Many South African men carry hidden scars of sexual abuse that affect them and their relationships. Could yours be at stake? And how can you help?
Everyone has a past, but sexual abuse can be hard to disclose — especially for men. ‘The need for men to feel powerful and in control, and able to protect others let alone themselves, makes it difficult to acknowledge victimhood,’ says Joan van Niekerk, training and advocacy manager for Childline SA.
But much as they may try to suppress it, it can manifest in relationships even years later. ‘Men with a history of sexual abuse can find it difficult to feel confident in a sexual relationship, and have intrusive memories and performance challenges,’ she explains. ‘Even where the abuse was physically pleasurable, long-term, and began early in childhood, they can have aberrant sexual attraction and fantasies – perhaps finding it difficult to be sexually responsive to an adult, desiring or responding to sexual contact with a child, or becoming promiscuous because they confuse sexual activity with love and affection.’
They can also become violent. ‘Boys are raised to feel they have to be strong and tough, so to be in a situation of victimhood can create enormous feelings of anger, and interfere with self-esteem and confidence, which can seek resolution through aggression, ’ Van Niekerk says. ‘As these emotions can’t resolve in the abusive relationships, they impact on their immediate relationships instead.’
A CASE IN POINT
‘I didn’t know what was going on,’ says Nosipho*, a 27-year-old Durban nurse. She had been drawn to her bank clerk boyfriend Khaya* by his ‘quiet personality — he seemed so caring after other guys I dated.’ He was slow initiating sex in their relationship, but Nosipho liked that too – ‘he was very respectful. In fact, I felt like he could really be The One!’
The shock was the greater when one night, after drinking more than usual at a party, Khaya became angry ‘for no reason! I was cuddling up to him and he started muttering to himself, then shoved me away. He said he knew what I wanted, and he wasn’t going to give it to me. In fact, I should get out of his life. When I started pleading, he snapped and slapped me. I ran!’
The next day Khaya rang to apologise, and when Nosipho wouldn’t answer his calls and smses, sent his older sister to speak to her. ‘That’s when I heard he had problems.’ At age 11 Khaya was ‘befriended’ by a male teacher who groomed him with small favours and began fondling him. Eventually he raped the boy at his home near the school.
‘Khaya said nothing, but his mom found blood on his pants and forced the truth from him.’ His mother told no one but his grown sister, the shame was too great. ‘They just changed his school. But Khaya has lived with this thing, and it changed him.’
His sister begged Nosipho to stay with him because he loved her. ‘I love him too,’ says Nosipho, ‘But I told her he must get help with a psychologist at my hospital.’
Most sexually abused men come for therapy only when they enter a relationship or stand to lose something, says Pretoria sexologist Dr Eugene Viljoen. The main reason is the cultural bias by which men feel that they cannot be victims, as this would mean they were inadequate males, but there are others. As Dr Ola Barnett, Cindy Miller-Perrin and Robin Perrin, authors of Family Violence Across the Lifespan (Sage), explain, if a boy’s body has responded sexually, he can feel he is somehow responsible for the abuse, although this is purely a physiological reaction and can happen even when there is fear or repulsion. ‘Sometimes it can also feel pleasurable, which brings guilt,’ says Viljoen.
Male victims often struggle with issues of homosexuality as most offenders are male, and their confusion and fear and the stigma around homosexuality encourage silence. If a boy has a homosexual bent, it’s common for him to be blamed for ‘seducing’ the older male, rather than recognized as a victim of abuse. Where an offender is an older female, as is much more occasionally the case, the molestation is often seen positively as an ‘initiation’ into manhood.
Boys in general tend to be blamed more for their abuse than girls are, say Viljoen and Van Niekerk, and to be seen as less in need of support and care.
All this leaves male sexual abuse seriously under-identified, under-serviced and misunderstood. Barnett and her colleagues put the prevalence at between three and 29% of all men, but recent American research estimates one in six boys is a victim of sexual abuse, from touching to fellatio and penetration.
FIGURING IT OUT
There are no statistics available for South Africa, but Van Niekerk says research seems to indicate it is as common as abuse on women and girls. In a national high school survey in 2007 by Johannesburg researchers Neil Andersson and Ari Ho-Foster, 9% of boys aged 11 to 19 reported forced sex in the past year. Of those aged 18, 44% had been forced to have sex in their lives.
Increasing, perpetrators are other children, influenced factors such as the growing sexualisation of society and the popular media, and a lack of parental attention and affection. Andersson and Foster’s survey found perpetrators were most commonly an adult not from the victim’s own family, followed closely by other schoolchildren. Around 32% of boys said the perpetrator was male, 41 percent that she was female, and 27% reported being forced to have sex by both male and female perpetrators.
Debbie Harrison, director of Lifeline Rape Crisis, Pietermaritzburg, has picked up ‘a definite increase’ in the reported number of rapes of males, especially in rural areas — statistics for three hospitals in the Pietermaritzburg, Newcastle and Msinga areas show a rise from 41 in 2008 to 57 last year. ‘We now supply care packs kits for men as well as women, with a tracksuit, soap, toothbrush and paste, beverage, biscuits, and a care doll – a knitted doll of indeterminate gender. The men hold these as tightly as women do!’
Harrison attributes the increase in reporting partly to growing awareness around the new South African Sexual Offences Act, which broadens the definition of rape to include forced anal or oral sex, irrespective of the gender of the victim or perpetrator. ‘This recognizes male rape, which before was classified as indecent assault.’
FIGHTING THE EFFECTS
‘Your first pleasant sexual experience becomes the basis of your sexual fantasies and you want to repeat it,’ says Viljoen. ‘But if your first experience was bad you can develop an aversion to sex.’ This means some survivors of abuse seek to repeat the acts if these felt good, becoming addicted to sex, or become promiscuous, trying to ‘prove’ their manhood. Others are turned off sex, or prefer to find satisfaction ‘solo’ through pornography. ‘Many sexually abused men come in when partners threaten to leave because they’re sleeping around or addicted to porn. ’
It’s possible for men to heal on their own and have productive lives, but the professional intervention is invaluable. Treatment is usually cognitive behavioural therapy. ‘It’s about understanding where their present problems come from, evaluating the pattern and what triggers it, then changing their behaviour,’ says Viljoen. ‘It can work very well.’
Without treatment, men may carry around feelings of anger or unworthiness for years without consciously connecting it to their abuse. Others worry that they will become sexual offenders, but while this can happen, most abuse victims do not become paedophiles. ‘There’s a misperception that if you’re abused you’re going to abuse somebody else,’ says Ken Singer, author of Evicting the Perpetrator: A Male Survivor Guide to Recovering from Childhood Sexual Abuse (NEARI Press). ‘It’s sometimes called the vampire syndrome: If you’re bit, you’re going to to out and bite others.’ But research has shown men who report abuse early and get support are far less likely to become offenders. The most common problems are depression, anxiety, sleep problems, substance abuse — and as Nosipho found, and troubled relationships.
‘Counselling saved Khaya and me,’ says Nosipho simply. ‘It is not always easy, but he is worth it!’
HOW TO HELP HIM
Unless he tells you, there is no way to know for sure your man has been abused, as the behaviours associated with it can have other causes. If you learn your man has been a victim, says Joan van Niekerk of Childline:
- Make it clear nothing is too bad to talk about.
- Have open communication without harping on the abuse and its impact.
- Don’t push him too hard to get help — encourage disclosure to a health practitioner and request referral to a therapist experienced in working with men and sexual abuse.
- Encourage safe expression of anger and frustration (jogging to journaling).
- Take your sexual relationship slowly, don’t exert any performance pressures.
- Be patient — abuse takes time to work through.
- But open, supportive and tolerant without accepting anger or aggression if it’s there. Get help for yourself.
- Childline SA 0800 055 555 can help adults with counselors experienced in sexual abuse
- Dr Eugene Viljoen 012 346 4760
- Rape Crisis 033 394 4444, 021 447 9762
- Jes Foord Foundation 031 765 4559
- The Advice Desk for the Abused 0800 204 321
- SA Men’s Forum 016 592 9913
ONE MAN’S STORY
Oliver, 24, communications officer for a research institute in Cape Town, was an outgoing 16-year-old. But one afternoon three men in their 20s dragged him into a graveyard and took his cell phone, money and takkies. ‘Then one rubbed against me . . .’ Oliver was made to perform oral sex, raped and stabbed. ‘I wished I had died,’ he says softly.
He has no idea how he got home: ‘I disassociated’. His grandmother took him doctor and to the police, but it was only the following day that Oliver mentioned the sexual assault: ‘I hardly new anything about sex at that age, it was so embarrassing!’
Oliver was put AZT and charges changed to indecent assault and robbery. The men were arrested but had gang connections, and pressured Oliver’s family to drop charges. With support from Childline, he went ahead.
Two had other cases pending and were given nine and 12 years. The third, who left before the sexual assault, got a suspended sentence. But the ordeal not over for Oliver. He changed schools because of teasing and bullying, and his grades suffered. Later he drifted between cities and jobs.
‘I still have issues about trust, touch and intimacy,’ he says. ‘I’ll get halfway into a relationship then back off. Anything can set me off – a touch, the smell of stale tobacco, petty stuff.’ He’s never tried to explain: ‘I don’t think anyone wants additional baggage in a relationship.’
The greatest help after such as ordeal, he says, is support. ‘My gran couldn’t talk about it. But counseling can help — and helping others.’ Today Oliver is an activist on sexual violence and HIV/AIDS.