Author’s note: I have changed the title of the post so that the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is not included. Even though the majority of victims in that scandal were, as far as I know, boys, girls were also victimized, and I don’t the focus of this post inadvertently to erase that fact.
Why boys? It’s a simple enough question, and it seems to me obvious that we should be asking it, especially since reputable statistics place the number of boys who will be sexually abused before the age of sixteen at one in six. Indeed, even if this prevalence rate were one in eight, or one in twelve, the population of boys it represented would still be large enough that, if we were talking about almost any other group, one of the first questions we’d ask would be why that group was being sexually targeted in the first place. When we talk about the sexual abuse of girls, we ask and answer the corresponding question–Why girls?–as a matter of course, mostly because the sexual abuse of girl “fits” the dominant heterosexual narrative of our culture, which says that men exist sexually to pursue women and women exist sexually to be pursued by men. How we understand that narrative and its relationship to the sexual abuse of girls will likely differ depending on whether we lean politically to the left or the right, identify as feminist or not, are conscious or not that girls are also abused by women–as are boys, but more on that later–but those differences do not change the fact that, as a culture, we understand girls to be potential targets of abuse in large measure because of the dominant heterosexual narrative.
The sexual abuse of boys, on the other hand, and it doesn’t matter whether they are abused by men or women, does not fit that narrative. When a boy’s abuser is a woman, for example, many refuse even to call it abuse1, understanding it instead as a fortuitous initiation into sex (which really means into manhood). In other words, because the idea of a boy being abused by a woman just doesn’t fit our idea of what sex between males and females should be, or our idea of how male heterosexuality ought to be embodied, we impose those ideas on the abuse, assuming that the boy wanted it, that he enjoyed it, maybe even that he had somehow engineered it. Indeed, as Keith Alexander wrote in his Washington Post article, “When a Boy is Sexually Abused by a Woman ‘People Do Not Often Recognize the Harm,’” even the law enforcement officials to whom such abuse is reported will often tell the boy in so many words that he should consider himself lucky.
Christopher Mallios of Aequitas, a District-based sex-crime victim advocacy group, said during his 16 years as a Philadelphia prosecutor he had seen police and prosecutors “high-five” teenage boys who had been sexually assaulted by women, saying that the boys were “lucky.”
This rhetorical sleight of hand, obviously, hides the boy’s experience of being violated behind the veil of what we as a culture want, and what we believe he should want, his experience to have been. In this way, we can reassure ourselves that our dominant heterosexual narrative remains firmly in place, while making sure the boy knows that any problem he might have with what the woman did to him is his and his alone. We replace, in other words–or at least we attempt to replace–any sense he has of himself as having been abused with the question of whether or not he will claim the manhood that the sex he had with his abuser ostensibly represents. More to the point, if he doesn’t claim that manhood, it can only mean one thing: he must be gay, and let’s not forget that there are still places in the United States where even the suspicion that you are homosexual can get you killed. For example, in one of the cases Alexander wrote about, the situation got so bad that the boy and his family felt they had to relocate. According to the official Alexander quotes, people “were teasing him, asking if he was a ‘punk’ [homosexual], and what’s wrong with him and why he didn’t like it.” The stakes, in other words, can be very high for a boy who wants to insist on the truth of his own experience.
When boys are sexually abused by men, the specter of homosexuality is perhaps an even more potent silencing factor, whether in the form of the still popular myth that such boys will very likely become gay or the suspicion that there must have been “something gay” about them in the first place that attracted their abusers to them. If only because it so obviously does not fit our dominant heterosexual narrative, few would deny that these boys have in fact been abused, but just imagine how difficult it must be to be a boy confronting the possibility that these myths are in fact truths that who you are sexually can and will be determined by the man (or men) who violated you–and imagine as well how (perhaps even more) difficult and confusing this must be for boys who either think they might be or who already know they are gay, bisexual, trans or any combination of non-cis and non-straight characteristics.
The underlying idea of these myths is that the sexual abuse of boys by men represents a diseased male sexuality, one that somehow transmits itself from the man to the boy, despite the fact that the boy neither invited nor enjoyed the abuse. Homosexuality may have been taken out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders almost forty years ago, in other words, but the idea that male homosexuality represents a diseased masculinity is clearly still with us. You can see this not only in the myths I discussed above, but also in most of the public health (as opposed to law enforcement) responses to the three sex abuse scandals I mentioned in the title of this post. These responses focused primarily on the problems of detection and prevention. Indeed, in a thoughtful piece called “In Plain View,” Malcolm Gladwell uses the Jerry Sandusky scandal as a jumping off point for talking about why detection and prevention are so hard:
When monsters roam free, we assume that people in positions of authority ought to be able to catch them if only they did their jobs. But that might be wishful thinking. A pedophile…is someone adept not just at preying on children but at confusing, deceiving, and charming the adults responsible for those children—which is something to keep in mind in the case of the scandal at Penn State and the conviction, earlier this year, of the former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on child-molestation charges.
Gladwell’s use of the term “monster” is telling. We are dealing, in this formulation, with something that is not of us, that is alien and destructive, sneaky and insidious, a kind of stealth virus that will eat us away from the inside if we don’t learn how to detect and neutralize it before it does any harm. No one denies, of course, the importance of bringing perpetrators to justice, or of identifying them before they can do any harm, but an approach to the problem that ends there, that does not seek to understand the social and cultural dynamic that makes boys a target of abuse in the first place–as if we were indeed dealing with a disease, like tuberculosis or an STD–ultimately leaves intact the silencing mechanisms I discussed above.
More than that, though, this underlying medical metaphor very neatly elides the fact that the sexual of boys abuse and our responses to it comprise a set of behaviors and choices that are intimately woven into our ideas about gender and sexuality, and therefore about power and powerlessness, and that are, therefore, deeply and ineluctably political. As I suggested above, we already understand this when we talk about the rape and sexual abuse of girls and women. We even understand this when men rape men, the purpose being–whether it happens in prison or during war–to subordinate through feminization and emasculation the men who are their victims.2 We do not, however, seem to see the sexual abuse of boys as political in the same way, and I think that it’s time not just to ask why, as my title suggests, but to start to figure out what that politics might be.
I’ve been thinking about this question for a long time–because I too am a survivor–and I have, in my own small way, tried in the past and failed to start a discussion about it. One of the reasons I think those earlier discussions failed is that I tried to root the discussion too deeply in my own experience of feminism as a source of healing and people saw this as a politicization of healing, which was not what I intended. I remain committed to what I have said and written about the role feminism played and continues to play in my life as a survivor, but I also believe that healing itself should not be politicized. What matters, if you have been sexually abused, is that you find a way to get better, to live with hope and love, and as long as you are not hurting other people in the process, no one should judge you for the political or ideological or philosophical or therapeutic tools and perspectives that helped you build a meaningful life for yourself.
An apolitical approach to healing, however, does not change the fact that sexual abuse itself, as an act and as an issue, is political; nor does it change the fact that we have pretty much ignored that politics when it comes to the abuse of boys. I was reminded of this fact yet one more time, and motivated to write this post, by Kirk Johnson’s New York Times article about the decades of sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts of America that came to light last year. The article makes clear that the Scouts are essentially doing the right thing:
But even as the court fight proceeded, scouting officials were also restructuring the organization’s system of reporting abuse and promised to look back through other old files not released publicly. If evidence is found of past criminal wrongdoing by scout leaders, they say, it will be presented to law enforcement agencies. Thursday’s release followed several stories in The Los Angeles Times involving a separate cache of files that also revealed failures to protect scouts.
“We definitely fell short; for that we just have to apologize to the victims and the parents and say that we’re profoundly sorry,” Wayne Perry, the president of the Boy Scouts of America, said this week in a telephone interview. “We are sorry for any kid who suffered.”
Child protection experts say that the efforts in recent years by the Boy Scouts to better track, report and train youth leaders, and its humility in admitting failure, are all laudable steps, but that much more is needed by an organization that built its name and reputation on trust.
Part of what that “more” is is articulated by Christopher Anderson, executive director of Male Survivor, a nonprofit organization for victims of sexual abuse. “It steps in the right direction,” Kirk quotes Anderson as saying, but the “next step is that the Boy Scouts should provide support and help for all those victims and survivors who have been harmed.” On the one hand, Anderson is absolutely right; the Boy Scouts should provide the help that victims and survivors need to heal. On the other hand, though, as I read the rest of the article, which focused pretty much entirely on the problem of detection and prevention, I found myself thinking about how conveniently the privacy and confidentiality that are absolutely necessary to healing nonetheless shield the rest of us from the abused boys’ experiences. As a result, we don’t have to confront what we might learn–socially, culturally, politically–both from what they have in common with the boys who were abused by Jerry Sandusky and/or those who were abused by priests and others within the Catholic Church and what we might learn from how their experience of abuse differs from that of girls.
In 2002, I took part in Ending Male Violence – Net (EMV-N), an email-based seminar about men’s roles and responsibilities in ending gender based violence that was sponsored by the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN INSTRAW). It was a remarkable experience. Men and women from all over the world–activists, academics, people from NGOs–came together over the internet to talk theory and share stories, develop strategies and even collaborate on programs, and all of it was focused on one thing: finding ways to end the violence men do to women. One of the seminar’s sessions focused specifically on male violence against women and children, a group which obviously includes boys. I have not been able to find in my email archives any of the messages that were exchanged during EMV-N, but my memory of this particular session is quite clear: every time I tried to ask a question about the specific ways that boys experience male violence, the responses of both the other participants and the session leader always tended to redirect the conversation back to women and girls, as if they assumed that whatever they said about women and girls was sufficient to account for boys as well. It was a very frustrating experience.
Given feminism’s focus on the oppression of women by men, it’s important to recognize this redirection as a feature of feminist discourse, not a flaw. The experiences and perspectives of men have for far too long been understood to account for those of women and girls as well, and one goal that all feminisms share is that this tendency should end. Indeed, it was precisely the women’s movement’s insistence, during decade after decade of (mostly women’s) activism, on putting women’s and girl’s experience at the center of the discussion about rape and sexual violence that made possible the vocabulary I have to write this post. I owe the fact that I can even try to ask the question I am trying to ask, in other words, to feminism and the women’s movement. The fact that the vocabulary itself has not had much room–though it is now better than it was–for talking about men and boys in the role of sexual victim, however, and even less for talking about women in the role of sexual abuser3, does not mean that feminism is somehow “wrong.” What it means is that the vocabulary is inadequate.
I confess to being unsure right now of where to take this discussion next, but one of the most significant lessons I learned when I was in yeshiva was that figuring out how to ask the right question is far more important that finding an answer. More than that, the rebbe who taught me this lesson said, you need to learn to love the question, because you might end up living with it for many, many years. My intuition tells me that asking Why boys? as I have tried to do here gets to the heart of how and why we value traditional manhood and masculinity the way we do from a direction that has yet to be explored and that what we learn there will make a big contribution to the fight to end sexual abuse. I wonder what you think.
Cross posted on my blog.
- In one study, 40% of the men who said they were sexually abused as children reported a female perpetrator; there is another study, the link to which I have not been able to find, in which that number is somewhere around 20%. Whichever number is more accurate, it’s still a significant percentage, and the usual caveats that apply to statistical research do not change the point I am trying to make here, which has more to do with our cultural response to boys who have been abused by women than with the prevalence of such abuse. [↩]
- I have no doubt that woman-prepetrated sexual assault also expresses a politics, but, as far as I know, that politics has not been theorized, investigated, elaborated, demonstrated to the extent that the politics of sexual violence perpetrated by men has been, and since that kind of work is beyond the scope of this post, I am, for now, leaving it aside. [↩]
- I would urge anyone who’s interested in the question of female perpetrators to take a look at Female Sex Offenders-Survivors Safe House. [↩]
- Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, Foreskin Man, Vulva Girl and the Two-Thirds of My Freshman Composition Class Who Are Failing Right Now
- Rite Of Passage Myths Hinder Justice For Boys Victimized By Women
- Friday Music: Boys on Wheels
- Gender Bias In The Classroom: Do Teachers Give Boys More Attention?
- Why can’t the United States stop circumcising boys?