Over the past few decades, our culture has experienced a slowly dawning realization of how frequently sexual abuse of children and adolescents occurs. The mental health community has responded, but most of the attention and treatment models have been designed for and targeted to girls and women. Little attention has been paid to the fact that boys and young men are also frequent targets of non-consensual sex. When treatment and interventions were used for male targets of non-consensual sex, the models used have generally been those designed for females.
We know that boys and men experience sexual betrayal differently. We “encode” or understand and internalize the experience differently. Our lives, relationships and understanding of the world are impacted in ways that can be starkly different from the way girls and women are impacted. Social and cultural norms and myths conspire to keep the male targets of non-consensual sex from speaking out and getting help or support.
I use the phrase “male targets of non-consensual sex” rather than the more common “male sexual abuse victims” or “sexually abused males/men” intentionally and for several reasons. Among these, the label “victim” can be too off-putting or too threatening to one’s masculinity. Also, boys who experience sexual activity in early or pre-adolescence with someone older may often view themselves as “lucky” or “early developers” rather than seeing it as something harmful. Nevertheless, these early initiation encounters can, and frequently do, have long-lasting negative repercussions. An adolescent or child, regardless how willing at the time, has not experienced the emotional or intellectual development required to truly give consent to such activity. I use the phrase “male targets of non-consensual sex” because it encompasses all these individuals: those who were forced into sexual activity against their will as well as those who may have participated but who were not equipped to give meaningful consent.
Men who have experienced sexual betrayal, regardless of how they felt about it at the time, commonly experience questions and conflicts about their masculinity, sexual orientation, boundaries and intimacy. Many are secretly terrified that they will continue the cycle of abuse. Many clients have spent years carrying what they view as a toxic secret about themselves. Carrying such a secret is terribly corrosive to their sense of self, relationships and day-to-day functioning. Prior to entering treatment, substance abuse is common for these men, as is repressing the memory of the abuse.
With detailed understanding of how men experience these events, the proper support and guidance and, most importantly, the safe space to do the emotional work, life can get so much better! The corrosive secrecy and negative self-image can be left behind, replaced by a clearer understanding of the earlier experiences, a clearer conscience, a stronger sense of self and a more positive, healthy future.
I have been committed to working with the men I describe above since shortly after starting my private practice. I have made it my mission to help them from the time they first start to deal with their history until they reach a place of acceptance and peace with their past as well as optimism about their future.