Given proper support, male survivors of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation can rebuild and heal, says UBC professor
As Canada marks Men’s Health Month, a UBC nursing researcher is calling for greater understanding and support for male survivors of sexual abuse.
Elizabeth Saewyc, director of the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre at UBC, a research centre that examines youth health issues, says men who experience sexual violence as children or adolescents may go on to experience mental and physical health issues. However, young men who receive support from family and other adults are more likely to recover from the trauma.
VIDEO: Interview with Elizabeth Saewyc
What are some of the unique issues surrounding sexual assault and young men?
The definition of sexual abuse is the same for everyone. It’s when a person performs a sexual act that the other person doesn’t want or cannot legally consent to. These acts range from exposing themselves sexually, to showing porn, all the way to forms of sexual assault and sexual exploitation.
The difference is many people don’t think it can happen to boys and young men, so they end up dealing with a different kind of stigma. Men are raised to be stoic and self-reliant. They’re not considered potential victims. They’re also expected to want sex, so if an adult — and it’s often an adult or someone in a position of authority — seduces them or coerces them into sex, the reaction of others might be disbelief, or something more like “Lucky you!” So when sexual violence happens to them, they often don’t know how to talk about it.
How often does this happen in Canada?
It’s really difficult to get accurate numbers, especially since as much as 85 per cent of sexual assaults aren’t even reported. Among boys and young men, there’s even less likelihood of disclosure because of the stigma. Anonymous surveys in Canada suggest the percentage of youth who experience some form of sexual abuse by age 18 is around 15 per cent for girls and young women, and about five percent for boys and young men.
Among street youth, as many as one in three have been sexually exploited and the rate is the same for boys as for girls.
What are the long-term impacts?
The effects include mental health issues: post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. People may turn to drugs or alcohol to erase the pain and shame. They may have difficulty with romantic relationships, and trusting adults, including teachers or employers. This in turn may affect their schooling, ability to earn a living wage, and life satisfaction.
The stress can also lead to long-term health issues, including heart disease.
How can society support male victims of sexual violence?
Most crisis centres and related services are designed by women for women, and may not know how to reach boys or young men. We do have services in Vancouver that are designed for males, females, and sometimes also transgender people, but even then, the services still mostly see women.
Some of that has to do with the stigma and the lack of words to explain the experience. We need to raise awareness that boys and young men, just like girls and young women and transgender young people, are at risk of being sexually abused or exploited. It’s important to tell them that it’s not their fault.
We also need to understand better how we can help the survivors heal. Research suggests that some of the methods we use to help girls and women may not work for boys and men.
Are some people better at dealing with the trauma?
Our research shows that not everyone who has been sexually abused ends up with the whole cascade of negative health effects, and we focus on trying to figure out what helps them. Some youth seem to recover more quickly because they receive support from people they care about—family, friends, trusted adults. This information can help community services to develop new interventions for victims.