Male Survivors of
and Sexual Child Abuse
The traditional definition of incest is sexual activity between blood relatives.
Michael Lew's definition of incest is more inclusive. Incest is a violation of a position
of trust, power, and protection. Sex between blood relatives is just one part of a more
inclusive view of incest. Incest differs from other forms of sexual abuse in that the
perpetrator is assumed to stand in a protective (parental) role to the victim. It is not
necessary that the "parenting" figure be a family member. The perpetrator could
be a relative by blood or marriage, parent, stepparent, older sibling, neighbor, family
friend, teacher, member of the clergy, therapist, physician, baby-sitter, camp counselor,
or any other care-taker.
Messages about Masculinity
To understand the context in which abuse, survival, and recovery take place,
there must be an understanding and examination of the cultural beliefs regarding abuse,
victims, perpetrators, children, women and men. Masculinity training begins at birth.
Studies have shown that male and female babies tend to be held differently, treated
differently, and given differing degrees of attention.
Once men accept that they fail to meet the standards of masculinity, they carry a sense
of inferiority into most areas of life. Men often spend their lives trying to
"prove" their masculinity, or have succumbed to the feeling that because they
aren't "all men," they aren't men at all. No true man displays
"womanly" attributes. Men must not show "softer emotions." Men must be
strong, devoid of fear, unflinching, and capable. Any lapse into doubt, confusion,
tenderness or emotionalism is perceived as weakness.
Restricting the range of permissible behavior and emotions compromises a man's
creativity and his ability to respond flexibly to life situations. for the man or boy
whose temperament is incompatible with the traditional male image, life can be hell. He
may be teased, ridiculed, shunned, or even brutalized. It may be difficult for him to
achieve credibility in social, educational, and professional environments. He may be
rejected by his family as a source of embarrassment. Failing to develop into the male
ideal, some men pretend to be what they are not, turning themselves into a parody of
traditional machismo. Others give up the attempt, rejecting themselves because of their
perceived failure as men.
The traditional view of the "ideal " male leaves every male feeling isolated.
Forced to depend only upon themselves (for fear of seeming less than a man) cooperating
becomes a virtual impossibility. Vulnerability, seen as weakness, is equally impossible.
Men, in turn, do not have access to their tender, emotional, nurturing, and sympathetic
qualities. Rigid adherence to a particular view of masculinity not only increases the
incidence of victimization, but severely inhibits prospects of recovery.
The male is expected to be confident, knowledgeable, experienced, aggressive, and
dominant. Our culture provides no room for a man as a victim. Men are simply not supposed
to be victimized. A. "real" man is expected to be able to solve any problem and
recover from any setback. When he experiences victimization, our cultural expects him to
be able to "deal with like a man." Men are supposed to be in control of their
feelings at all times. the survivor's ongoing feelings of confusion, frustration, anger,
and fear can be further evidence of his failing as a man. the victimized male wonders and
worries about what the abuse has turned him into. Believing that he is no longer an
adequate man, he may see himself as a child, a woman, gay, or less than human.
The survivor may set himself up as a:
- Perpetrator - He feels that he must achieve power so as to avoid
further victimization. The world is divided in victims and perpetrators, abuse can be
interpreted as power.
- Victim - Once again, the survivor feels that the only options to
men are the roles of victim and perpetrators. Knowing how he felt as a victim, he is
determined that he will never be a victim again, he is determined that he will never
victimize another human being. So he resigns himself to remaining a victim.
- Protector - Feeling that children are in constant danger from
adults, many male survivors deal with their fear of being abused by taking on the role of
protector. Many enter the human service professions.
Male survivors of incest often deal with confusion about their sexuality. Since the
abuse was committed sexually, it is often seen as an act of sexual passion instead of an
aggressive and destructive violation. Questions about their sexuality often centers on the
issue of their sexual orientation since most of the perpetrators are men. Heterosexual
survivors wonder whether they can ever function successfully as a sexual partner to a
woman-Am I man enough. This concern can lead to sexual "performance anxiety" or
promiscuous behavior in an attempt to "prove his Manhood." The question also
asked is, "Does this mean I'm gay?" For gay men this question often takes the
form of, "Is this why I'm gay?" Lew states that virtually every gay male in his
incest recovery groups report that they have tried to trace their homosexuality to the
abuse. Another question asked is, "Did this happen to me because I'm gay?"
Adult survivors of sexual abuse live their lives in the face of massive shame.
Survivors face shame that they "allowed themselves" to be demeaned and weakened.
If they enjoyed any part of the abuse they see it as further confirmation of their
shortcomings-they have failed as human beings and as men. Any sexual activity with a man
or woman can re stimulate shameful feelings. sex has been so strongly associated with
victimization and shame that it takes great effort to break the connection.
Survival and Aftereffects
Losses Manifested in Adult Life
Loss of memory of childhood. One way of dealing with
the pain is to put what has happened out of the mind. If child has to deny or forget what
is happening to him in order to survive the abusive situation, he may find, as an adult,
that he has literally lost his childhood
Loss of healthy social contact. When a child feels that
the only safety is in isolation, it seriously impairs his ability to respond to others.
Protecting himself from abusers by keeping to himself, he also misses out on the
possibility of positive, healthy social interactions-with peers and adults. This isolation
is often reinforced by the perpetrator. As a way of keeping the abuse secret the abuser
may, usually successful, attempt to isolate the child form other people.
Loss of opportunity to play. If you ask people what
children do with their time, the most frequent answer would be "play." This is
not true for many abused children. True play is interactive and requires playmates. He can
not relax or trust others enough to enjoy playing. Easy, active, spontaneous playfulness
feels too much like loss of control.
Loss of opportunity to learn. In the course of play
children learn to communicate, cooperate, compete, problem solve, coordinate, create and
behave in age-appropriate ways.
Loss of control over one's body. The most intimate
aspect of oneself is one's body. Sexual abuse violates a child's sense of his himself in
the most basic way. Someone else takes control of his body against his will.
Loss of normal loving. Childhood should be a time when
every child learns that he is good, lovable, wanted, welcomed, and that information,
understanding, and protection are available from loving adults. child abuse prevents all
Frequent Issues and Problems
Anxiety and/or confusion: panic attacks, fears and phobias
Depression and suicidal thoughts
Shame and quilt over acts of commission and/or omission
Inability to trust themselves or others
Fear of feelings
Nightmares and flashbacks
Violence or fear of violence
Discomfort with being touched
Compulsive sexual activity
Unrealistic and negative body image
Projected Masks and Images
Blistering: Filing room with words leaving no room for
anyone to pierce fragile defenses.
Invisible: Silent and self-effacing
Intimidating: Intelligent, glib, sharp-witted and
psychologically savvy that no one challenges his verbal barrages.
Angry: Radiating rage, criticism, and intolerance
Outrageous: Shocking in word, appearance, and behavior
Placating/pleasing: Being so nice and caring that
attention is directed towards others.
Comedy: Relying on superficiality and banter to distract
attention away from pain.
Teddy Bear: The warm, comforting and non threatening
creature that is safe..
Academic: Retreating into his head to keep from contacting
with painful emotions.
Four Myths that interfere with Recovery:
- Vulnerability = Weakness
- Rigidity = Strength
- Comfort = Safety
- Under Control = In Charge
Therapeutic Issues and Concerns
Some of the reasons men come up with to avoid seeking therapy:
"I should be able to do it myself."
"If I go for psychological help, I'm admitting
"It's not that bad." "Its not serious
enough to require treatment."
"It's too expensive. I can't afford it."
"I don't want people to know I'm in therapy. Everyone
will think I'm wacko."
"I don't want some shrink telling me what to
do." "I'm afraid it will completely change my personality."
The fact that there are many different helpful therapeutic styles does not mean
that all therapies are helpful. Not everything that is called therapy is therapeutic-some
so called therapeutic practices are, at best, counterproductive for the incest survivor.
At worst, they can be abusive.
- Beware of re-creating the abuse. As an incest survivor, they must never be re
victimized. It does not matter whether the victimization is actual or symbolic, it is
harmful. Any role-playing, psychodrama, guided fantasy, or other techniques that simulates
the original abusive situation with the client in the role of victim will be frightening
and destructive to recovery.
- Beware of inappropriate touching. Part of the recovery process demands that the client
is in complete charge of their body. They have the absolute right to decide who can touch
them, and set limits on when and how they are touched. this extends to hugs, pats on the
shoulder, and even handshakes.
- Beware of being authoritative. A great deal of harm was done to the client when someone
in their life insisted that they knew what was best for them. Recovery means being in
ultimate charge of their lives.
- Beware of being unresponsive. There are some therapist who provide virtually no feedback
to their clients. The client is left to imagine what the therapist is thinking, projecting
his own ideas onto the counselor. The client has lived much of their life in a kind of
isolation having to fall back on their own resources which often leaves them with many
- Beware of being critical and judgment. The client is an expert at self-criticism and
negative self-judgments it will only be counterproductive or abusive if you in turn do the
Confronting the Abuser
Confronting the perpetrator is a difficult and complex issue. A client must give a
great deal of thought to the question of why they would want to do it-and whether
confrontation is in their best interest. There is no general rule about confrontation. It
is highly individual and personal decision. For some people it is a logical step in their
recovery; for others it could be a dangerous and self-destructive act. The real meaning of
confrontation is to stand up to the abuse. It represents a recognition that:
What happened to the client was abusive.
Sexual child abuse is wrong.
The client did not deserve to be abused.
The client is not responsible for the abuse.
People must be accountable for their actions.
Confrontation, then, proceeds from a position of growing strength which states that
every human being deserves respect. Each person has the right to control his or her body. Confrontation
is not the goal of recovery. It is a tool for recovery.
Forgiving the Abuser
It is not necessary for the client to forgive the person who abused them!
Forgiveness is an individual matter.
Help the client take their time. Help the client to not
rush to forgive. Whether or not forgiveness will ever be relevant, it is not appropriate
in the early stages of recovery.
Help the client protect themselves. Beware of the client
getting trapped by a sense of pity. Help the client not yield to the inclination to
protect or take care of the perpetrator. Even if the client cares deeply for their abuser.
The perpetrator is not in need of protection.
Help the client explore their feelings around considering
or wanting to forgive their abuser.
Help the client understand that they can change their
mind. Recovery is a dynamic process. Things sometime change. What seems appropriate at on
point in their recovery may be counterproductive or irrelevant at another.
Help the client understand that forgiveness isn't
"all or nothing."
Help the client understand that the process of forgiving a
person should not take the form of condoning the abuse.
Adapted from Mike Lew's book
titled, "Victims no longer: Men recovering from incest and other sexual child
abuse," Published by Harper in Row in 1988.