Nearly half of young men reported being the victim of sexual coercion in a new study, showing that despite popular beliefs, men can also be the targets of abuse.
The stereotypical man is tough and reserved with his emotions. A “man’s man” has a beard, drinks beer, and keeps his feelings to himself.
The one thing men don’t do is talk about being the victims of sexual abuse. There are many reasons why, including the common myth that men can only be the perpetrators of sexual coercion, not the victims.
A recent study in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity highlights a serious issue that rarely receives attention: young men being coerced into sexual contact.
Surveying 284 high school and college students, researchers at the University of Missouri found that 43 percent were victims of unwanted sexual experiences. In 95 percent of those cases, women were reportedly the aggressors.
Of those cases, 18 percent were coerced by physical force, 31 percent verbally (such as threatening to break up with him if he didn’t go along), and 26 percent by unwanted sexual seduction via behaviors like unwanted fondling. Seven percent of the men reported that the coercion was performed after they were given alcohol or drugs.
Half of the students said their sexual assaults led to intercourse and 10 percent said sex was attempted. The other 40 percent said their experience involved kissing or fondling.
Lead study author Bryana H. French, a sexual health professor at the University of Missouri, said their research could help to boost abuse prevention efforts by, among other things, challenging our assumptions about who can and cannot be the target of abuse.
“Sexual victimization continues to be a pervasive problem in the United States, but the victimization of men is rarely explored,” she said in a statement.
“While not typically addressed in sexual violence research, unwanted seduction was a particularly pervasive form of sexual coercion in this study, as well as peer pressure and a victim’s own sense of an obligation,” French said. “Seduction was a particularly salient and potentially unique form of coercion for teenage boys and young men when compared to their female counterparts.”
Early sexual trauma has been linked to later risky sexual behaviors, depression, suicide, alcohol and drug use, and a host of potentially deadly side effects. Unlike women, however, men who are victims of sexual coercion don’t appear to have self-esteem issues after the events.
“It may be the case that sexual coercion by women doesn’t affect males’ self-perceptions in the same way that it does when women are coerced,” French said. “Instead, it may inadvertently be consistent with expectations of masculinity and sexual desire, though more research is needed to better understand this relationship.”
The researchers did not factor in more extreme examples of child abuse, including experiences in which a family member was the perpetrator.
While the Missouri study didn’t address whether or not these victims reported their experiences to the police, male victims of sexual assault or abuse rarely report the crimes or get help as adults.
A study in the Clinical Psychology Review explored why men rarely seek help and uncovered two pervasive myths: that few males are sexually abused and that the abuse has little effect on them.
The review also found that doctors rarely factor in that early childhood abuse could be the underlying cause of a male patient’s problems.
“It is argued that the childhood sexual abuse of males has not yet acquired legitimacy as a problem recognized by society, thus lagging behind the abuse of females,” the researchers concluded. “In short, the ‘evil’ of childhood sexual abuse in the male population is not being seen or heard by clinicians, and is not being recognized or talked about by victims.”
The problem is widespread. Over the past 15 years, the Catholic church has paid more than $3 billion in settlements to the victims of sexual abuse by clergymen in the U.S. The vast majority of clergy abuse cases involved male victims.