In recent years scandals involving religious leaders and college sports coaches have brought attention to the sexual abuse of boys, but still, experts say, adult survivors of such abuse are often reluctant to deal with it or even admit it. Now various organizations are stepping up efforts to reach these survivors, who include a large number of gay and bisexual men.
“There is so much less acknowledgment of sexual abuse as it affects boys and young men,” says Boston clinical psychologist David Lisak, who has worked extensively with male survivors of abuse. Yet there is ample data indicating that one in six men in the United States (nearly 20 million) have been through such an experience, and the figure provides the name for a California-based group, 1in6, where Lisak serves on the board.
Men who have been molested often have relationship difficulties, addictive or compulsive behaviors, or other problems in adult life, but some are reluctant to seek help, Lisak says. For men in general, he says, acknowledging abuse goes against the societal expectation that they are always strong, never vulnerable. For gay and bisexual men, it raises the specter of stereotypes, even though they are widely discredited, that their sexual orientation is due to the abuse or that abusers tend to be gay themselves. “There’s an interaction of several completely destructive and erroneous myths out there,” Lisak says.
Frank Spinelli, a New York–based physician and abuse survivor, adds that often, “when a gay man becomes victimized, they think, Did I ask for this?” It’s crucial, he notes, to always remember that abuse is not the victim’s fault and that it’s about power, not sex.
To fight myths and connect men with the services they need to heal from abuse and lead healthy lives, 1in6, founded in 2007, is partnering with social service agencies, providing specialized training for professionals, offering materials for survivors through its website (1in6.org), and initiating outreach programs on college campuses. Last year its first public service announcement, narrated by actor Harrison Ford, premiered on CNN Newsroom, whose anchor Don Lemon has come out both as a gay man and a survivor of abuse. Says Lisak: “Our goal is to get information out there in as many different venues, in as many different ways as possible.”