Child Sexual Abuse Among Boys

Many boys, too, are sexually abused. Most don't feel comfortable speaking up about it

Many boys, too, are sexually abused. Most don't feel comfortable speaking up about it

UNDOUBTEDLY, SEXUAL abuse is one of the most underreported crimes in our nation.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2016 more than 57,000 children reported being sexually abused, and that’s on the low end since only about a third of cases are reported. What's more, males are even less likely to report sexual abuse than females. Research indicates that about 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18, and most of them aren’t saying a thing.

The Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire reports that 90 percent of these boys will likely know the person who is sexually abusing them. According to RAINN, or the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, about a third of the sexual perpetrators are family members, and about 60 percent are acquaintances.

Another potential reason males may not report being victims of sexual abuse is stereotypes that exist in our culture pertaining to how they are supposed to be strong and independent. As a society, we have done a huge disservice to our boys by instilling stereotypes, like that big boys don’t cry, and sending the message they should just suck it up and be strong, or even worse, that they need to “man up." According to these false beliefs, men are supposed to be tough and brave, and they're supposed to have a strong sex drive. Media, literature, schools, community establishments like places of worship and even family members can reinforce stereotypical messages and paint a fictitious picture of how boys are supposed to behave. Research indicates that male sex abuse survivors not only have few resources available to them, but they also face greater stigma than female survivors.

[Read: Sexually Abused Children Face a Long Road to Recovery.]

In a study published last year in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers show that gender stereotypes have been associated with high levels of stressanxiety and depression. It's not just an American problem, either. According to research done as part of the Global Early Adolescent Study, a collaborative effort of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the World Health Organization and other research partners, children studied from 15 different countries began to accept gender stereotypes well before the age of 10. So it appears that many of these misconceptions are universal. When boys are taught that they aren’t supposed to show emotion because that is a sign of weakness, they learn to suppress and not express their feelings.

In a society full of erroneous stereotypes, is it any wonder that boys are less likely to report having been sexually abused than girls? With most of the research on sex abuse focusing on male perpetrators and female survivors, it’s past time that we shed some light on the devastating effects of male sexual abuse. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • One in 25 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18, according to a review of child sex abuse prevalence studies.

  • 10 percent of rape survivors are male, according to RAINN.

  • 27 percent of male rape survivors were sexually abused before they were 10 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • 7 percent of boys in the juvenile justice system have been sexually abused.

  • 50 percent of the children who are sex trafficked in the U.S. are male; and according to the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation, the average age at which boys first become victims of prostitution is 11 to 13.

Unquestionably, when boys or men are sexually abused, it has a profound impact on their psychological and emotional well-being. According to the American Psychological Association's Division of Trauma Psychology, this horrific crime has been associated with:

  • Alcoholism and drug use

  • Anger and aggression

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Intimate relationship problems

  • Poor school and work performance

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Suicidal thoughts and attempts

Despite all of the information that we have on sex abuse, we still have a long way to go. It’s hard to turn on the TV and see that another person, such as a coach, teacher, priest or physician has taken indecent liberties with a minor. As we continue to urge survivors to come forward, more survivors may begin to tell their stories.

[Read: The Silent Epidemic: Child Sexual Abuse.]

As parents, we need to make sure that we don't endorse damaging societal stereotypes about boys at home. First, we have to challenge our own biases and preconceived notions. Next, we can teach our children from an early age to question what they hear and see on television and social media. We can teach them that it's perfectly normal for boys to cry, to be afraid and to express how they feel. Furthermore, we should teach them that it’s OK to tell others when someone has wronged them; and sadly, we have to tell them that person may even be someone they respect and trust.

If you believe that your child may have been victimized, watch out for these signs that kids who have been abused may exhibit:

  • Avoiding or appearing uncomfortable in the presence of a family member, family friend or acquaintance

  • Becoming secretive and shy

  • Engaging in self-harm, such as cutting or burning themselves

  • Sleeping problems and nightmares

  • Expressing suicidal thoughts

  • Running away

  • Experiencing mood swings, anger or depression

  • Receiving money or gifts frequently from another adult (often used as a source of bribery for not telling)

  • Eating less or more than usual

  • Taking less care of appearance or hygiene

  • Acting out in sexually inappropriate ways

  • Using sexually explicit vocabulary, especially when younger children, who wouldn’t otherwise know the meaning of the words, are doing this

  • Declining school performance

  • Pulling away from hobbies and interests

  • Pulling back from others, or becoming isolated

If you suspect child abuse in any form, please report it and make sure your child receives professional help immediately. As parents, we should monitor anyone who wants to spend excessive amounts of time with our kids. Also, children should be taught at an early age to speak out if anyone ever touches them or does anything to them that makes them feel uncomfortable.

Although we have made strides in reaching our youth, we have a lot more work to do. Sexual abuse is a serious crime plaguing our nation, and we need to make sure that both girls and boys feel loved and supported, and that they have the resources they need to heal.

We also need to do more to understand the devastating impact this horrific crime has on male survivors. We need more trained professionals to support male survivors. Doctors treating sexual abuse survivors have fewer guidelines available to treat males in comparison to females.

According to the World Health Organization, male rape is often not treated as an equal offense with female rape. That needs to change. We need to break the taboo that keeps many boys from coming forward to disclose they've been sexually abused, and begin to train, conduct research and increase awareness, so male survivors can heal, not remain silent. Keep in mind that the prevalence of falsely reporting sexual abuse is very low – between 2 and 10 percent, according to a review of research – so it’s unlikely a child will report something untrue.

[See: 10 Concerns Parents Have About Their Kids' Health.]

Sadly, many kids are sexually abused, and any child can be a victim, regardless of gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity or religion. It’s time we teach our children to speak out when someone abuses them, for their voice is one of power, strength and truth.