I wrote previously about mothers who sexually abuse their children. It remains a taboo subject that few want to talk about. However, one student decided to take a chance. Canberra PhD student Lucetta Thomas began researching the topic after someone she knew revealed his experiences to her. Thomas wants to determine the “psychotherapeutic needs of men and boys who have been sexually abused by their biological mother.” However, this has not proven easy. Research on this particular type of abuse remains obscure, especially in Australia:
The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2005 Personal Safety Survey estimated about 4,800 Australian males had been sexually abused by their mother or step-mother before the age of 15.
But the figures were qualified as “too unreliable for general use”, as an estimate with a relative standard error greater than 50 per cent.
Ms Thomas said reliable data on the number of Australian victims was difficult to collect, as the abuse was incredibly difficult to talk about for most victims.
“Prevalence studies on sexual abuse are problematic… It’s very dependent on the questions you ask, where you go to actually recruit your participants, but also how you actually define what you’re actually trying to get some information on,” she said.
People tend to miss that point, however, it proves true. The CDC’s 2010 study on sexual violence proves a perfect example. By defining being made to penetrate as separate from rape, the researchers effectively erased male victims of rape from the prevalence figures. The researchers claimed that only 1 in 71 men are victims of rape, yet when one adds being made to penetrate to the figures the rate jumps to 1 in 16.
Likewise, the types of questions one asks affects how people, particularly male victims, will respond. Jim Hopper addresses this:
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.
This presents a major problem in understanding not only how frequently mothers sexually abuse their sons, but also in understanding what they do. Several of the people interviewed by ABC noted that the abused men framed their experiences in ways that mitigated the abuse. These men, like the rest of society, did not want to view their mothers as abusers. That desire to protect the motherly image could result in abused men downplaying or ignoring aspects of the abuse.
Doctor Hani Miletski spoke about five myths about mothers who abuse, noting that, “Nobody wants to think about it, nobody wants to deal with it, nobody wants to research it, nobody wants to study, nobody wants to read about it.” She went on to explain the myths:
Dr Miletski said the first myth was that sex abuse meant intercourse, when in fact there were a range of overt and covert ways the abuse could occur.
This is such an important issue. One of the most common refrains people use whenever someone mentions female abusers is “how could they even do it.” Even feminist researcher Mary Koss stated something to that effect.
Abuse covers a broad range of acts, from sexual intercourse to exposure. All of these can be traumatic, including instances in which the child is never touched. The notion that it is only wrong if it is penetrative sex against the victim, and then only if it is forced, simply does not hold up to scrutiny.
The second was that men, and boys, could not be victims of sexual abuse.
“It’s starting to get better and we hear more about boys who are victims, and people who abuse boys. But still people tend to think that boys … the more sex they get the better. ‘Boys like sex’, ‘they look for it’, ‘they’re usually the aggressors’, and so forth.”
This also remains a pressing concern. What makes it particularly troubling is that despite the gains advocates for male victims and people like men’s rights activists made over the years, there are still political movements presenting sexual violence as something men do to women as a form of patriarchal oppression. That narrative undermines the gains made by advocates and activists, and reaffirms the cultural beliefs that women cannot rape men and that men cannot be raped.
Dr Miletski said the next myth was that women could not be perpetrators of sexual abuse, a societal belief illustrated by the way in which the media often played down cases of women teachers having sex with male students.
This relates closely to the previous myth. Again, it is not only that as a society and culture we view this as a non-issue, but that there is an active political movement arguing that females essentially cannot be perpetrators. This attitude even appears in the research on female-perpetrated violence. Much of the commentary minimizes the abuse itself and its impact on the victims. The commentary tends to frame the women either as love struck, manipulated by men, or psychologically ill. Rarely are the women viewed as responsible for their actions, let alone considered to have acted with deliberate intent.
The fourth, and possibly the most pervasive myth, is that a mother could never sexually abuse her own child.
“Even if we can accept the fact that boys can be victims of sexual abuse and women can be perpetrators of sexual abuse, to go a step further and think that mothers can be abusers… that’s like a whole category that people just cannot accept,” she said.
Dr Miletski said even as a sex therapist, she found it difficult to fully comprehend at times.
“Honestly, when I hear people who talk about it now in session, sometimes I think to myself ‘my god it’s impossible, I can’t believe what I’m hearing’,” she said.
“It’s just so difficult for us to take it in, and accept that it can happen.”
This is perhaps the hardest myth to overcome because of how we view mothers. We only see mothers as nurturing and loving. Even when we know a woman abused her children, even when it is unquestionable, we still expect the children to love and respect and understand the mother. The idea that a woman would harm her child out of any deliberate malice simply is not something we will consider. She must be crazy, under the influence of drugs, or controlled by another person, which is the final myth:
Dr Miletski said the final issue that allowed the taboo to exist was that even if these myths could be overlooked, mother-son sexual abuse was often glossed over with excuses about what happened and why.
“‘Oh you know, one of them must be crazy – that’s why it happened’,” she said.
“So these five misconceptions together help prolong this idea of this taboo, that it doesn’t happen… It does happen.”
Addressing these myths will go a long way in encouraging victims of mother abuse to come forward, as will understanding victims’ needs. Thomas observed:
As part of her work she is conducting confidential, anonymous surveys – with both the victims of mother-son abuse and with health professionals who have treated them.
The early results of her surveys indicated that victims wanted to speak with male, rather than female health practitioners.
Another theme was that victims were concerned they would not be believed.
“The literature is saying that in a lot of cases it’s actually explained away, it’s not taken seriously,” Ms Thomas said.
“I think there’s movement that could occur there, in terms of seeing women as (potential) perpetrators… to provide a safer place to disclose.”
She also noted that in order for victims to get the help they need, the service providers and professionals must change their attitudes about female abusers:
“I think people who work in the health professions…. they really need to be aware that this can happen, that this does happen. The level of trauma that it actually causes in the male child, the long term impact of that trauma and the difficulty they are having in accessing services,” she said.
While it is horrible that these attitudes prevent victims from coming forward, fortunately we can address these problems. We can change our attitudes and set aside our biases. We can listen to victims and accept their experiences as they share them.
It will not be comfortable. Hearing men and boys’ stories will change our understanding of abuse, sexual violence, women, and motherhood. This is going to be painful. However, it will pale in comparison to the pain male victims suffer by keeping these things to themselves because we cannot bear to hear them.