Originally published on Mic and cross-posted here with their permission.
Chris Anderson was sexually abused by his neighbor when he was a child. Confused about exactly what happened and what it meant, he shut out the trauma of the experience for almost 25 years before finally realizing it was the source of his depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. He went to a retreat for male survivors of sexual assault and finally told his story.
“On average, there is a delay of 20 years between the abuse and first disclosure,” Anderson, now 39, said. Many survivors never say anything about their abuse — ever.
After almost 25 years of silence, Anderson now talks about it a lot as executive director of MaleSurvivor, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing, healing and eliminating all forms of sexual victimization of boys and men.
Speaking with Mic, Anderson said part of the reason there’s very little coverage or attention paid to male survivors of sexual assault is a staggering lack of disclosure.
Although sexual violence is generally perceived as predominantly a woman’s issue, there is, unfortunately, nothing unusual about Anderson’s’ experience or how long it took for him to disclose it.
In fact, according to some estimates, around 17% of boys will be sexually assaulted during their childhood or adolescence.
Over a lifespan, about 22% of men will experience sexual violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And now, new research conducted by the National Crime Victimization Survey suggests that 38% of rape and sexual violence incidents were against men.
By most standards, this would qualify as a problem of epidemic proportions — so why is barely anyone talking about it?
Silence is a dangerous thing. Just ask Chris Anderson.
But even when we do talk about male sexual assault, harmful stereotypes and inaccurate myths too often cloud our understanding of the problem. It’s time to change the conversation by debunking these misconceptions and allowing male victims the dignity of their own stories.
Myth 1. Men and Boys Can’t Be Victims
This myth is largely the result of traditional definitions of masculinity and the socialization of our boys from an early age.
“When a boy [or man] is sexually abused, that abuse is occurring virtually simultaneously with his internalization of his culture’s norms about masculinity,” Lisak told Mic.
“Those norms vary to some degree, but they rarely stray from the prescriptions about toughness, and a renunciation of fear, vulnerability, helplessness — precisely the emotional states that accompany sexual abuse.”
There is an added layer to this for men who are abused by women.
Jennifer Marsh, Vice President of Victims Services at the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) told PolicyMic via email that “[m]ale victims often feel as though there must be something ‘not right’ with them if they did not want or enjoy the attack.”
The shame and confusion that results from the disconnect between what victimized boys or men feel and what they think they should feel makes it less likely for them to disclose the abuse, reinforcing the silence and the myth that males cannot be victims.
Myth 2. Perpetrators Are Gay (And Being Abused by Another Man Makes You Gay)
It is also important to note that a homosexual man who sexually assaults another boy or man is, just as straight man would be, more accurately labeled a pedophile or a rapist — his crimes are not linked to his sexuality, but a convergence of many factors that lead to the sexual assault.
There is absolutely no evidence that being sexually assaulted by a man “turns you gay.”
This myth is related to a similar misperception, sometimes known as the “vampire syndrome.”
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many people still believe that survivors of sexual abuse will become perpetrators — in the same way that television and movies tell us people bit by vampires become vampires.
Lisak clarifies that “while childhood trauma — physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and witnessing violence — increases the risk of later violence, that risk is incremental and indirect.”
Both Lisak and Anderson used the term “tainted” when referring to the undeserved stigma placed on survivors, yet another factor deterring men from disclosing.
Anderson also pointed out that the idea is typically gendered: “When was the last time you heard of a six-year-old girl being victimized and having people say that now she is more likely to become a perpetrator?”
Myth 3. If a Survivor Is Physically Stimulated During the Assault, It Means They Wanted It
A man’s body can sometimes act independently of his brain.
Some survivors of sexual assault have physical responses to stimulation, including erections — and even orgasms. This does not make the experience more consensual or less traumatic.
According to Anderson, “Having a physical reaction can be destabilizing and confusing,” and perpetrators often use that confusion to take advantage of survivors by saying they liked it or wanted it, making it more difficult for survivors to disclose or to fully and accurately understand what happened.
This myth shares characteristics with the idea — also false — that women who are raped can’t get pregnant because their body magically shuts down or that bringing a woman to orgasm during an assault proves she wanted it all along.
In fact, science tells us that such arousal or orgasm during an assault is simply the body’s response system doing what it does best — that is, responding to stimulation, even when that stimulation is unwanted or terrifying.
Myth 4. Women Never Rape Men
The idea that victims, particularly male victims, actually want to be assaulted is the cornerstone of one of the more insidious myths about male rape, the “hot for teacher” phenomenon that dictates that women never rape men, implying that men are always along for the ride.
Anderson says he’s spoken with many men who are sexually abused by women who were told that they should “consider themselves lucky.”
Many readers are probably familiar with the stereotypical fantasy of the hot teacher secretly seducing her young student. Yet we have an age of consent for a reason.
According to Lisak, “somewhere around a third of men who are sexually abused as children are abused by women,” and while every case of sexual assault is unique, many of the cases of men being sexually abused by women involve a power imbalance.
Lisak points out that because we culturally romanticize the idea, many men will not disclose it, and if they do, they may label it an “early sexual experience” or even brag about it.
The experience, however, often has “long-lasting, negative effects,” including misshaped sexual development and a distorted view of what constitutes an appropriate sexual relationship.
For far too long, male survivors of sexual victimization have been neglected and passed over during national conversations.
“Any person who was sexually victimized is deserving of compassionate support,” Anderson said. “Sexual violence is not a male issue or a female issue — it’s a human rights issue.”
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Jack Fischl is the masculinity columnist at Mic, hoping to propel the conversation on what healthy masculinity means to millennial men. He is a co-founder at keteka.com – a website that leverages the Peace Corps network to connect small tour operators with travelers seeking to find and book an authentic experience. A vagabond explorer, Jack is currently probably either traveling, trying to help others travel, or writing about social justice. Please follow him on twitter at @JackFischl.