Suffering in Silence: The Problem of Male Sexual Abuse By Dr. Angie Panos

Recent news reports call attention to the trauma that is suffered by those who were raped or sexually abused as children. However, few media reports delineate the effects of sexual abuse on males, whether they are children or adults. Not only are there many male victims who have suffered in silence, sometimes for years, but there are many that do not understand how a traumatic sexual event affects their life. Symptoms such as deep shame, rage or uncontrolled anger, confusion about their gender identity or masculinity, and difficulties in intimate relationships are examples of ways that the abuse can continue to disrupt their lives. Some may have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), while others may have some of the symptoms of PTSD that appear intermittently, such as night-mares or intrusive thoughts about the abuse.

Researchers, Mezey and King suggest that male victims of sexual assault suffer their violation in two ways, in terms of their feelings of male adequacy and in terms of their sexuality. While rape is a sexual act, the motivation for a rapist is more aggression/dominance rather than sexual. A couple of case examples below describe some of the effects of male sexual assault (the names and identifying characteristics of these cases have been changed to protect their anonymity):

Don was a 48 year-old executive that recently sought counseling for anxiety symptoms. In discussing his situation with his wife, he disclosed to her a sexual assault that he had survived at age 12. The perpetrator was a trusted male clergy member. Don and his wife decided to talk with the therapist about the abuse to see if therapy could assist him in resolving the trauma. Don was reluctant to acknowledge any effects it had on his life. However, nearly 36 years later, he was still haunted by these memories. With some encouragement from the therapist, he began to describe how the situation occurred and what he did to try to protect himself from further abuse. Don had occasional nightmares about the assault. It had not shaken his belief in God, but had caused him great conflict with his spirituality, including a deep sense of shame. The assault caused him to overcompensate in his masculinity and his dominance of others, especially when he experienced anxiety. His wife explained to the therapist that these behaviors had negatively impacted their relationship.

Although Don was willing with his wife’s encouragement to talk to a therapist, there are many men that remain silent about their abuse. In the second case example below, Steve reported the assault, which is rare for most men who are abused to do. Unfortunately, the unwillingness to speak out perpetuates the likelihood that the perpetrators will continue to abuse without consequence.

Steve, now in his late thirties, was only 29-years-old and worked in construction when he arrived at a hospital emergency room with stab wounds in his lower leg and upper thigh. He reported that he was jogging in a park when he was accosted by a man wielding a knife. The female doctor attending to his wounds followed her intuition and asked him if he had also been sexually assaulted by the attacker. Steve admitted he had and the rape support team was called in to assist in gathering evidence from his physical exam. Follow-up counseling was also provided to Steve and his wife to help them get through the experience. Steve was average height and build, athletic, strong, and in good health. He had a difficult time comprehending how he was overpowered by the attacker, despite being stabbed twice. The experience was humiliating for him, because he was unable to protect himself. The counselor pointed out that he was able to stay alive; however, this seemed to be little solace to him. The fact that he was victimized, even though the attacker had a weapon, was incomprehensible to Steve. Having to face the wait to get testing for HIV, and the law enforcement delay in catching his attacker kept Steve from being able to forget about the assault as he had wanted to. An undercover police officer caught the attacker about 4 months later in the same park. It was nearly a year before the time came for Steve to testify in court. It was terribly difficult for him to tell the story and face the humiliation of the assault all over again. The rapist was sentenced to five years. Nearly seven years after the attack, Steve was informed that the rapist was being paroled. Although Steve received good medical care, counseling and support, he continued to experience symptoms of PTSD. Steve thought it ironic that the rapist was freed, while he continues to suffer from the attack.

Steve later reported that had the doctor not asked him directly if he had been sexually assaulted, he would not have disclosed this information. This case example highlights how difficult it is for male victims to report a sexual assault. Talking to a professional that can help is the first step in beginning the healing process. If you or someone you love has experienced a traumatic event, please find an experienced, licensed counselor to begin your path toward recovery.

Reference: Mezey, Gillian C. (Ed); King, Michael B. (Ed). (1992) Male victims of sexual assault. London: Oxford University Press.

Angie Panos, Ph.D. is a therapist that specializes in trauma and grief, she has 20 years of experience in helping survivors. She is a board member of Gift From Within.