Addressing the Lack of Research on Male Childhood Sexual Abuse
On Thursday July 20, fans across the world mourned the loss of Chester Bennington, the lead vocalist for the world-renowned band, Linkin Park. Bennington’s suicide by hanging at the age of 41 stunned fans, but it also brought to light a rarely discussed topic: male childhood sexual abuse. One in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 16—yet the issue remains underreported, undertreated, and highly stigmatized.
Bennington had openly stated in a number of interviews that he was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. He shared how it had significantly troubled him over the years and contributed to his excessive use of drugs and alcohol, which he used to repress the trauma of being victimized.
[Related: Sexual Abuse Survival and Recovery]
Male survivors of childhood sexual abuse are at an increased risk of developing a wide range of medical, psychological, behavioral, and sexual disorders. Research studies have outlined the extensive short- and long-term effects of childhood sexual victimization. For example, sexual victimization can lead to a host of troublesome psychiatric disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse and dependence, depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior.
Sexually abused children are nearly twice as likely to run away from home, which is not surprising, since 90 percent of all child sexual abuse victims know their abuser and want to escape the abuse. As many as 40 percent of all victims were victimized by an older child, not an adult, as was the case of Chester Bennington. These victims view their perpetrator as physically stronger and are often emotionally manipulated by the perpetrator.
Sexual Abuse Victims and Future Crime
According to the organization Darkness to Light, delinquency and crime are more prevalent in males who have experienced sexual abuse in their childhood. In fact, male adolescents who were sexually abused are three to five times more likely to engage in delinquency. Behavioral problems include, but are not limited to, physical aggression, non-compliance, and oppositional defiance. This is what we refer to as “victim turned perpetrator” in which past abuse can contribute to future delinquent and criminal acts. This is not to suggest that past victims of sexual abuse will lead a future life of crime, but it does place victims at an increased risk; therefore, early intervention is critical.
A 2009 research study concluded that male prisoners have higher rates of past child sexual abuse victimization when compared to those who have never been incarcerated. Once again, this validates the notion that past childhood sexual victimization could lead to significant behavioral problems in which victimization is a pathway into criminality.
When I was an undergraduate student, I was taught that most people who have been sexually abused would become future abusers. However, the research does not support that statement, but rather supports the fact that most boys who are sexually abused will NOT go on to sexually abuse others.
Resources for Victims of Male Sexual Abuse
As a researcher who has worked with both perpetrators and victims of sex crimes, I can attest to the fact that there is an abundance of research on female victims of child sexual abuse, but very little on male victims. This is likely because girls are more likely than boys to be sexually abused, so this is where researchers have concentrated.
However, we should also aim to locate and shed light on the gaps within the literature. Because of the perceived stigma, many boys do not disclose past sexual abuse and when they are ready to do so, support groups specifically for male survivors are challenging to find. A precursory search for, “male sexual abuse survivor groups in Pennsylvania,” (my home state) resulted in two findings, both of which were not even remotely close to my residence.
In addition to locating a support group for male survivors of sexual abuse, finding a therapist or specialized clinician who is specifically trained and knowledgeable in the gender-specific issues associated with male survivors can be daunting. A visit to a therapist who lacks specialized training can make the experience more traumatic rather than therapeutic, and could cause the survivor to withdraw further into negative coping responses such as drugs or alcohol.
Debunking Common Myths
Part of the problem is that many people cannot differentiate between the myths and the facts about male child sexual abuse. The organization, One in Six, shared a number of common myths that must be addressed.
MYTH: If a boy experienced sexual arousal during the abuse, he wanted and/or enjoyed it, and therefore, it is his fault.
Fact: Males can respond to sexual stimulation with an erection and even an orgasm. However, that does not suggest that they willingly welcomed the abuse or exploitation. It is simply a biological response to being sexually aroused, even if the experience is traumatic.
MYTH: Sexual abuse is less harmful to boys than to girls.
Fact: The harm caused by sexual abuse mostly depends on issues unrelated to 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.
MYTH: Most men who sexually abuse boys are homosexual.
Fact: Research studies to date suggest that men who have sexually abused a boy most often identify as heterosexual and often are involved in adult heterosexual relationships at the time of the abuse. There is no indication that a homosexual man is more likely to engage in sexually abusive behavior than a heterosexual man and some studies even suggest it is less likely.
MYTH: Boys abused by males must have attracted the abuse because they are homosexual.
Fact: There are conflicting theories as to how sexual orientation develops, but experts in human sexuality do not believe that sexual abuse or premature sexual experiences play a significant role. Sexual orientation is a complex issue. There is no single answer or theory that clearly explains why some identify as homosexual while others identify as heterosexual or bisexual.
MYTH: If a female used or abused a boy, he was “lucky” and if he does not feel that way, there must be something wrong with him.
Fact: In reality, premature, coerced, or otherwise abusive or exploitive sexual experiences are never positive. Female abusers often hold a position of power over their victim, such as an older sister, sister of a friend, babysitter, neighbor, aunt, or mother.. At a minimum, the victimization can cause confusion and insecurity and can adversely affect trust and intimacy.
MYTH: Boys who are sexually abused will go on to abuse others.
Fact: As a professor, I encounter this one quite often from students in my courses. This myth is especially dangerous because it can create terrible fear and anxiety in boys and men who feel they must not be around children. They may not only fear becoming abusers themselves, but that if others find out that they were abused, they will be seen as potentially dangerous to children. Sadly, boys and men who tell of being sexually abused are often viewed as potential perpetrators rather than as victims who need support and guidance. While it is true that some child sexual abusers were abused as children themselves, most will not go on to sexually abuse others.
Where to Get Help
For those seeking help, I would encourage you to contact RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), which is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE, online.rainn.org) in partnership with more than 1,000 local sexual assault service providers across the country. It also operates the DoD Safe Helpline for the Department of Defense. RAINN also carries out programs to prevent sexual violence, help victims, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.
About the Author: Dr. Michael Pittaro is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice in the School of Security and Global Studies (SSGC) with American Military University and an Adjunct Professor at East Stroudsburg University. Dr. Pittaro is a criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of institutional and non-institutional settings.
Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration; has served as the Executive Director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility and as Executive Director of a drug and alcohol prevention agency. Dr. Pittaro has been teaching at the university level (online and on-campus) for the past 15 years while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter, and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro holds a BS in Criminal Justice; an MPA in Public Administration; and a PhD in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu.