Child sexual abuse is as much about power and domination as it is about compulsion. The object – female, male or both – is a reflection of sexual imagery and fantasy. But the action encapsulates repressed rage that treats the sexual act as a weapon against the victim. This is true of the incestuous relationship as well; although it is more likely here that the victim is the unintentional consequence, not the target, of these repressed forces.
As with subjects I have previously written about – men abusing girls, women abusing boys, women abusing girls, older children abusing younger children and now with men abusing boys, we see that the psychological underpinnings are very similar. In fact, the sex of the offender and the sex of the victim is always a secondary consideration to the physical and psychological impact of the misuse of power by a trusted authority figure on a much younger person. That said, there are differences in the way a young person processes and is able to come to terms with childhood abuse depending on their own gender and the gender of the abuser.
Over the past decade there has been an eruption of scandals surrounding sexual abuse of boys by Priests. Despite the public glare on these scandals, abuse of young boys is still generally under-recognized, under-reported and under-treated. Just like sexually abused girls, sexually abused boys grow up exhibiting guilt, anxiety, shame and low self-esteem. Frequently, they are self-destructive and even self-mutilating.
But what is different about the abuse of boys – especially boys abused by men – is that it often precipitates crises about sexual orientation and gender identity. This is related to shameful feelings of being less manly because they were victimized; and if the abuser was a male, then they fear it has affected, will affect or is an indication of their sexual orientation. Girls who are abused by women do not automatically fear that they are Gay, but with boys it is different. It has to do with a culture of male homophobia and what it means to be “Masculine”, which has created a lot of anxiety and fear in boys over the prospect of being Gay.
Masculinity is an ideal for men. Masculinity in our culture is recognized as heterosexual. Masculine men are not victims, they are aggressors. They cannot be penetrated; they penetrate. They do not have sex with other men. They have sex with women and they procreate. Masculinity is a key part of male gender identity – the public expression of sexual orientation. So once a boy has been victimized, penetrated and had sex with another man, with or without their consent, their masculinity is compromised and therefore their sexual orientation is called into question. There is such profound shame attached to this notion for most boys that men with sexual abuse histories often have severe problems relating intimately to both men and women.
If the boy grows up to be homosexual, he might wonder if it had to do with the abuse or else rationalize that it does. And it turns sex with men into a conflictive affair of desire vs. rage that many times leaves him emotionally numb. If the boy grows up to be heterosexual, he may either become homophobic and/or have constant anxiety about his sexual functioning (sexually abused men consistently score lower than sexually abused women on sexual self-esteem measures). This sense of inadequacy can make it difficult for many men to remain sexually intimate with a woman or even enjoy sex. In contrast, there are a significant proportion of abused men who can only relate sexually, using sex as a weapon or shield from more emotionally intimate relationships. “In addition to its self-soothing aspects, sexual compulsivity represents for many men a repetitive attempt at mastery over their original sexual victimization.” (Richard B. Gartner, 1999).
What about the abuser? Traditionally, male abusers of boys have been identified as homosexuals, thereby adding another slanderous tag to the gay male population and confusing the sexual abuse of boys with gay sex. But “Virtually all male abusers of boys consider themselves heterosexual” (Gartner, 1999). Pedophiles, even if they only abuse boy children, are different from homosexuals who like to have sex with younger men. There is a profound difference between sexual abuse and gay sex – one connotes control over a child, coercion, force, exploitation and abuse, and the other connotes a sexual choice and an encounter freely entered into by two adult males.
Most sexually abused children know their abuser. But even if it’s a stranger, the profile of a male abuser is fairly consistent. He is more likely to be heterosexual than homosexual, he himself was probably abused as a child, he has unusual fantasies and compulsions, the act is more about power and control than it is about sex, and usually a current stressor sets off the abuse.
Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT