If your partner was sexually abused, you undoubtedly have many unanswered questions. Here at Living Well we receive a large number of questions and requests for advice from partners, family members and loved ones of men who have experienced sexual abuse or sexual assault. These are people who are deeply concerned about the men in their lives, and at a bit of a loss for how to best support them. See the comments and questions asked on our page Information for partners of men, as an example.
Often a partner is the first person that a man will ever disclose a history of sexual abuse to. We want to acknowledge that this can be challenging and confusing for partners, and that, regardless of the closeness of your relationship, this information can be difficult to process and respond to. Not only do you want to support your loved one, you also need to deal with your own thoughts and feelings about it all.
Often there is a lot of worry around how to respond appropriately, and also worry about what this may mean for you as individuals, as a couple, or as a family.
Sometimes the man discloses the abuse, or you deduce it has happened and he acknowledges it, but he then is not ready to discuss it further, let alone seek help or tell anyone else. This can be a really uncomfortable place for you to be in, as now you have this information but are unsure what to do with it.
If, as we know, there is not a lot of support out there for men who have experienced sexual abuse or assault, then neither is there much information for the people who care about and wish to support these men.
Below are some of the most common questions we get. We acknowledge that every situation is different, and ask that you please keep that in mind while reading over these. Please also take care of yourself in reading through, as these topics can be confronting.
We have generally used the word “partner” to refer to the man in your life, but these words can apply to any man — friend, son, father, brother, client, or any other man you care about.
Due to his behaviour, I think my partner may have been sexually abused, but he denies it. Is he just hiding it from me?
Some of the behaviours that people have described to us include:
- Infidelity, sexual addiction.
- Complete disinterest in sex.
- Unusual sexual or sexualised behaviours.
- Porn addiction.
- Consuming gay or same-sex porn.
- Strong emotional reactions to the mention of sexual abuse of others.
- Depression, anxiety, self harm.
- Abuse of alcohol or other drugs.
- Very protective behaviours towards children.
While it may seem as though there is a lot going on for him, there really is no way of knowing, from a person’s current behaviour, whether he has been sexually abused in the past.
The difficulty is, even if your partner demonstrates every single behaviour on a list of problems common to sexually abused men, it still does not necessarily mean he was sexually abused. There are a great many reasons that could potentially explain why people might engage in different behaviours or have different reactions. It is simply not possible to predict any one individual’s reaction, so there is no checklist of symptoms that will tell us for sure.
It may indeed be that your suspicions regarding past abuse are right. However unless he is open to talking about it, there is no way for you to be certain. We can only work with what we know for sure.
This question is made more difficult by the fact that, when a man has been abused, it is something that can feel almost impossible for him to talk about. Many men do not disclose sexual abuse or sexual assault for decades after the fact, if ever. Check out our page on Men and disclosure, which outlines some of the barriers men face.
What should I do if he won’t tell me?
So let’s say you suspect your partner or loved one was sexually abused or assaulted, but you don’t know for sure. You may have asked him already, but he won’t talk about it. If you are in this situation, there may be things that sadden or concern you about some of his experiences or his responses. You might not know how best to help, or how to explore your respective needs in this situation, without causing more upset.
If he has not already told you that he was sexually abused, it is generally recommended to not pressure him to talk about it until he is ready. Remember, you do not know for sure if this is the case, but even if it is, ideally it is his decision to tell or not to tell. It is important you leave the power of that decision to him. Know that it is extremely difficult for men to disclose. If he is not ready to do so, it is no reflection on you, or on your relationship with each other.
We have heard from some men that they do not mind being asked, but they do not find it helpful to be pressed about it if they are not yet ready to talk.
It can be very difficult to want to support someone but to feel unable to do so. While it is not up to you to ‘fix’ him, there are ways you can support your partner if he ever does feel ready to broach the subject.
Let your partner know that you are always open to hearing his feelings, experiences, thoughts and stories. Be ready to listen in an open, non-judgmental manner.
If you feel he may disclose abuse to you, take a look at our page Men and disclosure: How you can help for some more information about how loved ones can support men through disclosure.
And through all this, above all else, make sure you take care of yourself. Step back for a while and look after your own well-being in the here and now. Engaging in self care in this way serves two purposes. The first is that it builds up your resilience and your ability to manage and cope with stress. The second is that it also means you are “modelling” self care for your partner – healthy behaviour tends to be “catching.” In either case, the importance of looking after yourself cannot be overstated.
We acknowledge and appreciate that you want to support and care for your partner, no matter what has happened — but it is important to keep in mind that you cannot make everything alright. Especially if you are losing sight of your own needs.
His behaviour is affecting me negatively, though. How else can I get him to change?
Regardless of whether or not your partner or loved one has experienced sexual abuse or assault in the past, you both always have a right to have your wishes, boundaries and desires respected.
If possible, let him know that there are aspects of the relationship you want to talk about. Focus on what is happening in the present, and discuss together your hopes for how you want the relationship to be. This avoids pressuring him into disclosing (or denying) any history of sexual abuse. It might be helpful to keep the issues separate until (and if) he is ready to talk about his past — that’s if his past is, in fact, relevant. Using this approach helps keep sight of the fact that you have a right to express how you think the relationship is going, while leaving the issue of disclosing any history of sexual victimisation in his control.
It is helpful if you are clear about what kind of relationship you want, and what expectations, needs, and boundaries or limits you each have. Envision this together — invite him to share his expectations and hopes with you. Talk about how you would prefer you both behave in this relationship, and how you show love, care and respect for each other. In stating your vision for your life together, and in asking him to share his, you are both making a commitment to this.
Map it out — what it will look like for both of you. Get specific. Take your time. Make it an ongoing process.
This will mean working out and being clear as to what is and is not acceptable behaviour. It is important in any relationship to provide a clear message about what your expectations and limits are, to hear those of your partner, and try to to meet in the middle. The main point is that both of you should feel comfortable with things. No one should feel pressured to accept something they’re not comfortable with.
Is it possible that he has blocked out the abuse, or doesn’t remember it?
Research shows that the majority of people who have experienced sexual abuse retain very strong memories of the abuse. It also shows that there are a number of reasons that people may not wish to talk about it.
Having said that, yes, there are some people who have been sexually abused whose memories are not clear, or are absent, for long periods of time. These people may remember and piece together fragments of memories later on in life. In fact, many people have noticed that these memories seem to come back once they have started to feel more stable, more strong, and more confident. In other words, just when you start to feel you’re really doing well, the memories start to return.
In this case, working through it may not be about avoiding the memories, or even trying to chase them down and confront them. It’s about building yourself up to the point where your mind can handle them, and has the strength to cope with them. It’s about being ready.
A difficulty here is that you can only work with what is available. Searching for memories of childhood sexual abuse may lead to more distress, confusion and uncertainty. Memory in general is very fallible. It may be more helpful to try to work on acceptance of the uncertainty of the issue. In this case it’s about learning to be okay with not knowing for sure.
In either case the emphasis should be on developing a strong, stable and confident sense of wellbeing.
He has a few issues at the moment that I’m sure are related to the abuse. Is it common for men to…
It is common for a man who has experienced sexual abuse to experience a range of effects over the years. There are many negative impacts that are commonly known to result from a history of such trauma, such as:
- Flashbacks and invasive thoughts.
- Nightmares and insomnia.
- Anger, and thoughts of revenge.
- Self blame, shame, and low self esteem.
- Suicidal thoughts.
- Intimacy issues.
- Difficulty trusting others.
A more complete list can be found on the page dealing with sexual violence, along with some further information.
In addition to the above, there are also secondary issues that can arise. Often these are emotional and behavioural strategies that men have used to help them cope with the primary issues above. These strategies themselves, while helpful at first, can become problematic. These can include:
- Use of alcohol and other drugs.
- Use of pornography.
- Risky behaviours.
- Controlling relationships.
- Avoiding relationships.
- Self harm.
More on these types of unhelpful strategies can be found on the page Dealing with the effects of childhood sexual abuse.
Of course, not all of these issues, even if a man has experienced sexual abuse, are necessarily related to the abuse. Similarly, it is important to recognise men’s capacity to lead full and rewarding lives. Following an experience of child sexual abuse or sexual assault, it is not unusual for people’s understanding of their lives to become closely inter-connected with problems related to that experience. However, seeing the person as the problem, and the majority of his current difficulties as a result of sexual abuse or sexual assault, can be counter-productive.
When trying to work through any present issue, it can be more helpful to look at it in the present. Whether or not this issue stems from a history of abuse, it will generally be effective to deal with it in the here and now. Set goals, establish safety and support, and put strategies in place, just as we do for anything.
I really think my partner needs to get help for this, but he doesn’t want counselling. How can I convince him to get the help he needs?
Counselling can be a really useful way for someone to process and work though difficult experiences, to build up safety and stability, and to figure out goals and strategies for moving forward.
It may be that your partner or loved one has given counselling a try in the past and found it unhelpful, and now is reluctant to give counselling another go. This might involve thoughts like, “I’m beyond help,” or “counselling doesn’t work for me.”
When it comes to sexual abuse it can be crucial that the counsellor or professional has a good background in trauma informed care, and experience in working around sexual violence. It is a quite specialised area and it can be difficult to find a good professional. In this case it can be worth suggesting you do some research together to find someone who might be able to help.
It can also be helpful to note that every professional works differently and has a different style. The first counsellor an individual engages with may not be a good match for him. If this happens it can be easy to give it up as too hard, “well I tried.” Perhaps in this instance he could be encouraged to give it another go, to find someone who does suit him and his individual style, with whom he ‘clicks.’
If he has never been to counselling for this issue before and is nervous about what to expect, it may help him to know that a good counsellor won’t pressure him to talk about traumatic memories. The focus is generally more on strategies for coping in the present, until such time as the man wants to address past experiences (if at all).
However, if he doesn’t want to try any form of counselling, we would suggest there is not much you can do about that until he is ready. Counselling is only therapeutic if the person is ready and has made the decision for themselves. As mentioned earlier, feeling pressured to talk about sexual abuse can be counter-productive. If he feels pushed into attending a session, even if he does go, it is unlikely to be beneficial for him.
Perhaps the best thing you can do right now is to let him know that, if he does ever feel open to trying, you’ll be ready to support him through the process.
I’m the only one who knows. How can I help him?
This is a big one. We recognise the huge amount of pressure that is put on partners, and other family and loved ones, of men who have been sexually abused or sexually assaulted. Unfortunately if there is not much support out there for these men, nor is there much at all for their supporters. And you need support too, because this is a really difficult position to be in.
The very fact that you are here shows that you already are helping him. You wouldn’t be doing this reading if you weren’t wanting to be as supportive of him as you can be, which says a lot. It’s also a big step towards becoming informed and learning what’s helpful and what’s less so, for both him and yourself. The links throughout this page should be helpful with this.
As mentioned above, sometimes the best (and sometimes the only!) way you can help him is to let him know that you will always be available to listen. That you are willing to hear his feelings, experiences, thoughts and stories – however he feels comfortable sharing them, and whenever he feels ready.
However, as much as we want to, we can’t ‘make everything okay’ for someone else. We know that partners can often find themselves in this kind of position, with very high expectations of themselves. It’s important that you not take on too much. It’s important that you do take care of yourself.
Whether or not your partner is ready to talk it through with someone, it is always an option for you, too. Counselling for yourself, as a partner, can help you to explore and process your own thoughts and feelings around this. It can help you to build up your own coping, resilience and wellbeing, and also to figure out how you can best support him.
My partner was sexually abused as a child. Should I be worried he might abuse our/my children?
There is no evidence to suggest that men who have been sexually abused will automatically go on to commit sexual offences. In fact, research actually suggests that over 95% will not. It is an unhelpful myth that men who were sexually abused in childhood are the ones who then abuse children. Check out our page on addressing the victim to offender cycle for more information.
What we do know is that men who have been sexually abused as children are concerned for the well-being of children, and if anything can be overly protective. Typically they don’t want what happened to them to happen to another child.
If you are a parent, I am sure you will want to keep talking and building the relationship with your children, so that if there is anything worrying them at home, at school or in the neighbourhood they can come and talk with you about it. This is the best thing you can do.
My partner was sexually abused as a child. I found gay porn on his computer, but he says that he isn’t gay. Why does he look at gay porn then, or chat with other men online?
This is an issue that can be really confusing, embarrassing and hurtful to partners of men. It can also be embarrassing and confusing for the man involved, who may not understand it himself. The fact is, it’s not unusual for men who were sexually abused or assaulted by another male to feel the urge to watch same-sex porn, or to visit male sex websites or chat sites.
Using same-sex porn can add to the already existing sense of shame, given the taboos in some communities about same sex attraction. It gets very mixed up with the experience of abuse and trying to work out ‘who I am.’
When a man was sexually abused as a boy by another man, it is usually the case that this was his first experience with any form of sexual contact. This can influence the way a person thinks about sex for the rest of his life. It does not mean he is gay, just that his first sexual experience was a very confusing one.
For some men, memories of the abuse, including flashbacks, can be physically and emotionally charged. As such, they can be drawn to look at same-sex porn as a way to try and understand what is happening. It can be a way to seek answers about the trauma of the abuse, and also about questions of sexuality. Confusion about sexuality and sexual orientation is an unfortunate consequence of sexual abuse for many men.
But questions around sexuality are dead-end questions – they don’t go anywhere. It can be more useful to think in terms of where he is choosing to put his emotional energy, love and affection. In order to work this out and not become side tracked (the gay issue can be side tracking), it might useful to invite him to consider what he is doing in terms of commitment to the relationship and to you.
I asked my partner to stop using porn. He said he would, but I’ve learned he’s still been doing it in secret. What can I do?
Porn use in general can be an issue. Where there has been sexual abuse, porn can feel like a relatively safe space to explore and work through confusing and unsafe thoughts and experiences related to sex. This can be difficult to make sense of, and can cause problems in relationships when the man struggles to stop.
One of the added difficulties in this instance is that the sense of secrecy and shame around accessing porn can increase distress for men who have been sexually abused. Secrecy around things that are considered shameful can be a legacy of sexual abuse; it can almost be considered a coping strategy — a way to deal with the effects. However it can be quite unhelpful in developing a healthy, supportive relationship.
If this is something that is coming between you, it can be important to be clear that his accessing porn or chat rooms is something that pushes you apart. It will be important to be clear to him that if he chooses to access porn and lie to you, he is not showing love and respect to you and your relationship. He is an adult who has choices about how he behaves and where he puts his energy. He can choose to spend time with you doing things that you enjoy together, to nurture and build a more intimate, caring, sexy relationship. Relationships do take commitment and can be rebuilt.
What is important is that each partner takes responsibility for themselves and there is a shared understanding and commitment to making this a supportive, caring, respectful relationship that works for both of you.
Where can we find help?
Help is available.
Living Well offers counselling to men who have experienced sexual abuse or sexual assault, and also to partners, families and loved ones.
If you live in South East Queensland, we provide face to face counselling from Strathpine, Woolloongabba/Buranda, Booval and Southport.
If you live elsewhere in the world, take a look at our list of worldwide services online.
Please get in touch.