Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Assault: Their Experiences

Executive Summary

Over the past three decades, the Canadian criminal law on sexual assault and other sexual offences has changed quite significantly through both the courts and parliament. It is now recognized that males, both as children and as adults, can be victims and survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault. The majority of victims of sexual assault are female and there is a significant body of research from many disciplines examining the criminal and civil justice system responses, impacts, treatment, etc. The body of research on male victims is much more limited likely due to the smaller numbers and challenges recruiting representative samples. This research study examines the experiences of male survivors of both child sexual abuse (CSA) and adult sexual assault (ASA).

In Canada, statistics come from police-reported and self-reported data. The police-reported data for 2010 show that males accounted for 12% of sexual assault victims (Levels 1, 2 and 3) (Brennan 2012). In nearly half (47%) of police-reported sexual assaults against male victims in 2008, the accused was someone known to the victim (e.g., friend, acquaintance, or current/former dating partner), but was not a family member. In 2009, the self-reported sexual assault victimization rate for males was half the rate for females (15 vs. 34 per 1,000) (Perrault and Brennan 2010, 22) and it is estimated that the majority of sexual assaults against males and females (88%) are not reported to police (Perreault and Brennan 2010, 14).

Methodology

Researchers worked closely with staff at two men’s support centres. Staff provided input on the survey tool, helped recruit participants and provided follow-up counseling to participants if requested. Letters of information and consent were provided to participants. Interviewers conducted a total of 59 semi-structured interviews, each interview lasting on average 45 minutes.

The sampling for this research project was purposive and non-random and thus the findings reflect the experiences of the participants and cannot be generalized to all male sexual abuse/assault victims.

Findings

The findings section is organized by themes including demographics of the sample, supports, effects, coping strategies and suggestions.

Of the 59 participants, two thirds were between 36 and 54 years of age and three quarters of the sample were Caucasian. There was a range of different levels of education from having completed elementary to having a graduate degree. A third of the sample reported having a physical disability. And almost half had an annual income of less than $25,000.

Almost all of the participants (n=57) reported having been sexually abused as a child and almost all of those (n=53) that the perpetrator had been someone they trusted, including family members. A smaller proportion (n=10) reported having been sexually assaulted as an adult with the majority having been victimized multiple times and the majority (n=8) having also been sexually abused as a child.

Participants spoke of how few supports they had as children and how the men’s centres were their main source of support today. They were asked to describe the emotional and psychological effects of the sexual abuse/assault. Almost all participants spoke of having suffered depression and some suffered from Post traumatic Stress Disorder. Many contemplated and attempted suicide. Most were distrustful of others and were extremely ashamed of what had happened, feeling guilty as if it were their fault and feeling unworthy of anyone’s love.

Participants were also asked to describe their positive and negative coping strategies. Positive strategies included counseling, sports and hobbies, religion, and volunteer work. Negative strategies included disassociation, alcohol and drug, and sexual promiscuity.

Just over a quarter of those who had experienced CSA reported the abuse to police or told another individual who reported it. Two out of the ten men who had experienced ASA reported it to police told another individual who reported it. Many reported the abuse/assault because they felt they needed to take action or it was recommended by a counselor or family member or friend, or they needed to release feelings. The main reasons for not reporting to police included thinking that no one would believe them, feelings of shame, they did not know they could report to police and there was no family support behind them.

The last questions were about suggestions the participants might have. Many urged other survivors to disclose sexual abuse/assault and seek help. They also recommended that government and/or advocates raise awareness about the issue as they believe that professionals working in justice, education, health or child protection and the general public still are not as aware as they could be and there are still a lot of myths about sexual abuse/assault of males, as children and as adults. Along these lines, participants recommended training for all criminal justice professionals on the dynamics of sexual abuse/assault as well as interviewing and investigative techniques. All participants recommended more resources for survivors, particularly male-focused support services.

Conclusion

This research study represents one of the few in Canada to examine the experiences of male CSA and ASA survivors. It will contribute to researchers’ and practitioners’ understanding of the effects of CSA and ASA, as well as coping strategies and suggestions for other survivors and those working in the criminal justice system.

1. Background

1.1 Legal Reform

Throughout the past three decades, Canada has witnessed dramatic changes to how the criminal justice system responds to sexual assault, through legislative reform, judicial interpretation, policy, programs and training for both criminal justice professionals, as well as professionals in health, social work and education. For the purposes of this study, the most important changes came in 1983, at the time of the Badgely Commission (Badgely 1984), when Bill C-127 Footnote 1 came into force. Bill C-127 repealed the crimes of rape, attempted rape, sexual intercourse with the feeble-minded and indecent assault, replacing them with three levels of sexual assault gender-neutral offences. The amendments brought fundamental changes to the Criminal Code with respect to the substantive, procedural and evidentiary aspects of Canada’s rape and indecent assault laws. Importantly, the new provisions clarified that women and men could be victims of sexual assault and that a spouse of a victim could be charged Footnote 2.

1.2 Research

In comparison to the body of research on female sexual abuse and assault, there is very little research in Canada on male sexual abuse and assault (see for example, Alaggia and Millington 2008; Fuller and Smith 2008; Godbot and Sauborin 2007; Stermac, del Bove and Addison 2004; Trocmé et al. 2010). While many of the impacts and coping strategies that male victims use are similar to those used by female victims, it remains important to have empirical research focusing on men in Canada.

Statistics in terms of nature and prevalence of male sexual abuse or assault come from the self-report General Social Survey (GSS) on Victimization, which is conducted by Statistics Canada every five years, and from the Incident-Based Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR2), which reflects incidents reported to police. The UCR2 data for 2010 show that males accounted for 12% of sexual assault victims (Levels 1, 2 and 3) (Brennan 2012). Research studies suggest that the majority of the perpetrators are in a position of authority, trust and/or are well-known to victims. In nearly half (47%) of police-reported sexual assaults against male victims in 2008, the accused was someone known to the victim (e.g., friend, acquaintance, or current/former dating partner), but was not a family member. Strangers were the perpetrators in 19% of all police-reported sexual assaults committed against men (Brennan and Taylor-Butts 2010). 

Overall, the results from the 2009 GSS show that in that year, rates of self-reported sexual assault remained stable from 2004. In 2009, the self-reported sexual assault victimization rate for males was half the rate for females (15 vs. 34 per 1,000) (Perrault and Brennan 2010, 22). We do know that sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes. For example, results from the 2009 GSS estimate that 88% of sexual assaults (against males and females) were not reported to the police (Perrault and Brennan 2010, 14).

As noted in a Statistics Canada release of police-reported crime statistics:

Societal attitudes and perceptions of certain crimes, such as sexual assault or spousal violence, can also affect the number of incidents reported to police. The ease of public reporting and the perception surrounding an incident can impact whether a criminal incident becomes known to police and subsequently reported to Statistics Canada through the UCR Survey (Brennan 2012, 12).

One of the challenges with Canadian data is that where numbers of victims are low, statistics cannot be further disaggregated to better understand the nature of the incidents. One study from the US (Weiss 2010) documents the similarities and differences between male and female sexual assault from the self-report National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). By using the NCVS, Weiss (2010) is able to speak about sexual assault in the general male population and she deconstructs what it means to be masculine today in the US. The idea of masculinity includes physical strength, being in control, always wanting and being ready for sex, and being the perpetrator of such assaults, never the victim. Shame appears to play a big role in the decision to report, for both males and females. The negative impact of sexual abuse and assault, regardless of gender, has been well-documented (see Hill 2009 for a summary); Tewksbury (2007) provides a thorough overview of the physical, mental and sexual consequences of male sexual assault.

Tewksbury (2007, 25) begins his overview with a summary of the reasons men do not report assaults, nor seek services. These include: stigma, shame, fear, and having their sexuality questioned. While men may try to find services, they will quickly find that sexual assault/rape crisis centres may only provide services to women or that although they can access services, there are none specifically designed for men. Several years ago, Fuller and Smith (2008) undertook a scan of support services in Canada available to male survivors. At that time, there were only three organizations in the country dedicated to providing services to male survivors.

In terms of physical effects, some research indicates that male sexual assault is more violent with more corollary injuries and weapons tend to be involved when the perpetrator is a stranger. Injuries may also come from being restrained during the assault. Tension headaches, ulcers, nausea and colitis are other frequently cited physical effects (Tewksbury 2007, 26). In one Canadian study, Stermac and colleagues (2004) found that 45% of male survivors in an urban centre who accessed sexual assault centre at a hospital had some type of physical injury (e.g. 25% had a soft tissue injury, 20% had lacerations).

The most common mental health effects include feeling the stigma, shame, embarrassment. Self-harm behaviours and mental health issues are 3.7 times and 2.4 times respectively more likely in survivors of CSA and 2 times and 1.7 times respectively more likely in survivors of ASA (King, Coxell and Mezey 2002). Depression, hostility, sleep difficulties, misuse of alcohol and drugs, as well as suicide attempts are all common mental health effects. These effects are similar to those than women experience. The research, however, does not compare men’s and women’s responses.

In addition, CSA and ASA can have profound effects on a man’s identity and sexual activity. Survivors may wonder whether being sexually assaulted where the perpetrator is male "makes" them gay. Similarly, having been a "victim" of a gendered crime, survivors – and those around them - may question their masculinity (Tewksbury 2007, 30).  These and other myths continue to permeate society and "exacerbate the difficulties men have in disclosing the experience of sexual assault and increase their stigma while hindering the development of appropriate services and empirical research." (Stermac et al. 2004, 901-902) There may also be issues around sexual activity (e.g. frequent sexual activity with many partners, sexual dysfunction) (Tewksbury 2007, 30).  These effects often go unacknowledged, but can have debilitating consequences for men if ignored.

2. Methodology

Researchers worked closely with staff at two men’s centres that provide specific services to male survivors of CSA and ASA. Staff provided input on the survey tool, recruited participants to be interviewed and provided follow-up counselling when requested. Interviews were conducted with the male survivors by telephone by contracted female interviewers with experience in working with vulnerable populations. Letters of information and consent were given to the potential participants and reviewed prior to any interview. In particular, participants were assured that their participating or not in the interview would in no way have any impact on their receipt of services from the centres.

A total of 59 interviews were completed in 2009, each lasting on average 45 minutes with the longest interview lasting two hours. The interviews were taped and transcribed and the transcripts were subsequently analyzed by Department of Justice researchers.

The research questions included:

  1. What were the experiences of the male survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault as children and/or as adults?  To what extent did participants experience both types of sexual violence?
  2. What was the impact of the sexual assault/abuse on the participants? What kind of coping mechanisms did they employ? 
  3. What factors (i.e.: disclosure of records, seriousness of sexual assault, childhood compared to adult victimization) facilitated and/or impeded reporting to the police?
  4. What are the experiences of victims with the criminal justice system in cases where they did report the sexual assault to the police?  What is the participant’s overall level of confidence with the criminal justice system?
  5. What are the main sources of legal information from which victims learn about the criminal justice system? How do they learn and retain this information?
  6. What are the main suggestions provided by the participants in terms of obtaining a better understanding of the legal process and possible sentencing outcomes as well as strategies that may increase and encourage reporting practices?

Limitations

Due to the nature of the sampling technique (purposive and non-random) the findings of this study reflect the experiences of the participants, and cannot be generalized to all male sexual/abuse victims; nevertheless, the findings of this study will undoubtedly shed light regarding the perspectives of male victims of sexual abuse/assault.

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