Peer Support for Abuse Survivors
Male-to-Male Child Sexual Abuse In the Context of Homophobia
source: Kali Munro, M.Ed., Psychotherapist
Remember growing up and hearing the word “pervert”? Nobody wanted anything to do with them–they were the “sick and demented” people whom everyone despised. And yet the word “pervert” is used both for people who sexually abuse children, as well as lesbians and gay men. By very definition lesbians and gay men are considered child molesters.
Newspapers draw connections between the sexual abuse of children and gay sex all the time. When a mainstream newspaper covers a story of men sexually abusing boys, it is referred to as homosexual abuse of children. Yet, when the same newspaper covers stories of men sexually abusing girls, it is not described as heterosexual abuse. Male-to-male child sexual abuse is equated with gay sex when there is nothing gay about it.
Victims of Sexual Abuse are Seen as Gay
The Myth of the All-Powerful Man
The Myth that Sexual Abuse Causes You to be Gay
While it is true that survivors of abuse, like anyone else, can engage in sexual behaviors that they may not desire, but engage in for very a variety of reasons, this is equally true for heterosexual and homosexual sex. In other words, someone can engage in gay acts and not be gay, just as someone can engage in straight acts and not be straight.
“Is This What it Means to be Gay?”
How do These Myths Impact on Abused Men?
Equating the abuse with gay sex leaves most survivors confused and conflicted about their sexuality. If they identify as straight, they may experience homophobic fear and panic that maybe they really aren’t. They may take desperate measures to prove to themselves that they aren’t gay. Some men may behave in a really macho way, for example, have sex with a number of women, try to get a woman pregnant, or harass gay men. They may in fact be gay, but the thought of being the same as their abuser stops them from coming out, or from feeling comfortable with their gay sexuality.
It’s not uncommon for survivors of abuse to blame themselves, but men blame themselves for different reasons than women. Men often believe, and quite strongly, that they “let it happen” simply because they are men. Men are supposed to be all powerful–never victims–even when they are children. This places an incredible burden on boys and men, often leaving them feeling guilty, ashamed, depressed, self-hating, and conflicted about their gender and sexuality.
If the survivor got an erection or climaxed during the abuse, his self-blame and confusion may be even more extreme. Even though these are normal physiological responses to stimulation and/or fear, and do not indicate consent or desire, the child doesn’t know this. Adults often don’t know it either. To the child, getting an erection or climaxing may feel like one more indication that he “let it happen,” or “proof” that he enjoyed it, engulfing him in even more shame, confusion, conflict about his sexuality, and anger toward himself and his body.
How does Sexual Abuse and Homophobia Effect Gay Men?
If a survivor’s understanding of what it means to be gay is derived from having been sexually abused by older men, a survivor may express his sexuality through anonymous sex with older men. Of course, this can be a choice apart from abuse, but it can also be a replaying of something familiar and unresolved. In addition, given the likelihood that the survivor was abused by someone that he knew and trusted, it may feel easier, or safer, to have sex with someone he doesn’t know or trust.
The gay survivor may worry, “Am I gay because of the abuse?” In my experience, this question reflects how badly he feels about himself and his sexuality, and the question is a result of the combined effects of sexual abuse and homophobia. Survivors often feel shameful, “bad” and “dirty,” and believe they are “damaged goods.” In a homophobic context, this shame extends to being gay. Straight survivors may feel dirty about themselves and having sex, but they do not feel dirty about being straight. A gay survivor who sees a causal relationship between the abuse and his sexuality is likely to experience a lot of conflict about being gay, and may end up resigning himself to being gay. He doesn’t feel good about the abuse, so how can he feel good about something he believes is caused by the abuse?
If he’s fortunate, he is able to distinguish between sexual abuse and being gay. But even if he is comfortable with being gay, he may struggle to let himself enjoy being sexual and close with another man. Having sex with a man can bring up frightening feelings and memories. He may feel like he is back there again with the man (or men) who raped him. His body may go numb, and even though he goes through the motions of having sex, he may not feel really connected.
During sex, he may find himself behaving or responding in similar ways to the way he behaved or was forced to behave when he was abused. He may try to please his partner with little or no regard for his own pleasure. He may feel like he’s performing, even though he doesn’t want to. He may place himself in situations where he doesn’t have enough control because that’s what he knows. Or, he may need a lot of control during sex because he didn’t have any when he was abused. And although he may crave emotional and physical closeness, he may avoid them for fear of being hurt or betrayed again. On a deep level, he may not feel safe with or trust men which makes it very difficult for him to have meaningful relationships, or to feel proud of being gay.
Clearly there is a profound difference between sexual abuse and being gay–one connotes control over a child, coercion, force, exploitation, and abuse, and the other connotes sexual freedom, free choice, romance, and love. Unfortunately, gay survivors may have a hard time feeling this difference and may struggle to come out, accept themselves, trust other men, have sex, or be in a relationship.
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