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Deciding to disclose sexual abuse

Deciding to disclose sexual abuse or sexual assault is a process that takes much time and consideration, particularly for a man. How disclosure of child sexual abuse or sexual assault occurs, and how it is responded to, can significantly influence a man’s future well being. Talking about sexual abuse or sexual assault is no simple matter. Disclosure of childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault is shaped by what a man is feeling or thinking, by the culture in which he lives, and by his assessment as to whether he will be believed and supported. Research indicates that men are far less likely than women to tell someone of experiences of childhood sexual abuse, or to report sexual assault as an adult. [1]

Listed below is some information on what can help or hinder men’s disclosure of sexual abuse or sexual assault. We have also included some questions and points you might want to check out if you are considering telling someone of your experiences. Have a read, take your time, and decide what is relevant or useful for you.

If you are wanting to support a man’s disclosure you might appreciate Men’s disclosure: How you can help.

Barriers to disclosure

Boys and men, like girls and women, commonly do not speak of childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault. This is thought to be due to things such as:

  • Threats, either physical or verbal, from the abuser.
  • Fear of what the reaction might be — what people will think or do.
  • Confusion, guilt, shame, or embarrassment. For example, believing that you were in some way responsible or complicit.
  • Mistrust of others, especially if you have tried to tell in the past and were not believed.
  • Not knowing how to talk about it, or not having the words.
  • Believing people already knew about it, and that they were not concerned.
  • Being worried that if you do tell, you will be told it’s “no big deal.”
  • It feeling too painful to talk about. Fear of losing control, and becoming overwhelmed by emotions. This may then trigger a sense of shame at not coping.
  • Having to explain the circumstances, such as what you were doing there in the first place.
  • A wish to protect others, to keep it a secret in the hope that someone else won’t also be harmed or upset.

I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t find the words to say exactly what he was doing, but hell I tried often enough. Now I wonder why they didn’t guess something was wrong

Men may have even more barriers to deciding to disclose. Men’s ability to speak about sexual violence is further affected by:

Dominant stereotypes of masculinity

Commonly held ideas suggesting that boys and men should be strong and able to defend themselves, even against overwhelming odds. These ideas make it extremely difficult to talk about sexual abuse or assault. In addition, the idea that ‘as a man’ you should be able to cope with anything that is thrown at you, and sort stuff out yourself, can leave a man feeling bad about himself if he is struggling. Beliefs like this, represented by saying such as “stand on your own two feet,” “boys don’t cry,” and “man up,” can stop a boy or man from seeking help.

“…sexual abuse to a man is an abuse against his manhood as well.”

Homophobia and confusion regarding sexuality

Fears related to what the abuse means about your sexuality, or how people will perceive it, can inhibit men speaking out about what was done. If a man was sexually assaulted by a man he may be concerned that people will think he is gay, and discriminate against him. If he was abused by a woman, he may fear that people will not take his complaints seriously, and think he should be okay about it.

If, at that time of the assault, the man developed an erection or became aroused in some way, this can make him even more reluctant to speak about sexual abuse. If this is something you have questions about, please check out our page on Male sexual assault and arousal.

If the man is actually gay, he may believe that he has to face even more stigma and blame.

“If you’re gay, you fear that people will think [the sexual abuse] was something you wanted.”

Concerns that a man will become a ‘perpetrator’ of abuse

A frequently unquestioned myth is that, following an experience of sexual abuse, a man is more likely to become an offender. This belief is very disturbing to men. It can stop them from speaking about abuse out of fear of how they will be perceived or treated afterwards. Read more on our page Addressing the victim to offender cycle.

Lack of visible support for men

A dearth of awareness and services for men who have experienced sexual abuse or sexual assault stops them from deciding to disclose. They are reluctant to ‘open the can of worms’ without some sense that they will be supported, and that it will result in a positive change.
 


 
The above list of barriers to disclosure is by no means complete. Every man has his own personal story to tell.
 

In Western culture, men are taught to be the tough ones: they’re not to cry, they’re supposed to have the answers, be the providers, and above all it’s not okay to show emotion. Would you tell under circumstances like that?

What would you add to the list?

Is there something in particular that has kept you from speaking about sexual abuse or sexual assault, or is it a combination of factors?

Things that may encourage disclosure

Just as men and boys can be discouraged from speaking of abuse, certain events can lead men to speak of their experiences. Disclosure of sexual abuse can be prompted by:

  • Seeing a film about abuse, or hearing a public discussion about sexual abuse, For example, a Kids Helpline advertisement, or films like ‘Mysterious Skin’.
  • Hearing the disclosure of a friend, partner, family member or men’s group member.
  • Seeing the person who perpetrated the sexual abuse.
  • Hearing about or visiting the place where the abuse occurred.
  • Becoming a parent, or being close to a child who turns the age the man was when the abuse was perpetrated.
  • When a relationship breaks down, or when a partner insists that for a relationship to survive you must see a counsellor.
  • When there are public inquiries into abuse or assault (e.g. The Royal Commission, Forde Inquiry).
  • If the police contact you seeking evidence for a prosecution.
  • Reliving the assault through flashbacks or nightmares.
  • Health problems, or a physical check up (e.g. suggestion of a prostate examination).
  • When a partner offers support and understanding.
  • When a man feels he must deal with it or die!

Even though these invitations to speak up may exist, men are only too aware that telling someone about an experience of sexual abuse doesn’t make problems automatically go away. It can be useful to make a list of potential costs and benefits of telling someone, both in the short and long term. If secrecy has been all you have known, the mere thought of telling can produce anxiety and stop you from accessing appropriate care and support.

What has prompted you to consider talking about your experiences now?

How come now? What has happened for you recently?

What are the potential costs and benefits for you if you disclose?

What are the costs and benefits to your relationships, in both the short and long term?

A difficulty with secrecy

Well, it’s just keeping a secret, not letting anybody into your past. You’re so frightened basically of what your family might say against you, or scared of reliving the past, that you don’t want to bring it up. I had what happened in the back of my mind all of the time, but it felt like if I don’t say anything to anybody, well one day I might just end it. And if I went to my grave no one else would ever know what happened to me.

As the above quote suggests, a particular problem that men who experience child sexual abuse or sexual assault often face is that safety can become wrapped up with secrecy in unhelpful ways.

At one point, not saying anything could very well have been a matter of life and death. You might have been only too aware of the potential consequences of telling.

As time went by, you could have become convinced that saying something would be, or cause, too much trouble. That it wouldn’t change anything, or that you would only face questions regarding why you didn’t say anything before.

Although secrecy might minimise harm in the short term, it can have negative effects in the long term. Secrecy about sexual abuse can become isolating. It allows unhelpful voices of self doubt and self blame to take hold of your thoughts and life.

Secrecy can become like a prison, trapping you inside and keeping friends out. However, try to remember that in a safe relationship there is no need for secrecy. You can speak freely of your concerns and ask for and receive support without fear of consequences.

Choosing to tell in a way that prioritises safety

If you are considering speaking with someone about your experiences, try to develop a plan that prioritises your sense of safety and wellbeing. Letting someone know of your experiences does not need to be an ‘all or nothing’ thing. You have the choice of what, and how much, information you share. You decide when and whom to tell. It can be useful to consider the following points.

What is my purpose in sharing this information?

  • What information do I want to share?
  • What am I hoping to achieve by sharing it?
  • What values or goals am I meeting by sharing this?

One way of ensuring that you are able to say what you want to say, is to write it down in a letter or journal. You can write and rewrite a letter until it says exactly what you want it to say. Keepin mind that there is no right way or wrong way of telling someone about your experiences.

If you do write a letter, you can then choose the time when you want to send it. You might even choose to read it to them, or just to use it as a practice run, to get your thoughts clear, prior to having the conversation.

If you do decide to disclose through writing, that’s just as good. Letters can be powerful documents: they signal this matter is important. Some men have also found it useful to write a letter to themselves. A letter of encouragement, or a letter to or from their future self, reminding them what their purpose is in sharing information at this time.

What are you looking for?

Research tells us that if a man receives a positive, supportive response to a disclosure of childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault, it will enhance his overall wellbeing. Unfortunately however, such a response cannot be guaranteed (Washington 1999). In deciding to disclose, and going about sharing your experiences, it can be useful therefore to consider:

  • What am I looking for from this person? What kind of response would I like?
  • What tells me that this person will be able to hear what I am saying?
  • What are my worries and concerns? What might happen?
  • How would I handle it? How might I take care of myself?
  • How might I prepare them for what I am about to say?
  • How might I not place too high an expectation on this person?

Tip: You could print out a copy of the accompanying Living Well page Dealing with Disclosure for partners, friends and families, and have it on hand. This person might want to respond in helpful ways, but might not know what that would involve.

Be prepared for uncertainty

It is useful to remember that when you are talking with someone, it is not possible to determine where the conversation will go. You do not know how they will react, and you cannot plan for every eventuality. How someone responds will be determined by their own history, concerns, values, beliefs and the kind of relationship they have with you.

In talking with someone about experiences of sexual abuse or sexual assault, be careful not to ‘over interpret’ what that person subsequently says or does. It may take some time for someone to take in what you have told them. Consider taking it slowly, taking some time out if necessary to gather your thoughts. It is likely the person you are speaking with will want time to think. They may benefit from doing some of their own research, or having someone to talk with who can assist them to understand and learn better how they can help.

Tip: If you have previously spoken with a counsellor, partner or friend, you could ask them to assist you. Invite them to be present or be available to talk.

Remember

The decision to talk about sexual abuse or sexual assault should be yours. Whether you are talking with a partner, friend, family member, doctor, police officer or counsellor, you have a choice as to how you respond to a question that is asked of you. Give yourself time to think through what has been said, and to review where to from here. While sexual abuse or sexual assault involves taking away your choice, this can be opportunity for you to experience being in control and in charge of your choices.

More information

References

  1. Holmes, W. C. (1998). Sexual abuse of boys: Definition, prevalence, correlates, Sequelae and Management. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 280, No 21.
  2. Pino, N. W., & Meier, R. F. (1999). Gender differences in rape reporting. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 40, 979–987.
  3. Easton, S. D., Saltzman, L. Y., & Willis, D. G. (2013). “Would You Tell Under Circumstances Like That?”: Barriers to Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse for Men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0034223

3 comments

  1. Comment by Cl

    Cl Reply July 27, 2016 at 11:37 pm

    Recently my husband of 5 yrs and i got into a very heated argument about him not feeling adequate in bed for me. this argument went on and off about 3 days.

    his argument was about my sex toy that i received as a gift about 2 years ago; he claimed i didn’t feel satisfied enough with him and that’s why i had it. that it was bigger than him and he felt like as if i had brought another man into our relationship.

    i told him multiple times that was not the case and that he had nothing to worry about, and then i walked in on him in the bathroom and my toy was in there with him. he claimed that he wanted to confirm that he was not smaller than the toy. i brushed it off but two days later i brought it up in a joking manner, and the argument started again. it got so bad i accused him of being a homosexual.. and then after 30 min of more shaming towards him on my part, he yelled out he had been sexually abused as a child when he was 5.

    i was sexually abused as a child as well, and he told me he felt like i would understand but i was being selfish and not seeing things from his point of view.

    after both of us breaking down we apologized to each other for saying such hurtful things, and talked about it. he went into detail with me about the abuse, and i went into detail with him about mine. we came to the conclusion that the abuse we both experienced affected both of us completely. our whole life is basically based on the abuse we had as children. but now even though i’m glad we were able to talk it out, as if a pandora box has been opened, his light in his eyes had dimmed. i feel like this will affect our relationship more, because i know he feels ashamed and very angry.

    i love him and hate to see him feel this way. i need some advice on how we can cope and move on from this, without letting it become a bigger issue, or making him feel like i don’t care.

  2. Comment by Cl

    Cl Reply July 27, 2016 at 11:40 pm

    We both have had counseling but we both feel like it did not help

    • Comment by Jess [Living Well Staff]

      Jess [Living Well Staff] Reply July 28, 2016 at 2:28 pm

      Hi Cl,

      Thanks for getting in touch with us here at Living Well to share your story, and to seek some support through this difficult time. That takes bravery and I want to commend you for taking these steps. It shows that you certainly do care.

      It sounds as though you and your husband had a terrible fight, or series of fights, and that it was really hurtful for both of you. There were misunderstandings and regretful things – said on both sides – that were clearly motivated by pain and a desire to be understood. I’m so glad you’ve managed to heal the breach that was created, and it sounds like it has brought you closer, and to a deeper understanding of each other. Even though the arguing was awful, when these breaches are healed there is a lot of evidence that the whole experience does improve intimacy, communication and relationship health.

      It is possible that a bit more time will be needed for you both to process it all – there is a lot to take in. The most important thing is that, with Pandora’s box opened, there is hope. You are now able to fully support each other through this. The fact that you are here shows that you are willing – and our experience is that this is one of the most important factors for a couple to work through these issues. Being present with each other, trying to be supportive, trying to take the other person’s perspective, and keeping an open mind are the best ways you can help each other.

      Please know that childhood sexual abuse in itself does not mean you are doomed to lives of horrible suffering, or even that it is the centre of all life’s problems. It’s important to recognise that anyone who has experienced trauma of this kind has the capacity to lead a full and rewarding life. Try not to fall into the trap of making experiences of sexual abuse the explanation for everything that has gone or does go wrong. Following an experience of sexual abuse, it is not unusual for people’s lives to become closely connected with problems related to that experience. However, seeing ‘the person as the problem’ and all of their current difficulties as a result of sexual abuse can be counter-productive. Try to consider any issues in the present moment. What is the problem now? What might help now?

      I’m sorry to hear counselling so far has been unhelpful for you both, but please don’t give up. There are professionals out there with a deep understanding of the effects of these traumatic experiences. As it looks like you’re in the US, our partners at 1in6.org may be able to point you in the right direction.

      Otherwise, some information that may be helpful for you and your husband to read includes:
      Dealing with sexual violence
      When your partner discloses sexual abuse
      Common relationship challenges following sexual abuse

      Finally, if you or your husband have any questions regarding his sexuality, our page on Sexual assault and arousal can be a bit confronting but does hopefully answer some of these. It is not uncommon for men to question their sexuality following sexual abuse or assault, as these unwanted experiences can be very confusing, especially for a child.

      I hope that helps Cl. Please take care. Best of luck to you both.

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