A recent Associated Press investigation, which exposed a surprising prevalence of sexual misconduct in US schools, also shone light on the little-examined dynamic of gender bias. First of all, there is a bias in the media. Although the five-year study found the majority of victims to be female and nine out of ten of the perpetrators male, female aggressors receive a preponderance of media attention, while cases perpetrated by males too often slip beneath the radar. In fact this graphic, which frequently accompanied the AP article, misleadingly suggests that nearly half of the perpetrators are female.
In this light, what should clearly be recognized as monstrous behavior suddenly becomes fodder for late-night TV monologues and titillating tabloid headlines.
Tampa’s ADA, Michael Sinacore, admitted to “some very real double-standards” in relation to male and female sex abuse, especially when the victim is a teenage boy and the predator is particularly attractive. According to the AP article Abuse Victims Viewed Differently:
(Sinacore) prosecuted Debra Lafave, a former Florida middle school teacher who admitted to having sex with a 14-year-old male student. Public attention paid to the 25-year-old blond newlywed quickly went “off the charts,” Sinacore said, after photos surfaced on the Internet of her on a motorcycle in a bikini.
“There’s something wrong with making a celebrity out of someone accused of a sex crime,” he said.
When pretty blond Carrie McCandless was discovered having a sexual relationship with her 17-year old male student, a mother in the community remarked that the situation would be a conquest akin to “climbing Mt. Everest” for any boy.
Too often this type of molestation is described as a “tryst”, “sexual liaison”, or some sort of rite of passage. Often students and adults alike expect the boy to feel pride.
According to the article, “Psychologists who treat boys say they suffer doubly – from the abuse itself, and from the view that they were lucky.”
Jeff Pickthorn was 12 when he began having sex with his 24-year old seventh-grade teacher. As an adult, he explains
“Hollywood, they think it’s such a hot thing when a guy gets laid at a young age. I tell you, it’s not a hot thing…They say that guy’s lucky. I say, no, he’s not lucky at all.”
At the time (of the abuse), Pickthorn might have agreed with them. For several months, he had sex with his teacher until his parents found out and the teacher was pressured to resign. It left him “with no boundaries,” he says now at 54, his life marred by affairs, gambling, and ruined marriages.
New York psychologist Richard Gartner, who specializes in child sexual abuse, says
“A boy is likely, with a female teacher, to claim that it wasn’t a problem, it wasn’t molestation, it wasn’t abuse, he wasn’t hurt by it. Recognition of the damage doesn’t usually occur until the man is in his 30s, 40s or later.”
Even in the justice system, prejudices remain. When New Jersey Judge Bruce A Graeta gave 43 year-old Pamela L Diehl-Moore a probation-only sentence after she confessed to having sex with her 13-year old student, he explained
“It’s just something between two people that clicked beyond the teacher-student relationship. I really don’t see the harm that was done and certainly society doesn’t need to be worried…And don’t forget, this was mutual consent. Now certainly under the law, he is too young to legally consent, but that’s what the law says. Some of the legislators should remember when they were that age. Maybe these ages have to be changed a little bit.”
Judge Graeta was later admonished for his comments, but the sentencing remained. According to the AP, “at least one academic report found that his view is common.”
Sexual abuse is always manipulative and predatory. For example, how consensual is the following?
A predator will choose a susceptible child, one who is lonely or insecure, and “groom” that child with systematic praising, special attention, empathy, and gifts during which time the adult will introduce what begins as affectionate gestures and progressively grows more sexual. It is a power-play from beginning to end.
Yet, despite the plotting nature of the crime, people are more willing to believe that a woman had some sort of meaningful relationship with the child, and was motivated by good intentions and genuine “feeling”. Mary Kay Letourneau served seven years in prison for the statutory rape of her 13-year old student. Shortly after her release she and the boy, now 21 were married. They have two daughters. She has written a biography of the scandal. It’s called “Only One Crime, Love.”
Media analyst Matthew Felling admits that female perpetrators are consistently treated differently than their male counterparts.
“The main dichotomy is in coverage, men are demonized, women are diagnosed,” Felling said. “Men are beasts, but women are troubled, or mentally ill.”
He feels the media coverage is “part crime drama, part Penthouse letter.”
According to Dr Keith Kaufman, chairman of the psychology department Portland State University, “(Boys’) brain maturation isn’t complete. Boys aren’t in a position to give consent to a sexual relationship. Girls see it as abusive much more quickly.” Boys give in to the expected bravdo in part because they don’t ” want to see themselves as a victim.”
I don’t want to dwell on the punishment of the women, but rather on the additional suffering boys experience because of societal perceptions. In the case of teenage boys and female aggressors, there is the expectation of enjoyment and gratitude. There is also the reluctance to admit, or fear no one will believe, that the female was in control, was “stronger” than he.
NOTE: Society has plenty of degrading and damaging expectations about and behaviors toward women. I know. I have and will continue to write about them. But men have societal pressures as well, and in the case of sexual abuse, it punishes them in a way not often acknowledged.
In our current culture, men have the strength. However, this dominant role leaves little room for vulnerability, let alone the utter helplessness of victimization. Men are not supposed to be victims. They are not supposed to be weak. They are not supposed to admit vulnerability, or openly express sorrow.
Yes, they were young boys when the offense(s) took place, but the way this in the least frames and at the most defines a victim’s very identity, in many ways the abuse dictates a victim’s self perception for decades. Perhaps, for life.
Men who were abused as boys generally experience some or all of several common emotional “themes” throughout their life and (hopefully) eventual process of healing. Many of these are common to women as well: anger, betrayal, helplessness, alienation, fear.
Certain aspects of suffering however, are unique to the male experience. Part of this is, according to a 1994 study by David Lisak, legitimacy. Men have difficulty accepting themselves as a victim. Women are victimized. They have the hot-lines and safe houses. They’re physically smaller and weaker (typically). Women, it is perceived, can be victims and still be “okay”, still be “good”. Something was done to them and there was nothing anyone could have expected them to do at the time.
Men question how they could have been abused. They struggle with identifying themselves as a victim and still seeing themselves as worthwhile. They will try to take responsibility for the events rather than admit helplessness. Maybe they liked it, let it happen. Maybe there is something else inherently wrong with them to account for the emotions and behaviors they’ve otherwise been unable to explain.
Women can do this too, but this is more about guilt and assuming the shame. For men it can feel like a survival mechanism. They may refuse to admit victimization because it cuts into the core of their gender-identity. Men are protectors. If they’ve been victims in such a deeply painful way, who can they protect?
I’m not at all trying to compare the quality of experiences. Sexual abuse is devastating and the lifetime of suffering radiates in concentric waves to all of those around the victim.
The plight of boys based on what our culture expects of men is simply something I rarely see addressed and in my opinion it deserved a few words.
If you have any thoughts on the topic – please chime in!
The Sexual Abuse of Males: Prevalence, Possible Lasting Effects, & Resources
Wealth of information from JimHopper.com Loads of resources and articles. Controlled studies. And more…
Manhattan-based Psychotherapist specializing in gender-specific treatment of sexual abuse.
Long-Term Consequences of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Gender of the Victim
Clinical Study Dube, 2005
Online support and resource center aimed at “overcoming sexual victimization of boys and men.”
Next Step Counselling
Website of Mike Lew, author of “Victim No Longer: The Classic Guide for Men Recovering from Childhood Sexual Abuse” and “Leaping upon the Mountains: Men Proclaiming Victory Over Sexual Child Abuse.” (Both available through the site.)