Editor’s Note: The column below was written by Tiffany Greco, education director of the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County.
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June is Men’s Health Month. I am not going to talk about prostate cancer, the most common cancer and second leading cause of death in men. Instead I want to discuss another men’s public health problem that impacts just as many men as prostate cancer, but receives far less attention.
1 in 6 men report having experienced child sexual abuse before age 18. That is about 19 million of the men in our lives we call “son,” “father,” “brother,” “lover,” and “friend.” At least 4 times more men in our lives have histories of child sexual abuse than will die of a heart attack, the first leading cause of death in men. These numbers are staggering, and we know they still fall short of actual prevalence.
Child sexual abuse can have long-term health impacts on survivors, regardless of gender. The health risks between male and female survivors have more commonalities than differences. It is not uncommon for adult survivors of child sexual abuse, male or female, to experience long term health impacts such as post traumatic stress, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, and shame and guilt.
And the struggles unique to male survivors of child sexual abuse have less to do with their experiences being different than that of females, and much more to do with society’s rigid acceptance of what it means to be male. We make little room for a definition of masculinity that includes victimization. “Real men,” so to speak, are not victims.
Except that they are. The reality is that a lot of “real men” have life histories that include child sexual abuse. To deny the lived experiences of countless adult male survivors with arbitrary checklists of what it is and what is not “masculine” is egregious. This denial hinders the healing process for male survivors, and passively supports the ongoing culture of secrecy and shame that allow sexual abuse to flourish in the first place. Child sexual abuse remains one of the most underreported crimes in our country. Boys are even less likely to disclose their abuse than girls. Most male survivors carry the secret of their child sexual abuse well into their 30s, 40s, or 50s.
For the sake of men’s health, this needs to change. Men (and the young children who will become men) should not have to deal with sexual abuse in isolation and confusion.The sexual abuse of children, male or female, has nothing to do with masculinity, femininity, or sexual orientation and everything to do with the abusive exploitation of power over them by someone likely known and trusted. Let us support the physical and emotional well-being of the men in our lives this month and always by reconstructing a definition of masculinity that makes room for all lived experiences – traumatic or otherwise – and that promotes the safety and healing of all survivors.
For further information and resources on this topic please visit 1in6.org, bristleconeproject.org, or check out Victims No Longer by Mike Lew. If you are someone you know has experienced child sexual abuse, sexual assault, or domestic violence the Advocacy Center is available 24/7 at 607.277.5000 for support.