Sexually Abused Men
Richard Gartner, Ph.D., joined us to discuss male sexual abuse and the stigma surrounding it. He talked about how men react to their abuse by displaying hyper-masculine behaviors, behaving in stereotypically masculine ways. Dr. Gartner noted that many sexually abused men, left untreated, develop depression, flashbacks, and compulsive behavior (for instance, becoming a sexually compulsive) to cope with being traumatized by the sexual abuse experience.
Audience members had questions about whether unwanted sexual contact with a man could turn a boy gay or affect one's sexual orientation. Others spoke about how being betrayed in an important relationship has now affected their ability to have intimate relationships.
Other topics included: being too ashamed to talk to anyone about what happened, the cycle of victimization, the fear of becoming an abuser (do boys who were abused become men who are abusive?), and where to get help.
David Roberts:HealthyPlace.com moderator.
The people in blue are audience members.
David: Good Evening. I'm David Roberts. I'm the moderator for tonight's conference. I want to welcome everyone to HealthyPlace.com. Our topic tonight is "Sexually Abused Men." Our guest is Richard Gartner, Ph.D, Director of the Sexual Abuse Program at the William Alanson White Institute in New York City. He's also on the board of directors of the National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization. In addition, Dr. Gartner is the author of Betrayed as Boys: Psychodynamic Treatment of Sexually Abused Men. He is also the editor of the book Memories of Sexual Betrayal: Truth, Fantasy, Repression, and Dissociation.
Beginning of Chat Transcript
Good evening, Dr. Gartner and welcome to HealthyPlace.com. We appreciate you being our guest tonight. So we all start off on the same page, can you please define "sexual abuse" for us?
Dr. Gartner: Good evening, David and everyone. First of all, abuse is the use of power to get one person to fulfill another person's needs without any regard to the needs of the person who is the subject of the abuse.
Sexual abuse, uses sexual behavior to fulfill that.
David: One of the things I've gathered from emails I've received is that a lot of men are afraid to admit they've been abused. It seems it has a lot to do with the way they perceive themselves as men, or being afraid of how others will perceive their manhood.
Dr. Gartner: That's very common. Unfortunately, in our society, victim-hood is seen as the province of women and for men to acknowledge that they've been victimized to them is saying they aren't really "men." And this is a very unfortunate part of masculine socialization -- how we learn to be men. They feel shamed by the idea that others will think they are not male, just because they've been abused.
David: And so is there a different way that men perceive their abuse vs. the way women perceive it.
Dr. Gartner: Well, often men see early, premature sexual behavior as a sexual initiation. Often they convince themselves that they initiated the sexual situation with the adult. This is one way of feeling that they were in charge in an exploitative situation.
David: Does sexual abuse affect men differently than women?
Dr. Gartner: Up to a point, yes. There are many aftereffects that both men and women often show, like flashbacks, depression, or compulsive behavior of one sort or another. Men, however, have been socialized to believe that men do not have "weak" feelings so they do not let themselves be vulnerable if they can help it. I am speaking in generalities here, of course.
Often to avoid the sense of being powerless, they become what we call hyper-masculine, behaving in stereotypically masculine ways, but these hyper-masculine behaviors make it very difficult to process what was a very painful exploitation.
David: One of the things I read is that men aren't as traumatized, or don't feel as traumatized, by the sexual abuse experience. Is that true? And is that a result of the compensatory behavior -- acting more like a "man"?
Dr. Gartner: It depends how you measure the trauma. Men are likely to say that they were not traumatized by the abusive behavior, especially young men in their late teens to mid-20s. However, men with histories of unwanted childhood sexual behavior with adults are much more likely to come to psychotherapy than men without those histories, but for reasons that SEEM unrelated to the abuse.
David: How are intimate relationships affected?
Dr. Gartner: Dramatically. If a child is betrayed in an important relationship, especially with a loved and trusted caretaker, as is often the case, then the trauma is not just about the sexual acts but about the break in the trusting relationship. This makes it harder to enter trusting intimate relationships later in life.
A man may have some kind of sexual dysfunction which, of course, affects his intimate relationships. He may be sexually compulsive, or feel numb during sex, especially if he feels, even for a moment, that he is not in charge of what is happening, so he may not allow himself to truly BE intimate with another person.
David: Now, this may sound silly, but a lot of sexually abused men are concerned about this. Will male childhood sexual abuse affect your sexuality? Will it make you gay?
Dr. Gartner: It does not sound silly. It is an important question; it relates to a fear that makes many boys and men not talk about their abuse. Conventional wisdom is that early sexual contact with a man can "turn" a boy gay, but most clinicians believe that sexual orientation is well formed by the age of 5 or 6 and for boys, the average age of their first abuse is about 9. In addition, gay men with sexual abuse histories report that they usually had a sense that they were gay BEFORE the abuse occurred. The problem is that boys growing up to be gay, in almost all cases as they try to understand their sexuality, ask themselves "Why am I this way?" It's very easy to say, "Oh! it was the abuse." Paradoxically, though, gay men who were abused by women often ALSO blame their orientation on the abuse.
David: Also, many times when we think of abuse, for whatever reasons, we think of men as the perpetrators of the abuse. Is that also the case with sexually abused boys?
Dr. Gartner: Are you asking about female abusers?
David: Yes, I am.
Dr. Gartner:There are far more female abusers than most people believe. In a study at the University of Massachusetts at Boston they found that, of the men who acknowledged a history of abuse, about 40% said they had had a female abuser (this includes men who were abused by both men and women). But women often abuse in ways that are not as obvious -- it may happen, for example, in the guise of cleanliness -- over-attention to cleaning a boy's genitals in the bath.
David: I have some other questions, but let's get to a couple of audience questions first:
mark45:What about being abused by both parents?
Dr. Gartner:This does indeed sometimes happen, unfortunately. I have known of cases where both parents included the boy in some sexual act together. Is there a particular question about such a situation that you want to ask?
David: I would imagine, especially after an experience like that, it would be hard to trust anyone again?
Dr. Gartner: That is true -- yet many men have enormous resources within and can overcome even such a total betrayal.
Terry22: I was sexually abused by several of my mom's boyfriends when I was in grade school. I have a very hard time with intimacy. I can't just simply show my love. Have you known anyone to overcome this fear of giving and receiving love due to sexual abuse?
Dr. Gartner: Yes, definitely -- it requires a lot of patience and often a relationship with a therapist is helpful here. Having someone to talk to about the distrust, and someone to, perhaps, learn to trust. Of course, some partners are also very patient and can be very helpful if they do not take the reluctance to show love as a personal attack.
David: Given the fact that many men don't seek therapy for anything, much less abuse, I'm wondering if these issues can be dealt with on their own -- sort of through self-help?
Dr. Gartner: Yes, of course. There are, for example, a number of books that can be helpful here -- a small number, but it is growing. Victims No Longer by Mike Lew, Abused Boys by Mic Hunter, and my own Betrayed as Boys (which is written for professionals but I believe is accessible to many men). The reluctance to enter therapy is really part of the problem I was talking about -- men aren't supposed to have needs. So I would hope that men would reconsider their concerns about being in therapy.
TFlynn: Betrayal !! I believe it is a hell of a lot more than that. How does a child of 8 work that out in his head? Who does he turn to? Are you not brought up to respect and honor your mother and father?
Dr. Gartner: That is exactly right -- that is why the betrayal is so huge. If a boy is lucky, there is someone in his life to whom he can turn -- a teacher, or grandparent, for example. It is very difficult to allow yourself to let in what was done to you, if it was done by a parent. Especially because, in some cases, that parent is beloved and helpful and supportive in some ways. I think a child of 8 can't really work that out in his head --you are right.
David: How do you even figure that out as an adult?
Dr. Gartner: An adult does have more resources to figure it out, but it is indeed very difficult. One of the most helpful things is not to be silent.
mark45: How can a person find a place to start talking about being abused?
Dr. Gartner: You are asking about where to go for help? It depends where you are, of course. Often good hospitals have rape intervention programs, and while these were developed to help women who were raped as adults or who have a history of child abuse, the good ones know to treat men as well, and often that help is free. At least they should be able to refer you to an appropriate place. There are also centers that treat abuse and incest in some cities.
paxnfacto: SO what if that is NOT the case (that they are so lucky)... What if you have no other trusted adult to turn to?
Dr. Gartner: That is the case as a child, but it doesn't have to be the case as an adult. I have known boys who made it their business as they got older to find people in whom they could confide. Silence is one of the worst aspects of abuse. If a boy or man feels too ashamed to talk to anyone about what happened, then it festers.
I run groups for sexually abused men, and I am always amazed and gratified when they see that they are not alone and what a difference that makes to them. This is only a first step in healing, of course. There are also some web sites now that have chat rooms and bulletin boards where sexually abused men or their partners can talk to one another anonymously, as you are doing here.
guthwyn: Dr. Gartner mentioned depression as an aftereffect. My question is: How does one know which methodology to use in the resolution of this issue? For example, through further psychotherapy or via a medical approach, in the context of chronic depression and extensive abuse histories.
Dr. Gartner: It doesn't have to be one or the other. I often see men in psychotherapy and refer them for medication consultations as an adjunct. If an antidepressant works, often the man begins to be able to behave differently in the world and then we have different, new things to talk about in the therapy.
David: Here's an excellent question:
paxnfacto: How does an adult male, who has had to struggle all his life to maintain some interpersonally developed sense of himself and his GOOD place amongst his family and society, finally come out and spill the beans, as it were, without shattering the very foundations of that sense of self and his place in both this society and his so-called family?
Dr. Gartner: It sounds like that sense of self had to come through covering up a terrible secret, so I wonder how solid it could be. Every case is different, of course, and I am not saying that every family in which abuse took place needs to dissolve. In fact, it is indeed very difficult to accuse, say a parent, of abuse and split the whole family if some believe you and some do not. I think that, in some way, the abuse has to be recognized, at least privately, for that sense of self to be solid.
TFlynn: Do you really think that he would turn to another adult for help. I think it's just the beginning of a long reign of isolation and the beginnings of self-abuse. How can you break that cycle of victimization? Don't many males go from being abused to abusing themselves through various substances like drugs or alcohol?
Dr. Gartner: Yes they do. Alcohol, drugs, gambling, overeating, overspending, and sexual compulsion are all things that men may turn to when they need to sooth the tremendous pain they feel. Often when men come to me it is because they finally realized that they were killing themselves through such self-abuse.
I'd like to speak also of the fear of becoming an abuser.
David: Please, go ahead. I think that's a common fear.
Dr. Gartner: The conventional wisdom is that boys who are abused become men who are abusive, but the overwhelming majority do not. Although it is true that most abusers were themselves abused, they are the ones who turned to that hyper-masculine way of living, in which you act out your feelings rather than reflect on them. The fear that people will think you are an abuser, or the fear that you will become one, is another reason men are reluctant to speak of their histories.
David: I'm wondering if the anger or rage that might build up from not being treated, from having to cope with all those difficult feelings internally, might lead the person to become physically or emotionally abusive?
Dr. Gartner: Well, yes, that is what I was referring to -- these are the men who are living in pressure cookers. Also, we often imitate the behaviors we grew up with, so even if we do not become physically or sexually abusive, there may be a tendency either to become exploitative oneself or to be easily exploited by others if someone is "trained" to be a victim.
I would also recommend that people look at the web site of the National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization (NOMSV).
There will be a conference in New York in October that is open to survivors as well as to professionals. I am the Program Chair and I know it will be very exciting.
David: Are there any other seminars or retreats that you might recommend for our audience members to attend?
Dr. Gartner: NOMSV is planning to offer retreats in the future -- we did do one in California two years ago. I would say check the web site from time to time to see whether one is scheduled. Also, Mike Lew often does a summer weekend workshop.
David: Thank you, Dr. Gartner, for being our guest tonight and for sharing this information with us. And to those in the audience, thank you for coming and participating. I hope you found it helpful. We have a very large and active community here at HealthyPlace.com. You will always find people in the chatrooms and interacting with various sites.
Here's the link to the HealthyPlace.com Abuse Issues Community. You can click on this link, sign up for the mail list at the top of the page so you can keep up with events like this.
Also, if you found our site beneficial, I hope you'll pass our URL around to your friends, mail list buddies, and others. http://www.healthyplace.com
Dr. Gartner: Thank you for having me, and thanks to the people who listened and asked questions.
David: Thank you, again, Dr. Gartner. Good night, everyone.
Disclaimer: We are not recommending or endorsing any of the suggestions of our guest. In fact, we strongly encourage you to talk over any therapies, remedies or suggestions with your doctor BEFORE you implement them or make any changes in your treatment.
Last Updated: 30 March 2017
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD