Friday, February 21, 2014


As more and more stories of unwanted extinctions arrive and while we try to protect the creatures of the planet, we discover that human predation is ravaging our children.  What about our OWN species?  As always there are two possible strategies:  deny the whole thing or find out as much as possible in order to stop it.  So I ordered a copy of “The Male Survivor: The Impact of Sexual Abuse” (1995) by Matthew Parynik Mendel.  This is one of the earlier practical inquiries into the prevalence and consequences of male-on-male abuse in childhood.  Of course, no one paid any attention to it.  They couldn’t handle it.

Mendel (it doesn’t seem that he is related to the genetics researcher) gathered a group of men who had been sexually abused as young people.  One limit of the study was that there were NO men included who had NOT been sexually abused at least once, so in that sense there was no control group.  But given that, some had been abused more, some had suffered from a mix of sexual and nonsexual abuse (such as violence or emotional abuse), and the consequences in terms of their adult lives varied across a spectrum.  What Mendel was looking for was correlations between the kind, amount, and context of abuse versus the unhappiness and dysfunction of the victim.  The most obvious three forces at work were the nature of the abuser, the nature of the abused person, and the societal attitudes towards what happened.

Possible consequences that were recorded for each abused man included sexual dissatisfaction, inability to form relationships, seeking therapy, using psychotropic drugs,   and a category I hadn’t heard about before:  “a malevolent view of the world.”  There was nothing about the result being a proclivity to abuse their children, though some men said they had been careful not to have any -- for fear of being abusers.  Those who were coping through the use of anger often became themselves sexual abusers.  Mendel felt that those “who integrate their experience of victimization and access the feelings of pain, loss, and vulnerability associated” with the previous realities were able to resist hurting others.  

About a third of the men in the study “characterized themselves as primarily or exclusively homosexual.”  But it is impossible to determine whether their awareness as children of being different made them vulnerable, whether their self-hatred as helpless victims (but maybe NOT as gay) had something to do with it, or whether homosexuality was somehow imprinted on them.  Gay men tend to be more tolerant of atypical men so it would be natural to align with them.

Once the men were enlisted, the possible nature of their abuse was determined and that was correlated with the impact on their lives.  Homosexual men who as children were sexually active only with same sex brothers or cousins sometimes did not define it as abuse.  Many considered "sex play" normal. (Where IS the line between exploration and abuse?  Force?  Consent?  Strangers?)  

The least damaging was abuse from siblings.
Next bad was abuse from one’s mother.
Then abuse from one’s father.
Then abuse from one’s father when he was drunk or drugged.

The notorious Oakley brothers, abusers

If the family were dysfunctional, the abuse had worse effects, but that doesn’t mean that abuse, including sexual abuse, wasn’t ever present in families that were otherwise seemingly prosperous, functioning, drug-free.  Nevertheless, an earlier study (Finkerhor and Browne (1985) identified four “traumagenic dynamics”.  Stigmatization, betrayal, traumatic sexualization, and powerlessness.  That is, if society pushes their inevitable stigmas of color, race, poverty, disease, etc. onto a person, they are more likely to begin the cycle of abuse, though they have not done anything to invite it.   The cause is social.  

Betrayal, as in the present economic situation of diminished opportunity after decades of assuring children they could do better than their parents, that they could have ANYTHING if they just worked hard to get it, that the world rewards hard work and loyalty, has got to be a source of bitterness and vulnerability.  The fallout comes down on kids.

I would like to see a study comparing the consequences of “traumatic sexualization” on several levels, from being a victim of unwelcome abuse from family through a spectrum to the horrific mix of violence, taboo-violation, and physical maiming that we hear about in Africa.  And then across another spectrum from someone’s hands simply wandering briefly into private spaces, to hearing about violations, to seeing abuse depicted in fiction or enacting it through avatars in video-games, to listening to accounts of actual events, to witnessing the actuality of abuse.  I would claim that all of these count, and yet some are considered by society to be tolerable or even desirable.  At least they sell.  Openly.

Victims can only choose resistance-based kinds of power: for instance, claiming that they themselves were somehow responsible.  And then the power of secrecy: withholding any admission of what happened.  Yet, the author of this study says that the men he interviewed expressed relief and appreciation for a chance to tell about it in an atmosphere of acceptance.

The betrayal element came to the fore when the abuser was the only or strongest supplier of praise, warmth, and physical affection. For instance, mothers who violated or who failed to prevent violation.  This produced confusion.  The issue of powerlessness was sharper for men because men are supposed to be powerful.  Some of the men were eloquent.

“Several men discussed their tendencies to become immersed in or “engulfed by” relationships, once they allow themselves to become emotionally involved.”  (p. 203)

“A number of men reported always playing the rescuer role in relationships, a carryover from their parentified, caretaking responsibilities in childhood.”  (p. 203)

I would suggest that these tendencies are strongly endorsed by our culture as expressed in the media.  The tendency of adults to make parents of their children, and extend that to making them into lovers, excuses the adults from their duty to guide and protect, which is the real core of parenthood.  Some experts think that this, rather than actual sexual acts, is the source of twisting damage that gets passed on.  The study in this book suggests that actual penetration intensifies damage.  (Some lay people consider the boundary to be at the point of penetration and the legal system recognizes this.  The law also makes calendar age a boundary -- not maturity.) 

Knowing or witnessing that sibs were being abused made suffering more acute because of the felt obligation to protect them, the feeling that older and stronger sibs should protect the younger and more vulnerable.  Siblinghood is a version of parenthood.

All these studies -- not just this one -- could be valuable if they informed society, but I don’t see them being acted on.  Maybe I’m just off in a corner.  Sometimes I see a script on TV that takes these ideas into account, but usually those shows were made in England where the taste for the Gothic overwhelms everything else.  Work by the teams like the one that created “The Wire” will sometimes show that they they know this literature.
We don’t WANT to know.  We like knowing about pitiful individual cases of people suffering and then being redeemed or tragically lost.  But we do NOT want to change society -- it’s too hard.  It endangers us because we can barely cope with the world as it is right now.  But the world does change; it has changed already.  Everyone knows that.  We are reeling from the unpredictable economics, collapsed traditional marriages and emptied families, new cultures constantly invading everything from restaurants to housing, polarized/paralyzed governments and their agencies at every level, and so on.

The number of people on this planet exceeds the resources available to support the population unless complexification can amplify what we have through cooperation.  Sexuality is one of the most potent forces in the ordering of our society into cooperating units that renew themselves.  Dysfunctional and destructive individuals, as defined by society, are often dangerous or destroy themselves.  But some of those people may be carrying the key to a better future.  We can't always tell which ones.  

Family rage, violence, drugging, and abuse don’t just hurt individuals -- they are a social damage.  They supply evidence that this IS a malevolent world.  But it IS survivable.

Mother Nature

As nearly as I can tell, Mendel never wrote a second book, but there are others.

• The Male Survivor: The Impact of Sexual Abuse, Matthew Parynik Mendel 
• Victims No Longer: The Classic Guide for Men Recovering from Sexual Child Abuse, Mike Lew
• Broken Boys / Mending Men: Recovery from Childhood Sexual Abuse, Stephen D. Grubman-Black 
• The Right to Innocence: Healing the Trauma of Childhood Sexual Abuse: A Therapeutic 7-Step Self-Help Program for Men and Women, Including How to Choose a Therapist and Find a Support Group, Beverly Engel and Eleanor Hamilton
• Beyond Betrayal: Taking Charge of Your Life After Boyhood Sexual Abuse, Richard B. Gartner and William Pollack

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