Read three individual stories outlining the experiences of men who experienced childhood sexual abuse, as told by their counsellors and the men themselves. These three stories eloquently present some of the complex issues and emotions often experienced by men who were sexually assaulted as children.
In presenting these stories it is recognised that not everyone who has been sexually assaulted will have access to a counsellor, or will choose to visit a counsellor.
To protect the privacy of those who courageously agreed to talk about their experiences, real names have not been used, and aspects of stories which might identify individuals have been changed or omitted. Aspects relating to the impact of sexual assault are as described by the men themselves, or as outlined by therapists who have worked with them.
Peter (30) was sexually abused in the men’s toilets at a suburban shopping centre at the age of nine. The perpetrator was in his early twenties. Peter remembers some of the assault but has blocked out the rest and is hazy about what happened immediately afterwards.
“I don’t remember what happened then or during the next few days… I told nobody about it. I think I just tried to forget about it. I don’t remember having any reactions to the incident. I think I was trying desperately not to perceive the abuse – trying to forget about it, ignore it. I think my reaction was to try to say to myself that it was only a little thing and that it had no impact on my life. I think I was mightily ashamed of it, although I can only barely touch that shame today.”
Since then Peter has had problems in many different aspects of his life. Although he used to get top marks in school, he dropped out of high school and, after that, out of lots of things. “I have no career and can only barely manage to hold down menial and demeaning jobs.” He says nothing interests him much and he has no intimate relationships.
“I’m afraid of women, especially those to whom I’m attracted. I think it’s a self-esteem thing. I hate myself and want to die. It’s not always that way, but I keep returning to that. I wouldn’t dare inflict my neuroses on children.”
He finds that each new drug that comes along helps for a while, but not for long. On sex and sexuality, Peter says he hates and envies people who enjoy healthy and satisfying sex. “I have a sex life but I don’t think it’s healthy.”
Playing down his experience and at the same time trying to make sense of it, Peter says: “I don’t believe these effects in my life have much if anything to do with being raped as a nine year old in a public toilet.” On the other hand he desperately hopes that one day someone will be able to convince him that “being raped has adversely affected my life in the ways that I’ve mentioned” and that his problems are not “due to some dreadful fault or defect” in himself.
Peter is currently attending a support group in the hope of finding some answers.
Damien (27) was sexually assaulted by his mother between the ages of about six and seven. He was later sexually assaulted between the ages of eleven and twelve by three final year students at boarding school.
With his father away a lot of the time in the defence forces and his mother generally distant, Damien was a very isolated child. He says he always felt his parents did not really want him and that this was because he was “a bad son.” When he was six and his mother began what he describes as “excessive touching and fondling”, he thought this must be her way of showing affection and did not realise that anything was wrong. Now he says: “It wasn’t right to do those things to me.” When he went to boarding school “and it happened again I just thought it must be my lot in life and that I had to put up with it.”
Damien says that although he tried to block out the memories by refusing to think about them, “somehow I always knew it had happened.” About three years ago, he came face to face with the memories he had been trying to block out for years. He had joined one of the armed services, thinking this would make him feel closer to his father. One night, overcome by a sense of powerlessness when his mates made him the butt of their boisterous games, the memory refused to stay buried any longer. At first he thought he was going crazy and sought psychiatric help. In the early days, he twice attempted suicide.
Recently, Damien went back to his boarding school to confront the past. Since then, he has been having much sharper dreams.
“I wake up and feel as though it has just happened. I’m really living with the memories at the moment and can’t get them out of my head.”
He is constantly asking himself what he might have done to stop the assaults and thinks that, because they happened, “I must be a bad person.”
Damien is seeing a counsellor regularly and, although the memories are still very raw and the process is very painful, he is working his way through to a different understanding of himself and his past. “I dream about one day having my own family and giving my children all the things I never had.”
John, now 21, was sexually assaulted by a teacher in a small school in the country. The assaults began when he was about nine and continued, about two or three times a week, for about two years. The perpetrator was not only his class teacher but also the Headmaster.
John found it impossible to tell his parents. The teacher was a good friend of the family and a popular and respected member of the local community. He knew his parents were having difficulties in their relationship at the time and worried about what would happen to the family if he disclosed. Unaware of all this, John’s parents used to urge him to visit the teacher who also gave individual music lessons. At the time John felt very angry with his parents for what seemed to him to be “handing me back to this guy.”
John remembers later finding out that the same teacher was also sexually assaulting other boys. At some stage the teacher was forced to leave the school. He just disappeared; nothing was ever said. John says his parents heard the rumours going around at that time but could not believe them. This also made him angry and bitter.
John did not disclose to anyone until he was 19, when he told his girlfriend. He had begun to have flashbacks during sex and could not cope with being touched. John recalls that his girlfriend put him in contact with a counsellor but “could not handle it herself. It seemed to consume the entire relationship… everything else went out the window… and we broke up.” He started another relationship but couldn’t bring himself to tell this new partner. The flashbacks and difficulties with sex continued. Again, the relationship broke up. At this point, “everything began to fall apart.”
John says that, although he tried to suppress the memories and go on as though nothing had happened, this did not work. Previously a high-achieving university student, he began to fail his exams and could not understand why. He had always felt uncomfortable around other men and safer in the company of women. Now, he was buffeted by some very powerful emotions. He was consumed by shame and anger at having been abused by a man and worried that he might be gay. He remembers erupting unexpectedly in anger when male friends teased him. Sometimes, in the midst of what was supposed to be a friendly sparring match, he would find he was really fighting mad.
John formed a new relationship and made another attempt to tell. Although his new girlfriend was shocked she was also supportive. “She knew when to listen and when to encourage me to talk more.” With her encouragement, John later spoke to his sister and enlisted his sister’s help in telling his parents. This was also a very difficult time. Although all his family immediately believed and supported him, each had different reactions, all of which made John very worried about the distress and “trouble” he was causing.
John has worked through a lot of the issues in counselling, successfully completed University, and is about to embark on a career. His anger has largely dissipated and he is beginning to trust male friends, although, at this stage, he still feels more comfortable in the company of women. Although he finds it much easier to speak about his feelings and about the effect the abuse had on his life, he still harbours feelings of shame and guilt and cannot bring himself to talk about the details of the abuse, even with those closest to him. He is optimistic that, in time, these feelings of shame will also be overcome.
Acknowledgement – The stories on this page were accessed via the Canberra Service Assisting Males Survivors of Sexual Assault and were originally collected within: Child Sexual Assault: Information for men who were sexually assaulted as children. A pamphlet produced by the Sexual Assault Education Unit, North Parramatta, NSW.