Men Abused as Boys: The Myth Dissolves, and Big Boys Do Cry
Despite anecdotal evidence—thousands of men standing up in the last decade to tell their stories of sexual abuse at the hands of priests, ministers, Boy Scout leaders and other trusted male mentors—the myth about child sexual abuse, that “it rarely happens to boys” is still prevalent.
But, as this excellent article points out, that myth is dissolving. This is the point that came out so powerfully in the recent series of broadcasts done by Oprah Winfrey on male survivors of abuse. Since I do so much work on behalf of child abuse survivors, often I have people ask me, “why are so many men coming forward these days?” The answer is the same one as for women—because they can no longer carry the secret, and because, finally, society is giving them permission to speak their truth. Except that for men, that permission has been slower in coming.
It is obvious that acceptable ideas of what it means to be a man in this society have been badly confused and repressive, until just the last few decades. It was not that long ago—my boyhood, for instance—that the image of “a real man” given to boys was centered on war heroes, cowboys, athletes and other tough guys. And, of course, much of that was, and remains, a powerful and in many ways positive ideal for men. After all, society, families and children need men to be strong, resilient, determined.
My own father, rest his noble heart, was one of these: one of the “greatest generation”—a WW II marine, a creative and energetic entrepreneur, an avid outdoorsman. As Tom Brokaw articulated so powerfully in his “Greatest Generation” book several years ago, men like my father weathered the depression, beat back fascism in all its forms, built an American economic powerhouse, and stared down communism.
So thank God for this kind of male strength. But there was a cost to this as well, a deep and personal cost for entire generations of these men. They were not “allowed,” and certainly not encouraged, to be very open about their inner lives, their sufferings, their struggles. Big boys don’t cry. Indeed.
But starting with the so-called “Men’s Movement” of the 1970’s and 1980’s, men began to question this motif. That this movement wandered around in the wilderness for a few decades before it began to be rooted and balanced does not change the fact that what was happening in the poetry of Robert Bly, the stories of James Hillman, the recovery literature aimed at men, the new theologies setting forth a different vision for male virtue, all were uncovering some very important truths and freedoms for men. One of the most central insights from all this was the notion of “male authenticity,” the idea that, whatever else it means to be a man, it must include being authentic.
That means that men, to be truthful and whole and alive, must embrace all aspects of themselves—outward energy and power and adventure, for sure, but also a rich inner life, which must include being able to understand and articulate their own emotions, struggles, and a living spiritual journey.
All of which brings us back to male survivors of child abuse. In my work advocating for adults abused as children, probably 75% of those who have come to see me have been men. Often I am the first person ever who they have told about their abuse—including their own wives, partners, parents, siblings, best friends, even counselors and ministers. These men have carried a secret— one of the deepest and darkest secrets a man can carry, “As a boy I was sexually touched by a man” —for decades.
It is significant, I think, that they come to tell a man, and in my case, a man with his own kind of past brokenness, one that I often freely tell them about, for in those shared struggles a bond is formed and they know they are not alone in their struggle for authenticity.
But it began a decade or two ago, with just a trickle of a few incredibly courageous men who began to break the secret. A handful of gutsy men decided, against all fear and shame, to take society at its word, that it is acceptable to talk about their inside struggles. And so they stared down their own demons and they defied society to call them unmanly for speaking out about the unspeakable things that happened to them as boys.
Now, a second generation of men is standing on the broad and powerful shoulders of these early mythbusters. They, too, are coming forward and breaking silence, naming abusers, demanding accountability from churches and youth organizations and the Boy Scouts of America, and from any other institution of trust that failed them by harboring child abuse.
And they are getting healed, transformed and energized, even if it sometimes takes—as it has for many of the men I have helped—years, even decades, of hard work in counseling, in anger management, in drug or alcohol recovery, for them to find their own way. These are some of the most authentic men I have ever met, and I salute—yes, that most traditional male gesture of respect and honor—I salute them.
And so the myth continues to dissolve.