a good friendship but it was out of two victims. We got strength from each other, so that was how I got through.”
“I was a high achiever at school but undervalued my achievements, I accepted that I was not important, that I was not significant.”
“I think that's probably the biggest effect in my life, there’s something wrong in my life but it’s a secret. I really had this very strong feeling right through my school life that no one else feels like I do, that I feel something that no one else does.”
“I learnt to deal with it by separating mind and body. Take the mind off on its own little journey and the body was being abused.”
“As a child I loved my father quite intensely despite the fact of what he was doing. I was very isolated and lonely as a child but that was because of how my father manipulated me anyway. The adult is the one with all the control and power and the child is totally vulnerable.”
Many of the participants felt raw, vulnerable and exposed. Physical exposure or physical contact with other boys was frequently a source of great stress and anxiety.
“I remember the trauma of knowing that I had to go away to school camp and being really traumatised, having to use urinals in public, having to use the change rooms at school.”
As far as the exposure, physical education was an effort for me, there was no way I wanted to go into the showers and expose myself in front of all the boys, I always felt strange and old and different.
“Adult relationships are often problematic, it is difficult to trust anyone, intimacy can be very threatening.”
Establishing adult relationships often proved very difficult for many of the survivors and their childhood abuse experiences often left them feeling unable to trust other adults.
Some men found intimacy threatening while exposure to adult conflict left others feeling anxious and worried. For these men their difficulties reflect the complex nature of male sexual abuse and our need for greater understanding and sensitivity to the challenges male survivors face.
While recognising these difficulties the survivors' expressions of optimism and hope indicated that they felt they would eventually come through OK and potentially move on to form positive relationships.
“I believe I have a perception about what the goals are in life, forget the money, forget everything like that, the most important thing in life is being happy, having good relationships with family, with friends and with lovers, that's it, there is nothing else.”
“The relationships that I start nowadays I often have to sort through and say ‘no, no abuse is not a necessary part of the relationships and if you want to do this to me, then go away’ it’s very hard to do.”
“I suppose some of the effects as an adult are that I have always had a problem with trusting. I didn't emotionally commit to the relationship.”
“Avoidance of establishing relationships. I used to escape from people either physically or through alcohol and drugs.”
“I have put up walls to stop people from getting close to me, people would touch me and I would freeze and I would shake uncontrollably. I used to think I was nuts. One time this guy put his arm around me and inside in my mind I was screaming and I felt like hitting him, I couldn't do anything, I could not move, I was frozen.”
Being a parent
Some of the men who contributed to the booklet It happened to us: Men talk about child sexual abuse (VDHS, 2000) reported that they experienced a major impact on relationships when being a parent. The following excerpts reveal the complexities and challenges of these effects.
“I look at my children and I say ‘hey this is me, if I stripped back the abuse this is who I am, I am like these kids, I am good, I am positive, I can believe in myself, I can do things, I can explore the world.’ I guess that’s probably it in that sort of sense. I am lucky to have four great kids and to be able to just be with them and allow them to teach me.”
The experience of being a parent was often a healing and rewarding one for those participants who became fathers.
Many felt extremely protective of their children, anxious that they not be placed at risk of abuse.
Feelings about their parenting role and the need for closeness with their children were often complicated by being ashamed of their own bodies. The physical aspects of parenting could bring back their own memories and the anxiety of being abused.
“I was aware of why I was there. There was still a wall between me and my children, always had been, I became very conscious in my abuse healing of the wall I had put between me and my children. That while I would support them and talk to them, I was not able to be affectionate with them, I wouldn't touch them very much, particularly my daughter who at the that time was about twelve years old. Then I could feel a sense that I was moving further and further away from her. I think I was doing that for fear that I could become abusive.”
“My son needs love, affection and nurturing and I feel very affectionate but it's dangerous, it’s easier to avoid dealing with the issue.”
“I get along with my kids really well. I worry about my kids a lot. I am actually playing sort of both roles, their mother’s not very affectionate, so they get their cuddles and their affection from me.”
“I worry about where they go and where their mother takes them. I talk to them and they have done stranger danger at school. I explained to them that that’s a really important thing but it’s not always strangers. I said even if you are at school and you feel uncomfortable then tell someone.”
“I never felt too close to them, I was always a bit stand-offish with my older kids. I was also a bit authoritative too.”
“In the initial stages of my healing it was hard for me, it was very sad, I watched my children, particularly my second son who is very much like me, and who does a lot of knitting and crocheting and picking the flowers, a lot of those things that would have termed as girlie things. He is so sensitive and so loving and I watch him do that and think that would have been me if I had or had a supporting parent. In a sense whilst it brings me some sadness that I wasn’t able to do that, it also brings up some joy to see him so alive, so spontaneous and to know that’s me, I am alive and I am spontaneous.”