Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Male Survivor

    The Impact of Sexual Abuse

    By Matthew Parynik Mendel

    Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995. 239 pp. $19.50 (paper)



    The topic of male sexual abuse is rarely identified or addressed by researchers, clinicians, and the public at large. In The Male Survivor: The Impact of Sexual Abuse, Matthew Parynik Mendel, a clinical psychologist and researcher, explores both why this is so and how child sexual abuse affects the lives of men.

    The author argues that we, as a society, are "primed and ready to recognize male perpetrators but turn a blind eye to male victims" (p. 4). He draws on research that indicates that boys are more likely to be referred for counseling on the basis of having initiated sexually inappropriate behaviors, rather than as victims of such behaviors, and that a sexually abused young male is most often identified after a sexually abused female sibling has been identified. The author explains that clinicians and educators are more likely to label troublesome boys as hyperactive, oppositional-defiant, conduct disordered, or attention-deficit disordered, rather than considering that these boys may be suffering from the aftermath or ongoing consequences of sexual abuse.

    The author describes various factors contributing to the under-identification of male sexual abuse and explores the effects of this underidentification on male survivors, asserting that the experience of victimization is antithetical to notions of masculinity that deem men to be "powerful, active, competent" and in control (p. 16). Feelings of helplessness, lack of control, and humiliation can be threatening to a young man's developing sense of masculinity. This threat may lead to the denial of sexual abuse by males, which is furthered by the myth that males are "eternally sexually willing and eager, at least with female partners" (p. 17). A young man sexually abused by a female may question his masculinity, wondering why he did not enjoy the sexual encounter. If he is a heterosexual male, he may come to question his sexual identity.

    Confusion about sexual identity may also develop, since some boys become aroused during sexual abuse by a man despite their lack of complicity in the act. This experience may lead a heterosexual young man to question his sexual identity. In a homophobic culture, the fear of identifying oneself or being identified by another as homosexual leads some males to fail to report their abuse. These experiences add further shame to males' experiences of having been sexually abused.

    In chapter three, the author draws on descriptive statistics to analyze the prevalence and characteristics of male sexual abuse in the United States. In chapter four, he describes the impact of sexual abuse in general, and in chapter five, he discusses the impact of sexual abuse specific to males. The remainder of the book is a presentation of Mendel's original research, in which he surveyed 124 men who self-identified as having experienced sexual abuse as children. His survey explores the relationship between characteristics of a boy's childhood sexual abuse experience and his adult psychosocial functioning. Such characteristics include duration, severity, and age of onset of the abuse, and whether the sexual abuse was coupled with further physical abuse. In addition, the study assesses the effect on the adult male survivor of the perpetrator's gender, drug-abuse history, familial relationship, and the number of perpetrators endured by the boy. Of particular interest, Mendel found that the severity of the abuse predicted traumatic symptomatology, whereas extended duration of the abuse predicted low self-worth in the adult male survivor. In addition, early onset of abuse correlated with a malevolent worldview. This latter finding may be interpreted as evidence that sexual abuse interweaves itself with a boy's development by interfering with the growth of his self-esteem. Also, this study revealed that men who were subjected to physical abuse as well as sexual abuse as boys were far more likely to attempt suicide than those men who did not experience physical abuse as children.

    In order to gain a deeper understanding of the impact that childhood sexual abuse had on these men's lives, Mendel also conducted nine semi-structured interviews. The case history vignettes of these nine men are interspersed throughout the book.

    One of Mendel's motivations in writing this book, an extension of his dissertation, is to help reduce the stigma associated with the sexual abuse of males. I believe he is successful in this effort. This book confronts unashamedly the issues and consequences of male sexual abuse in the United States. It offers a platform upon which readers can deepen their understanding of and compassion for adult men who have experienced sexual abuse as boys. By bringing awareness to this issue, the author invites childhood educators, researchers, and clinicians who work with boys and men to further investigate how sexual and physical abuse affects boys' childhood development and how this results in the struggles some men experience in their adult lives. Mendel thanks the men in this study for their courage in sharing their stories. I would like to extend this gratitude to the author for his courage in taking on this crucial topic.

    H.S.G.
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