Boys’ experience of abuse may be construed as consensual or desired. They often aren’t even thought of as potential victims. This has to change

Published in The Independent

I grew up Mormon in the US, and as a teenager I saw my male peers become part of Boy Scouts troops. I was jealous that they could play basketball, go on fishing trips and learn skills I thought would serve them better than the lessons on chastity, marriage and cooking that my female peers and I learned during our “Young Women” meetings. The boys looked like they were having so much fun.

Sadly, I know now that what I observed on Tuesday evenings as I passed by our church gymnasium to my meeting room may not have been the full story.

A lawsuit filed this week in America alleges hundreds of previously unreported cases of sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts. This is on top of the more than 12,000 alleged male victims of sexual abuse revealed in April. The litigation comes from the efforts of Abused in Scouting, a group of law firms that collaborate to bring such cases to light. This is the first time most of these men feel able to share their story.

Learning about this widespread abuse reminds me of a conversation I had several years ago with a younger cousin who was part of the Boy Scouts in the area where I grew up. He told me of the sexual abuse that he observed on their camping trips. I remember sobbing on the phone with him, worried he was omitting that he was a victim too. He assured me he wasn’t. It is not OK that others were.

Of course, the issue of the sexual abuse of boys is bigger than the Boy Scouts, but we often don’t hear about it. Indeed, because the number of girls and women who face sexual abuse is much greater than that of boys and men (23 per cent of women compared to 9 per cent of men), too often boys and men are overlooked in conversations and efforts to combat sexual abuse.

Furthermore, their abuse experience may be construed as consensual or desired. While victims of abuse of all genders may be disbelieved or blamed, boys often aren’t even thought of as potential victims. This must change.

Boys are vulnerable due to their age, but there are other sub-groups that are even more likely to report experiencing sexual assault – we must also pay them special attention. In a survey I co-authored in April with over 2,200 respondents, persons 18 and older were asked about their lifetime experiences of abuse, including as children.

  • Men with disabilities were more than four times as likely as men without disabilities to report they had experienced sexual assault (25 per cent versus 6 per cent).
  • More than 1 in 5 gay or bisexual men (21 per cent) said they experienced sexual assault, compared with 9 per cent of straight men.
  • While 7 per cent of white men reported sexual assault, 20 per cent of men of mixed race or other race, 13 per cent of black men and 11 per cent of Hispanic men said they had faced sexual assault.
  • One in four men living below the poverty line said they had experienced sexual assault, the highest of any household income bracket.

Sexual assault is an abuse of power, so it makes sense that those who are more vulnerable in our society due to racism, homophobia, ableism and poverty (or gender, since rates of assault are high for women of all backgrounds) would be more likely to face sexual assault.

Another notable finding from our study is that not infrequently, there is a cycle of abuse at play. People who reported committing sexual harassment and/or assault were also likely to report being a victim of sexual harassment and/or assault (73 per cent of the men and 95 per cent of the women who committed it).

Of course, experiencing sexual harassment and/or assault does not excuse people going on to harass or assault others – and many who experience it do not go on to commit it (especially among women and girls). But the connection suggests a need to look at those who commit these offences with a more nuanced lens and explore options of accountability that include rehabilitation and counselling.

The most important point, however, is that the individual stories coming out now and the US national data show that we need to ensure that all male survivors – both within and outside of the Boy Scouts – have space to speak, grieve and receive help. We need to believe them, just as we need to believe all survivors.

If you are a boy or man who has experienced sexual harassment and/or assault, help is available to you. In addition to specific helplines like the one offered by the Boy Scouts, the organisation 1 in 6 offers a 24/7 helpline for all male survivors as well as weekly chat-based support groups online, facilitated by a counsellor. In the UK, your best bet is to contact Survivors UK. You are not alone.

Holly Kearl is the founder of Stop Street Harassment and the co-author or author of four national studies, including Measuring #MeToo: A National Study on Sexual Harassment and Assault

By Holly Kearl
Published in The Independent
6 August 2019