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Breaking the Silence: The Media and Male Sexual Abuse

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During the past few years we have finally been hearing more about an epidemic of sexual abuse of children , and thankfully, a few prosecutions. The perpetrators were priests, well-loved sports coaches, boy scout leaders and even celebrities. The recent scandal at the BBC, linking a well-known personality, Jimmy Savile and his alleged repeated abuse of underage girls, and his charity work which appeared to be a cover for access to children, had been making headline news. Sadly, foundations related to children have often been used as a way to access the vulnerable to use them for sexual abuse. In the U.S., Ireland, the Channel Islands, the list seems to go on and on -- new sordid stories of child sexual abuse are being investigated, at times, linking to a disturbing hierarchy of silence in institutions which were considered "sacred," -- be it the Catholic Church, the BBC or even Penn State football. All of these institutions have been front page headline-makers for the media, and now they are losing trust as they are linked to horrific betrayals of trust. The media has a hugely important role to play in continuing to get the message out not only about sexual abuse of children, but how these children can not only survive, but thrive.

For the adult men who are still suffering from the abuse they suffered as boys, the media headlines stir up feelings of anger, sadness, frustration as they see for example priests who are simply moved, still given access to boys, or die before they are prosecuted, and, luckily, for a few, some relief as they are able to confront the men who harmed them in the courtroom. I am going to focus here on sexual abuse by men in positions of power against boys because, "survey by researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Boston suggests that approximately one in six men is sexually abused before the age of 16." The majority of the sexual abuse by Catholic priests takes place with children between the ages of 11 and 14. According to a USA Today headline: "Hundreds of priests shuffled worldwide, despite abuse allegations." I have seen this same figure repeated again and again, and knowing that it may be even higher as so many live in silence, suffering in shame, their lives damaged by alcoholism, drug abuse, and the inability to trust people in intimate relationships.

Narcissism in our society is rampant, and can be a result of an early violation which leads to a lack of empathy in later life. The narcissistic wounding which occurs when a child's boundaries have been violated can lead to an inability of the victim to be able to be vulnerable, and many men will spend their entire lives avoiding true intimacy.

"Power and wealth are two great anesthetics for the wounded male heart. Power and wealth get men the social trappings, including pretty women and all the toys, that allow men to avoid the emptiness in their own hearts," writes Linda Marks in her article "Narcissism And The Male Heart Wound."

"When I am feeling powerful, I have no pain," commented a man I interviewed.

Marks notes:

"Men have built externally functional selves with worldly rewards. However, these rewards are not rooted in a core sense of self or soul which is inaccessible and undesirable, having been lost, broken, underdeveloped or never defined. This lack of sense of self, fragile self, undeveloped self results in an elaborately built psychic/emotional defense system that draws power and attention towards the person and keeps pain at bay.

'We all have this monster of anxiety and depression that eats around the edges and wants to eat us up,' reflects Mark McDonough, an entrepreneur and explorer of the male heart wound. 'We throw different bones at it: power, sex, alcohol, workaholism, entertainment. There are so many ways to keep that monster from eating you up. Nobody wants to sit with the monster. It's too horrendous.'"

I recently had dinner with a male friend, who is fifty years old and who was sexually abused as a seven-year-old by a family friend, someone well respected in a highly religious community. He told his mother, who promptly washed his mouth out with soap. Another friend was molested by a Catholic priest, a man well-loved by his parents, when he was thirteen. When he told his parents, years later in his twenties, his parents did not believe him. What does this do to a boy, a young man, when he actually speaks out about his abuse and those who are meant to protect and support him -- and they do not believe him, even worse mock him? The suffering in silence morphs into another kind of abuse, self-abuse, which can take many forms. It can deeply disturb relationships, keep men from knowing real intimacy and chase away those who care for them the most.

The media has a responsibility to keep these stories out there in the news, and to follow the court cases and let the voices of those abused be heard. Later in life, this abuse rears its head in a way which can destroy new families, new lives, partnerships, and of course, the victim himself. By talking about abuse in the media, providing resources and catharsis and even documenting confrontation and legal prosecution, the media can provide a tool for victims become survivors who become healthy healed human beings who can maintain loving intimate relationships and learn to trust again.

According to New York psychoanalyst Richard B. Gartner:

"'The bigger the betrayal, the more the boy reacts as though relationships themselves are traumatic. He becomes kind of allergic to being in relationships. It's very hard for a wife or partner to deal with that.'" Such relationships can be emotional -- and physical -- battlefields. Or the men seem coldly remote and "zone out" at home. Many also turn to drugs and alcohol, or become obsessive about food, exercise, or work, devoting so much energy to a career that their families are neglected. Experts call this a hypermasculine response."

In the case of the Catholic Church, the repeated denial, refusal to get to the bottom of how high the level of cover-up goes, the fact that in some instances, has lead to suicides in the cases of some of those abused, life-long problems with addictions and maintaining healthy relationships. Many people of faith have come together to confront these issues as it troubles their deepest beliefs in what the church means to them and their families. Other stay in denial. The more denial, the more children and childhoods will be damaged. The media must keep on this story and make sure it is reported, that pressure is put on the church to bring these abusers to justice and that the stories of this abused be told.

In the recent case of Penn State's once beloved football coach, Jerry Sandusky, a typical pattern of covering up of the powerful person's abuse by other people who are high up in the hierarchy, as with the Vatican cover up of the abuse by priests, once again leads to a mistrust of the system of power and institutions, as well as damaging personal relationships. That the men who are revered and respected by the community and in some cases, the world, and reach powerful positions of authority, are not brought to justice is not only deeply disturbing for those who are victims of this abuse; it makes many of us feel powerless. That is why these abusers must be charged and convicted. Those who cover up for them must be punished. The media must help keep these stories in the headlines and has a responsibility to the victims and to society to do so.

"Based on an extensive grand jury investigation, Sandusky was indicted in 2011 on 52 counts of child molestation dating from 1994 to 2009, though the abuse may have dated as far back as the 1970s," writes Sara Ganim of The Patriot-News.

For the men who had their childhoods irrevocably damaged, a childhood which should have served as a strong base of healthy memories on which to draw from in later life, I wish them peace and closure. I also hope that they find the strength and support to be able to admit openly to what happened to the, and to realize they can heal. They can in fact become examples of how the human spirit, mind and body can overcome such abuse. These men, for me, when they do speak out, especially those who confront their abusers and help bring them to justice, are heroes. They can talk about what happened to them, and their recovery, to their children and others, in order to help people understand the reality of both their own personal recovery, the strength it takes, but also what is sadly a reality of our world. Children must be made aware. Adults need to be able to be vulnerable and open up and share with others their experiences in order for both themselves and the abusive systems in place to be healed.

Everything is connected, and if they can truly deeply heal, learn to forgive themselves and others, each part of their life which has been damaged, can become whole again. In fact, they can be the best partners, the most understanding parents, the most giving and compassionate human beings out there, because they have gone through the entire cycle of a kind of death and rebirth, the Phoenix rising out of the ashes. They can help others to heal, and they can help to heal our institutions and our world. And for those who love them, there can be hope and the reality of a relationship full of love, mutual trust and real intimacy.

According to Ken Singer, LCSW, some of the reactions men who have been abused may have :

1. Denial of Vulnerability: Difficulty recognizing that what happened was sexual abuse. High need for control in interactions with others. May appear stubborn and rigid for control in interactions with others and frequently engage in power struggles, or seem passive, codependent and conforming. Both are protection from feelings of vulnerability.

2. Confusion Regarding Sexual Orientation: Orientation is exhibited in many ways. Some men claim heterosexuality but are sexual with other men. Some homosexual men question their orientation and wonder how they might be different had they not been abused. Other men may not engage in any sexual behaviors with males or females and are unable to determine their sexual orientation.

3. Confusion of Emotional Needs With Sex: Needs for nurturance may be identified as sexual. Many needs may have been met through the sexual abuse and sex continues to be viewed as the only way to be cared for. Real relationships with other men and women are often seen as threatening and sexual behavior may actually be one of the few ways to relate superficially and still have some needs met. Societal norms encourage men to equate sexual prowess with personal value and discourage direct expression of emotional needs. Some men become "Don Juans" or give the impression they are "superstuds" as a way of proving to themselves and the world that they are not gay or weak because of their victimization histories.

4. Gender Shame: Confusion and anxiety regarding masculine identity. Extremely uncomfortable around other men. Does not like to be touched by men and often avoids situations where he may be seen unclothed. Because he does not feel part of the group, he is often isolated with few male friends. Shame is especially powerful regarding feelings about masculinity. "Real men" don't get abused, they can protect themselves. Internalized male models are shaming or nonexistent. May exhibit more feminine characteristics as an attempt to separate from negative masculine image or to avoid identifying with the male abuser.

5. Multiple Compulsive Behaviors: Sex, food, chemicals and work are examples of common compulsive behaviors used to satisfy an internal drive to continually push oneself to avoid feeling pain and to meet dependency needs but is not productive or helpful.

6. Physical and Emotional Symptoms: Hypertension and frequent chest pains. Recurring dreams or nightmares of being chased or attacked, choked or stabbed. Difficulty urinating in public restrooms. Depression and anxiety.

7. Pattern of Victimizing Self or Others: Most victims do not become offenders. Many dysfunctional behaviors may be seen as an attempt to feel more powerful, punish oneself or numb the unwanted feelings connected with the abuse. This may involve passive-aggressive behaviors or subtle put-downs. Some men, act out by exposing, obscene phone calling or voyeuristic activities. Anger toward self can involve suicide attempts or putting oneself in a high risk situations which could lead to injury or death without actually attempting suicide. Victim may react to a current situation as if it were similar to the childhood abuse experience. Victim feels powerless and cannot see the current situation for what it is. Coping mechanisms mimic survival means used during childhood. May actually become involved in abusive relationships as an adult that are in many ways similar to the childhood sexual abuse experience.

8. Boundary Transparency: Unrealistic fear that others can see their failures and vulnerability. They fear they can do nothing to protect themselves. This inability to protect self and feeling unsafe can result in difficulty establishing even minimal trust. Other reactions include anxiety, rage and withdrawal. May have a history of boundary intrusions other than sexual abuse, especially physical and emotional abuse.

9. Chaotic Relationships: Many difficulties around intimacy, autonomy (self-sufficiency) and commitment to a relationship. Extreme and intense swings in needs for closeness and distance with others. The need to be cared for and have dependency needs met is in conflict with fear of vulnerability and re-victimization. This behavior repeats the victim-perpetrator experience with the partner when that person alternately becomes a perpetrator and a protector.
10. Poorly Defined Sense of Self Self protection has resulted in submersion of self with little internal locus of control. Behaviors are similar to codependency. Importance placed on attempts to avoid feelings of confusion and vulnerability.