Study Confirms that Masculine Gender Norms Delay Healing for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse

In a recent study of male survivors of childhood sexual abuse out of the University of Saskatchewan, Dylan Stansfield, M.Ed, explores the ways in which male norms and gender expectations can inhibit the recovery and adaptation process, especially when it comes to forming intimate relationships in adulthood.

For several years, it has been recognized that men are less likely to report sexual abuse, and when they do report it, it tends to be much later after the abuse has occurred. According to a 2008 study by O’Leary and Barber which the author cites,

The authors found that males were significantly less likely to disclose immediately after the abuse (26.2% of men reported disclosing immediately after the abuse versus 63.6 % of women) as determined by a chi-squared test. The authors also found that men took significantly longer to disclose the abuse, with 44.9% of men requiring over 20 years to talk about what had happened to them.

As Stansfield discusses, the pressure to conform to masculine norms makes men less likely to discuss their sexual assault to begin with. Instead, even young boys are taught to suppress any sense of victimization and to not allow themselves to be seen as having been taken advantage of or manipulated, especially not by another man. Compounding the issue, not only are boys taught to not see themselves as victims, but the general public is taught to not treat boys as victims as well. As Stansfield writes,

Edelson and Joa (2010) found that District Attorneys pressed charges against alleged perpetrators who were suspected of sexually abusing girls 78.57% of the time, while pressing charges against alleged perpetrators who were suspected of sexually abusing boys 50% of the time

Rather than being encouraged to seek out justice and counseling as a means of beginning to heal properly, male survivor of childhood sexual assault instead tend to feel compelled to counteract what they perceive as an affront to their masculinity (being victimized by someone else) by clinging more tightly to masculine norms, "such as emotional control, self-reliance, and heterosexuality." In addition to dealing with repressed trauma, strict adherence to masculine norms is also associated with an increased risk of suicide. As Stansfield writes, "In a study of men who’d been sexually abused, Easton, Renner, and O’Leary (2013) found that a high level of conforming to masculine norms [...] was correlated with a 230% increase in the likelihood of a suicide attempt in the past year for male survivors."

Throughout Stansfield's research, he found that three common themes emerged as key elements of the experience of male survivors of childhood sexual assault: protecting the self, worth of the self, and healing the self.

By protecting the self, male survivors tended to eschew situations that would expose them to being vulnerable, especially in intimate relationships with others. According to Stansfield, "While every participant’s experience is unique, all of them experienced a fear that the violence they experienced in childhood could be repeated, and this fear was shown in the difficulties they experienced connecting with others." Because of the masculine emphasis on strength, self-reliance, and the avoidance of victimization, the men in this study found it easier to shield themselves off from vulnerability and intimacy for the sake of avoiding being hurt again than they did to leverage vulnerability and intimacy as forms of healing.

Self-worth was similarly diminished in adulthood by the events of childhood. Unresolved and unaddressed childhood trauma led the men in this study to view themselves as broken, lesser, or in some way tainted. As a result, they often perceived that they were not worthy of forming meaningful relationships or seeking out treatment; in their eyes, they weren't "good enough" to do so, which again continued to compound the lingering effects of this childhood trauma.

When it comes to healing– largely due to the aforementioned roadblocks to healing–survivors recognized that recovering from their traumas would be a lifelong process and that they may never feel as though they have healed. Yet, this theme also carried some optimistic outcomes as well: the more men were able to get involved with other male survivors and/or learn more about the male experience of childhood sexual assault, the more they felt they benefitted and were able to feel that they could take an active part in the healing process.

It should be noted that opening up to other men and taking part in these discussion groups is not something that is easy to do, especially given the influence of masculine norms and toxic masculinity that we've already discussed. The typical male narrative that gets reinforced day in and day out through media and social interaction instead encourages men to attempt to suppress or "power through" emotions in solitude rather than within the confines of a community; doing so, however, is correlated with an increased risk of suicide and will limit the opportunities that a man has to connect with a community to help with the healing process.

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault or childhood sexual abuse, please know that there are resources available to you– you don't need to try to heal entirely on your own. Your brothers have your back.