Men and Sexual Trauma

National Center for PTSD

At least 10% of men in our country have suffered from trauma as a result of sexual assault. Like women, men who experience sexual assault may suffer from depression, PTSD, and other emotional problems as a result. However, because men and women have different life experiences due to their different gender roles, emotional symptoms following trauma can look different in men than they do in women.

Who are the perpetrators of male sexual assault?

  • Those who sexually assault men or boys differ in a number of ways from those who assault only females.
  • Boys are more likely than girls to be sexually abused by strangers or by authority figures in organizations such as schools, the church, or athletics programs.
  • Those who sexually assault males usually choose young men and male adolescents (the average age is 17 years old) as their victims and are more likely to assault many victims, compared to those who sexually assault females.
  • Perpetrators often assault young males in isolated areas where help is not readily available. For instance, a perpetrator who assaults males may pick up a teenage hitchhiker on a remote road or find some other way to isolate his intended victim.
  • As is true about those who assault and sexually abuse women and girls, most perpetrators of males are men. Specifically, men are perpetrators in about 86% of male victimization cases.
  • Despite popular belief that only gay men would sexually assault men or boys, most male perpetrators identify themselves as heterosexuals and often have consensual sexual relationships with women.

What are some symptoms related to sexual trauma in boys and men?

Particularly when the assailant is a woman, the impact of sexual assault upon men may be downplayed by professionals and the public. However, men who have early sexual experiences with adults report problems in various areas at a much higher rate than those who do not.

Emotional Disorders
Men and boys who have been sexually assaulted are more likely to suffer from PTSD, other anxiety disorders, and depression than those who have never been abused sexually.

Substance Abuse
Men who have been sexually assaulted have a high incidence of alcohol and drug use. For example, the probability for alcohol problems in adulthood is about 80% for men who have experienced sexual abuse, as compared to 11% for men who have never been sexually abused.

One study revealed that a percentage of boys who suffer from encopresis (bowel incontinence) had been sexually abused.

Risk Taking Behavior
Exposure to sexual trauma can lead to risk-taking behavior during adolescence, such as running away and other delinquent behaviors. Having been sexually assaulted also makes boys more likely to engage in behaviors that put them at risk for contracting HIV (such as having sex without using condoms).

How does male gender socialization affect the recognition of male sexual assault?

  • Men who have not dealt with the symptoms of their sexual assault may experience confusion about their sexuality and role as men (their gender role). This confusion occurs for many reasons. The traditional gender role for men in our society dictates that males be strong, self-reliant, and in control. Our society often does not recognize that men and boys can also be victims. Boys and men may be taught that being victimized implies that they are weak and, thus, not a man.
  • Furthermore, when the perpetrator of a sexual assault is a man, feelings of shame, stigmatization, and negative reactions from others may also result from the social taboos.
  • When the perpetrator of a sexual assault is a woman, some people do not take the assault seriously, and men may feel as though they are unheard and unrecognized as victims.
  • Parents often know very little about male sexual assault and may harm their male children who are sexually abused by downplaying or denying the experience.

What impact does gender socialization have upon men who have been sexually assaulted?

Because of their experience of sexual assault, some men attempt to prove their masculinity by becoming hyper-masculine. For example, some men deal with their experience of sexual assault by having multiple female sexual partners or engaging in dangerous "macho" behaviors to prove their masculinity. Parents of boys who have been sexually abused may inadvertently encourage this process.

Men who acknowledge their assault may have to struggle with feeling ignored and invalidated by others who do not recognize that men can also be victimized.

Because of ignorance and myths about sexual abuse, men sometimes fear that the sexual assault by another man will cause them to become gay. This belief is false. Sexual assault does not cause someone to have a particular sexual orientation.

Because of these various gender-related issues, men are more likely than women to feel ashamed of the assault, to not talk about it, and to not seek help from professionals.

Are men who were sexually assaulted as children more likely to become child molesters?

Another myth that male victims of sexual assault face is the assumption that they will become abusers themselves. For instance, they may have heard that survivors of sexual abuse tend to repeat the cycle of abuse by abusing children themselves. Some research has shown that men who were sexually abused by men during their childhood have a greater number of sexual thoughts and fantasies about sexual contact with male children and adolescents. However, it is important to know that most male victims of child sexual abuse do not become sex offenders.

Furthermore, many male perpetrators do not have a history of child sexual abuse. Rather, sexual offenders more often grew up in families where they suffered from several other forms of abuse, such as physical and emotional. Men who assault others also have difficulty with empathy, and thus put their own needs above the needs of their victims.

Is there help for men who have been sexually assaulted?

It is important for men who have been sexually assaulted to understand the connection between sexual assault and hyper-masculine, aggressive, and self-destructive behavior. Through therapy, men often learn to resist myths about what a "real man" is and adopt a more realistic model for safe and rewarding living.

It is important for men who have been sexually assaulted and who are confused about their sexual orientation to confront misleading societal ideas about sexual assault and homosexuality.

Men who have been assaulted often feel stigmatized, which can be the most damaging aspect of the assault. It is important for men to discuss the assault with a caring and unbiased support person, whether that person is a friend, clergyman, or clinician. However, it is vital that this person be knowledgeable about sexual assault and men.

A local rape crisis center may be able to refer men to mental-health practitioners who are well-informed about the needs of male sexual assault victims.

There is a bias in our culture against viewing the sexual assault of boys and men as prevalent and abusive. Because of this bias, there is a belief that boys and men do not experience abuse and do not suffer from the same negative impact that girls and women do. However, research shows that at least 10% of boys and men are sexually assaulted and that boys and men can suffer profoundly from the experience. Because so few people have information about male sexual assault, men often suffer from a sense of being different, which can make it more difficult for men to seek help. If you are a man who has been assaulted and you suffer from any of these difficulties, please seek help from a mental-health professional who has expertise working with men who have been sexually assaulted.

Recommended books
Victims No Longer: Men Recovering from Incest and Other Sexual Child Abuse by Mike Lew, Foreword by Ellen Bass. (1990). HarperCollins; ISBN 0060973005

Wounded Boys, Heroic Men: A Man's Guide to Recovering from Child Abuse by Daniel Jay Sonkin and Lenore E. A. Walker. (1998). Adams Media Corporations; ISBN 1580620108

Bauserman, R. B., & Rind, B. (1997). Psychological correlates of male child and adolescent sexual experiences with adults: A review of the nonclinical literature. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 26, 105-139.

Black, C. A., & DeBlassie, R. R. (1993). Sexual abuse in male children and adolescents: Indicators, effects, and treatments. Adolescence, 28, 123-133.

Briggs, F., & Hawkins, R. M. F. (1995). Protecting boys from the risk of sexual abuse. Early Child Development and Care, 110, 19-32.

Carballo-Dieguez, A., & Dolezal, C. (1995). Association between history of childhood sexual abuse and adult HIV-risk sexual behavior in Puerto Rican men who have sex with men. Child Abuse and Neglect, 19, 595-605.

Collings, S. J. (1995). The long-term effects of contact and noncontact forms of child sexual abuse in a sample of university men. Child Abuse and Neglect, 19, 1-6.

Darves-Bornoz, J. M., Choquet, M., Ledoux, S., & Manfredi, R. (1998). Gender differences in symptoms of adolescents reporting sexual assault. Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology, 33, 111-117.

Etherington, K. (1995). Adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Counseling Psychology Quarterly, 8, 233-241.

Garnefski, N., & Diekstra, R. F. W. (1997). Child sexual abuse and emotional and behavioral problems in adolescence: Gender differences. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 36, 323-329.

Gordon, M. (1990). Males and females as victims of childhood sexual abuse: An examination of the gender effect. Journal of Family Violence, 5, 321-332.

Hepburn, J. M. (1994). The implications of contemporary feminist theories of development for the treatment of male victims of sexual abuse. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 3, 1-18.

Lisak, D. (1994). The psychological impact of sexual abuse: Content analysis of interviews with male survivors. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 7, 525-548.

Marrow, J., Yager, C. A., & Otnow Lewis, D. (1997). Encopresis and sexual abuse. Child Abuse and Neglect, 21, 11-18.

Porter, E. (1986). Treating the young male victim of sexual assault. Syracuse, NY: Safer Society Press.

Winder, J. H. (1996). Counseling adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse: A review of treatment techniques. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 18, 123-133.