Recently I read a newspaper column affirming a change in Maine law which removed the statues of limitation on civil lawsuits for childhood sexual abuse. In the article they said 1 in 4 girls were sexually abused and 1 in 13 boys. I paused at the number. I had often read the number was at least 1 in 6 men and many felt this was under reporting. I reached out to Jim Struve, the director of MenHealing to ask him about these numbers. Jim’s responses are in italics.
What definition of sexual abuse does MenHealing use?
Our general approach to message is that “we provide resources for men and male-identified individuals who have experienced sexual victimization during childhood or as adults.” It is important that we use language that is gender inclusive; plus be explicit that victimization impacts adults as well as children.
Why does the definition matter?
So much of data collection is impacted by what questions are asked. Some inquiries are not inclusive and/or discouraged people from disclosure. The complications with definition are several-fold (I wish many of these complications were not so troublesome!). For many, sexual “abuse” is not inclusive of adults – “abuse” to imply children; whereas “assault” seems more inclusive of adults. However, when using “assault” then many people do not include children. Therefore, I think it is more inclusive and generic to use “victimization” as well as to be explicit in mentioning children and adults. Many people do not view sexual victimization of men or male-identified individuals as “traumatic” or “violent” – therefore, use of “sexual trauma” or “sexual violence” is also sometimes problematic.
Historically, sexual abuse/assault was based on “penetration.” Until 2013 data collection via FBI actually used language of “vaginal penetration,” which thereby excluded males. The short update: since 2013, data collection has now become more inclusive across the spectrum of gender. In addition, many surveys (especially CDC) now include questions that are inclusive of a much wider spectrum of behaviors – e.g., “made to penetrate,” “oral penetration,” “anal penetration,” “coercive sexual contact,” “non-consenting sexual contact,” etc. The more broadly the questions, the more the data includes male survivors and the closer to same rate of victimization is emerging across the continuum of gender identity. There are also variations in perception and definitions about whether males can be victimized by females, etc.
Another issue is that historically state statutes have varied in who qualifies for sexual victimization – many statutes had language that excluded males above a certain age, usually about 14.
You may want to check the CDC site about their surveys for “Intimate Partner & Sexual Violence” – these are conducted each decade and more recent surveys have very clear data about prevalence for male victimization that is within close range of that with females. The website also has resources for FAQ and Definitions that might be helpful: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/datasources/nisvs/index.html
How are estimates for sexual abuse derived?
Most estimates enter the public discourse in one or several different ways: (a) anecdotal reporting – usually by providers, agencies, or systems like hospitals/prisons/etc; (b) government sources, primarily CDC and FBI; or (c) research studies – usually via academic institutions or advocacy agencies/organizations
What are some of the factors which account for the variability of estimates?
Most variability is from reporting – people may not be asked questions that prompt responses and many people will not volunteer this information if not asked; many times behaviors that occur are not perceived as victimization – e.g., perception of what constitutes consent may vary and/or consent is perceived differently (often incorrectly) for males vs. females and/or adults vs. children. Institutional forces are often active in denying or re-defining victimization – or blaming victims to protect offenders. This may include hiding records, which may skew reported levels of victimization.
From your experience and knowledge what is a reasonable estimate?
I continue to believe that current rate of 1 of every 4 people are sexually victimized at some time during their lifetime is accurate; that rates are relatively equal across the gender spectrum; that risk is variable throughout the lifespan; that rates are higher in communities that are more rigid and patriarchal; and that individuals of any gender or age are more at risk if/when are confined to institutional settings (residential, medical, legal, etc.)
While there are different numbers sighted there are some things which are unquestionable. There are more victims of sexual violence than reported. If you are a victim you are not alone. Your experience matters. Your story matters. The impact of your experience is real. The abuse does not define you or your worth. Healing is possible for you.
MenHealing is dedicated to help in the process of healing.
Be well. Stay safe. Take good care.