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Sexually Victimized Boys

This is an exert of an article which first appeared in the Fall, 1989, Vol. 29 issue of the Virginia Child Protection Newsletter and is reprinted by permission of VCPN.


Sexual abuse of boys has been overlooked or minimized. Very little is written that specifically addresses the effects of sexual abuse on male children. Boy victims have not been readily identified and even when identified, parents have not often sought treatment for their male children. Thus, there is little to guide the clinician in the assessment and treatment of this population.

Regardless of the actual prevalence of sexual abuse of males, all sources consulted agreed that the reported cases reflect only a fraction of the actual number. For example, the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NCCAN, 1981) estimated 7,600 cases of sexually abused boys known to professionals in the United States for 1979. Assuming a 2.5 percent rate (the lowest rate of the incidence studies), a total of 550,000 of the current 20 million boys under 13 have been sexually abused. To produce this number, approximately 46,000 new victimization's would have to occur each year (Finkelhor, 1984). (Ed.'s note: Current statistics indicate as many as 1 in 5 males are victims of sexual abuse.)

The fact that general surveys show much higher rates of male victimization than child protective service reports, clinical studies and hospital records strongly suggest that sexual abuse of boys is not reported and that treatment is not sought frequently for male victims.

Why does under reporting occur? It is difficult for any child to report sexual abuse. Children typically fail to report abuse because they feel guilty about the behavior, because of threats they have received or because they fear they will not be believed. The child's relationship with the offender may be the only positive relationship available and the child may fear losing the offender.

In addition to the pressures which also affect girls, boys have additional reasons for silence. First, boys are taught by our culture that males simply are not victims, (Nasjleti, 1980). "If men aren't to be victims, then victims aren't men" (Lew, 1988, p. 63). Thus, for a male to admit to being a victim is to deny his manhood.

Second, men in our culture are taught to "tough it out" rather than to ask for help. Even if a boy is able to define his experience as victimization or "being ripped off," he is likely to regard the consequences as his problem rather than asking for help.

Third, most adult sexual offenders are male. Our society is homophobic, and many young males assume that they were selected for sexual activity by a male because of some homosexual attribute. Thus, to admit to a homosexual assault is tantamount to admitting to homosexuality (Nielsen, 1983). Others believe that homosexual molestation will cause them to become homosexual. Not wanting to be labeled by peers and others as "gay" should the assault become known, the male victim "suffers in silence" (Nasjleti, 1980).

If the perpetrator was a women, the boy may feel that others will ridicule him or not take the abuse seriously. After all, males with early sexual experience are regarded as precocious and lucky. If the abuser was his mother, some boys may fear that the molestation is proof that they are mentally ill (Nasjleti, 1980). The strongest cultural taboos against molestation are toward mothers and these make reporting more devastating for a son (Krug, 1989).

Fourth, boys may fear being punished or held responsible for the abuse. The general public believes that boys are capable of self-defense and preventing sexual abuse. boys who report sexual abuse frequently encounter either disbelief or blame (Nasjleti, 1480).

Fifth, boys may fail to report due to the fear of loss of freedom and restriction of their activities. Traditionally in our culture, boys are allowed more independence than girls. A predictable consequence of informing one's parents of sexual abuse would be limitation of unsupervised activities (Nielsen, 1980).

Finally, male victims may fail to report sexual molestation with adults because the boys in some cases do not perceive the sexual activity as abusive. This perception may be due to denial or minimization in order to avoid overwhelming and unacceptable feelings of helplessness. Whatever the reason, researchers have found that some male victims report neutral or positive effects of sexual activity with adults (Brown, Condy, Tempter & Veaco, 1987; Fritz, et al, 1981; Johnson & Shrier, 1985; Sandfort, 1984).