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29 June 2006
Health Systems Failing Male Sexual Abuse Victims
by George Atkinson

Male survivors of childhood sexual abuse face unique challenges that many health care practitioners do not recognize and understand, say Canadian researchers. Although both male and female childhood sexual abuse victims have similar anxieties and fears about their encounters with health care workers, males seem to shoulder an additional burden in regard to perceptions of victimization, guilt, shame, homophobia and vulnerability.

The research team, led by Gerri Lasiuk, at the University of Alberta, said that it was doubly-difficult for males to come forward after they've been sexually abused, because many men have difficulty identifying and expressing their feelings. "There is also a common perception that males should be strong and shouldn't ever admit vulnerability or ask for help," said Lasiuk. "Given the pervasive stereotype of men as strong, in control, and always able to defend themselves, even health professionals have a hard time recognizing men as victims, especially if their abuser was a woman."

Lasiuk's report, in the journal Issues in Mental Health Nursing, also identified men as being afraid that health care workers would not take them seriously. "Many male survivors felt that health care providers are more skeptical toward male claims of abuse than they are of similar female claims. When the abuser was a woman, there was an attitude of; 'So what? Isn't that every boy's fantasy?'" Lasiuk added that abuse by a male on a boy often causes confusion around sexual identity as the boy grows up, and many male survivors do not disclose their abuse for fear that they will be considered homosexual. And disclosure is also hindered by the myth that all survivors are predisposed to become abusers themselves. "The research is clear that only a small percentage of survivors go on to be abusers," Lasiuk explained. "This erroneous belief causes tremendous hardship for male survivors, who often have nowhere to turn to for care and support."

The report was compiled using data from interviews with male childhood sexual abuse survivors. The researchers found that in some cases, nurses and physicians harmed, more than healed, the male survivors due to their lack of knowledge and insensitivity to the male survivors' situation.

But the picture is not totally bleak, said Lasiuk, citing high profile disclosures - such as that from former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy - which are changing society's attitudes and making it easier for male survivors to come forward. "Given that 5 to 10 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, all health professionals encounter survivors every day in their practice. The key to sensitive practice with male survivors is to treat them with respect and to create a sense of safety by using language that communicates an understanding of their experience," Lasiuk said.

Based on material from the University of Alberta

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