Coping Strategies for Men Sexually Abused as Children…

O’Leary, P., & Gould, N. (2010). Exploring Coping Factors amongst Men Who Were Sexually Abused in Childhood British Journal of Social Work DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bcq098

A few years ago, I saw the play ‘Doubt’ at the Sydney Opera House and what struck me, apart from the dodgy Bronx accents, was the fact that the mother of the boy who might have been sexually abused by the priest was able to write it off as no big deal. Until then, I rock solidly believed that there could be nothing worse than being sexually abused. How could anyone ever recover from such a dreadful experience? Of course, they can, and they do (2010). In this article by O’Leary and Gould (2010, n.pag.), they look at how a group of 39 adult male survivors in Australia coped with having been sexually abused as children. What the authors (2010) found is that these men split into two distinct types…

  • Those for whom their abuse history was a lingering sack of crushing bricks; and
  • Those for whom their abuse history served as a powerful motivating force to live well.

Abuse stinks. Men sexually abused as children are extremely fond of topping themselves quickly or drinking themselves slowly to death (2010), of being full of uncontrollable rage and fathomless fear. It is the betrayal of trust, the shattering of attachment, the confusion caused by people whose inviolable obligation is to love and care for you, hurting you with frequency, and impunity. Then there is the secret, that which is imposed by others and that which springs up from within, the terrible, terrible sense of shame that someone might find out that you have been touched, tainted and then what would they say? What would you say? Undoubtedly, many men choose to hold that secret close to their hearts rather than run the risk of unravelling in the midst of its exposition.

As a participant in O’Leary and Gould’s (2010) study commented:

I buried it [the sexual abuse]. Every time it reared its ugly head I buried it. I put more trash on top of it [violence and drugs] and stomped it down and buried it’.

‘Denial’, briefly mentioned in this article (2010), is such peculiar terminology. It implies wilful individual agency in suppressing emotions that are usually too raw and too difficult to deal with, not that many people want to listen anyway. It also understates the complexity of reconciling (rational) cognition with (volatile) affect, as if the two always operate logically in tandem. Male adult survivors who seek to bury their abuse history are usually struggling with the most gut-wrenching horror that anyone could ever imagine. That they might get angry, pissed, or stoned, shut down or cut off is not objectively reasonable behaviour but it can be a necessary survival strategy in lieu of something better coming along. We should never rush to judge any man caught up in that perilous situation.

The 39 participants in this study reflected on what advice they would give ‘to other men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse’, namely to:

1. Take that first courageous step to talk with a trusted other about your abuse history;

2. Learn to value yourself, acknowledge your qualities and remain hopeful; and

3. Gain strength through solidarity with other adult male survivors (2010).

Critically, for most of these participants, coming to terms with their abuse history began with talking with partners, other family, friends, colleagues, or health professionals, which in turn provided many opportunities for normalising and re-framing their traumatic childhood experiences (2010). It sounds like a movie, it sounds like a cliché, but that wonderful moment when an adult male survivor first realises that what happened to him was never his fault nor should he have to drag that bag of bricks around for a second longer, is when recovery finally comes into view. What the rest of us can do is listen without prejudice and accept unconditionally any brave man who takes that monumental step to share the story of their abuse history with us…

Survivors also talk consistently in the study of the need to be believed and for elements of the helping response to be active and practical…’ (2010).

  1. August 25, 2010 at 6:54 am | #1

    It has been my experience of working with men who are have been sexually abused as children leads me to think that there are 3 groups a. those who still suffer from the abuse and have severe drug an alchohol and mental health problems b. those who have some difficulties with what happened (and respond best to groupwork support and counselling) and the third group who just get on with their lives with no serious effects. It just depends on the individual and how their cope.

  2. Angela
    March 2, 2011 at 8:52 am | #2

    My husband was raped and prostituted around church members 6 days a week for 8 years. NOt on the sabbath of course. These people were good Christians.!!!!! He was 4 years old when it started. He is now 41 and has just told his first person…me. The last month has been hell for our family. I know we will get through this. I know he is a amazing man. He survived and survived well. Due to numbness of course but one day when the fear subsides he will feel happiness I am sure. I need to know we will get through this. As a wife and mother, you know this happens… some far off world…not ours.

    • March 3, 2011 at 12:03 am | #3

      Dear Angela,

      I am deeply humbled by your sharing of what must be painful, agonising facts of events that as you suggested, would have seemed to be someone else’s story, but never yours. Your husband should be praised for his bravery in disclosing to you his history of having been sexually abused by clergy. Yes, there are support services out there who can help. In the first instance, I would recommend that you take a look at the ASCA (Advocates Surviving Child Abuse) website (). If I can be of any further assistance, please feel free to email me at I have worked therapeutically with many adult survivors of child abuse by clergy and I can say that people do indeed get through these terrible events. Clearly, a lot of love, care and support helps.

      Again Angela, many thanks.



  3. M.
    May 13, 2011 at 5:21 am | #4

    Thank you very much for sharing this. I am a 21 year old guy who has recently uncovered the horrible secret that I was abused as a kid. As a straight male, its a world crushing discovery that really fucks a man’s mind up in every imaginable way. It’s good to know there’s some hope and support for getting over such terrors and getting back to living a normal life. And for anyone else out there who’s been through this, its the most important thing to see an experienced professional and to work to return your mind to normal and hopefully improve your life by doing so.

    • May 16, 2011 at 1:02 am | #5

      Seeking professional help is one important way that adult male survivors of child abuse can deal with such trauma. Of course, it is essential that the therapist is skilled, knowledgeable, experienced and also empathic to the particular needs with which a male survivor can often present. I thank you for your candour in sharing what happened to you. I wish you well for your recovery. Your story reminds me and I would hope, others who read it here also, of the absolute necessity of preventing child abuse and as you rightly point out, for those men who have endured such terrible abuse as children, to speak up and seek help and support from others.

  4. Renia Pruchnicki
    May 24, 2012 at 4:07 pm | #6

    I have just ended a 2 year relationship with a 43 year old man who was sexually abused by a male teacher. On top of that, his mother was a prostitute. He had a very messed up childhood. I found him a therapist about 7 months before our breakup. It was the first time that he addressed his issues. I ended it when I found out that he had been cheating on me the entire time we were together! I found evidence of 9 women. 5 of them were full on sexual relationships. One of them, he dated for 9 months! 3 of these women met his mother. Needless to say, I was crushed. I am so angry, but at the same time I know that his behaviour is symptom of his past childhood experiences. I feel anger and compassion. Please help! I would like to hear from men who try to fill the void by cheating with multiple women. He says he did it becuse he hates himself and that he was being selfish. He said he wanted to keep me around as long as he could… he knew one day I’d find out and it would end, and that until that day, he wanted to keep me as long as he could. I miss him terribly, but how can I possibly accept this? I don’t want to have him as my boyfriend, but how can I help him?

    • June 15, 2012 at 2:45 pm | #7

      I will not comment on your ex-boyfriend, specifically, but as to how and why the adult survivors of child abuse behave ‘inappropriately’ can be, in part, a legacy of the violence to which they have been subjected. It can also be related to other issues, such as even earlier problems with attachment (trauma) or a strong adherence to traditional masculine ideals. As to ‘how to help?’ any survivor, I would suggest that you treat them as an adult for whom violence is part of their past experience, that you establish and maintain clear boundaries about what is acceptable behaviour, that you encourage them to seek professional, therapeutic support, and that you give consideration to that essential concept, ‘radical acceptance’. In this moment, what every survivor, sic, what every human being needs is the presence of love and the absence of fear. If someone can feel safe and cared for, then anything is possible. I thank you for your candour, here, and I wish you well.

  5. Ron
    August 1, 2012 at 7:29 pm | #8

    I am a 71 year old man who was sexually abused when around 8 years of age by a teenage boy/man. I have coped pretty well during the 60 plus years and have had a happy hetrosexual marriage for 45 years. However a couple of incidents five years ago where I witnessed my wife innocently hugging one man, whispering to another and affectionately touching another on the arm during an animated conversation has raised serious jealousy and anxiety issues for me. Despite psychological and relationship counselling I still need anti-depressants . I have recently spoken to another counsellor and he believes this response so long after the event is related to the abuse as a child and we will soon begin therapy to address the issues which were never dealt with when I was a child. Police and my parents were involved discussions between themselves but I was never included in any discussions and certainly did not receive any counselling. Is there anyone else out there who has had a similar result so long after the incidents ???

  6. Robert
    August 26, 2012 at 1:06 pm | #9

    What everyone seems to think, when there sitting on the outside is that a man or woman who has been abused can recover, as if that will make it all go away and he or she will be fine and live a great life. I can tell you that even after many counselling sessions and many counsellers, there is no such thing as recovery, we just have to live with it and go on the best we can, period. Don’t let anyone tell you it gets better.

    • October 5, 2012 at 3:17 pm | #10

      I think that recovery is a personal, subjective thing. Moreover, I am critical of any worker who ‘oversells’ the benefits of drugs, counselling, etc. when any outcome to be realised might be something ‘less’. I would not patronise you by claiming that things do get better. All I will say is that things can get better. The double whammy for survivors of abuse, as I would have reflected upon elsewhere on this blog, is that you cop the abuse then the persistent trauma that comes from that abuse. That is so unfair. That is so wrong. You owe yourself a good life and I truly hope that you find it.

  7. July 18, 2013 at 12:42 pm | #11

    I am a 69 year old Married man Father of two Grown Daughters and have been having flash backs about my molestation when I was 8 years of age on through my 16 th. birthday. I was tied up and sodomized again and again . My rectum bled so badly I could not sit for days. I have tried all my life to move on. I am Permanently scarred. I have forgiven but not forgotten. The pain I have had to endure for much of my life has at times been unbearable. I waken in cold sweats as I relive these attacks on me over and over.. My Wife thinks I am Gay ? I am not gay , but a very confused married man as to just what is expected of me ? Had Prostate Cancer 15 years ago. Still unable to attain erections. The abuse stopped years ago so Why am I still haunted by it ?? Live I Rural Ohio where you do not discuss these things. Especially if you are a man. Is anyone out there able to help me ????

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