Can the church do more to support male victims of sexual abuse?

Blog by psychologist John Steley

(First published as ‘Men, boys and sexual abuse’, in the Church of England Newspaper Friday 8 December, 2017. Reproduced here by kind permission of C of E and John Steley).

WARNING: The issues discussed in this article relate to sexual abuse and may be distressing to some readers.

You have probably heard, as I have, that we live in a society where men have most of the power. Sexual abuse is understood to mean men abusing women, girls, or sometimes boys. This perception is constantly reinforced by the media and various other places.

But is life really that simple? I am not suggesting that men do not commit abuse. It is obvious that some do. Could the reality actually be more complex than we have come to believe?

This case study is shared with the consent of the person concerned:
William (not his real name) was a single man in his late 20s. He had a well-paid job. He was an active member of his church. He was well liked and respected. Some people wondered why William wasn’t married. Several young women in the church seemed to like him. What was the problem?

William had a secret. As a child he had been sexually abused by his mother. This experience had left him with a deep fear of women and of sex. As a result, although he was invariably polite to women, he never let one get too close.

Eventually William decided to do something about his situation. He mustered his courage and called a telephone helpline. William explained to the woman at the helpline as carefully and as accurately as he could what his mother had done.

‘It’s a problem,’ the woman replied, ‘men think they are meant to be strong. It’s all those macho attitudes you are taught as a child. Your masculinity is being threatened. You’re probably afraid that people will think you’re not really a man. If you think your mother abused you have you ever tried thinking about the good times you had with her?’

‘I am not the problem!’ William protested, ‘my mother abused me. She is the problem! Stop blaming the victim!’

‘We understand,’ came the response, ‘men do find it hard to be honest about themselves.’

William hung-up the phone feeling angry and bewildered. Why had it all gone so wrong?

Without realising it William had challenged a belief that is commonly held in the helping professions and beyond. That is, that women and girls are victims and that men are the abusers.

The helpline managers had not trained their staff to think any differently. In the view of the woman who
took his call William was a man – therefore the abuse, or whatever it was, had to be his fault.

Males can be sexually abused either by men or by women.This is now a known and recognised reality. If those in the helping professions do not recognise this they can unwittingly compound the abuse that the man or boy has already suffered.

Lucetta Thomas who is researching mother/ son sexual abuse at the University of Canberra in Australia
identifies a number of ‘strong, but invisible’ myths in regard to male victims of sexual abuse. These include:

Boys and men can’t be victims – they must have consented.
A mother would never do this; she was just being overly affectionate.
If a boy experiences sexual arousal or orgasm from abuse, this means he was a willing participant or enjoyed it.
Boys are less traumatized by the abuse experience than girls;
boys are sex-focussed anyway.
The mother or son must have mental health issues (1).

Research into the effects of sexual abuse on males is still in its early stages. It should be noted however that psychologists Naomi Murphy and Sabeela Rehman have found, ‘In terms of our data at least 66 per cent of our population of men in a high secure prison have been sexually abused during childhood (54 per cent of this group have been abused by at least one woman – usually acting in isolation not in conjunction with someone else). This is probably an under-estimate. Most of this group have been abused on multiple occasions (2).

What then should the church be doing?

Probably the first and most important thing is simply to be aware that it can happen. This means everyone including clergy, other church staff – everyone. When talking about sexual abuse do not speak as if this can only happen to women or girls. If someone does speak about abuse in this way maybe gently but firmly correct them.If the person who delivers the sermon mentions abuse but leaves the congregation with the impression that this is only a crime committed by males against females take this up with him or her after the service.

Many churches appoint members to act as Child Advocates. Their role is to be there for children who have or are being abused. If only women are appointed to this role does it reflect a belief that only gi rls are abused? If boys can also suffer abuse, including sexual abuse (which is undoubtedly the case) should we not appoint both men and women to this role?

When organising the groups and activities in a church maybe we should ask ourselves, ‘Is there a place in our church where a man who has suffered sexual abuse can share this safely?’ If not, then maybe think about some all-male groups. Maybe encouraging men to form all-male prayer partnerships or triplets could help.

We also need to ask if there is a safe place for women who have been sexually abused by a woman to share this safely.

[Editor’s note from John Barry: there should also be a space for those men and women who have been abusers, but want to change their ways and make amends].

Whatever your church decides it is important that both masculinity and femininity are valued and respected. We are all created in God’s image – none of us any more or any less than anyone else.

2. Personal communication, Dr Naomi Murphy, Consultant Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, 22 November, 2017.

For further help
Survivors UK
Churches Child Protection Advisory Service

John Steley is a psychologist in private practice in London.

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