Batman and Robin: The Rescuer Strategy
It is striking to see the lengths
to which some boy victims of abuse will go, later on, to form a close relationship
with a man of similar age to that of their abuser. It is as though they tell themselves
that this one, at least, will be able to love them "properly," will
rescue them in a way and, possibly, help them in turn to become rescuers. It must
be understood that, in a child who has been abused, the entire relational system
has most likely been disturbed, creating the certainty of isolation. The youngster
will thus, sooner or later, attempt to rebuild significant emotional ties. This
is the moment when what I call the Batman and Robin syndrome makes its appearance.
knows Batman and Robin, those comic book heroes who later went on to television
and movie fame. They form an inseparable pair, the elder serving as mentor to
the younger. Now, the Batman and Robin duo is the model of the ideal relationship
that numerous abused boys more or less consciously seek. They are on the lookout
for a protective, even restorative, relationship with an older man.
A very close
relationship with a reassuring figure appeals to them as a way to take care of
their wounded masculinity, to regain trust in both themselves and in others. What
greater positive victory over fate could there be, really, than to meet an older
person who would, this time, protect them. Frequently, a relationship like that
of Batman and Robin aims at compensating an abused boy for a former loss: the
loss of a father, an uncle, a friend, or a big brother - whether or not this person
is the abuser - who in the past had seemed to love him before abandoning him.
Certain abused youngsters hope to find the recognition shown them by their aggressors
before their real intentions surfaced.
In the years following
the abuse, and in spite of certain apprehensions, several of the respondents had
such a privileged relationship with an adult. Their goal, more or less admittedly,
was to find in this man a role model and guide (as Batman is to Robin) whom they
would admire in return (just as Robin admires Batman).
problem is that the search for a mentor does not bring an end to their mistrust,
still less to their ambivalence towards adults: once bitten, twice shy. The higher
the youngster's expectations of an adult in whom he has invested all his hopes,
the greater the risks of again being let down. This time, the least false step,
the smallest slip, appears like a new abandonment or betrayal. True heroes being
rare, the young boy's idyllic dream will only rarely come to pass. One can imagine
the drama when the adult shows himself to be incapable of shouldering the role
that has been foisted on him. His pupil, rightly or wrongly, comes to believe
that he recognizes in him another exploiter.
To be appreciated
and loved for himself alone and not for his body is what most men who have
been victims of sexual abuse in childhood long for. In a way, what most frightens
the ex-victim is what most attracts him: a man who will love him truly for himself
alone. With such a man the ex-victim believes he can transform the promiscuity
that caused him so much pain during the abuse into a real intimacy; he will turn
the enslavement into a relationship of equals. His masculinity having been called
into question, he counts on re-establishing it through a friendship that will
manifest a virile companionship. However, this particular type of friendship also
presents difficulties, if not hazards.
The sexually abused
male child or adolescent may, in spite of himself, establish relationships that
favor his renewed exploitation. This is all the more likely if he has a tendency
to fall back on the seductive behaviour precociously learned in the context of
abuse. Some respondents have been cruelly disappointed to learn that their rescuer
might be interested in them on a sexual level. Not all adults are potential aggressors
but the motivations of an older person who wraps himself in the Batman costume
are not always clear. He too carries a certain amount of baggage; no one knows
what is hidden behind the mask of the hero.
or young adult respondents, especially if they are of a homosexual or bisexual
orientation, will view their privileged relationship with such adults as not excluding
mutually satisfying sexual relations, while others are allergic to any contact
that might suggest a sexual relationship or, worse, provoke a context of abuse.
In each case, relationship is meant to obliterate the past; the young people intend
to prove to themselves that men are not all the same, since at least one of them
has been able to show them sincere affection.
of the respondents had been at one time in a Batman and Robin type of relationship.
If in some cases the rescuer strategy resulted in setbacks, if not in repeated
traumas, in other situations the results were happier. But such relationships
can be full of pitfalls, and for good reason. Because of the confused emotions
they have acquired, ex-victims of sexual aggression often experience a certain
ambivalence on the emotional level.
What they admire one day they may detest the
next. For example, some deplore the emotional dependence inherent in the symbiotic
relationship they have sought out. Others, having offered sexual relations to
an adult who is important to them, regret the latter's positive response to their
advances: once again, they see themselves as exploited or betrayed, since love
has only been extended to them in order to take advantage of their body.
complete the parallel with Batman and Robin, it is essential to point out how
much many ex-victims dream of becoming "rescuers" of other children.
Among the respondents of working age, a number have indeed chosen careers in the
helping or teaching professions. All these men spoke of great satisfaction in
being able to give what they were unable to receive: the reassuring attention
of an adult. Sometimes, however, the fear that they might themselves commit abuse
has held them back from fulfilling their aspirations
"I would have liked
to work with youngsters, but it was so impressed upon me that those who are abused
become abusers that I didn't want to take any risks," said one respondent
who hesitated for a long time before going into teaching at the primary level,
a profession in which today he finds great satisfaction. Several men wanted to
work with other victims of physical or sexual abuse. Some have, in one way or
another, realized this plan. While such an attitude is the opposite of the avenger's
desire for "an eye for an eye," it probably has the same origin. It
speaks of the same need to wipe out the past, to reinvent the world.
Different Elements of Abuse: The Daredevil Strategy
Since the process of
being traumatized involved the experience of learning about sex, it is not surprising
to find certain elements of abuse in the sexuality of some victims. The secrecy,
forbidden acts, exhibitionist nudity, the danger of being discovered in illegal
situations, for example, tend to be eroticized. By incorporating such aspects
of their abuse into their own fantasies or sexual relations, these ex-victims,
boys or men, may transform the earlier trauma into pleasure. What was painful
can be transformed into a source of euphoria and the tensions provoked by risk
can become a source of sexual arousal.
Thus, the exhibitionism
some respondents engage in can be one way of rendering less fearsome, or making
seem more ordinary, the nudity forced upon them by their aggressor. Some respondents
allude to situations where they have taken pleasure in having sexual relations
in front of witnesses, masturbating in front of strangers (for example in parks
or public toilets, or in view of the windows of women living alone), or in making
erotic photos or dancing nude.
That this theme recurs so often, although initially
there was no question on this topic, suggests that it may be a relatively well
known practice among male victims of sexual abuse in childhood. The question also
arises as to whether exhibitionism (that is, imposing one's sexuality on someone
else as the aggressor did in the past) is not, at least in certain cases, another
way to commit an aggression, albeit solely on a psychological level.
erotic connotations that attach to what is forbidden often manifest themselves
in recurring intrusive images. Scenes or practices associated with past abuses
then come constantly to mind but with erotic overtones. This is the case with
certain sadomasochistic practices. Causing pain to the partner during sex means
seeking to dominate or to feel that one is dominating.
Some exvictims are stupefied
to see themselves reproducing, in the context of their present consensual sexual
or love relationships, sexual acts that formerly disgusted them. These young men
seem to demonstrate through their apparent temerity in matters sexual that one
of the strategies allowing a coming to terms with the abuse is to integrate some
of its aspects into erotic practices.
Many boys who have been
sexually abused have never learned to recognize any limits whatsoever on the sexual
level, since their aggressor so blithely went beyond them. The abuse they experienced
revealed to them an adult sexuality they describe as "primitive" and
"out of control." For some, sexuality seems to be the shadow side of
the human being, a zone in which the most uncontrollable instincts are manifest.
their anguish at seeing their sexuality modeled on that of their abuser, some
young people are apt to go from one extreme to another: from shamelessness to
the strictest modesty, from celibacy to multiple partners. So it was with Francis,
who made a "chastity belt" for himself, wearing it under several layers
of clothing so that his father might not totally undress him.
However, after drinking
or doing drugs at parties, this same adolescent was apt to play the role of exhibitionist.
In the same fashion, Bruno would go from declaring he was homophobic to displaying
sexually provocative behaviour around men, frequently visiting areas known as
homosexual pick-up spots. Several respondents made it clear that their sex life
was given over to the most varied practices: they would alternate being disgusted
by sexuality to being insatiable, even compulsive. What was forbidden would now
take one form, now the opposite.
The eroticization of what
was secret or forbidden seems to be associated with behaviour learned within the
framework of abuse and thus reinforces the age-old tie between sexuality and taboo.
One can imagine that repeated sexual abuse of a child by an adult constitutes
such an invasion of the child's integrity that the relationship of the youngster
to his own body will later pose a problem: he no longer knows what it is he hopes
for, how far he can go, what are the limits. At different stages in his life the
same individual may be sickened and disgusted by sexuality, now obsessed by it;
now homophobic, now homosexual; now abstinent, now a Don Juan. But he is always
dissatisfied, because he does not really know what it is he desires or what is
good or bad for him.
Looking Normal: The Conformist Strategy
his novel The Conformist, author Alberto Moravia describes the life of Marcel,
a young victim of sexual touching who by accident kills his abuser and thereafter
tries to blot out the double memory of the aggression and of the murder by proving
to all that he is "like everyone else." Like Marcel, the ex-victim who
opts for conformity tends not only to deny what has happened to him but also to
model his conduct on what he thinks is close to the most conventional of "normal
Matthew, who was almost eighteen years old
when I interviewed him, is a good example of this strategy. His self-assurance
cannot disguise his insecurity when he is faced with any reference to homosexuality
or to masculine vulnerability. Vladimir presents an even more conclusive case:
as early as adolescence, he becomes a pimp for a network of young girls he recruits
from among his girlfriends. He plays tough and acts like a real Don Juan, but
deep down he is asking himself whether perhaps he is homosexual.
In the evenings,
while his "girls" are working, he walks past gay bars telling himself
he should perhaps try his luck and go inside. Behind his well-built macho image
hides an insecure youngster who is ambivalent about his sexual orientation. Boys
like Vladimir could even be described as having a heterosexual façade that
serves to scare off any possibility of homosexual relations which they have involuntarily
encountered in their abuse and which, to a certain point, they have now eroticized.
to some Freudian writers, among them Serge Tisseron, the victim of a seduction
often internalizes the contradictory characteristics of his seducer. In particular,
he may have appropriated the shame of the seducer and acquired the idea that he,
the victim, was responsible for his seducer's arousal and also for the seduction.8
As a result, some young men, like little Marcel in Moravia's novel, will do whatever
it takes to erase from their lives, their appearance, and their behaviour whatever
had interested the man who abused them.
Unlike those who become exhibitionists,
for example, they try to fade into the background, to remain unseen, even to make
themselves ugly by self-mutilation, or by deliberately starving themselves to
become skinny or overeating to become obese. They go out of their way to prove
to themselves and show to others that they are not in the least the kind of person
who could be abused, that the abuse ought never to have happened and, therefore,
could never have happened.
The conformist is the most inclined
of all to deny what has happened to him and that may be how he really sees it.
Of course, it is difficult to tell whether the amnesia, partial or total, experienced
by some respondents in the years following their abuse results from a conscious
strategy or not. As a defense mechanism, however, it has allowed them to forget
the abuse they suffered or to minimize its after-effects for a period of time.
Some men have been in therapy for years before realizing that the symptoms they
were trying in vain to repress were linked to buried memories of sexual abuse
that had occurred decades earlier.
- Dorais, Michael, Don't Tell: The Sexual
Abuse of Boys, McGill-Queen's University Press: London, 2002.
Reflection Exercise #10
The preceding section contained information
about the rescuer, daredevil and conformist coping strategies. Write three case
study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your
What do most men who have been victims of sexual abuse in childhood
long for? Record the letter of the correct answer the .