Being a Man: Fatherhood and Abuse

Originally posted on September 30, 2012

Several years ago, I wrote about my relationship with my godson:

[…] Something my godson did kind of triggered me. He is a toucher and a hugger. By that I mean you cannot be around him without him holding your hand, pulling on your arm, playing with your fingers or randomly hugging you. Usually I can deal with that well enough not feel uncomfortable. He does not mean anything by it, so I try to restrain any looks or gestures of my discontent.

Anyway, while I was sitting on the couch, he came behind me and hugged me over my shoulders. He was just by my jaw. For some reason his hair smelled like cookies. I do not know why, but I thought about my father, specifically how I used to hug him just like that. I was very young, around three or four. I think I did it because he had giant shoulders (at the time) and I wanted to see if I could get my arms around them. When I hugged my father like that, he would laugh or smile and pull me around to his front and do inappropriate things.

Thinking about that made me very uncomfortable, enough to the point where I had to stand up and walk around. My godson did not really notice my bewilderment, but I know he realized something was different. […] For the last few hours I have been wondering what it would have been like if my father had just held me instead. […] I kind of want normal memories like everyone else has. Not a ton of them. Just one or two to get me by. In a way I feel jealous of my godson since he has never—thankfully—had any of his hugs warped in that fashion.

Many male survivors experience the same thing I do, especially fathers. A new study called Child Sexual Abuse, Masculinity and Fatherhood discusses this topic. The Journal of Family Studies will publish the full study in December, but an abridged version is available online. The study’s researcher Rhys Price-Robertson concludes:

  • Many men who were sexually abused as children face unique experiences and difficulties in connection with fatherhood, including fears that they may abuse their own children, problems with physical contact or displays of affection with their children, and overprotectiveness of their children.
  • The issue of child sexual abuse impacting on men’s perceptions and experience of fatherhood remains largely excluded from both popular and professional discourses.
  • The first step towards improving policy and service responses to these male victim/survivors is to raise awareness of the difficulties they may face with regard to fatherhood.
  • As there are strong disincentives to male victim/survivors themselves revealing their difficulties with fatherhood, it is likely that service providers, practitioners and policy-makers will need to play a leadership role in promoting awareness of this issue.

This has been my experience, and it has been something many advocates for male survivors have spoken about. Price-Robertson notes there is little research on the impact that abuse has on male survivors who become fathers. Worse, the messages that society and the professional community sends puts abused fathers in a double-bind.

Price-Robertson covers the victim-to-offender discourse, the idea that any boy or man who is abused will become an abuser. This idea prevails in the media and even among survivor services. It is quite common to hear support providers, particularly providers who previously only assisted women, say that we must help male survivors not because they were abuse but because boys are at “particular risk” of becoming abusers.

As noted in the study:

For example, the website for the North American Safe Child Program (www.safechild.org/abuse1.htm) states that “95% of child abusers were themselves abused as children”, but gives no indication of what percentage of sexually abused boys go on to become perpetrators, and thereby subtly creates an impression that the route from victim to offender is automatic.

The irony is that there is little proof that being abused makes one an abuser. At best, we only know that a large percentage of abusers say that they were abused as children. We do not have conclusive studies, however, showing that simply being abused makes one an abuser. As Price-Robertson points out:

Reliable research does suggest, however, that while certain childhood experiences, including neglect, lack of supervision and sexual abuse, are associated with an increased risk of becoming a perpetrator of child sexual abuse, the vast majority of male victim/survivors of child sexual abuse do not go on to become perpetrators (Glasser et al., 2001; Salter et al., 2003). In other words, while male victim/survivors might be at a higher risk of perpetrating child sexual abuse, the route from victim to offender is certainly not automatic and, indeed, occurs in only a small proportion of cases.

Yet that narrative persists, and male survivors certainly hear it. It affects whether male survivors will want to be around children, want to have children of their own, and how they think of themselves. The narrative from society and the professional community is that male survivors cannot be trusted. Given how vulnerable male survivors already are, it is no surprise that many begin to see themselves as inherently dangerous, untrustworthy, and essentially abusers in waiting.

That can lead to a number of problems. Some survivors may behave as I do and avoid contact with children, which oddly enough has the opposite affect. For some reason, this makes children wildly more interested in you. Other survivors make become hyper-vigilant, looking for anything that may be a sign of abuse. For others, it can trigger memories about their own childhood. Others may find it cathartic to become fathers.

All of these have the potential of creating problems within the family. My experiences with my godson shaped not only how he responds to me, but also how he looks at other people. He loves to hug people and tends to get into people’s personal spaces. By me being a put off by that, he is more aware that he does it. He is also more aware of reading people’s moods. To that extent, it taught him something good. However, the negative is that has made him wary of showing too much emotion around people. Sometimes he pulls back expecting people to react as I would, and that is not fair to him.

We ought to talk about issues like this, yet we do not. Price-Robertson offers an explanation:

Partly, this issue is hidden because much of the increased attention to the issues of child sexual abuse and sexual assault more broadly can be attributed to the consciousness-raising activities of specific segments of the feminist movement in the second half of the 20th century (Crome, 2006; Finkelhor, 1982; Hepburn, 1994); activities that were conducted, it should be added, in the face of widespread social “repression, dissociation and denial” of the seriousness and high prevalence rates of sexual abuse and assault (Herman, 2001, p. 9). While this has undoubtedly been a positive development, it has also meant that sexual violence has come to be construed by many as an issue that only affects women and children (Chaitowitz, van de Graaff, Herron, & Strong, 2009; Crome, 2006).

As much as that comment may annoy feminists, it is very important to recognize that the way sexual violence is framed has a severe impact on how we treat male survivors. This is the key problem with using gendered language: it falsely presents sexual violence as something only men do to only women. That narrative is very common among feminists, to the point that some of them deny the prevalence of sexual violence against even when shown studies proving a high rate of abuse.

The simplest way to put this is that if we keep saying only women are victims, then people will only believe that women are victims and will only look for female victims. We have to talk about male victimization, and we have to treat as equal to female victimization. There can be no caveats, no remarks about how much worse women have it, or any talk about feminist politics. We have to acknowledge what happens to men and boys or we will continue marginalize them.

Price-Robertson also mentioned how sexual violence against males plays against social notions about masculinity:

Since the act of sexual abuse commonly exposes boys to a sexual experience with another male and casts them as vulnerable and passive victims, it places them in a position that is starkly at odds with the dominant constructions of masculinity (Foster, 2011; Teram et al., 2006). Moreover, the “path to recovery [from child sexual abuse] winds straight through masculinity’s forbidden territory: the conscious experience of those intense, overwhelming emotional states of fear, vulnerability, and helplessness” (Lisak, 1994, p. 262). This creates powerful barriers to male victim/survivors of child sexual abuse disclosing their experiences to others, accepting their experience as one that may have had a formative influence on their lives, and healing from the trauma of the abuse (Crome, 2006; Etherington, 1995a; O’Leary & Gould, 2010; Sorsoli et al., 2008).

I one of the most common refrains I hear from male survivors is that they initially never thought of themselves as victims. They never say this because they did not understand that what happened to them was wrong. If asked, all of them admit that it would be rape or abuse to do the same act to a girl. It is simply their maleness that makes them think that what happened to them is different. They think that they should have been able to stop it, and since they could not or perhaps enjoyed some aspect of it, admitting it was abuse would take away what little masculinity they think they have left.

This is why it is so important to talk about sexual abuse against males without the gender politics. None of the “getting in touch with your feminine” nonsense, just pure discussion. We need to do that to show that being abused and talking about it in no way changes one’s masculinity or maleness.

Another aspect is one that men’s rights advocates talk about frequently:

Consider the bravery required of male victim/survivors to publically confront this issue (in a parenting class, for example) when they a) are aware of the heightened societal anxiety that exists around adult male and child relationships, b) are aware that they are a member of a group that is often assumed to be at high risk for being a perpetrator of abuse, and c) feel inhibited (by dominant constructions of masculinity) from discussing the struggles associated with their abusive experiences. It is little wonder that, although it often appears to be causing them significant distress, many male victim/survivors of child sexual abuse feel unable to share the ways in which their history shapes their experience with their children.

Our social narrative that men cannot be trusted around children does not just make men in general wary of kids. It also affects how abused men think of themselves because they internalize this message more than most men. If we keep telling men they are untrustworthy, it is not surprising that many men will begin to believe it. As a society we have a responsibility to protect children, yet we also have a responsibility to do it honestly and without scapegoating anyone.

Price- Robertson suggests that by creating more awareness about sexual violence against males and reaching out to more male survivors that we can counteract some of these things. Where Price-Robertson misses the mark is here:

Yet too often when men are framed as the victims of violence, the issue is co-opted by what [Michael] Flood (2004) called “angry men’s movements” – socially conservative, anti-feminist men’s rights and father’s rights groups – in whose hands the recognition of men’s pain can easily become an instrument of division, rather than an opportunity for understanding and healing. As Flood argued: “let us acknowledge and tackle the ways in which men are hurt and disempowered, but not do this, as men’s rights does, at the expense of women or gender justice” (p. 275).

Flood’s analysis is hardly accurate. Flood himself has done little research on sexual or domestic violence against men, and his attitudes regarding male victimization is less than supportive. He dismisses any research showing a high rate of sexual and domestic against males, frames women’s violence against men as self-defense without an iota of evidence supporting that conclusion, and has misrepresented information about violence against males.

Flood’s assertion that men’s rights activists try to marginalize women also lacks support. Of the number of campaigns that men’s rights activists have waged, including some legal battles, none were done at women’s expense. Indeed, the idea that Californian domestic violence centers should not be allowed to discriminate against men in no way prevents women from getting help. The goal was to simply grant men access to the same services. Glenn Sacks’ campaign against DART did not shut anything down for women. The goal was simply to get the domestic violence center to acknowledge that boys can be victims and women can be abusers.

We must be careful not to play politics with this issue, particularly not at the behest of someone who does not appear to believe that physical and sexual violence against males is a legitimate issue.

Another place Price-Robertson misses the mark is here:

Indeed, many of the insights of feminism – such as the ideas that identity is socially constructed, that it is important to understand the particularities and contexts of peoples’ lived experiences (e.g., their gender, race and sexual preferences) and that gender can both constrain and enable life opportunities – offer a clearer understanding of the difficulties faced by male victim/survivors (Foster, 2011). The challenge we face is to explore and raise awareness about this issue without minimising the role that men and dominant constructions of masculinity play in the perpetration of sexual violence, without using language and arguments that create an attitude of competition – of “us versus them” – between men and women, and with methodologies and practices that are informed by nuanced understandings of trauma, gender and sexual violence.

The idea that “men and dominant constructions of masculinity play [a role] in the perpetration of sexual violence” is part of the reason why the victim-to-offender narrative is so common. The idea that abuse is something uniquely done by males or somehow uniquely associated with males creates the “us versus them” dynamic because the moment a male survivor steps forward, he disproves that narrative, particularly if his abuser is female.

There is simply no way to honestly address the issues male survivors face if we have to jump through feminist hoops to make sure we never imply that what happens to male survivors is a serious issue. Many feminists will disagree with that, yet few of those feminists address these issues on a daily basis. As Price-Robertson’s own research shows, those people are not even aware of what impact those views have on male survivors.

However, I agree with Price-Robertson that we need to lose the attitude of competition. Granted, that attitude is only coming from one side intent on proving that sexual violence is a women’s issue, but it is still something we need to do away with because it does not help male survivors at all.

I think about that narrative when I am with my godson and the other kids in my family. I see how good I am with them, how people constantly tell me how good a father I would be (particularly fathers), and I wonder what kind of person I would have been if I never heard that I was too dangerous to be around kids.

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