Sexually exploited boys: Why they don’t disclose

Phill Mitchell is the author of “The Sexual abuse of boys and men: creating an approach for neglected victims". You can find this and many other great articles on his website here.

The sexual exploitation of children has received significant attention over recent years with much being written about the reasons sexually exploited children don’t disclose. Many victims care for their perpetrator(s), while some mistrust statutory services such as the police. Others don’t recognize the abuse, and some children are fearful of consequences, not being believed and losing something they need or want (e.g. drugs, a home, a relationship, acceptance). Of course they have shame and guilt. 

While these reasons can apply to all sexually exploited children, what about barriers to disclosure predominantly experienced by boys? This article will explore some of these barriers and provide some guidance for male victims, along with their parents and providers around disclosures. 

Masculinity

Without doubt one of the greatest barriers that hinder and prevent boys from disclosing sexual exploitation is rigidly held beliefs around masculinity. For example, a boy who has been sexually exploited thinks he shouldn’t access support believing boys should never ask for help because doing so always shows weaknesses and therefore threatens the boy’s idea of masculinity. He believes that boys should always appear strong and never appear weak. 

Seager highlights that the male archetype or “gender script” consists of fighting and winning, providing and protecting, and maintaining mastery and self-control. While many view a number of these traits as elements of ‘toxic masculinity’ (a term that is widely used to often criticise and berate masculinity, labelling it as harmful), it is rigidly held beliefs associated with these traits that are harmful, not the traits themselves. For example, a boy thinks that boys should never cry and always bottle up their sadness. This belief is harmful because it is too rigid and unrealistic. A more flexible and realistic belief would be that there are times when it’s ok to cry and times when it’s not, and there are times when they need to bottle up sadness, and there are times when it’s ok to let it out.

Beliefs we hold about the traits of masculinity that are realistic and not rigid can actually help boys overcome sexual exploitation.  A boy who has been sexually exploited may be feel angry with himself for not taking control and physically preventing the perpetrator from abusing him, believing that boys should always take control, but through therapy the boy realises that for various reasons there are times when boys can’t always be in control. Confronting his issues, addressing the sexual exploitation in therapy and reporting the abuse to the police can be framed in a way that shows the boy is taking control. 

Damaged masculinity

In my soon-to-be released book, I write about how some sexually exploited boys and men believe that the abuse they suffered damaged their masculinity. Such a belief can prevent abused males from disclosing and accessing support. If a boy has strong and rigid beliefs about masculinity and what it means to be male, he may return to these beliefs once he has experienced sexual exploitation, as a way of coping with the abuse and restoring what he believes to be his damaged masculinity. A sexually exploited boy that acknowledges to himself that he has experienced sexual exploitation, may start to display aggressive behavior such as arguing with parents, caregivers and teachers, bullying peers and fighting with others in an attempt to prove to the world and himself that he is still a tough guy. 

When I was raped at the age of 20, I responded by having lots of promiscuous sex, going to the gym to bulk up and getting drunk and storming around the city center looking for fights as a way of “fixing” what I thought was my damaged masculinity. The problem was that my idea of masculinity was unhealthy and too rigid to start with.

Alternatively, sexually exploited boys may adopt a more passive approach, believing that disclosing and accessing support will further expose them. A sexually exploited boy may isolate himself from others, start misusing alcohol and drugs, and begin self-harming and/or  begin attempting suicide. If a boy believes that his masculinity has been damaged as a result of the sexual exploitation. The rigid beliefs that boys should never ask for help and disclose when they have been a victim, then they are unlikely to tell anyone about being sexually exploited. They are unlikely to access counseling as they may see this as something else that will harm their already damaged masculinity. 

A number of sexually exploited boys and men I have worked with over the years told me that they didn’t tell the police what happened to them because they felt that the police wouldn’t like them. Some had previous negative experiences of police involvement and other boys had a pre-existing negative relationship with the police. Some boys that did disclose were adamant that they wouldn’t speak to the police or name the perpetrator because it was wrong to snitch. This was even more true when boys have been sexually exploited within gang contexts. If such abused boys don’t engage with support or disclose to the police, this begs the question, what do they do? Simply put, they deal with it themselves. 

I once delivered a presentation addressing grooming and child sexual exploitation to a group of girls and boys in a secondary school setting. Toward the end of the presentation, I asked the group who they’d tell if they experienced sexual exploitation. Most of the girls said they’d tell a parent, caregiver, friend, teacher or trusted adult. A significant number of boys said they’d never tell anyone. They would deal with it themselves by getting someone to beat up the perpetrator, slashing their care tires or chucking a brick through their window. The fact that the number of male clients accessing counseling are low compared to the number of female clients and as ChildLine figures show, only 14% of counseling sessions were delivered to boys perhaps such emphasises the reality that many boys will deal with problems themselves or not at all.

We need to help boys realize that their gender does not mean that they always have to deal with problems themselves. A balanced approach can contribute towards a realistic perspective. There may be times when boys dealing with certain problems by themselves is realistic, appropriate and useful. There are also times when boys can’t deal with problems themselves and that it is unrealistic to believe so.  

A boy who has been sexually exploited who has rigidly held beliefs about his masculinity and what it means to be a boy should be encouraged to explore more flexible and realistic beliefs that can eliminate the barriers to disclosing sexual exploitation and accessing support, and also aid recovery.

The first part of this two-part article explained how sexually exploited boys can find it more difficult to disclose their abuse if they hold to rigidly defined notions of masculinity. Here are some other factors that contribute towards making it difficult for sexually exploited boys to disclose abuse.

Erections

A number of boys and men I’ve worked with over the years have disclosed in therapy that, during the sexual exploitation, they sustained an erection. Many view this as evidence they are not a “real man”, some believe it shows consent and enjoyment, and others think it means they could be gay. An erection sustained under any circumstances is not evidence of consent, enjoyment or being gay. Male foetuses can get erections; so, can male corpses, and boys and men sustain erections whilst asleep. A male foetus, a dead body and a sleeping male do not want to have sex. The body’s physical response to stimulus is not an emotional response and does not always equal consent and enjoyment. In her TED talk addressing unwanted arousal, author and researcher Emily Nagoski concludes that your genitals do not tell you or anyone else that you’re ready for or are wanting sex; you do.

Boys should be educated around erections sustained whilst experiencing sexual exploitation and be given factual information highlighting that such erections are by no means evidence of consent or enjoyment. Just because your body is ready for a certain act, does not mean you want that act to happen. As I highlight in my up-and-coming book; I could spend a long time in my back garden building a tent. It does not mean I want to go camping.

Victimised vs Criminalised

Much has been written about how boys who have experienced, or are at risk of experiencing sexual exploitation, are more likely than girls to be criminalized. Fox highlights that professionals are more readily willing to consider and accept youth offending as a reason for certain behaviors when displayed by boys, rather than child sexual exploitation. The behaviors that boys display to let us know they may be being sexually exploited can be identical to the behaviors they display when they are involved in youth offending. The problem is that it’s easier to prove these behaviors as evidence of sexual exploitation, many boys would rather be seen as young offenders than victims of sexual exploitation, and some professionals sadly practice in a gender-biased manner and only consider youth offending and not sexual exploitation when boys display certain behaviors.

Many boys do not disclose sexual exploitation because they are fearful of being criminalized and, in some cases, treated like a perpetrator, but equally they do not want to be treated like, or referred to, as a victim. As parents, caregivers, and professionals we must view boys who disclose sexual exploitation as victims; however, using the term victim, feeling sorry for boys, and giving them sympathetic looks can cause some boys to feel uncomfortable and “less of a man”. Equally, some boys fear that elements of a disclosure could be used to view the boy as a criminal. I once worked with a young man who disclosed that, when he was a child, he was groomed and sexually exploited by an older woman in his neighborhood. He told a teacher about the older woman’s behavior, and the teacher involved the police who questioned the older woman. The woman said that the boy tried to rape her. The boy was arrested under suspicion of rape. It’s hard to imagine a girl being arrested on suspicion of rape if she accused an older man of sexual exploitation.

People ask me if I prefer to be called a victim or a survivor. Personally, I prefer to be called Phil.

Language matters. When I attend conferences and deliver presentations highlighting my own experience of child sexual exploitation and rape, people ask me if I prefer to be called a victim or a survivor. Personally, I prefer to be called Phil and not feel pressured to choose a label based on something that happened in my past. Calling boys victims can make them feel weak, but calling them survivors can feel frustrating, especially if the boy reports that he doesn’t feel like he is surviving. Although I accept that labels are very important to some, it can sometimes be useful to avoid labels.

Not Recognizing Sexual Exploitation

While many children with older boyfriends or girlfriends do not always recognize that they are being sexually exploited, there are more applicable reasons to explain why boys do not recognize sexual exploitation. Many schools promote a gendered narrative that suggests, in an over-simplified manner, that boys are the perpetrators and girls are the victims, affecting the prevalence of boys disclosing.

As mentioned above, when it comes to female perpetrators, some can use their gender to portray themselves as a victim when they are in actual fact the perpetrator, and some boys view a girls being in “sexual relationships” with adult men as sexual exploitation, but rarely view boys being in “sexual relationships” with adult women not as sexual exploitation. Legally in England and Wales, women and girls cannot commit the offence of rape.

The ideas that some boys hold about what it means to be a male can be used to sexually exploit boys in ways that make them struggle to recognize the abuse. I have worked with boys who have been plied with alcohol and then dared to strip naked by an older man and then run around the room. Two boys once told me that they were having “banter” with an older man. Next the man told the boys to pull their pants down and flash, saying that it was a bit of fun and that it would prove what big tough guys they were. I was sexually exploited at the age of 16, and I realized this years later after I worked with a boy who was sexually exploited by multiple perpetrators. Why didn’t I realize that I was sexually exploited at the time? I didn’t know what sexual exploitation was, as the message in my head was that girls are victims and boys are perpetrators. For me, abuse occurs when a big strong man pushes a woman down and rapes her. No one told me any different, and being male was certainly a factor.

It’s important that all children, girls and boys, are educated to understand the different types of sexual abuse and exploitation; that girls and boys can experience sexual exploitation and that men and women can perpetrate it. Boys should be encouraged to focus on what behaviors a safe adult is likely to display and what behaviors an unsafe adult is likely to display. The perpetrator’s gender should not make a difference.

Tips for Victims

There are no right or wrong ways to tell someone you’ve been sexually exploited. However, the points below may make the disclosure slightly less difficult:

  1. Where: Choose a place to disclose where you feel safe, comfortable and familiar, and where you can leave if you feel the need to;
  2. Who: Choose a person you trust, that responds in the way you want them to (see point five)
  3. When: Choose a time to disclose that feels right for you;
  4. Intro: While you may wish to come straight out with it and say what happened to you, you may find it useful to introduce what you’re going to say before you say it, for example; “I want to tell you about something that happened to me, and it’s not easy for me to say but I need to tell someone”;
  5. Response: What response do you want? Do you want the person you’re disclosing to say nothing and listen? Do you want them to give you advice? Do you want them to come with you to the police? Think about the response you want from the person you’re disclosing to and don’t be afraid to explicitly say what response you do want and what response you don’t want. Those who disclose often want support, but it can be useful to specifically say what you want that support to look to the person you disclose to. That person may have a different idea of support
  6. Words: Don’t feel pressured to use formal terms such as child sexual exploitation or words such as rape. Use words and language you’re comfortable with. Remember it’s not about finding words that are right. it’s about finding the words that are right for you;
  7. Structure: It can be useful to breakdown what you’re going to say by thinking about a beginning, a middle and an end. This may make it slightly less difficult to disclose. Remember you don’t have to go into detail. You can disclose as much or as little as you want;
  8. Why/Outcome: Why disclose now? What are you hoping it will achieve? Emotional support? Help with the legal process? Feeling unburdened? If you think about the outcome you’re hoping to achieve by disclosing, it can inform and influence how you disclose – if you decide to disclose at all.

The Male Survivor’s Partnership website provides a directory of services for male victims and the NWG website provides a directory of services supporting girls and boys affected by child sexual exploitation.

Tips for parents/carers

If a child (boy or girl) makes a disclosure here are ten top tips for parents/caregivers:

  1. Don’t panic: The child is sitting in front of you. Right now, they’re safe;
  2. Reassure: Tell the child they’ve done nothing wrong and that you’re there to support them;
  3. Praise: Thank them for telling you and acknowledge how difficult it may have been for them to disclose;
  4. Empathize: See the situation from the child’s point of view and communicate your understanding of how they feel
  5. Clarify: Make sure you’ve understood what you’ve been told and that you’ve got the facts straight;
  6. Ask the child what they’d like you to do with what they’ve told you;
  7. Ask the child what they think you should do with what they’ve told you (This question is important if a child discloses recent/current sexual exploitation to a professional who doesn’t want them to share the information);
  8. Be factual: Be honest and tell the child what action you’re going to take and why;
  9. Give options: Tell the child what options are available to them, for example; a professional may tell a child that they have to tell the police what has been disclosed but that they can’t make the child themselves speak to the police if they don’t want to;
  10. Don’t over promise and under-deliver. If you make promises, make sure you keep them and ensure that you don’t make promises you can’t keep.

If a boy discloses sexual exploitation to you and he makes a comment related to rigid beliefs around masculinity, it’s important to acknowledge these comments and consider whether now is or is not the right time to address the problem. It may be more important to provide immediate support and reassurance and address any rigidly held beliefs about masculinity later on. You should also reflect on whether or not you are the right person to address and explore such rigidly held beliefs.

This article has been used with permission from Phill Mitchell, he is the author of “The Sexual abuse of boys and men: creating an approach for neglected victims.”

You can find this and many other great articles on his website https://counsellorinleeds.co.uk.

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