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Male Survivors of Incest
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 and Sexuality

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 of this.

Frequent Issues and Problems

Anxiety and/or confusion: panic attacks, fears and phobias

Depression and suicidal thoughts

Low self-esteem

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

Social alienation

Multiple personalities

Substance Abuse

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:

  1. Vulnerability = Weakness
  2. Rigidity = Strength
  3. Comfort = Safety
  4. 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 failure."

"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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 unanswered questions.
  5. 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 same.

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.