It is estimated that the international prevalence of child sexual violence is 18 percent and 7.6 percent for girls and boys, respectively. However, the vast majority of scientific literature on child sexual violence is based on female victims. When studies do focus on male child sexual violence, they often are based on adult men’s recollection of childhood experiences. One likely explanation is related to the amount of time male victims take to disclose—which has been estimated to average approximately 20 years. Many incidents go unreported because of sexual violence dynamics. In this blog, I will describe a model that helps us to understand these dynamics as well as an empirical study conducted with male youth who were victims of sexual violence which provides evidence for this model.
Child Sexual Violence Dynamics
Although each instance of child sexual violence is unique, some patterns in their occurrence have been identified. These patterns are called sexual violence dynamics (see Figure 1) and include six phases. Sexual violence often begins with the Preparation phase, in which perpetrators try to be closer to the victim and build a “special relationship” as a way to gain their confidence. The Episodes phase commonly begins with less intimate contact (e.g., touching, fondling, sexualized conversation topics) and progresses to more intimate contact (e.g., masturbating, penetration). The Silencing phase consists of perpetrators using various strategies to maintain secrecy. These strategies include telling victims the event must be kept secret as well as using threats and/or bargains. Even in the face of the pressures to maintain the secret, some victims disclose the sexual violence. This Telling phase refers to the process in which either (a) victims try to tell someone about the occurrence of sexual violence, or (b) someone suspects the occurrence and asks the child about it. The telling phase is followed by a Repression phase, in which perpetrators—or even family members—try to undermine the victim’s credibility. Finally, the Overcoming phase occurs when the child or adolescent is believed and supported through protection. In this phase, the victim receives essential interventions (e.g., psychosocial, health, and mental health supports).
Male survivors face significant barriers to disclose. These barriers can be divided into three main categories: Personal (e.g., lack of cognitive awareness, naming the experience as “sexual violence,” avoidance, emotions such as shame, strong feelings of guilt, concerns related to sexual orientation/identity); Interpersonal/relational (e.g., fear of negative repercussions, isolation, disbelief by others, threats from the perpetrators); and Sociopolitical/sociocultural (e.g., expectations of masculinity, limited resources, lack of acceptance or awareness of male victimization).
Studies have shown that the most frequent consequences of sexual violence for boys are related to gender and sexual orientation. The social and cultural vision of men being strong, courageous, brave, and intrepid leads to many male victims silencing themselves. Sexual violence perpetrated by a member of the same sex puts the victim in a submissive and vulnerable situation incompatible with masculine stereotypes. Because of this, male victims of sexual violence typically feel ashamed to have experienced something contrary to society’s vision of manliness.
Interviews of Four Male Childhood Victims of Sexual Violence
“A boy, being a victim, nobody really buys that, you know?”
This quote is from a practitioner who participated in our study on the dynamics of sexual violence against boys. Four Brazilian boys aged 6 and 10 years and four Brazilian psychologists who have experience providing psychosocial intervention for boys were interviewed. These interviews revealed interesting data related to each one of the phases.
Preparation: Playing and videogames were used by perpetrators as activities to get closer to the boy. Moreover, prior proximity between the perpetrator and the victim and the presence of relational asymmetry were the main facilitators of sexual violence. Perpetrators were a friend, an uncle, a neighbor, and a cousin.
Episodes: We found variability in the types and frequency of sexual violence experienced by participants. Boys did not provide detailed descriptions of the episodes, possibly because they are less likely to discuss this type of incident in childhood.
Silencing: Boys’ fear and interpretation of the situation as something other than sexual violence, as well as the possibility of being discredited, being disbelieved by others, or even physical punishment following disclosure all contributed to the secrecy.
Telling: In all four cases, the boys eventually disclosed the sexual violence to their mothers. In three cases, disclosure was intentional, while in one case the sexual violence was accidentally disclosed after the victim’s sister reported a similar experience of her own. Two facilitators for disclosure were identified (i.e., news reports and sister’s disclosure), suggesting a significant influence of external factors on the disclosure. The age of the victim may influence disclosure, as younger boys may find it easier to reveal. Third parties may also disclose the situation. This may be because the boys themselves find it difficult to disclose due to the social expectations of masculinity.
Repression: The boys’ shame and avoidance of the subject, as well as disbelief in their report, especially by the family of the perpetrator, all contributed to the process of repression. Family concerns and reactions (e.g. believing the child is gay, administering physical punishment, fearing that the child will grow up to be gay or a perpetrator, expectation that the boy has to overcompensate his masculinity) also reflect the stigmatization of male victims of sexual violence.
Overcoming: The overcoming of sexual violence was associated with the distancing of the perpetrator from the victim as well as family support and system interventions, whose positive effects were described by two of the boys interviewed. Psychologists unanimously agreed that the system is flawed and unprepared for cases of sexual violence against boys. The flaws include difficulties associated with maintaining the patient in treatment, and the idea that male victims will grow up to be perpetrators, which is shared by many professionals in the system. These issues underscore the need for additional training.
As reported by one practitioner, “nobody buys it” that a boy could be a victim of sexual violence, which decreases the visibility of these cases. In the family context, the fact that boys may face disbelief and even physical punishment after disclosure shows how difficult it is for individuals to understand that boys can also suffer sexual violence. At the family and social levels, these cases are permeated by misconceptions regarding the gender identity and sexual orientation of the boy, contributing to the lower visibility of male sexual violence as a public health problem worldwide. The flaws in the system are also a risk factor for victims, who may come to experience further adversity.
The findings suggest that interventions should involve additional methods of facilitating victim disclosure. The professional should acknowledge the shame felt by boys and provide psychoeducation regarding the existence of other similar cases, discussing the importance of talking about these experiences in the context of therapy. In Brazil, the psychoeducational documentary “Overcoming – sexual violence against boys” is used by practitioners as a model of psychological intervention for boys who have experienced sexual violence. Boy victims may also benefit from additional psychological interventions. For example, to address post-traumatic symptoms that result from sexual violence, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been considered deemed well-established evidence-based treatment.
I would like to thank Angelo Fernandes, of Quebrar o Silêncio (a Portuguese non-governmental organization that supports survivors of sexual violence), and Dominic J. Parrott for their comments and advice on the preparation of this blog.
Jean Von Hohendorff is a professor in the Psychology Master Program in the IMED University, a university in Southern Brazil. He got his undergraduate degree in psychology from The Integrated Faculties of Taquara (FACCAT) in 2009 and his master’s (2012) and Ph.D. degree (2016) in psychology from UFRGS (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul). During his doctoral training, he attended the University of Alabama School of Social Work as part of a split-site doctoral program. Jean completed a post-doctoral fellowship in 2017. His research addresses the experiences of male youth victims of sexual violence.