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Childhood Sexual Abuse

Many men have had experiences of childhood sexual abuse in their lives. When we speak of childhood sexual abuse, we are generally referring to sexual abuse a man experienced when he was young — historical abuse.

Sexual abuse includes any unwanted sexual contact from another person, especially from someone in authority. Often the abusers are older or stronger members of the family, and they are usually (but not always) men. Sometimes they are people in positions of authority, such as teachers, sports coaches, school counsellors, religious ministers, or scout masters. For those who have spent time in boy’s homes and juvenile institutions, the abuse often came from staff and older guys. 

We are very much aware that everyone has their own story to tell. It is not uncommon, when reading about what is known generally about the childhood abuse of men, that the details of someone’s own personal experience slip into the background. For example, important accounts of the ways that, as a child, the person resisted or protested can become lost over time. Even if these stories don’t become lost, they can often be misinterpreted, downplayed, or considered to be “not enough.” With this in mind, following are some questions and ideas that others have found helpful for thinking through their experiences of sexual abuse.

Resisting abuse

Even young children in very powerless situations take steps to try to reduce the effects of abuse while it is occurring. These efforts might involve small things like:

  • Closing their eyes.
  • Imagining they are elsewhere.
  • Crying.
  • Freezing or playing dead.
  • Obliquely trying to influence the abuser’s behaviour.
  • Seeking comfort afterwards or confiding in an imaginary friend or toy.

These efforts to resist the abuse are signs of strength and indicate that the child was taking control of the things that they did have power or control over.

Older children or young people who are abused also take actions whenever possible. This may include ways to lessen the harm and frequency of abuse, or to seek comfort where it is available. Even in the harshest of situations young people take these small steps. However, because there is often little chance to talk about these things, they may have been forgotten.

If memories of childhood sexual abuse are coming into your mind, it can be important to try to remember the ways in which you sought comfort during those years, and the ways in which you tried to escape the effects of abuse.

If, in response to this, you find a voice in your mind telling you, “but it wasn’t enough,” or “I should have done more,” it can be helpful to remind that voice that there are many reasons that a child, at the time, is not able to do more. That in a moment of trauma we generally do what we feel will keep us most safe.

Stories of protest

Some young men who were subjected to sexual abuse tell stories of how they were understood by others to be ‘juvenile delinquents,’ or ‘anti-social,’ or ‘a problem’ when they were young. These labels may have been created by others to describe certain behaviours. For example, say the young man refused to attend family events, ran away from home, or skipped school. In many cases these behaviours were designed to avoid the abuser. This may have been understood negatively by others, but it can also be seen as acts of resistance.

  • If you were unable to speak about your experiences of abuse, do you think that this influenced you to make some other sort of statement, like challenging rules?
  • Would your actions of ‘rebellion’ at school have been more or less likely if the abuse had not occurred?
  • Did you hope that these actions of rebellion might make it less likely for the abuse to continue?
  • Do you see your actions as fitting with a story of resistance?

Stories of resilience and spending time alone

After being subjected to childhood sexual abuse, some boys and young men withdraw from various relationships. They may develop ways of spending time alone, take up particular games, and even develop imaginary friends who allow them to escape into a world of their own. Sometimes other people misinterpret these actions, describing these young men as ‘loners’, ‘distant,’ or ‘dreamers’. However, these solitary pursuits often represent stories of resilience, stories of how they kept themselves sane and safe.

  • Were there ways in which your imagination and dreams protected you when you were young?
  • Were there particular games or places that you would escape to?
  • What do these actions say about the young man you were, that you sought out ways to keep yourself sane and safe?

Stories of connection

For many men, experiences of childhood sexual abuse brought a sense of profound isolation. Yet there may have been one or two people with whom they experienced a special connection. This person may have been another child, or a supportive adult – perhaps a teacher – who recognised something positive about them as a young person.

  • Was there any other young person or adult with whom you had a good connection when you were young?
  • What were the sorts of things that you used to do together?
  • What were some of the ways in which this person contributed to your life?
  • What do you think this person saw in you that meant they wanted to spend time with you in these ways?
  • What were some of the ways in which you contributed to their life?
  • What does it mean to you that, despite the effects of abuse, these connections were made?
  • If this person was present now, how do you think they would try to support you?
  • What words of encouragement do you think they offer to assist you with what you are going through?
  • Is there any way that you could reach out to this person now?
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