What is Child Sexual Abuse?
Child sexual abuse is any behaviour imposed on a young person or child, usually by a male (93% of offenders), taking advantage of his position of power and trust within the family. 11% of sexually abused children are abused by strangers (Australian Crime: Facts & Figures, 2011). Child sexual abuse includes a wide range of acts and behaviours. The following are some common examples:
– Making sexually suggestive remarks
– Exposing one’s genitals to a child
– Fondling a child’s genitals, forcing a child to fondle an adult’s genitals or to engage in self-masturbation in the child’s presence
– Exposing children to prostitution or pornography
– Involving a child in vaginal, oral, or anal oral sexual activity
– Vaginal, anal or oral penetration of a child with a penis, finger, or other object
– Involving a child in sexual behaviour with an animal
Child sexual abuse is a crime. There is, however, no single legal definition. The Criminal Code 1997 Act covers a range of sex offences depending on the nature of the offence and the age of the child victim at the time the offence is committed.
Where does it happen?
Studies show that sexual abuse of children most often occurs within their own home, and that offenders commonly include parents, siblings, relatives, and family friends. Boys and girls may also be sexually assaulted outside the home, sometimes by strangers, but most often by people known to and trusted by the family. Outside the home, offenders commonly include members of the child’s extended family, neighbours, family friends, or people who are temporarily in a position of responsibility for the care and supervision of the child, for example teachers, babysitters, youth workers and sporting coaches.
In recent years, the severe physical abuse and sexual assault of boys in male dominated institutions has received wide publicity. This is because some of those who experienced child sexual assault in church schools and orphanages or in residential schools and children’s homes run by secular organisations, have now begun to tell their stories.
The effects of Child Sexual Abuse
Children who are sexually assaulted experience many powerful emotions including fear, guilt, shame, loneliness and confusion. Offenders usually trick, bribe, or threaten children to prevent them from speaking out. As a result of the offender’s trickery, children are left feeling that what happened was their fault.
When an adult sexually abuses a child, the situation is one of unequal power and unequal knowledge. It is never the child’s fault and the child can never be said to have consented. The situation is, however, very confusing for a child. Children are taught to respect and look up to adults and it is hard for them to understand that sometimes adults do wrong things. The situation is particularly difficult and confusing if the offender is a parent, relative, or family friend, or someone the family knows and trusts. Children worry about what will happen to the family if they tell. As someone they trusted has betrayed them, many survivors find it difficult to trust again. The loss of faith in themselves and trust in others lies at the heart of many difficulties adult survivors experience later in life.
Some of the problems experienced by adult survivors of child sexual abuse have been compared to the post-traumatic stress symptoms sometimes seen in war veterans.
In reading this section which outlines some of the common problems described by adult men who were sexually assaulted as children and by therapists who have worked with them, it is important to bear in mind that these are not the combined experiences of one survivor, but the collective experiences of many. Not all survivors will have experienced all the difficulties described, but most will have experienced some of them. The other important point to bear in mind when reading this section is that, with appropriate help and support, all the difficulties described can be overcome.
Many survivors have problems with relationships. When they were children they were forced to do what adults wanted and to meet adults’ needs. As a result they may develop a habit of always putting others’ needs before their own and have difficulty asserting themselves or setting boundaries in their relationships with partners, relatives, friends, or work colleagues.
Lowered sense of self-worth
Children who have experienced sexual assault almost always feel that what happened was their fault. They are burdened with guilt and shame and feel themselves to be “bad” or “worthless” and not deserving of love. This contributes to the relationship problems already described.
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse use a range of strategies to keep their feelings and memories under control. While, initially, these coping mechanisms may fulfil their purpose, which is to keep feelings and memories submerged, they have the potential to outlive their usefulness and to become destructive as time goes on.
Lew (1995) says that it is “unusual to encounter a survivor of abuse who isn’t addictively or compulsively engaging in some form of numbing behaviour.”
Common forms of addictive/compulsive behaviour which may have started out as effective survival strategies include:
– Addiction to alcohol or other drugs
– Sexual promiscuity
– Excessive exercise
– Risk-taking behaviour
Although addiction to alcohol and other drugs is generally frowned on, some addictive behaviour, such as workoholism and sexual promiscuity, are not immediately recognised as harmful, at least not for men. The result is that the survivor may not recognise when these behaviours are out of control.
Survivors of sexual assault often associate sex with abuse. Therefore, many men who experienced child sexual assault have problems in intimate relationships. For some, sex and sexual feeling always seem “wrong”. In his book, Beyond Closed Doors: Growing Beyond an Abused Childhood (1994), John Andrews says:
“The irony is that to enjoy our sexuality we need to loosen control of the protective barriers we put up around ourselves and our bodies. Yet once we do this we’re vulnerable to the point of experiencing all over again our childhood feelings of shame. This is what hurts me.”
Other men describe similar feelings of disgust or panic. Andrew (34) who was sexually assaulted by a youth group leader while away at camp at the age of about 14 has since found relationships with women very difficult. He fears physical contact and sex feels like re-abuse.
A man sexually assaulted by his older sister said:
“I’ve always found sex traumatic and associated it with shame. For me, any kind of sexual experimentation felt wrong.”
Some men experience flashbacks to the abuse during sex and have to stop what they are doing. If their partner does not know what is happening or if the survivor is unable to talk about his feelings, the partner feels as though he or she is being kept at a distance.
Issues specific to boys and men
Males who have been sexually assaulted may experience the whole range of emotions described above. They may also experience concerns that stem from societal beliefs and attitudes about masculinity – the same beliefs and attitudes which make it difficult for them to speak out about the assault:
– Shame and anger at being seen to be a ‘victim’ and fear of not being believed: “It doesn’t happen to boys”).
– Fear of being gay: (“It doesn’t happen to real men”).
– Fear of being blamed: (“Males are always interested in sex. It must have been my fault”).
– Fear of becoming an offender: (“Males are offenders: Females are victims”).
Anger at being a victim
Our society does not readily acknowledge that males are also victims of sexual assault, so when boys find themselves in this situation, they may respond with anger and aggression.
Boys who reject the ‘victim’ label by a show of strength often find their aggression leads to problems at school and, later with the law. As a young man, one survivor joined a gang as an outlet for his anger. He became a regular drug user and acquired an extensive criminal record. A counsellor who works with adult male survivors described one of his clients as being “globally angry” when he first entered therapy. Another counsellor spoke of male clients’ anger as often presenting as “raw violence”.
Anger against women
It is not at all uncommon to find that male victims and adult male survivors of child sexual assault reserve their greatest anger for women. This is not confined to situations in which the woman is the offender: it is just as common in the greater number of cases in which the offender is male. This anger against women stems partly from the myth that being victimised equals being “weak” or “feminine”. It is not hard to understand how hating and wanting to reject these classifications can translate into hatred of women. It is also possible that shifting the anger onto women is easier than feeling alienated from one’s own sex.
Children often believe that their mother knows what is happening and that they do nothing to intervene. In reality, mothers are usually just as deceived as everyone else. John (22), for example, was abused by a male teacher at his primary school. His father had died and his mother was bringing up the children on her own. The teacher made himself indispensable to John’s mother; he became her close friend and was always willing to help out with the children. He often came to the house in the evening and stayed after she went to bed. John was very angry with his mother for not protecting him. This ‘mother-blaming’ attitude can often be found in the wider community with such statements “she must have known” or why didn’t she stop the child sexual assault” made by professionals in other Services as well as the general community.
Concerns about sexual identity
Whether the offender is heterosexual or homosexual, male or female, boys who are sexually abused worry about what this means for their sexuality. If they were assaulted by another male they wonder if they are gay and if the offender targeted them because he recognised this. Some develop a phobia about being approached by men. Anxiety about their sexuality is generally greater if they experienced sexual arousal during the assault.
Therapists say that concerns such as these are common but the fact that the offender is of the same gender does not mean that the victim is homosexual – or even that the offender is. Research shows that the majority of offenders of sexual assault of both girls and boys are heterosexual men. Therapists also say that arousal during sexual assault is common and does not mean that the victim wanted or consented to what happened (Salter, 2005)
Being sexually assaulted by another male can add to the confusion about sexual identity commonly experienced by adolescents or cause some adolescent boys to express homophobic views.
There are different issues about sexuality when the offender is a woman. Under the influence of the myth that men are always ready for sex, boys think that if they were not aroused this proves they are gay. If they were aroused then what happened could not have been abuse. The result is a confusing mix of guilt, shame and anger. Common reactions to these feelings are to deny that the experience was abusive or to “forget” all about it.
Because there is still a strong core of homophobia in our society, gay men who are sexually assaulted already have to deal not only with the stigma attached to being gay, but also with the common myth that the reason they are gay is because they were sexually assaulted. There is no research evidence to support this proposition and most gay men strongly deny any connection.
Concerns about becoming an offender
Many boys and men who were sexually assaulted as children worry not only about being seen as an offender, but also actually becoming one. Research to date shows that less than one in three child, adolescent, and adult offenders had been abused themselves (Salter, 2012). This means that most child victims do not become offenders. There is some evidence that experiencing child sexual assault increases the possibility that a boy will become an offender but this does not mean that male victims are destined to become offenders. It is all a matter of choice.
SPEAKING OUT ABOUT CHILD SEXUAL ASSAULT
Barriers to speaking out
Our culture provides no room for a man as a victim. Men are simply not supposed to be victimised. A “real man” is expected to be able to protect himself in any situation. He is also supposed to be able to solve any problem and recover from any setback. When he experiences victimisation, our culture expects him to “deal with it like a man”. (Lew, 1992)
Researchers generally agree that child sexual assault of both girls and boys is still under-recognised and under-reported. Even though community awareness and understanding have increased in recent years, there is still widespread reluctance to face up to the reality of child sexual assault. Both child victims and adult survivors realise that many people do not want to hear what they have to say. They intuitively sense that the climate is not right for telling.
There appear to be some particularly powerful forces preventing adult men from telling. From their experience of men’s groups, counsellors say that many men do not disclose until they are in their thirties and some never disclose.
The most significant barrier to disclosure is the community’s general reluctance to admit that boys and men are sexually assaulted. This reluctance stems from entrenched cultural beliefs about what it means to be masculine. These beliefs form a significant barrier to recognising the truth about sexual assault of boys. They make it very difficult for both boys and men to tell anyone and contribute to a climate in which boys and men are unlikely to be believed if they do tell. Even if the abuse is believed and recognised there is a tendency to underestimate its seriousness. As a defence mechanism, male survivors themselves ten to go along with this belittling of their experiences. Peter, whose story appeared earlier, has spent most of his life playing down what happened to him. He is distressed by the many problems in his life but cannot quite believe that “a little thing like being raped at the age of nine” could be the cause.
In our society, males are expected to be strong, in control, always interested in sex, and able to protect themselves and others. Being a victim does not fit very well with this image of masculinity. I his book for adult male survivors, Victims No Longer, Michael Lew says:
“In no area of life is the difference between our expectations of men and women more obvious that in sexuality. The male is expected to be confident, knowledgeable, experienced, aggressive, dominant sexual partner. Women, in turn, are supposed to remain passive, “virginal”, tentative, and submissive… The fact that these ideas are the result of self-deluded male fantasies, with little basis in fact, hasn’t prevented them from showing a remarkable persistence in male-female relationships.”
Lew also points out that in one rather odd way, these distinctions between what we expect of men and women have added to the difficulties of male survivors. Since women are expected to be passive, weaker, powerless beings, there is room for sympathy when they are victimised. He is not suggesting that disclosure is easier for women, just different in some respects.
Confronting the past
When something happens to trigger feelings and memories of child sexual assault, or when, for whatever reason, those feelings and memories refuse to stay buried, the prospect of having to deal with them can be overwhelming.
When the time comes for men to speak out about child sexual assault, all the anxieties and fears they felt as children resurface. Sometimes the decision to speak out is voluntary. Sometimes it is involuntary, for example when a person starts having flashbacks or memories keep breaking through to the surface and refuse to be buried. Whatever the circumstance, this is a very difficult time. During these difficulties, when survivors are overwhelmed by all the old fears and emotions, they often overlook the strength and courage they have already shown in managing to survive to adulthood. It is also important to recognise that confronting the past is the first step in ridding one’s life of the influence of the abuse.
For some men, disclosure comes when a life crisis triggers the memory or when the stress of keeping the past buried is no longer bearable. They may find themselves in hospital or seeing a health professional for the first time in their lives. For others, disclosure may be less traumatic.
How counselling can help
When survivors decide it is time to tell someone, or when the “secret” just forces its way out, feelings that have been pent up for years are released. For some this brings a sense of relief. Others experience overwhelming emotions and re-run of the old, fear, shame, and guilt. Some feel overpowering anger, worthless and helpless.
A counsellor experienced in working in the area of sexual violence can assist survivors to work through these issues at a pace that is acceptable to them. Any experience of sexual assault means that the ‘victim’ was not in control of that situation. It is therefore crucial that the survivor feels in control of the counselling process. You are the expert on yourself.
For further information on support, please contact Laurel House (North) on 6334 2740, Laurel House North West on 6431 9711, or email firstname.lastname@example.org