Updated: Mar 28, 2022
Just as the biblical story of Adam and Eve presents shame as the primal wound leading to human suffering, my own first conscious memory is based in shame as well. I was four years old, running around with a group of kids on the playground. The night before, I had learned of a trick where you can flick someone’s feet with your own as they run past you, causing them to trip. I was curious to try it out myself, and running among a pack of kids, I tripped the boy in front of me. Indeed, the boy went flying, scraping his knees as he fell. He started to cry, and our teacher asked us angrily, “What happened? Who did it?” I was horrified at my actions. I had caused someone else pain and suffering, therefore I must be “bad.” It was a child’s simple understanding of “badness,” but it stuck. I remember wanting to disappear in shame. I imagined my own mother’s scornful look if I was discovered, and I assumed I would never be allowed to play with the other kids ever again. However, I was not found out, and though I never dared tell of my sin to anyone till many years later, the shame became lodged in my soul for many years.
Another formative experience of shame in my life occurred when I was nine years old. Without my parents’ knowledge, I went to an afternoon movie after school, where an older man, a stranger who sat next to me, molested me. Though I managed to escape relatively quickly, the shame from this experience was deeply stuck in my psyche, as I believed what happened was punishment for going to the movies without my parents’ permission. For many years, I believed I was “damaged goods,” and I repressed the memory as much as I could. It was only at the age of forty, when I suffered an emotional upheaval and started therapy, that the memory I had tried to repress resurfaced, and I dared to share it with my therapist. Often as victims we hold some shame and sense of responsibility for our experience and thus are reluctant to tell others about it.
Research shows that about one in six boys will be sexually abused by the age of eighteen,(7) (8) as compared to one in four girls. According to the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation, about half of the children who are trafficked in the U.S. are male, and the average age at which boys first become victims of prostitution is between eleven and thirteen.(9) Furthermore, recent research has challenged the stereotypes we hold around victims of sexual assault, seeing men only as the perpetrators and women as the victims.(10) (11) A 2011 CDC report found that men and women had a similar prevalence of nonconsensual sex in the previous year: 1.270 million women and 1.267 million men— primarily among gay and incarcerated men—though this reality receives little media attention.
Unfortunately, boys and men are less likely to report sexual abuse than girls and women, which only reinforces the problem around gender roles and our shame and pain as men. Our reluctance to talk about such experiences only buries our shame deeper. Such abused and disempowered men feel more isolated without the validation of other men with similar histories. They can’t normalize their experience or receive the much-needed support to deal with such painful traumas. And without facing the shame and healing their trauma, the cycle of violence only continues.
Additionally, many children, girls and boys, experience emotionally incestuous relationships with their primary caregivers. For me, it was my mother. Our parents or caregivers rely on us for emotional intimacy and comfort, a form of emotional incest, which often results in a codependent poor sense of self, difficulties with vulnerability and inter-dependent relationships, as well as confused and unhealthy boundaries as adults.(12) (13) Such boundary violations when we are young usually result in poor and unhealthy boundaries in adulthood, often leading to acting out with others in sexual contexts, whereby the abused becomes the abuser.(14) We might not be able to personally prevent others’ acts of violence, sexual or otherwise. But, by confronting and healing our own shame, apologizing, and making reparations, we can clean our own act up. That way, we can connect more intimately with ourselves and others, both men and women alike, in healthy, loving ways, as well as support other men in doing the same.
Continue reading: 11: RECOVERING OUR BELONGING, MATURE MASCULINITY, AND DIGNITY
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7. Long-term consequences of childhood sexual abuse by gender of victim by Dube, S.R, Anda, R.F., Whitfield, C.L, et al. (2005). American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 28, 430-438.
8. Prevalence and psychological sequelae of self-reported childhood physical and sexual abuse in a general population sample of men and women by Briere, J. & Elliot, D.M. (2003). Child Abuse & Neglect, 27, 1205-1222.
9. Sexual abuse of boys: Definition, prevalence, correlates, sequelae, and management by Holmes, W.C., & Slap, G.B. (1998.) Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 280, 1855-1862.
10. The National Inmate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 2011 by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Available for download at: http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISV_Report2020-a.pdf
11. The Sexual Victimization of Men in America: New Data Challenge Old Assumptions by Stemple, Lara, & Meyer, Ilan (2014). American Journal of Public Health, 104.
12. Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners by Adams, K. M. (2011). Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI Books.
13. Mother-Son Incest: Confronting Prejudice by Anne Banning (1989). Child Abuse & Neglect, 13 (4), 563-570.
14. Factors in the cycle of violence: Gender rigidity and emotional constriction by Lisak, D., Hopper, J. & Song, P. (1996). Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9, 721-743.