If you asked me ten years ago if I’d been sexually exploited you would’ve slammed into a wall of outrage and denial. You would’ve faced soaring indignation and some ugly counter claims, an attack designed to protect myself and change the subject. Also, you would’ve been completely right.
For males the sexual abuse question is particularly offensive because its implications defy all our decided upon cultural rules. These rules are stereotypes we willingly accept, the everyday gender expectations reinforced by both men and women. Sexual abuse—with its implications of shame and weakness—confuses things because men are supposed to be bold, unashamed and virile. Men are strong, silent, impervious to emotion. We’re not allowed to be vulnerable or feeble. That’s not a man. A real man is strong like a fortress. A real man rubs some dirt on it and moves on. A real man is full of shit.
If you asked me today if I’d been sexually exploited you would hear an emphatic yes and an unburdening that would likely make you regret you even asked. You’d hear about years trapped in silence, the PTSD, the drugs and the alcohol and the crippling depression. You’d hear about my long, slow journey to healing. But it’s only recently that I’ve been able to speak so frankly about my childhood and my checkered past.
Recent studies from RAINN and the Justice Department estimate 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused. Meanwhile Malesurvivor.org, the leading advocacy group for sexually abused men, suggests it takes 20 years for a man to disclose the pain of his abuse. In my case it took me well over 30. No one should have to go through that. Here are my top five clues that someone is suffering the lingering effects of sex abuse and may need your help and support.
MUTED EMOTION: A boy who’s suffered sex abuse is left feeling ashamed and sad, betrayed and confused, isolated and detached. He keeps the abuse and his feelings secret. There is no help for him so the only thing he can do is mute his emotions and go numb to the pain. Bad things happen—he feels little or nothing. Good things happen—he feels little or nothing. He is not in touch with the immediacy of his emotions. Although they’re all there it’s like they’re on tape-delay and it takes him a long time to realize he is feeling something. It might take days for the adult survivor to register feelings like frustration or annoyance or even danger and fear. People may say he allows things that bother him to “build up,” but in actuality he’s so detached he doesn’t know he’s even feeling these muted emotions.
EXPLOSIONS of RAGE: In my court-ordered anger management class they told me anger is a secondary emotion hinting at underlying emotions such as fear, shame, betrayal, and confusion. The male survivor of childhood sex abuse is already brimming with these emotions, regardless of his commitment to ignore them. His calm exterior hides a cauldron of rage. All it takes is some small trigger for him to suddenly unleash a wrath like that of an angry and vengeful god. His outsized reaction is far greater than the cost of his momentary issue yet he’ll have no idea why that thing that had set him off seemed so infuriating to him. His emotional reservoir was already full up with pre-existing fury.
DRUG and ALCOHOL ABUSE: It’s hard work to mute all emotion and survive on a steady diet of loneliness and outrage. Luckily, we’ve got beer, wine, booze, pills, coke, and ecstasy. We’ve got nitrous, opium, acid, heroin and PCP. A 2002 National Institute of Health publication on drug abuse states that, “overall, childhood sexual abuse was more strongly associated with drug or alcohol dependence than with any of the psychiatric disorders,” such as depression and anxiety. That means a person who survived child abuse is more likely to become drug or alcohol dependent than they are likely to develop conditions such as major depression or anxiety. Adults abused as children are at least three times more likely to become drug and alcohol dependent than the rest. The findings came from a study of over one thousand women who were interviewed about their sexual abuse as girls. There is no parallel longitudinal study of men because (1) men are strong and don’t get abused and (2) they would never discuss such a topic even if they were.
OVERACHIEVING: Not all abuse victims are gutter dwelling bottom feeders like me. Many are doctors, lawyers, and Op-Ed writers for the New York Times. In his memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Charles M. Blow recounts how an older cousin molested him one night. He hated the feelings of isolation and weakness and so he worked to overcome that damage. He became a tough-guy and the captain of the basketball team and a scholar and an honors student and his high school valedictorian. He became a fraternity president and a campus lothario and then he became the youngest managing editor at the New York Times. He did everything he could to present like a man is supposed to be: strong, motivated, aggressive, accomplished. But despite the outward status, the mere sound of his cousin’s voice made Blow shake with rage and descend into a vortex of uncontrollable emotion.
INABILITY TO FORM FRIENDSHIPS: Almost all sexual abuse of a child is performed by someone the child knows and trusts. The betrayal of abuse is such that it leaves a person unable to trust again, especially other males. Regular guys are everything we’re not. They’re invulnerable, uncompromised, unbroken. Regular guys don’t question gender expectations because they’ve never been forced to live on the other side of that street. So the male survivor mistrusts people and keeps them at an arm’s length, especially men who embody all that robust and competitive manliness that we so plainly lack. The survivor feels like he is not a man because he is broken in a way that prevents him from conforming to male gender expectations. Mistrust, shame and inferiority make it hard for him to form true friendships, even among other survivors.
If a person demonstrates one or two of these factors it’s not always due to a history of sexual abuse. Many emotional traumas will present in these ways. If he demonstrates three or four of these factors, the likelihood of sexual abuse as a primary cause increases. If you think someone is suffering from unaddressed trauma, show him this post and start a dialog. The single most important aid for any type of survivor is someone who will listen without judgement.