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From 'Spotlight' to Academic Conferences: How Can We Better Serve Male Survivors?

One in six boys is sexually abused before his 18th birthday. Institutions—and psychological associations—can do a lot more to help.
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spotlight film

Spotlight. (Photo: Open Road Films)

The Oscar-nominated film Spotlight follows an investigative team from the Boston Globe as they expose the almost 90 Catholic priests in the area who abused children—and the wall of lies and trickery that the Church used to cover it up. The movie powerfully highlights that institutions we expect to protect us can actually cause us harm. This happens when institutions, like the Church or the military or universities, do not acknowledge the widespread abuse going on within their confines, do not respond appropriately when survivors came forward, and do little to prevent such violations against body and soul.

As a trauma psychologist, I think of my patients, and their struggles—not simply the sexual abuse (though that too), but also the invalidation, the disbelief, the doubting themselves, and forever feeling broken. So I can't turn a blind eye to sexual assault in boys and men and neither should you.

At least one in six boys in this country is sexually abused by the time of his 18th birthday. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are at risk for a wide range of medical, psychological, and sexual disorders, from PTSD and substance abuse to depression and suicidal behavior. The numbers uncovered by the Boston Globe Spotlight team may seem shocking—and they are. But abuse against boys is not as unusual as you'd think. (While church investigations have uncovered abuses against girls, the overwhelming majority are against boys.)

I want survivors to be able to say, "I am not inherently crazy, bad, or weak for having had this horrible experience."

The majority of the research and public discussion on sexual abuse focuses on girls and women. This trend is understandable: Girls are unquestionably at greater risk of such violations. But boys and men experience this type of abuse at alarming rates. And sexual abuse in the lives of boys and men is grossly underrepresented, largely overlooked, stigmatized, or shamed by the public and sometimes by health care professionals.

As the president of the American Psychological Association's Division of Trauma Psychology, I recently organized a symposium on this topic for possible presentation at our annual APA convention. This conference draws thousands of psychologists each year. The session was to feature the latest research and clinical updates on male sexual abuse from the perspective of psychologists, advocates, and a survivor. My programming team and I reached out to all of the 50-plus other divisions at APA to see if they would want to co-sponsor such a session. To our great surprise and dismay, not one division came forward. To be fair, competition for programming at convention is tough. But I think this also represents a larger systemic issue for all of us to turn our backs on this topic and this traumatized population.

Male sexual assault survivors really need our help—and they're not going to reach out for it themselves. In a nationally representative sample of thousands of adolescents, boys were less likely than girls to disclose sexual abuse or report it to authorities and reported higher levels of shame. Male survivor concerns, such as fear of being viewed as homosexual (if the assailant was male), can impede disclosure and help-seeking. In addition, messages boys receive from society—notions that they are supposed to be powerful and invulnerable, should never cry or experience sadness, and that they should always welcome sexual activity—these can obstruct a victim's true acknowledgement of his pain. We need institutional support so more men can come forward and receive the attention and care they need and deserve after such experiences.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, where I volunteer and see patients, has recently prepared and distributed gender-specific printed health-care materials for male veterans who have experienced military sexual abuse. In a recent study, male veterans said they would prefer having targeted materials so they know they are not alone. But there are other things we can do to support the options for recovery and justice of our boys and men.

In Spotlight, as in real life, after the paper broke its story on childhood sexual abuse, the investigative team was inundated with phone calls from survivors. I am praying that this movie has that effect on trauma survivors worldwide. I hope they see this movie and what good therapy can do for them. That they can see and say, "I am not inherently crazy, bad, or weak for having had this horrible experience." That they can hold their heads up, look themselves in the mirror and others in the eye, and say, "I did nothing to deserve this." Maybe Spotlight can have the same effect on all of us.