The impacts of child sexual abuse can be complex and severe. While it is not always the case, it is common that a man who has experienced child sexual abuse will experience a range of negative effects many years after the abuse.
However in our experience with men who have been sexually abused in childhood, what we are working with is not only the effects of the abuse, but also the unwanted side-effects of the strategies some men adopt to help them deal with these effects.
Anyone who has lived through traumatic experiences in childhood has, out of necessity, developed a range of creative, effective strategies that helped them survive and go on to live their life. Very often, however, the strategies that worked in childhood don’t work so well in the adult world.
What brings men to services like Living Well is quite often not the original abuse, but a crisis involving the strategies the man has been using to manage the effects of the abuse. For instance, a drinking problem gets so bad the man had to go into rehabilitation; a way of managing relationships becomes so dysfunctional that a partner threatens to leave, and so on.
Men are sometimes surprised to find that what they think of as their current problem was originally developed as a strategy for dealing with their abuse. So rather than listing all the negative effects that sexual abuse can have on a man’s life, in the following section we will talk about some of the strategies men use to manage the impacts of their abuse, and how these strategies can sometimes ‘take over’.
Strategies: When some solutions become the problem
When a human being experiences a terrible event like child sexual abuse, the memories of that event become charged with very strong emotions, like feelings of horror and disgust. This is actually a biological process that has an adaptive advantage: It makes us want to avoid that same situation again, which helps us to survive.
But, where we are not able to avoid the threatening situation – such as when a boy is being hurt by the very family which keeps him fed and alive – then these memories and feelings can build up and start to feel unbearable.
When a child is not able to avoid the abusive situation physically, he must learn to avoid the memories and feelings about the abuse psychologically. Thinking about the abuse triggers the feelings that are attached to the memories, so the child learns ways to not remember or think about the abuse. There are multiple strategies children develop to do this.
All the strategies we are going to talk about work the same way. The purpose of the strategies is to avoid the feelings which are linked to the memories of the abuse.
Very often strategies are developed in childhood, using a child’s mind. A child can’t be expected to think though all the consequences of the strategy, and sometimes is in too much pain or danger to be able to afford to. The strategy may then take on a ‘life of its own’, and ultimately become a problem in itself.
Nevertheless it is worth making that point that just because a strategy may cause difficulties, that does not mean it didn’t make sense in the first place. If it hadn’t worked to manage the feelings caused by the abuse, you would not have kept using it. All strategies make sense when they are first developed.
We should also add that just because some activity or way of thinking is being used as a strategy, that does not mean it is an inherently unhealthy or problematic activity/thought. Anything can be used as a strategy. It only becomes a problem when it becomes dysfunctional or painful in some way, or gets in the way of other positive things in a person’s life.
Here are some of the most common strategies.
Common emotional responses to child sexual assault are long-term depression, sadness, anxiety, intense fear of feelings or memories of the abuse, and anger. Some men feel joyless, and ‘empty inside’. A very common feeling following abuse is shame. This feeling may ‘cover’ the whole person, so that by the time the child becomes an adult he feels worthless and unlovable. Struggling to managing difficult feelings is a very common effect of childhood sexual abuse.
The purpose of the ‘numbing’ strategies is to numb the feelings about the trauma. They usually have the side-effect of numbing other feelings too.
Some of the most common of these strategies are the use of chemicals to alter mood. They include:
- Painkillers and sedatives.
- Other drugs, legal and illicit (a very long list).
Other numbing strategies include the ‘rush’ strategies. In these, the survivor engages in activities which provide an absorbing psychological ‘high’:
- Sex (including sex with other people, pornography or any other form of sexual activity).
- Gambling of all kinds.
- Shopping, either physical or on-line.
- On-line social networking.
- Risky behaviours (aggressive driving/racing, fighting, some sports, etc).
- Self-harm (cutting, etc. Not all ‘rush’ strategies involve a positive rush).
Another group of numbing strategies are the task/discipline group, where the strategy is to throw oneself into highly challenging, absorbing, or painful tasks. For men, these strategies often have an element of aggression, pain or high levels of self-control:
- Work (‘workaholism’).
- Physical training (marathons, cycling, martial arts, weightlifting and so on).
- Ascetic practices (including long or arduous forms of meditation or prayer, fasting, etc).
An additional benefit of aggression- or risk-based strategies is they may help the survivor combat feelings of shame about being a ‘victim.’
These strategies involve thinking about things in ways which help us avoid painful feelings. Here are some of the more common ones.
Self-blame: It is very common for men who experienced child sexual abuse to blame themselves for the abuse, or to believe that it happened because there was something wrong with them. These beliefs are encouraged by perpetrators and sometimes by society. However, self-blame can also have a psychological benefit. Sometimes it can be easier for a boy who has been abused to look for the fault in himself, than have to accept that a person he loves is an abuser. Some men also find hope, if unconsciously, in the notion that if the abuse is their fault, if they can find a way to change what is wrong with them, then that might stop it from ever happening again. It seems easier to change ourselves than to change others who are more powerful than us.
Intrusive/unavoidable thoughts: Some men experience critical or despairing thoughts or worries. Sometimes these thoughts can seem to come out of nowhere. These thoughts can become ‘stuck’ in an endless cycle of circular worrying and obsessing. The origin of these anxious thoughts is often a desperate attempt by the man to ‘think’ his way out of experiencing the post-traumatic feelings. Over the years these thoughts become attached to ‘worry objects’ and can become habitual (For example: “Why didn’t I do X or Y?” “If only such-and-such had not happened.” “Why did this happen to me?” and so on).
Rigid beliefs: These are very strongly held, emotionally charged beliefs about self, right and wrong, politics, the meaning of life and so on. When we are growing up, ideas which make sense to us become beliefs. One of the reasons ideas make sense to us is that they help us manage bad feelings. Examples could include:
- Religious beliefs that help with notions of forgiveness, where the a person is experiencing shame.
- Political beliefs which allow anger to be expressed against one group or another, where it is psychologically dangerous to feel anger against the perpetrator.
- Spiritual beliefs that the world is basically a good or rational place which help guard against feelings of terror and betrayal.
Keep in mind that we are not saying that just because a person believes something which helps them manage their feelings, that what they believe in is not reasonable or true! We are not concerned with the objective truth or otherwise of someone’s beliefs. What we are saying is that some beliefs do help people manage strong feelings and from that point of view, can be seen as a strategy.
Many men who have survived child abuse find that being in relationships triggers bad feelings. Here are some of the main ways men attempt to manage their feelings within relationships.
Clinging to relationships: Some men who have experienced neglect or lack of care can be so afraid of losing a relationship that they become vulnerable to entering into abusive or unhappy relationships. Alternatively, such men may also act in controlling or abusive ways within relationships to try to keep the relationship together. Worry about losing their partner, feelings of despair or anger, jealousy, even stalking and violence, are not uncommon.
Controlling relationships: Some men are susceptible to feeling like they are being controlled, exploited or abused within relationships. This can lead to them reacting with attempts to strongly control the relationship, which can in turn lead to abuse or violence toward their partner. Some men protect themselves by remaining distant or inaccessible within the relationship. It is common for men who experienced sexual violence to have lots of feelings of anger in relation to their abuse and for this to spill over into their relationships.
Avoidance of relationships: For some men, suspicion about the motives of others may lead to an inability to maintain relationships. This sort of hyper-vigilance for abuse was obviously adaptive in earlier life, but now may interfere with fulfilling relationships. Men may also feel they are unlovable or not worthy of a relationship. These perceptions, which are similar to self-blame (see above) may be easier to manage than dealing with the emotions caused by the abuse.
‘Pursuit/retreat’ relationships: Some men combine all these approaches into a pattern of intense preoccupation with and pursuit of a new partner, swift disillusionment once the relationship is established, and anger or rejection of the relationship. This strategy attempts to meet the man’s need for affection with the pursuit of new relationships, but tends to be sabotaged by the opposite strategy of distancing/avoidance once a partner becomes so close that the man feels emotionally threatened.
Attachment to the perpetrator: A very common pattern is a boy or man remaining in some sort of relationship with the person who committed the abuse. The purpose of this strategy was originally to earn love, or at least some physical security, from the abuser. Another reason may be that maintaining this connection with the abuser can give a sense of control over the relationship. This pattern may continue for years after the abuse has stopped. This pattern may also make the man more susceptible to further abuse from other people who in some way are reminiscent of fill the same emotional niche as the perpetrator.
Emotional reactivity: A person is ‘emotionally reactive’ when he responds very quickly with very strong emotion – essentially an uncontrolled or ‘excessive’ emotional response. Some men can use less painful emotions, such as anger, to mask the experience of more painful ones like sadness or grief. Being angry, or close to anger, all the time, can lead to a ‘rush’ like those described above and can be psychologically addictive. Other emotions – for example, depression or despair – can sometimes be used in the same way. (Read more about Men, emotions and childhood sexual abuse).
Depression: Some clinicians consider depression a strategy for conserving resources and protecting deep emotions. If depression goes on for a long time after the abuse has stopped, it can become difficult to move on from it; this can be particularly so if the person stuck in the depression has a lot of negative judgements about it (“I should just get over it,” “I should be achieving more,” etc).
Avoidance and phobias: Avoiding activities, people, or places which trigger memories of the abuse. The short-term benefit of this is obvious. In the longer term, the person’s life will become more and more confined – especially since phobias tend to expand and grow to encompass broader and broader situations over time.
Hyper-vigilance: The ‘hyper-vigilant’ person is always alert for, and expecting, something dangerous to happen. It creates a heightened sense of anxiety and ‘jumpiness’, and may also contribute to difficulty sleeping, lack of concentration, and irritability. Hyper-vigilance is a good strategy for avoiding real danger such as abuse, but once the abuse is no longer happening, it can lead to a very anxious life, or seeing threats where there are none.
Flashbacks, nightmares, other intrusive memories: ‘Flashbacks’ are memories of past trauma which feel like it is happening again in the present. Some clinicians believe that intrusive memories, whether experienced waking or in dreams, are attempts by the mind to begin processing the feelings related to the trauma. Often men will need professional help to move past this point. (Read more about dealing with flashbacks and dealing with nightmares).
‘Dissociation’ is the psychological phenomenon of becoming ‘detached’ from a key part of your personal experience. It is a way of ‘splitting off’ from suffering so that the pain (feelings and usually memories) is consigned to another part of the mind. In situations of very great and ongoing abuse, dissociation is sometimes the only strategy that young children have.
Dissociative strategies can cause significant difficulties in later life and should be worked on with an experienced professional specialist. Here are some forms of dissociation:
Dissociated emotional states: Finding yourself switching between very different or opposite emotional states.
Disengagement/’spacing out’: Losing awareness of the present for short (or sometimes longer) periods. Sometimes there may be loss of memory, or ‘coming to’ in a place or situation and not knowing how you got there.
Derealisation: Feeling like you are living in a movie or a dream; nothing feels real.
Depersonalisation: Feeling outside your own body, watching yourself do things from a distance.
Pain or body symptoms: For some people, physical pain or discomfort which does not appear to have a medical cause may be related to early abuse.
These examples are less common, but do occasionally happen in response to trauma:
Fugue: Travelling significant distances, sometimes over long periods of time, with no memory or knowledge of it.
More than one personality: The experience of having different people living inside you. Known as dissociative identity disorder.
As we discussed before, all these strategies work in pretty much the same way. The purpose of the strategies is to avoid the feelings which are attached to the memories of the abuse.
Almost all these strategies result in an over-avoidance of fear. In one way, the fear of bad feelings is like a phobia. Phobias tend to get broader over time. For example, a man who is assaulted in a public place first begins avoiding that place, then over time any place where there are people like the ones who assaulted him, then any public place with people, then any place outdoors, and eventually he finds it difficult to leave the house.
‘Rewarding’ a phobia, by always giving in to the fear it generates, makes it grow. We sometimes call this ‘feeding the phobia’. This in turn leads to an ever-increasing difficulty in facing fear, anxiety, or stress. Most of the strategies we have described can lead to a person having a very low tolerance of stress, which in turn makes life more difficult, or shuts off options or opportunities which would otherwise be open to the person.
Thinking about suicide is a strategy for trying to avoid present pain. It can be a fantasy or daydream about being free from terrible feelings. But it is a fantasy which carries a great risk.
Suicidal thoughts can range from fantasies about dying as a way to be free of the present pain, to detailed plans to kill yourself. Even if your thoughts seems like they are ‘just’ passing ideas or fantasies, it is still important to find someone to talk to. The more detailed your thoughts and plans are about suicide, the more important it is to get help.
If you think you might harm or attempt to kill yourself, call for help immediately. Reach out to someone you trust and ask for help. Tell them honestly how you feel, including your thoughts of suicide.
Call Lifeline 13 11 14; or
Call 000 (emergency services); or
Go, or have someone take you, to your local hospital emergency department.
It is important to remember you do not have to go through this alone. We urge you to try talking to people about your thoughts. If you can’t or don’t want to talk to your friends and/or family, you can contact a crisis service specialised in hearing your difficulties. Try and share your thoughts with someone you trust or a professional who understands the impacts of trauma. We encourage you to get rid of anything you have obtained to hurt yourself with.
Read more about dealing with suicidal thoughts.
A general note on the impacts of childhood sexual abuse
The impacts of any trauma experienced in childhood tend to be more severe than those experienced as an adult. If you are a man who experienced child abuse, we hope this page is useful to you. However, it is very likely that you will need much more support than an introductory article of this kind. We urge you to consider getting some professional help if you have not already done so. The Get Support section of this website contains information about how to find services which might be useful.
There is hope
When you were a child, suppressing or avoiding the feelings about the abuse was the only way to cope. Now you are an adult, it becomes possible, slowly, to face and process these feelings. And this in turn means that the strategies you developed to avoid the feelings are no longer needed.
The natural process of feelings is that you feel them, and then they pass. Feelings never last forever. They don’t even last for very long at a time – they tend to come, go, come back, and go again, until they are fully processed. The only feelings that stick around for long periods are feelings you are putting off experiencing out of fear.
Remember, feelings can’t kill you. By definition, they are smaller than you; they are inside you, not the other way around. They can’t sweep you away or drown you.
Having said this, facing and processing these feelings should be done carefully and slowly. We are not big fans of dramatic ‘emotional breakthroughs’. This work does not have to be done quickly. It is safer and less exhausting to do it slowly and in manageable chunks.
Very important note – we are not suggesting that you should use this outline, or this website, to do this work by yourself. This work should only be carried out with the support of one or more professionals specializing in trauma-informed counselling or therapy. Dangerous memories should only be confronted in a safe environment. Take a look at the list of services in Queensland.
This article was adapted from resources developed by Jack Dalby and the team at SAMSSA. Thank you for sharing.