Dealing with childhood sexual abuse
Many men have experienced sexual abuse in their lives when they were young. Sexual abuse includes any unwanted sexual contact from another person, especially from someone in authority. Often the abusers are older members of the family and they are usually (but not always) men. Sometimes they are people in positions of authority like teachers, sports coaches, school counsellors, religious ministers or scout masters. For those who have spent time in boys’ homes and juvenile institutions, the abuse often came from staff and older guys. Indigenous Australians have had to struggle against the sexual abuse and assaults that occurred in missions and boys’ homes.
Who can a man tell?
"Who can a man tell" is an excellent booklet written specifically to assist men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. It is also for partners, friends and family of men. Living Well wishes to express its appreciation to the men and women of the Education Centre Against Violence of New South Wales, for developing this valuable resource.
Who can a man tell? Information for men who were sexually assaulted as children, their parents, spouses and friends (2003). See http://www.ecav.health.nsw.gov.au/online-shop/booklets-manuals/who-can-a-man-tell/
Note: Not everything in this publication will be relevant to every man who experienced sexual abuse. Every individual’s experience is unique and every individual reacts differently to a given situation. When reading about the problems and difficulties which often derive from childhood sexual assault readers are, therefore, urged:
- To recognise that the extent of these problems and difficulties will also vary very much from one person to another;
- To select whatever information is helpful and applicable to them;
- To recognise that, with appropriate help and support, problems and difficulties can be overcome, they can free themselves from the effects of the abuse, and develop a positive outlook on the future.
Some questions to consider
In providing information related to child sexual abuse, Living Well is very much aware that everyone has their own story to tell. It is not uncommon, when reading about what is currently known about the sexual abuse of men that the details of someone’s own personal experience slip into the background. Important accounts of the ways in which as a child the man resisted or protested can become lost over time. Following are some questions and ideas that others have found helpful for thinking through experiences of sexual 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, trying to influence what the abuser is doing, seeking comfort afterwards or confiding in an imaginary friend or toy. Older children or young people who are abused also take actions whenever possible to lessen the harm and frequency of abuse and to seek comfort where it is available. Even in the harshest of situations young people take these small steps but, because there is 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 significant 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.
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 when a young man didn’t attend family events, ran away from home or skipped school to avoid the abuser. These actions may have been understood negatively by others, but they 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 sexual abuse, some boys and young men withdraw from various relationships, 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 interpret these actions negatively, 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 abuse brought a sense of profound isolation, and 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?
Acknowledgement: The above material was adapted from the ‘Prisoner Rape Support Package’, developed by the Preventing Prisoner Rape Project at the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide.