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- Boys and men can be sexually used or abused, and it has nothing to do with how masculine they are.
- If a boy liked the attention he was getting, or got sexually aroused during abuse, or even sometimes wanted the attention or sexual contact, this does not mean he wanted or liked being manipulated or abused, or that any part of what happened, in any way, was his responsibility or fault.
- Sexual abuse harms boys and girls in ways that are similar and different, but equally harmful.
- Boys can be sexually abused by both straight men and gay men. It’s about taking advantage of a child’s vulnerability, not the sexual orientation of the abusive person.
- Whether he is gay, straight or bisexual, a boy’s sexual orientation is neither the cause or the result of sexual abuse.
- Girls and women can sexually abuse boys.
- Most boys who are sexually abused will not go on to sexually abuse others.
- Not understanding these facts is understandable, but harmful, and needs to be overcome.
Here I present some key facts about unwanted and abusive sexual experiences of boys – and about men who had such experiences when they were boys.
Sadly, there are many myths about these experiences and those who have had them. Everyone’s absorbed those myths to some extent, and they can be big obstacles to understanding and healing. So it’s really important to know just how wrong they are.
But research has shown that repeating such myths, even in order to show they are wrong, can actually end up strengthening those myths in people’s minds. So I’m only going to focus on the facts (which counter the myths).
Boys and men can be sexually used or abused, and it has nothing to do with how masculine they are.
Our society expects males to be able to protect themselves. Successful men are depicted as never being vulnerable, either physically or emotionally. (See How It Can Be Different for Men and How Being Male Can Make It Hard to Heal.)
Whether you agree with that definition of masculinity or not, boys are not men. They are children. They are weaker and more vulnerable than those who sexually abuse or exploit them – who use their greater size, strength and knowledge to manipulate or coerce boys into unwanted sexual experiences and staying silent. This is usually done from a position of authority (e.g., coach, teacher, religious leader) or status (e.g. older cousin, admired athlete, social leader), using whatever means are available to reduce resistance, such as attention, special privileges, money or other gifts, promises or bribes, even outright threats.
What happens to any of us as children does not need to define us as adults or men. It is important to remember that that 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before age 18 (see Statistics), and that those boys can grow up to be strong, powerful, courageous and healthy men. For lots of examples, see The Bristlecone Project.
If a boy liked the attention he was getting, or got sexually aroused during abuse, or even sometimes wanted the attention or sexual contact, this does not mean he wanted or liked being manipulated or abused, or that any part of what happened, in any way, was his responsibility or fault.
Many boys and men feel lots of guilt and shame because they got physically aroused during the abuse. It is important to understand that males can respond to sexual stimulation with an erection or even an orgasm – even in sexual situations that are traumatic or painful.
That’s just how male bodies and brains work. Those who sexually use and abuse boys know this. They often attempt to maintain secrecy, and to keep the abuse going, by telling the child that his sexual response shows he was a willing participant and complicit in the abuse. “You wanted it. You liked it,” they say.
But that doesn’t make it true. Boys are not seeking to be sexually abused or exploited. They can, however, be manipulated into experiences they do not like, or even understand, at the time.
There are many situations where a boy, after being gradually manipulated with attention, affection and gifts, feels like he wants such attention and sexual experiences. In an otherwise lonely life (for example, one lacking in parental attention or affection – even for a brief period), the attention and pleasure of sexual contact from someone the boy admires can feel good.
But in reality, it’s still about a boy who was vulnerable to manipulation. It’s still about a boy who was betrayed by someone who selfishly exploited the boy’s needs for attention and affection to use him sexually.
Sexual abuse harms boys and girls in ways that are similar and different, but equally harmful.
Most studies show that the long term effects of sexual abuse can be quite damaging for both males and females. One large study, conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, found that the sexual abuse of boys was more likely to involve penetration of some kind, which is associated with greater psychological harm.
The harm caused by sexual abuse mostly depends on things not determined by gender, including the abuser’s identity, the duration of the abuse, whether the child told anyone at the time, and if so, whether the child was believed and helped. (See Consequences of Abuse.)
Many boys suffer harm because adults who could believe them and help are reluctant, or refuse, to acknowledge what happened and the harm it caused. This increases the harm, especially the shame felt by boys and men, and leads many to believe they have to ‘tough it out’ on their own. And that, of course, makes it harder to seek needed help in the midst of the abuse, or even years later when help is still needed.
Boys can be sexually abused by both straight men and gay men. It’s about taking advantage of a child’s vulnerability, not the sexual orientation of the abusive person.
Research on this question suggests that men who have sexually abused boys most often identify as heterosexual and often are involved in adult heterosexual relationships at the same time. There is no indication that a gay man is more likely to engage in sexually abusive behavior than a straight man, and some studies even suggest it is less likely.
Sexual abuse is not a sexual ‘relationship’ – it’s exploitation, even assault. The sexual orientation of the abusive person is not really relevant to the abusive interaction. A man who sexually abuses or exploits boys is not engaging in a ‘homosexual interaction’ – any more than men who sexually abuse or exploit girls are engaging in ‘heterosexual behavior.’ He is a deeply confused individual who, for various reasons, wants to sexually use or abuse a child, and has acted on that desire.
Whether he is gay, straight or bisexual, a boy’s sexual orientation is neither the cause or the result of sexual abuse.
By focusing on the abusive nature of sexual abuse rather than the sexual aspects of the interaction, it becomes easier to understand that sexual abuse has nothing to do with a boy’s sexual orientation.
There are different theories about how sexual orientation develops, but experts in human sexuality do not believe that sexual abuse or premature sexual experiences play a significant role. There is no good evidence that someone can ‘make’ another person be homosexual or heterosexual. Sexual orientation is a complex issue and there is no single answer or theory that explains why someone identifies himself as homosexual, heterosexual or bi-sexual.
It is common, however, for boys and men who have been abused to express confusion about their sexual identity and orientation, whether they identify as straight, gay or bi-sexual. Some guys who identify as heterosexual fear that, due to their experiences as boys, they must ‘really’ be homosexual. They may believe they can’t be a ‘real man,’ as defined by the larger society.
Even men who clearly identify as heterosexual, and men who project very traditional heterosexual traits, may fear that others will ‘find them out’ as gay or not real men.
Men who identify as gay or bi-sexual may wonder if their sexual orientation was influenced in any way by the unwanted or abusive experiences or may even be the cause of their orientation.
Also, many boys abused by males wonder if something about them sexually attracted the person who abused them and will unknowingly attract other males who will misuse them. While these are understandable fears, they are not true. One of the great tragedies of childhood sexual abuse is how it robs a person’s natural right to discover his own sexuality in his own time.
It is very important to remember that abuse arises from the abusive persons’s failure to develop and maintain healthy adult sexual relationships, and his or her willingness to sexually use and abuse kids. It has nothing to do with the preferences or desires of the child who is abused, and therefore cannot determine a person’s natural sexual identity.
Girls and women can sexually abuse boys.
From a very early age, boys learn that any sexual experience with girls and women, especially older ones, is a good one – and evidence that he’s a ‘real man.’
Again, the confusion comes from focusing on the sexual aspect rather than the abusive aspect, that is, the exploitation and betrayal by a more powerful, trusted or admired person (who can be a child or adult).
In reality, premature, coerced or otherwise abusive or exploitive sexual experiences are never positive – whether they are imposed by an older sister, sister of a friend, baby sitter, neighbor, aunt, mother, or any other female in a position of power over a boy. At a minimum, they cause confusion and insecurity. They almost always harm boys’ and men’s capacities for trust and intimacy.
A gay man who experienced sexual arousal when abused by a female may wonder whether it means that he is actually straight or wonder what it means that he was chosen by a woman or older girl.
Being sexually used or abused, whether by males or females, can cause a variety of other emotional and psychological problems. However, boys and men often don’t recognize the connections between what happened and their later problems. To be used as a sexual object by a more powerful person, male or female, is never a good thing, and can cause lasting harm.
Most boys who are sexually abused will not go on to sexually abuse others.
Some boys and men who were sexually abused as boys not only fear becoming abusers themselves, but that others will find out they were abused and believe they’re a danger to children. Sadly, it’s true: boys and men who tell of being sexually abused are often viewed more as potential perpetrators than as guys who need support.
While it is true that many (though by no means all) who sexually abuse children have histories of sexual abuse, it is NOT true that most boys who are sexually abused go on to sexually abuse others. The majority of boys do not go on to become sexually abusive as adolescents or adults. And even those who do perpetrate as teenagers, if they get help when they’re young, usually don’t abuse children when they become adults. (See a page I wrote for 1in6, Am I Going to Become Abusive? What if I Already Have?)
Not understanding these facts is understandable, but harmful, and needs to be overcome.
These facts are not learned while growing up, and are still seldom learned by adults. So of course some boys and men who have experienced unwanted or abusive sexual experiences will, at least for a while, not know them and and instead suffer the consequences of believing in harmful myths.
When societies begin to embrace these facts, and teach them to children at the earliest appropriate age, far more boys and men who’ve had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences will get the recognition and help they need.
When boys or men harmed by unwanted or abusive sexual experiences learn these facts, they will much less shame and be much more likely to seek whatever knowledge, understanding and help they need to achieve the lives they want and deserve.
When boys, men and society as a whole embrace these facts, boys and men who have been sexually used or abused will be much less likely to join the minority who end up hurting others.
When these facts are understood, that fosters another critical understanding: it was not the child’s fault. It is never the fault of the child in a sexual situation – although some people are skilled at getting those they use or abuse to take on a responsibility that is always, and only, their own.
For any man harmed by unwanted or abusive sexual experiences – and anyone who wants to support him – learning and embracing these facts is necessary to overcoming the effects of the abuse, and to achieving the life he wants and deserves.