Men and disclosure – Deciding to tell
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 more less likely than women to tell someone of experiences of childhood sexual abuse or report sexual assault as an adult. 
Listed below is some information on what can help or hinder men’s disclosure of sexual abuse or sexual assault, along with 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, physical or verbal, from the abuser.
- Fear of what people will think or do.
- Confusion, guilt, shame, 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 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 (which may trigger a sense of shame at not coping).
- Having to explain 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’s ability to speak about sexual violence is further impacted on by:
- Dominant stereotypes of masculinity that suggest that boys and men should be strong and able to defend themselves, even against overwhelming odds, make it 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 (“stand on you own two feet,” “big boys don’t cry”) can leave a man feeling bad about himself if he is struggling and stop him from seeking help. “…sexual abuse to a man is an abuse against his manhood as well.”
- Homophobia and confusion regarding sexuality can inhibit men speaking 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 or if he was abused by a woman 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 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 following an experience of sexual abuse is disturbing to men. This stops them from speaking about abuse out of fear of how they will be perceived or treated afterwards.
- Lack of visible support for men who have experienced sexual abuse or sexual assault stops men from speaking about what was done. They are reluctant to ‘open the can of worms’ without some sense that they will be supported and it will result in a positive change. As one man has said:
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, so 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, films like ‘Mysterious Skin’).
- Disclosure of a friend, partner, family 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 further evidence for a prosecution.
- Reliving the assault through flashbacks, nightmares, etc.
- 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 of sexual abuse or sexual assault now?
How come now?
What are the potential costs and benefits for you and 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 goes by, you could have become convinced that saying something will be too much trouble that it won’t change anything or that you will 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, allowing 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, 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 well being. Letting someone know of your experiences need not be an all or nothing thing, you have a choice of what and how much information you share, when and with whom. It can be useful to consider:
What is my purpose in sharing this information?
What information do I want to share?
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. 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. Letters can be powerful documents: they signal this matter is important. Some men have found it useful to write a letter of encouragement or a letter to 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 experiences of child sexual abuse or sexual assault it will enhance his overall well being, however unfortunately such a response cannot be guaranteed (Washington 1999). In setting 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?
- How might I prepare them for what I am about to say?
- How might I take care of myself and 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.
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 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 with.
A 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 for you. Whereas sexual abuse or sexual assault involves taking away of choice, this can be opportunity for you to experience being in control and in charge of your choices.
- Holmes, W. C. (1998). Sexual abuse of boys: Definition, prevalence, correlates, Sequelae and Management. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 280, No 21.
- Pino, N. W., & Meier, R. F. (1999). Gender differences in rape reporting. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 40, 979–987.
- 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