The sexual exploitation of children has received significant attention over recent years with much being written about the reasons sexually exploited children don’t disclose. Many victims care for their perpetrator(s), while some mistrust statutory services such as the police. Others don’t recognize the abuse, and some children are fearful of consequences, not being believed and losing something they need or want (e.g. drugs, a home, a relationship, acceptance). Of course they have shame and guilt.
While these reasons can apply to all sexually exploited children, what about barriers to disclosure predominantly experienced by boys? This article will explore some of these barriers and provide some guidance for male victims, along with their parents and providers around disclosures.
Without doubt one of the greatest barriers that hinder and prevent boys from disclosing sexual exploitation is rigidly held beliefs around masculinity. For example, a boy who has been sexually exploited thinks he shouldn’t access support believing boys should never ask for help because doing so always shows weaknesses and therefore threatens the boy’s idea of masculinity. He believes that boys should always appear strong and never appear weak.
Seager highlights that the male archetype or “gender script” consists of fighting and winning, providing and protecting, and maintaining mastery and self-control. While many view a number of these traits as elements of ‘toxic masculinity’ (a term that is widely used to often criticise and berate masculinity, labelling it as harmful), it is rigidly held beliefs associated with these traits that are harmful, not the traits themselves. For example, a boy thinks that boys should never cry and always bottle up their sadness. This belief is harmful because it is too rigid and unrealistic. A more flexible and realistic belief would be that there are times when it’s ok to cry and times when it’s not, and there are times when they need to bottle up sadness, and there are times when it’s ok to let it out.
Beliefs we hold about the traits of masculinity that are realistic and not rigid can actually help boys overcome sexual exploitation. A boy who has been sexually exploited may be feel angry with himself for not taking control and physically preventing the perpetrator from abusing him, believing that boys should always take control, but through therapy the boy realises that for various reasons there are times when boys can’t always be in control. Confronting his issues, addressing the sexual exploitation in therapy and reporting the abuse to the police can be framed in a way that shows the boy is taking control.
In my soon-to-be released book, I write about how some sexually exploited boys and men believe that the abuse they suffered damaged their masculinity. Such a belief can prevent abused males from disclosing and accessing support. If a boy has strong and rigid beliefs about masculinity and what it means to be male, he may return to these beliefs once he has experienced sexual exploitation, as a way of coping with the abuse and restoring what he believes to be his damaged masculinity. A sexually exploited boy that acknowledges to himself that he has experienced sexual exploitation, may start to display aggressive behavior such as arguing with parents, caregivers and teachers, bullying peers and fighting with others in an attempt to prove to the world and himself that he is still a tough guy.
When I was raped at the age of 20, I responded by having lots of promiscuous sex, going to the gym to bulk up and getting drunk and storming around the city center looking for fights as a way of “fixing” what I thought was my damaged masculinity. The problem was that my idea of masculinity was unhealthy and too rigid to start with.
Alternatively, sexually exploited boys may adopt a more passive approach, believing that disclosing and accessing support will further expose them. A sexually exploited boy may isolate himself from others, start misusing alcohol and drugs, and begin self-harming and/or begin attempting suicide. If a boy believes that his masculinity has been damaged as a result of the sexual exploitation. The rigid beliefs that boys should never ask for help and disclose when they have been a victim, then they are unlikely to tell anyone about being sexually exploited. They are unlikely to access counseling as they may see this as something else that will harm their already damaged masculinity.
A number of sexually exploited boys and men I have worked with over the years told me that they didn’t tell the police what happened to them because they felt that the police wouldn’t like them. Some had previous negative experiences of police involvement and other boys had a pre-existing negative relationship with the police. Some boys that did disclose were adamant that they wouldn’t speak to the police or name the perpetrator because it was wrong to snitch. This was even more true when boys have been sexually exploited within gang contexts. If such abused boys don’t engage with support or disclose to the police, this begs the question, what do they do? Simply put, they deal with it themselves.
I once delivered a presentation addressing grooming and child sexual exploitation to a group of girls and boys in a secondary school setting. Toward the end of the presentation, I asked the group who they’d tell if they experienced sexual exploitation. Most of the girls said they’d tell a parent, caregiver, friend, teacher or trusted adult. A significant number of boys said they’d never tell anyone. They would deal with it themselves by getting someone to beat up the perpetrator, slashing their care tires or chucking a brick through their window. The fact that the number of male clients accessing counseling are low compared to the number of female clients and as ChildLine figures show, only 14% of counseling sessions were delivered to boys perhaps such emphasises the reality that many boys will deal with problems themselves or not at all.
We need to help boys realize that their gender does not mean that they always have to deal with problems themselves. A balanced approach can contribute towards a realistic perspective. There may be times when boys dealing with certain problems by themselves is realistic, appropriate and useful. There are also times when boys can’t deal with problems themselves and that it is unrealistic to believe so.
A boy who has been sexually exploited who has rigidly held beliefs about his masculinity and what it means to be a boy should be encouraged to explore more flexible and realistic beliefs that can eliminate the barriers to disclosing sexual exploitation and accessing support, and also aid recovery.
Part 2 of this article talks about more of the differences in how boys experience sexual abuse, and provides some tips for victims and for parents/caregivers.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of child sexual abuse, you can find resources and support here.