Remember growing up and hearing the word "pervert"? Nobody wanted anything to do with them--they were the "sick and demented" people whom everyone despised. And yet the word "pervert" is used both for people who sexually abuse children, as well as lesbians and gay men. By very definition lesbians and gay men are considered child molesters.
Newspapers draw connections between the sexual abuse of boys by men and gay sex all the time. When a mainstream newspaper covers a story of men sexually abusing boys, it is referred to as homosexual abuse of children. Yet, when the same newspaper covers stories of men sexually abusing girls, it is not described as heterosexual abuse. Male-to-male child sexual abuse is equated with gay sex when there is nothing gay about it.
While women also sexually abuse boys, in this article I focus on the unique dynamic and effects of men sexually abusing boys.
Victims of Sexual Abuse are Assumed to be Gay
Since male-to-male sexual abuse is believed to be the equivalent of gay sex, the victim is also believed to be gay. Some survivors are even called "fags" by the men who abuse them. Others don't tell anyone about the abuse because they know that they'll be blamed and taunted with homophobic slurs. One survivor told me that after he went public about being a survivor, he was in a store holding hands with his girlfriend and someone said,"I thought he'd be a fag".
The Myth of the All-Powerful Man
A common myth is that men cannot be victims. The thinking goes, "He's a guy...he could have stopped it if he really wanted to." It's assumed that the survivor must have consented because sexual abuse does not happen to "real" men, and thus since he must have consented, he must be gay. Add to this the common, but mistaken belief that boys and men cannot become erect or ejaculate unless they are aroused or consent, and we have a powerful and pervasive belief system that keeps male survivors silent and ashamed.
The Myth that Sexual Abuse Causes You to be Gay
Even when survivors identify as straight, they are not believed because of another homophobic myth that sexual abuse "causes" homosexuality. There is no evidence that suggests abuse causes one's sexuality. Our sexuality is far too complex. If anything, we live in a society that tries to ensure that everyone is straight, and this perhaps more than anything else has a profound influence on how people identify their sexuality.
While it is true that survivors of abuse, like anyone else, can engage in sexual behaviours that they may not desire, but engage in for very a variety of reasons, this is equally true for heterosexual and homosexual sex. In other words, someone can engage in gay acts and not be gay, just as someone can engage in heterosexual acts and not be heterosexual.
"Is This What it Means to be Gay?"
Most often abusers hold positions of authority and are known and trusted by their victims. This has a powerful effect on the victims. Because the child respects the abuser, or the abuser is an authority figure (for example, an older brother, father or coach), the child tells himself that the abuse must be okay?perhaps even normal. And, if it's okay, the child reasons, and since it involves sexual acts, then it must be sex. The child may ask himself, "Is this what it means to be gay?" This association is extremely harmful to survivors?both gay and straight.
How do These Myths Impact on Abused Men?
The very nature of sexual abuse and incest, and its associated stigma causes humiliation, shame, self-blame, fear, and secrecy for survivors. It can be hard for them to speak openly about their experiences. Survivors of male-to-male sexual abuse have to contend with the additional stigma and impact of homophobia, which increases their shame, isolation, and secrecy.
Equating the abuse with gay sex leaves most survivors confused and conflicted about their sexuality. If they identify as straight, they may experience homophobic fear and panic that maybe they really aren't. They may take desperate measures to prove to themselves that they aren't gay. Some men may behave in a really macho way, for example, have sex with a number of women, try to get a woman pregnant, or harass gay men. They may in fact be gay, but the thought of being the same as their abuser stops them from coming out, or from feeling comfortable with their gay sexuality.
It's not uncommon for survivors of abuse to blame themselves, but men blame themselves for different reasons than women. Men often believe, and quite strongly, that they "let it happen" simply because they are men. Men are supposed to be all powerful--never victims--even when they are children. This places an incredible burden on boys and men, often leaving them feeling guilty, ashamed, depressed, self-hating, and conflicted about their gender and sexuality.
If the survivor got an erection or climaxed during the abuse, his self-blame and confusion may be even more extreme. Even though these are normal physiological responses to stimulation and/or fear, and do not indicate consent or desire, the child doesn't know this. Adults often don't know it either. To the child, getting an erection or climaxing may feel like one more indication that he "let it happen," or "proof" that he enjoyed it, engulfing him in even more shame, confusion, conflict about his sexuality, and anger toward himself and his body.
How does Sexual Abuse and Homophobia Effect Gay Men?
Both sexual abuse and homophobia have a profound impact on gay men's ability to feel comfortable with themselves, their bodies, their sexuality, and their sexual relationships. If sexual abuse is a gay man's framework for understanding what it is to be gay, being gay may be viewed as something profoundly shameful and dirty; and something that needs to be hidden, like a dreadful secret. This association with the abuse, in addition to the homophobia that lesbians and gays routinely face, makes it particularly hard for gay survivors to feel comfortable with themselves, their bodies, their sexuality and coming out. Gay survivors can feel like their sexuality is as shameful as their abuse was, and may have a hard time separating the two. They may feel like they are abusers, feeling as though they are guilty too, or they may worry that all gay men are abusive.
If a survivor's understanding of what it means to be gay is derived from having been sexually abused by older men, a survivor may express his sexuality through anonymous sex with older men. Of course, this can be a choice apart from abuse, but it can also be a replaying of something familiar and unresolved. In addition, given the likelihood that the survivor was abused by someone that he knew and trusted, it may feel easier, or safer, to have sex with someone he doesn't know or trust.
The gay survivor may worry, "Am I gay because of the abuse?" In my experience, this question reflects how badly he feels about himself and his sexuality, and the question is a result of the combined effects of sexual abuse and homophobia. Survivors often feel shameful, "bad" and "dirty," and believe they are "damaged goods." In a homophobic context, this shame extends to being gay. Straight survivors may feel dirty about themselves and having sex, but they do not feel dirty about being straight. A gay survivor who sees a causal relationship between the abuse and his sexuality is likely to experience a lot of conflict about being gay, and may end up resigning himself to being gay. He doesn't feel good about the abuse, so how can he feel good about something he believes is caused by the abuse?
If he's fortunate, he is able to distinguish between sexual abuse and being gay. But even if he is comfortable with being gay, he may struggle to let himself enjoy being sexual and close with another man. Having sex with a man can bring up frightening feelings and memories. He may feel like he is back there again with the man (or men) who raped him. His body may go numb, and even though he goes through the motions of having sex, he may not feel really connected.
During sex, he may find himself behaving or responding in similar ways to the way he behaved or was forced to behave when he was abused, or behaving in ways similar to how his abuser behaved. He may try to please his partner with little or no regard for his own pleasure, or have little or no regard for his partner's pleasure. He may feel like he's performing, even thought he doesn't want to. He may place himself in situations where he doesn't have enough control because that's what he knows. Or, he may be very controlling during sex because he didn't have control when he was abused, and that's how he was treated (although having been abused doesn't excuse being insensitive or abusive, if that's the case.) Although he may crave emotional and physical closeness, he may avoid them for fear of being hurt or betrayed again. On a deep level, he may not feel safe with or trust men which makes it very difficult for him to have meaningful relationships, or to feel proud of being gay.
Clearly there is a profound difference between sexual abuse and being gay--one connotes control over a child, coercion, force, exploitation, and abuse, and the other connotes sexual freedom, free choice, romance, and love. Unfortunately, gay survivors may have a hard time feeling this difference and may struggle to come out, accept themselves, trust other men, have sex, or be in a relationship.
We Need to Support Survivors
Homophobia and myths about men silence male sexual abuse survivors. Sometimes even the gay community hesitates to talk about it, for fear that it will be used against us (to promote the myth that gay men are child molesters). While many men who sexually abuse boys identify as heterosexual, sexual abuse is not about someone's sexuality or sexual identity. Child sexual abuse is about power and domination; the sexual component is a weapon. We need to separate abuse from sex, acknowledge that men are sexually abused, and take a stand on this serious problem. Whether we like it or not, it's an issue that many men have to face. They shouldn't have to face it alone.
Boys sexually abused by men
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