What About the Boys?

boys faded 1

boys.

In Quaker-speak, we have something called a “concern,” which is basically a deep-felt divine prompting to attend to a particular need. Although I’ve long felt a general sense of “concern” about injustices related to gender and sexuality, when I wrote that article about Don Draper being raped, I thought it would be a small foray for me into the issue of sexual violence against males. My main goal was to raise awareness and perhaps motivate others to speak out on their behalf.

But I can’t seem to look away. This issue of boys being sexually assaulted and shamed into silence is increasingly feeling like a “concern.” Writing that article opened a Pandora’s box for me, a box full of horrifying statistics and heartbreaking accounts of abuse. Most of the people who responded to me personally after the article came out were male survivors. Many of expressed variations of the same thing: no one is really talking about this. No one sees this. No one cares.

One survivor sent me a link to this Oprah episode from 2010, available online, which focuses on the stories of men who were abused as children. The entire audience in this episode consists of male survivors, one of whom was the man who sent me the link — 200 men in all, each holding a picture of their childhood selves, the faces of beautiful little boys whose lives were horrifically changed. Or, as one survivor puts it, whose souls were stolen as children.

I dare you to watch the episode and not weep. I was crying within the first few minutes, just seeing all those men gathered, holding the pictures, publically telling the world what they’ve lived through.

The episode tells several of these men’s stories in graphic detail – of course there isn’t time to tell every story, but just seeing their faces is incredibly moving. Even a glimpse, the camera passing by, reveals a shadow of the pain they have endured and are enduring. I’d been immersing myself in stats and data, but now I was able to see those numbers come alive in the faces and bodies and stories of actual people.

Oprah mentions her own shock at encountering the disturbing statistic that 1 in 6 men were sexually abused as children. I’m well familiar with the oft-quoted statistic that 1 in 4 women have experienced rape or attempted rape, but until I started looking in this topic, I had never come across the 1 in 6 figure about boys who are sexually abused.  If you’re having trouble believing the number, you can read more about the supporting studies here – there’s a good chance it’s an underestimate, actually, because research indicates that men are less likely to disclose experiences of sexual abuse than women.

And that’s what is haunting me right now. The silence.

Some of these men were abused for years, throughout their entire childhood, and their parents had no idea. Some, even, were abused by one parent right under the nose of the other parent, which is even more sickening.

It’s hard not to be consumed by fear once you have a child; the menu of nightmarish things that could happen is a long one – but right near the top of that list of horrors is having my son be sexually abused and then shamed into silence. I know that I can’t be physically with my son at every moment during his entire childhood and adolescence, but what can I do to teach him to speak out if he is harmed, and to never ever ever blame himself if someone assaults him?

My mom recently told me a story about my brother – this doesn’t involve any sort of sexual abuse, just to be clear, but it does connect to this discussion in a way. My brother, who was maybe ten or so, was walking home alone from an oboe lesson past a house just down the block with a psychedelic van parked in front. The funky, colorful van intrigued my brother, so he paused to look at it for a moment before continuing down the street toward home – when a guy pulled up and started yelling at him for messing with his van. This guy was scary. He shouted a slew of expletives and explicit death threats at my brother, who, remember, was just a little kid.

After my brother got home and told my mom what happened, she decided to take him to the police station to file a report (my brother specifically remembers the thrill of being able to say the ACTUAL f-bomb five times for the police officer, with mom’s approval). The cops talked to the guy, who never bothered my brother again and actually apologized to him. This is the part of the story I find interesting: my mom said that she chose to take my brother to the cops mainly because she thought it was an opportunity to teach him the importance of speaking out in the face of any abuse, whether verbal or otherwise.

I realize this event is not in the same realm as sexual abuse, not even close, and I’m not intending to lump them together. But, for me, the story does shed a little light on this question about empowering children to talk about any violence they experience, preferably with a trusted authority figure. And it also highlights the importance of listening to children when they do speak up. That part is crucial, as research shows that children are often viewed as unreliable witnesses and disbelieved when they report abuse. I’m proud of my mom for taking my brother seriously and intentionally using that moment to empower him (and letting him justifiably say the f-word repeatedly).

Many feminists have written, particularly in the wake of Steubenville, of the need to teach boys the importance of consent. I agree – but I think we must begin by teaching them the importance of their own consent, and the sacredness of their own bodies, and to empower them to speak out if anyone, anyone, ever violates that.

There are many powerful voices out there advocating for women and girls who have experienced sexual violence – and I applaud them. I am so grateful for them. But who is speaking out for the boys? Not as many, it seems, but perhaps the tide is turning.

The eerie hush surrounding this societal wound is gradually being broken, I think. I hope. In my own research, I’ve seen a sudden spike in studies on sexual violence against men and boys since about 2006 onward. Several of those studies were conducted by this team of psychologists, who repeatedly remark on the dearth of research on this issue. And, of course, the Oprah episode is another indication that more men are coming forward, and more people are listening.

But we have a long way to go.

The gender myths that contribute specifically to the silence of male victims remain largely intact: namely, that men are the strong, invulnerable, stoic ones, the ones who can’t be hurt – or, if they are hurt, they must somehow be complicit in their own abuse.

We contribute to the shaming and silencing of male victims by perpetuating harmful attitudes about the invincibility of boys and men. Boys don’t cry. Boys will be boys. Man up. The lie that men can never appear weak without compromising their masculinity is insidious, dehumanizing, and needs to be challenged.

And it is being challenged, in an important way, by men telling their stories. I am moved by these survivors who directly confront myths about what it means to be a “Real Man,” simply by being real men, human beings with inborn capacities for both strength and vulnerability. They show the courage it takes to speak out, especially in such a public way. There was no weakness in that crowd of faces; there was strength and honesty, and daring openness – bravery of the highest kind.

But their voices shouldn’t be the only ones calling for more awareness, more research, and more resources for male victims. I am not an abuse survivor, or a man, but my life happens to be overrun with tiny males. I have a son and four nephews – their bodies and souls are beyond precious to me. Now that know these stories, these statistics, I can’t ignore this problem.

Maybe if I write, others will, too. Maybe we can expand our societal conversation about sexual violence to have a dual focus on both sexes. Men and women, boys and girls – none of us live in complete isolation from one another. Our lives are entangled. Our fates are intertwined. Our pain pools together.

Let’s empower our children, especially our boys, to speak out. And let’s listen when they do.

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Tiny beloved males.

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20 comments

  1. bruce1971

    One of the most consistent joys of your writing lies in the fact that you don’t view progress for women as a zero-sum game, but rather as a recursive process that benefits both genders. This is definitely one of those areas: as a man, I’ve found that our society’s growing awareness of rape, molestation and domestic violence against women has also made it easier to discuss rape, molestation, and domestic violence against men.

    A recent NYT article addressed this, noting that the majority of sexual crimes in the military are conducted against men. That was surprising, but what was really shocking was the article’s acknowledgment that sexual violence against men has a long history, that has only recently begun coming to light. Some of the men interviewed in the story talked about how they have carried the pain of rape with them since the 1960′s.

    And the same is true of child molestation and domestic violence, both of which seem to be increasingly coming to the fore. It seems like, once we acknowledge that these crimes exist, it becomes easier to acknowledge that they can happen to anyone, regardless of gender.

    • Abigail

      Thanks, Bruce. And, yes, I think you’re right that growing awareness of violence against women has brought issues like rape and sexual abuse more into the light — now we just need to continue to create awareness of all forms of sexual violence, and invest in more research and resources for male survivors. If we continue to see this issue as inherently gendered, we risk holding back real progress.

  2. Tamen

    Thank you for this article. And in particular this paragraph which I think is a very important point:

    Many feminists have written, particularly in the wake of Steubenville, of the need to teach boys the importance of consent. I agree – but I think we must begin by teaching them the importance of their own consent, and the sacredness of their own bodies, and to empower them to speak out if anyone, anyone, ever violates that.

    • Abigail

      Thanks, Tamen. There have been a flurry of articles lately about “teaching boys not to rape” — and not only does that wording irk me, because it overlooks the fact that boys might be raped themselves, and they tend to emphasize making boys aware of girls’ consent. Of course, that is important, but I think respect and healthy boundaries with others spring from a deep sense of self-respect and a healthy conception of one’s own consent. So that’s the approach I’ll take with my children: pairing self-respect and respect for others.

  3. Allan

    Yes, that is an interesting paragraph. I tend to say consent doesn’t exist for boys and men. So it’s hard to learn something you never get to experience for yourself quite frankly. That’s partly what the silence says…

    For those little boys, do you know about the children’s book “My Body Belongs to Me” by Jill Sharishevsky? http://www.mybodybelongstome.com/

    Abigail, I’m so happy you watched and even posted about it! Thank you. I think the biggest thing everyone can do is simply learn to listen and hear stories of abused men. Sometimes, most times, the boys don’t tell until much later. I’ve disclosed my abuse to a whole lot of people, and rarely do people do that. There’s always something more important that comes up.

    So Thanks Abigail! For being one of the rare ones who listened. And heard.

    • Abigail

      Thanks for sharing your story, Allan, and for speaking out. I honestly think that’s the most important way to combat the silence. And thanks for that book recommendation — looks awesome; I appreciate that it has a gender neutral approach.

  4. Melissa

    I remember reading a sociology book that insisted that it was “un-feminist” to ever say that men can be raped- that it was “physically impossible” due to men’s larger builds, which would never be overwhelmed by a woman. I remember feeling so angered by that idea. There were so many faulty assumptions in the statement that I ended up dismissing it altogether. I’m glad I’m not the only feminist who feels that men can be, and are often, abused in some way or another. I realize you are mostly talking about boys and adolescents. However, I think it is important to recognize that men CAN be victimized as well.

    • Abigail

      Ughhhhh…was that sociology textbook?! Crazy. That perspective is so frustrating, especially because you’d think a feminist perspective would (ideally) be more wary of playing into gender stereotypes. And, yes, even thought I’m talking more about “boys” here, I absolutely do think that adult men can be victimized. Abuse and assault are not gendered. I’m always heartened to meet other feminists who think this is an important issue, too! Thanks for commenting.

  5. Allan

    I thought of an interesting parallel working in the garden tonight. So, you may not know…. Oprah Winfrey was raped age 9 by a relative, and developed into a promiscuous teen and mother at age 14. It’s a common issue for survivors to either have too much sex (think “sex addiction”) or not enough (i.e. none for years) at times in their lives. Sometimes alternating. I don’t watch the show but isn’t this Don Draper’s character too?

    • Abigail

      YES, Allan. That is EXACTLY Don’s character. That’s another reason why it was so frustrating that his abuse was sugar-coated, because it explained SO much about his character, his sex addiction, his inability to maintain healthy relationships with women. If you ever do watch the show, it will be interesting for you to know his history from the start. Also, (hope I’m not spoiling anything — I’ll keep it vague), at the end of this season’s finale, Don begins to open up about his past to the people around him for the first time, and I actually have a bit of hope for his character now, that his story won’t end in a spiral of self-destruction. We shall see…

      • Allan

        I lead a male survivor support group for several years. The recollections of his rape prompted by the man stroking the woman’s arm (IIRC) sounded like a flashback. Sure heard that stuff before…It fits.

  6. Pingback: What About the Boys? — The Good Men Project
  7. Titfortat

    Hi Abigail

    Great post by the way. I was driving back from dinner with my wife this evening and this song came on and I immediately thought of you. The song doesn’t directly address sexual abuse but its essence is on what the effect of abuse is on a boy. It is a powerful song that I think will help you understand the psyche of a boy who is both victim and protector in the same breath. I commend you on your voice and how you will be the “Love” so many of us seek.

    Cheers
    John

    He could run like a tiger anywhere when he felt like everything was alright
    Walk tall like a roman emperor like a cockatoo on his own
    Away from the lights of home
    In the room with his brothers and sisters
    He didn’t sleep at night kept his ears open for a key in the front door
    He’s home again, he’s drunk again he’s bouncing off the walls again
    A fist comes down like a hammer on a drum
    A hammer on a drum

    Where is this love that will open the doors?
    Where is this love to make me cry out for more?
    Where is this love that comes from above?
    Where is this love?

    He’d fight like a soldier with the kids on the street
    When he knew he couldn’t talk it out
    Walk proud like a man in space like a king
    When he dreamed of living in a different place
    He’d soar like an eagle on the hill
    Where he went when he ran from the raging storm
    He couldn’t think at school couldn’t take the pain
    He cried out for love but no one came
    Just the sound of thunder like a hammer on a drum

    Where is this love that will open the doors?
    Where is this love to make me cry out for more?
    Where is this love that comes from above?
    Where is this love?

    He’d shiver like a runaway in the wind when the day turned grey
    With the fear of night
    He just keeps on running through the driving rain
    He’s home again, he’s drunk again
    A fist falls down like a hammer on a drum
    A hammer on a drum

    Where is this love that will open the doors?
    Where is this love to make me cry out for more?
    Where is this love that comes from above?
    Where is this love?

  8. Abigail

    Thanks, John. These are powerful lyrics, kind of heartbreaking. [And the music video is deliciously 80s! :)] Thanks for sharing.

  9. unladylikemusings

    Reblogged this on Unladylike Musings and commented:
    So much of the anti-violence movement focuses on violence against women. That is often what we hear more about and statistically speaking women are more likely to have experienced violence. That doesn’t mean that we can forget about the boys and the men who have also experienced violence. This post raises some great questions and issues. I highly encourage you to check it out. It is written by a professor from my alma mater and a brilliant one at that. Also check out her blog: https://mamaunabridged.com/.