Men dare to share sex abuse stories

A Penn State fan's shirt at a college football game against Nebraska at Beaver Stadium in State College, Penn., on November 12.

Story highlights

  • Men are opening up about being sexually abused as children, Roxanne Jones says
  • The Penn State case is leading men to reflect upon and discuss their own abuse, she says
  • Jones: One in every six boys are sexually abused before the age of 16, and not just by men
  • Men may face feelings of shame and guilt when reporting abuse, Jones says

Chad, a 46-year-old father, is still afraid to tell his mother about the woman nearly 25 years his senior who used to sneak into his room at night and crawl into his bed. He doesn't want her to feel guilty.

She was his mom's best friend.

"She would get into my bed naked. Make me take off my clothes and make me touch her. Then, she'd touch me. We would masturbate and ... do stuff," says Chad, pausing to recall what happened so long ago. "It went on for a long time. She said it was our secret. That she loved me. That's how I learned about sex."

He was 10 years old when the abuse began.

"After her, I got my girlfriend pregnant a few years later. I don't know ... maybe that's why I'm so messed up now. I have problems with relationships."

Roxanne Jones

Until the Penn State child rape case took over our national conversation, Chad (all names have been changed at the request of the interview subjects) had never told his story. He wasn't even sure he'd been abused. No doubt he'd feel very differently if he were talking about his 10-year-old daughter lying in bed with a 35-year-old man.

According to national studies, one in every six boys are sexually abused before the age of 16. And yes, the majority of pedophiles are men, but as much as 40% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by women. Chad's story is not unusual. It is unusual that he's talking about it. And it's healthy.

For many reasons, experts say, men face different feelings of shame and guilt than women experience when reporting childhood sexual abuse. Men don't want to be viewed as weaklings for allowing the abuse. They worry that their sexuality will be questioned if the abuser was another man. And in cases like Chad's where the pedophile was a woman, men may even feel societal pressure to brag about the early unwanted sexual activity. Either way, the long-term mental effects can be devastating.

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Boys who are sexually exploited can have problems later with anger, self-loathing and drinking. They often live recklessly and have intimacy problems, among other serious long-term issues, says Kali Munro, a psychotherapist with more than 25 years' experience.

As a mother of a teenage son and Penn State alum, I am struggling to grasp the horrific details surrounding the Penn State case. Jerry Sandusky, 67, a former Penn State assistant coach, faces 40 criminal charges in the alleged rape and sexual abuse of eight boys over a 15-year period. But as the disturbing story unfolds, I have begun to notice the beginning of something very positive.

Grown men are talking openly about abuse they experienced as boys.

Men are beginning to heal.

Across my neighborhood, friends and families are sharing their painful secrets over kitchen tables -- and often a glass of wine -- without the fear of ridicule or shame men often face around this topic. Sports have always been a safe conversation.

But it's tricky. Abuse experts say that men under-report these childhood incidents when they are called "abuse," but when they are asked about "unwanted sexual experiences," the numbers may be higher than one in six. Not surprising in a world where men are not supposed to be victims, even as little boys.

For Gary, it was his priest. A huge football fan and happily married father of three, Gary says the Penn State story hurts.

He grew up in the Catholic Church and was an altar boy. He was 9 years old, he says, when his priest began being nice to him, giving him special assignments around the church and making him feel special.

"I would stay after and help clean up the church," he says, nearly tearing as he remembers. But then, the touching started, he says, the wrestling, the horseplay -- words consistently used by Sandusky's alleged victims.

"One night, we were wrestling and the priest pinned me underneath him. He grabbed my genitals and started rubbing me there. I didn't know what to do," Gary says. "But somehow, I got out of his grip. I think I may have hit him and I ran home crying."

But when Gary got home and told his mother what the priest had done, she didn't believe him. The priest was beloved in their community. Gary got into trouble for telling lies.

It's not uncommon for parents to be in denial, and feel guilt or anger at a child, when first hearing of abuse, experts say. One of the most upsetting things about the Penn State story is it appears that so many adults knew about the abuse allegations, as far back as 1998, but kept silent, in order to save the reputation of the university's football program. It was disgusting behavior. Those people should all go to prison.

I'm hopeful that these are different days from when Chad and Gary grew up. And at least one boy I know thinks so.

Jason turns 12 Saturday. His family is planning a big party, he says, a reward for getting A's in school this year. It's taken a lot of hard work and counseling to get Jason to this happy place.

Jason was 7 when his father introduced him to hardcore pornography. "I didn't know what it was, but I knew it was bad. Dad said not to tell Mom," he told me the other day. His father said he would beat him if he told anyone. He was afraid.

As Jason started to have trouble in school and became moody at home, his mother worried. She didn't know what was wrong. "It took him years to tell me about what was going on with his father," she says.

When I asked Jason how he found the courage to tell, he says easily: "Mom always said not to lie. I was scared Dad would be mad, but I was more scared of keeping a secret."

After Jason told about the porn sessions, his father left the family and never came back. "I miss him," Jason says quietly. But he knows he made the right decision and has a message for boys who feel they have been violated in any way:

"If something bad happens to you and the person tells you not to tell, you should definitely tell right away. Tell a parent or the cops. Tell somebody."

I'm wishing Jason a very happy birthday.