Does sexual abuse of girls disturb boys?

Do not be fooled by the title of the article. The subject matter is not what one would think:

Most boys are quite distressed when they see frequent harassment of girls, a new study has found.

The University of Illinois found that boys also felt unsafe and experienced low self-esteem in an environment that tolerates such practices. The study surveyed 300 girls and 250 boys from seven US public high schools on sexual harassment and school climate.

The study found that girls had more upsetting experiences of harassment. They also reported frequent harassment from school personnel than boys. Male students reported fewer, less upsetting experiences of harassment. Consequently, they had fewer stress-related problems directly associated with harassment.

For boys, a climate tolerating the harassment of girls, was the major variable associated with negative psychological, health and educational outcomes. Given that boys are harassed less frequently and rate their experiences as less upsetting, these findings suggest that boys may suffer negative consequences regardless of whether they are the targets of harassment.

“We hope these findings inform teachers, administrators, and policy makers for high schools to develop policy and procedures related to sexual harassment,” the study noted. “When students believe that teachers and administrators do not actively intervene in harassing behaviour toward girls, it has negative consequences for all students: both boys and girls, and targets and non-targets.”

Before I get to the article itself I must say that I am rather mystified by the title of the article. Harassment is not sexual abuse. It could be if the harassment were physical, but in general the harassment is largely verbal, which technically means the girls were not physically touched. This odd usage is particularly bothersome because the study claims that girls are apparently being frequently harassed by school personnel. Are we to think that male teachers are actually groping girls or simply making them feel uncomfortable?

That said, my issue with the study (as least as it is reported in the article) is not that boys may feel uncomfortable with girls being harassed, but the general level of confusion the results of the study brings. I always question any research that has unbalanced subject groups, and in this instance one does have to wonder why the researchers chose not to get fifty more boys to participate in the study. While this may not inherently make the results inaccurate, that kind of subject difference can lead to skewed results. It can also affect the way in which the researchers question each group since it could imply that the study is not “about” boys.

The other issue is one that may have been addressed or acknowledged by the researchers, but is not mentioned in the article. Several studies have shown that when it comes to victimization, particularly sexual victimization, boys are less likely to view their experiences as harmful or bad and they are less likely to view themselves as victims. However, this does not mean they are not negatively impacted by the experiences:

The wording of research questions is extremely important, and can dramatically skew prevalence rates. Imagine that an interviewer or even an anonymous questionnaire begins by asking, “Were you ever sexually abused before age 16?” This question requires subjects to scan their memories, and to decide whether or not to label any memories that come up as “abuse,” which would be to accept the identity of “sexual abuse victim.” Obviously most people, especially men, will automatically resist doing these things, even if they have experienced unwanted and emotionally harmful sexual experiences in childhood. So any study that uses the words “sexual abuse” will wrongly categorize some people who have been sexually abused–but don’t label their experience that way–as not having been sexually abused [...] Again, for many people who have been sexually exploited and hurt by others in childhood–especially men, who aren’t supposed to be victims–it’s very painful to acknowledge what has happened. Researchers must not ignore the effects this can have on subjects’ responses to questions about childhood experiences that may have been abusive.

And with the current situation of female teachers sexually abusing boys in their classes one should also note the impact that female-on-male sexual abuse has on boys:

Sadly, many men who were sexually abused by women are locked in silence, shame, and self-loathing. Society tells them that not only was their experience not abuse, but that they should have enjoyed it, and if they didn’t there must be something terribly wrong with them.

Even when their experiences are recognized as abuse, they may be viewed as having been “weak” or “not man enough” because they were unable to stop it, defend themselves, or put it behind them.

The myth that men can’t be victimized particularly by women is firmly entrenched in many cultures. Many men who dare acknowledge that they were sexually abused by women are cruelly laughed at and humiliated. Most do not dare say a word about it for fear of feeling any more ashamed than they already feel.

Many men who were sexually abused by women feel deeply ashamed of themselves, their sexuality, and their gender. Sadly and mistakenly, they believe that there must be something profoundly wrong with them that they were abused in this way. Some men defend against feeling this way by being in a constant state of anger or rage – one of the few emotions that are socially acceptable for men. Many male survivors cope with the abuse by drinking, using drugs, living recklessly, avoiding intimate relationships, numbing their feelings, dissociating, and becoming depressed, anxious or angry.

Given that the researchers’ questions and methods are not reported in the article I have no way of knowing whether or not these factors were taken into consideration. Yet, given how the results were depicted it suggests that the researchers may be conflating the boys’ unwillingness to view themselves as victims with the boys’ empathy for girls. This may further be demonstrated by the total absence of a similar affect on boys witnessing other boys being harassed. Again, the study may have actually covered this, but it is not included in the article and as of yet I have not found any other reports on the study.

It should be noted though that these reactions match the strictly enforced social norms boys must follow. Boys may not feel empathy for girls being picked on because that does not impact their maleness. However, displaying the same empathy for other boys or for themselves would, so boys must bottle it inside.

So depending on the questions asked and the way the questions were asked, the results of this study could simply be boys either projecting their feelings of fear and anxiety onto an appropriate group that will not bring them any condemnation, it could be the researchers confusing the boys’ general fear, anxiety and stress about their own situation with empathy for girls or both or perhaps even a presumption that boys would not be harmed by such experiences anyway and so any feelings they would express would be in response to what they witnessed happening to girls.

At any rate, despite the message of the study being that harassment in schools hurts everyone, the implication is that the only group that needs protection is girls, which not only is grossly inaccurate, but does not actually help the boys who are harassed, bullied or are victims of sexual abuse.

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2 thoughts on “Does sexual abuse of girls disturb boys?

  1. Great great piece, TS. I bookmarked this page.

    I would like to make a point regarding desired sexual experiences between a child and an adult.

    Wanted sexual experiences between a child and an adult are harmful too. Even if a young boy did want to do it, this does not make it ok. Reverse the genders, and prepare yourself for an uncomfortable mental image.

  2. Thank you. I completely agree about sex between adults and children. Even if a child genuinely wanted to have sex with an adult, the adult should realize the position he or she would be in and how easily it could harm a child. Having spoke with some adult survivors before, one of the things I have heard is how hurt many of them were when the adults who were abusing them suddenly stopped the sex and cut off contact. It would happen either because the adult found another child or the survivor was no longer in the adult’s age range. While it may be normal adult behavior to just have “friends with benefits,” most children and teenagers simply will not understand the total lack of connection and so the harm is just as great if not worse than a child being forcibly raped. It is all about a violation of trust.

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