A report from France on Tuesday revealed that French clergy in the Roman Catholic Church have sexually abused more than 200,000 children since 1950. The inquiry found that the vast majority of the victims — 80 percent — were boys. When I read the news, my heart sank in a familiar way.
I felt damaged, as if I had a stain on my body I could never wash off. And I feared the consequences of disclosure.
As a male survivor of child sexual abuse, I can imagine both the trauma of the abuse and the silent pain that many of the survivors likely carried for decades. Child sexual abuse is a horrible betrayal for everyone who goes through it — but it is especially difficult for men to discuss and heal from because of the deep social stigma that persists around men’s disclosing abuse and seeking help, professional or otherwise.
I feel profound empathy for the survivors in France, many of whom were abused from the ages of 10 to 13. I was also molested during those same years, but I never told another person about it until I turned 30.
My experience is fairly common. Research suggests that children often feel guilty or responsible for abuse or are pressured to maintain silence by abusers or do not have the emotional or developmental ability to articulate what happened to them. The average age of disclosure of child sexual abuse, or CSA, is 52, a sad but unsurprising statistic.
Research from Scott Easton, an associate professor in the mental health department at Boston College’s School of Social Work, found that it takes “between 17.2 and 21.4 years, on average, before survivors of CSA tell someone about their experiences, and the longer the delay before disclosure, the more serious the symptoms are” from the abuse later in life.
For men, that timeline is even longer. “Male survivors typically do not disclose their histories of sexual abuse and assault for 20 to 25 years,” Joan Cook, a professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, and Amy Ellis, an assistant professor and director of the Trauma Resolution & Integration Program at Nova Southeastern University, have written. “They may deny, minimize, or fail to see the connection between sexual abuse and subsequent mental health difficulties. Sometimes they dissociate and do not fully register or remember what happened.”
While females are sexually abused as children more often than males, there are instances, such as the abuse perpetrated within the Catholic Church, in which boys are targeted more than girls. And when men have been abused, they face an additional set of barriers to coming forward and seeking help: a greater degree of shame, self-blame, stereotypes around masculinity and the misconception that child sex abuse is less harmful to men than it is to women.
The literature suggests that male survivors are at higher risk than the general population of post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, suicide and problems in intimate relationships. Similarly, research has demonstrated that male survivors, in particular, face experiences with powerlessness, isolation and shame.
Research has demonstrated that male survivors, in particular, face experiences with powerlessness, isolation and shame.
Matthew Robinson, a co-director of the Outpatient Trauma Clinic at McLean Hospital near Boston, notes that stigma is a primary barrier to male disclosure of child sexual abuse. “We really can’t talk about stigma and male CSA if we don’t also talk about masculinity,” he said in a lecture on the topic in January 2020.
In most societies, men are conditioned to think that being a “real man” means being dominant and self-reliant, Robinson noted in the lecture. It means not letting somebody take advantage of you or making you do something you don’t want to do. Child sexual abuse is one of the most acute examples of when someone takes advantage of another and makes them commit acts they didn’t consent to.
I felt this shame deep in my bones. I felt damaged, as if I had a stain on my body I could never wash off. And I feared the consequences of disclosure. I worried I would be punished for what happened to me if I spoke up, so I stayed quiet. I finally broke the silence to salvage my relationship with my girlfriend — now my wife — and because I was tired of not being my authentic self.
Yet a relationship can be one of the hardest places in which to reveal experiences of abuse. Some men fear that their partners will worry that they might abuse children or not love them or no longer feel attracted to them. Men who have been abused may fear that their partners will leave them, and that their partners will think they have hidden their true sexual orientations. All of these stigmas are profound misperceptions, but they unfortunately persist in parts of our society.
We need to continue to talk about male child sexual abuse and make it easier for men to come forward and get the help they need, from therapists, counselors and loved ones. The more men speak about childhood sexual abuse, the less power the stigma will carry. We should not blame or burden them for their own abuse or make them be the ones to seek accountability for the betrayals and violations they endured.
Above all, the lesson of the report from France is that we need to hold male survivors in our hearts with empathy and care.