The Hidden Impacts of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Male Sexual Health
The number of men in the USA targeted by sexual abusers has reached roughly 17 million. These figures, provided by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, are shocking to comprehend and truly lay out the challenge men face growing up in modern America.
There is a ray of light concerning this situation in that societal attitudes get better every year, as do the services that help men to find the support they need. The damage caused by sexual abuse is better understood, as are the implications for families and its impact on the way men see the world and navigate through it. However, there is one less well-discussed area – sexual health. Arguably, more conversation is needed, given the psychological, social, and indeed physical impact that abuse can have on a man’s ability to form and maintain healthy romantic relationships.
While the impact of sexual abuse on adult intimacy is a less-discussed facet of the overall discussion, many studies have sought to explore exactly how men are impacted when they enter into adult relationships. These studies first outline a clear barrier to men in forming healthy relationships.
An influential 2014 study published by the Journal of Culture, Health & Sexuality clearly highlighted negative characteristics. According to the study, most men reported hyper-sexualized behaviors, issues resulting in substance abuse, and, crucially, significant issues relating to self-esteem and isolation. The latter factors are particularly important when you consider the process of establishing a romantic relationship – numerous studies have shown that trust and self-confidence are crucial to the formation of a healthy relationship. So how can men find themselves in this situation when they have been sabotaged from an early age?
Furthermore, the impacts of sexual abuse as a minor can disadvantage men in their ability to avoid being targeted for abuse again. For example, a 2022 study published by the National Library of Medicine found that men diagnosed with mental illness resulting from their treatment were more likely to be subjected to further sexual abuse in their adult relationships. This makes relationship-forming not only difficult but potentially dangerous for survivors.
It’s important also to consider the physical factors at play when men have been targeted for sexual abuse. Advocates Network 1 In 6 found men who have been sexually abused have a far higher incidence rate of mental illness, depression, substance abuse, and underachievement. Substance abuse alone can significantly impact testosterone production, and that’s without considering conditions such as obesity – or its counterpart, malnutrition – which can also affect the body’s ability to produce testosterone properly.
Low testosterone reduces sex drive, causes erectile dysfunction, plagues concentration and memory, and causes irritability. Clearly, all of these factors are counter-productive in forming intimate relationships. When married to the very real psychological impacts of abuse, it makes developing healthy relationships almost insurmountable. Helping survivors of sexual abuse to find respite starts with therapy.
For male sexual abuse survivors to develop closure and start building healthy social connections again, it’s essential that they are provided with confidence and support from day one. It’s easy to see how men can find it exceptionally difficult to return to a sense of normality after an assault when you consider just how highly society is weighted against their recovery.
Classic ideas of masculinity continue to prevail in the societal consciousness; Pew found that over half of all people look up to ‘masculine’ or ‘manly’ figures, and that figure rises to over 60% among men. Sexual abuse violates that ego; it strips away power, a sense of masculinity, and everything men are expected to present in modern society. This is a sad fact of contemporary US society and one that can only be overcome with direct effort and discussion between the survivor and his support network.
Arguably, the first and most important step is recognition. Telling male survivors of sexual abuse that what happened was real, that it really did happen, and that it isn’t their fault is a key intervention.
According to male sexual abuse advocates network RAINN, a misplaced sense of masculinity is one of the key factors underlying male survivors’ ability to start their recovery. Their figures show that many men feel a sense of shame at not being ‘strong enough’, and many others feel pushed into settling their feelings over the event with little or no discussion. RAINN recommend a five-step approach to support male survivors:
- Listen – giving survivors space, without prejudice, to discuss their feelings.
- Validate – empathize with survivors and provide them with the confidence they need.
- Support – by expressing concern.
- Apply Discretion – avoid asking for details unless provided voluntarily.
- Direct – provide survivors with the appropriate resources to continue their recovery.
These steps seem simple, and in essence, they are. It’s just a matter of listening, learning, and providing a real source of strength for survivors. It provides a bridge towards real recovery and enables men who feel poorly listened to to find something to rely on. For male survivors of sexual abuse, this is crucial in improving their chances in their adult life.
One article by The Cut highlighted the experience of several male survivors of sexual abuse. One of the men interviewed spoke about how he felt inadequate in his dating life. Another noted how he was attracted to any relationship whatsoever to feel some type of validation – to feel important and loved after being exploited in his younger life. One interviewee noted that his reaction to his sexual abuse manifested when he cheated on his wife, leading to the ending of a long-term marriage.
A crucial factor that underlines all of these stories falls on that oft-repeated theme – confidence. Men who survive sexual abuse are left with a confusing set of emotions over their role in the world, how their relationships should develop, and how they should act towards their significant other. It might never be possible to resolve certain issues related to the sexual abuse entirely; one of the interviewees had specific needs from their partner to help avoid re-traumatization. Nevertheless, having the confidence and willingness to discuss these issues and be open and frank about the past is important. This confidence can only be built up with effective care, therapy, and a significant support network.
Once in place, however, it provides the foundations needed to help male survivors of sexual abuse build healthy and fulfilling relationships.
Building A Relationship
Proper therapy, and treatments such as EDMR, can help traumatized men to build the skills they need to engage in relationships. Having the confidence to talk about their treatment to trusted partners, and knowing they will receive support back, completes the other half of the equation. However, as is often the case with complex mental health concerns, one day is not always the same as the next.
An overview of methods to support male partners who have survived sexual abuse, compiled by LivingWell Australia, highlights just how these challenges can come to the fore. The nature of sexual trauma means that innocuous events or even unknown stimuli can trigger flashbacks or depressive episodes. This is where the treatments received to support their recovery can kick in, but it can be challenging for partners. While some symptoms, such as intimacy issues, flashbacks and anger, are predictable, partners are also sometimes faced with less common symptoms.
According to LivingWell, these can include over-consumption of pornography, substance abuse in otherwise teetotal or non-addicted men, and risky behaviors. These are much more difficult to identify than other symptoms related to mood. For partners, it’s worth always bearing in mind their trauma. While relating every eventuality in a relationship to it can be harmful, a trusting and strong relationship will handle the analysis.
It’s also worth returning to the question of physical changes and how male bodies respond, in time, to the abuse they have encountered. As explored, it’s absolutely possible to see low testosterone levels in sexual abuse survivors owing to the impact of mental health concerns and stress. This can be especially pronounced in later life.
The andropause can accelerate in the 30s and 40s, which just happens to be the years at which relationships are properly cemented, marriages are bedded in, and couples will be looking to settle down fully. As testosterone levels decrease, this can cause reduced sex drive, depression, fatigue and erectile dysfunction. All symptoms that can also be associated with the mental health impacts of surviving sexual abuse. Given the havoc that stress and mental illness can play with the physical body, this process can be accelerated in survivors or occur at an earlier age. All of which plays havoc with the relationship.
Understanding & Assisting
For partners, it’s worth being aware of this significant factor. There can be a drop in libido and sexual performance due to the andropause, which can occur earlier in the relationship. This can be confusing and create anxiety over the potential for re-traumatization and the care and therapy required to address that.
Once again, proper support for this goes back to that key factor – confidence. Just as men who have survived sexual abuse need to be provided with absolute, objective support, that they are victims, and they are not at fault, that confidence needs to be carried into the entire lifespan of a relationship. That includes the absolute trust and confidence in a partner to be able to discuss when things aren’t going to plan and to readjust. Only a completely flexible basis, like this, will suffice in helping male survivors to continue their recovery.
Pursuing Further Treatment
It is also important that survivors look for ways to further their treatment in a holistic sense. It’s noted how other conditions impacting sexual and general health can create further repercussions in a relationship. Being one step ahead and looking to tackle challenges associated with hormonal and physiological changes will help men remain healthy and have a good understanding of their physical base.
Aggressively managing situations such as the andropause are chief among these methods. Knowing exactly how the body is changing, and taking action to remedy any ongoing changes, will help men to recognize when the changes their body is experiencing are natural and when there might be some element of their previous trauma at work. It can also help provide education and improve mental health; according to a study published by scientific journal The Aging Male, awareness over the andropause enhances knowledge, in turn reducing confusion and anger, and helps in tackling early signs and symptoms of the condition.
Achieving Peace & Happiness
The benefits of that are clear. Men who have survived sexual abuse need, and deserve, a lot of support. The hard work they contribute to building up their own self-confidence needs to be supported by a strong medical base. Having full control and awareness over their bodies is essential in finding their base.
That, in turn, generates the emotional solidity and sense of self required to form really high-quality relationships. Not every partner will work out, of course, but as long as men are equipped with the confidence, trust and strength they need to discuss their issues openly, they have the best chance of finding long-term peace and settling down with a significant other.
For male survivors of sexual abuse, this is an outcome that can truly help them to move on from their trauma, gain acceptance, and find the genuine commitment and love they deserve from the people around them. Independence from the impacts of abuse is a goal to strive for and something that every survivor undeniably deserves – in their private life and in relationships.