"He was unable to control himself," many boys will
spontaneously say of their aggressor. The myth that sexuality can be stronger
than everything, stronger than self, is certainly not new. It has all too often
served to rationalize, indeed to legitimize, abuse of all sorts, and not only
from the point of view of the aggressors, which would be understandable, but also
from the point of view of the victims, which seems, at first sight, more astonishing.
belief in an uncontrollable compulsion arises from an essentialist and naturalistic
conception of sexuality. The sexual revolution has spread this notion throughout
western culture; sexuality is the result of an irrepressible impulse.8 By virtue
of this myth, men are without resistance when it comes to certain impulses arising
in the depths of their being be it from their genes, their hormones, their neurons,
or their libido take your choice. When sexuality is conceived and presented as
a need as vital as the need to nourish oneself, for example, restraining it is
hardly imagineable. Abusers take pains to have their victims accept such reasoning.
is then understandable that a boy or a young man can be tempted to explain
and, up to a point, excuse in this way the aggressions he has suffered: his aggressor
cannot control himself or has not managed to overcome his basic impulses. This
is the point of view, for example, of Charles, incest victim at fourteen years
of age. Charles suspects that his father was molested and that he internalized
the dynamic of abuse, which would explain why he has repeated the abuse with his
It is also the case with Matthew, sexually aggressed by the father of
his best friend. Matthew, as we have seen, believes that his abuser, who was not
very attractive, divorced, and lonely, had hardly any other possibility of obtaining
sexual gratification. He often complained that he was too fat and was not the
type to please women. Matthew was there, to hand, so to speak. Francis, an incest
victim, also believed his father, who told him he was obliged to have sexual relations
with his son because his wife refused to satisfy him.
JeanMarc, aggressed by a
cousin, asks himself whether the cousin was not, at such moments, in the grip
of some kind of madness: "Is he crazy? Sometimes I didn't know what to think
any more: he would be quiet, sweet, buy me chocolate. Other times, when I didn't
want to, he became violent. Once, he took out a knife so I wouldn't resist. Then
I knew he was going too far and I spoke to my mother about it." As this last
case demonstrates, it is necessary at times for the aggressor to go very far in
the eyes of his victim before the victim stops considering the abuse as something
that derives from primitive but normal human sexual behaviour.
Sexual abuse is often seen as sexual initiation by the abused
child or adolescent because the aggressor presents it as such. Like the initiation
model described by historians and anthropologists, forced sexual relations between
males of different generations can still be considered to be part of a secret
rite. Thus, Francis' father explicitly gave his son to understand that their sexual
play would help Francis learn about sex until he was able to have relations with
The falsity of the explanation didn't occur to the adolescent until he
began to go out with girls: his father then became extremely jealous. Andrew's
father also presented the sexual relations to which he subjected his son as a
form of sexual initiation, telling him that he would show him what adult genitals
looked like, teach him a good way to masturbate, and instruct him in the art of
massage, etc. The boy was caught up in a spiral in which he could no longer distinguish
the difference between legitimate sexual information and abuse.
cases of sexual abuse, the aggressors rarely see themselves as aggressors; this
makes it easier to persuade the victims that they are being initiated, not abused.
Without an aggressor, after all, can aggression exist? In most of the cases we
came across, the "initiator," even when faced with legal proceedings,
continued to deny or minimize his responsibility.
Moreover, most aggressors have
a tendency to define themselves as exclusively heterosexual and declare themselves
to be homophobic into the bargain9: they see themselves as "real men"
endowed with the right to sexually initiate others. This would tend to confirm
that, in general, it is not the homosexual nature of the act that arouses abusers,
since they are not generally of that orientation, but the power relationship that
surrounds the sexual abuse.
Some contemporary authors, mindful
of ancient rituals of initiation, emphasize the so-called pedagogical aspect of
sexual relations between children and adults. But if a degree of paedophilia was
indeed considered as initiatory in the past, the practice was still abusive. The
willingness of the young person was not considered at the time, and many of these
young people were slaves. This said, during antiquity sexual aggression committed
against free citizens was condemned and most laws recognized the existence of
rape, including that of boys by adult men, and punished it.
Thus, the idea that
our concept of sexual aggression was unknown in an idealized antiquity is erroneous.
What's more, boys who were violated at the time reacted much as their counterparts
do today. Suetonius the historian, for example, wrote about the shame of two young
boys who had been raped by the emperor Tiberius, who, on learning "that they
both blamed each other for their disgrace,"2 had their legs broken. It is
therefore aberrant, in the context of abuse to point to those civilizations where
children were quite happily treated as slaves or sexual objects. Nor must consensual
homosexual relations and sexual abuse be confounded: my definition of abuse as
given earlier eliminates all such confusion.
To come back
to the men involved in this enquiry, it is important to note that the more
a young boy feels sexually stimulated or later experiments with homosexual attractions
or acts, the more he accepts the view that what was going on originally was a
form of sexual initiation. But it may be wholly inaccurate to conclude that his
main sexual orientation will be homosexual.
Many people, including
victims of abuse, believe falsely that an erection or, more significantly, ejaculation
signifies pleasure and implies voluntary participation. This is not so. Sustained
physiological stimulation or, again, simply the fact of being nude is liable to
engender a state of excitement, not to mention the fact that fear, anxiety, or
the feeling of doing something forbidden can have quite paradoxical effects.
brain and the body can sometimes register opposed impressions, which can lead
to dissonance on the cognitive level. The psychological and physical reactions
of an individual are not always in agreement with one another. That a boy should
have an erection is too easily interpreted as a sign of consent or of enjoyment;
what is forgotten is that a mechanical physical reaction can occur even in cases
That homosexual or bisexual tendencies appear
in the adolescent or the young man who has been sexually abused also reinforces
the myth of initiation. Such a situation is wrongly translated as proof that the
young person was able to "seduce" his aggressor. His relative passivity
already deemed suspicious under the presumption that a man always knows how to
defend himself (even if he is five years old), is falsely taken as informed consent.
In reality, is stems more from obedience ("It was my father, I had to obey
him") or from curiosity ("I really didn't know what he was going to
I wanted to see what was going to happen"); or it is attributed to the
fact that the young person was taken by surprise ("It was the first time
it happened to me. I didn't know how to react"). In no way does any subsequent
manifestation of homosexuality signify that a boy wanted to be aggressed. Those
men we questioned who are today of homosexual or bisexual orientation do not seem
to suffer any less from the aftereffects of the aggressions they suffered. Far
from it. To see in his homosexual orientation a sign that a boy wanted to be abused
or enjoyed being abused is a ludicrous notion. No one would entertain the idea
that the ultimate heterosexuality of a female victim of sexual abuse could lessen
the crime of which she was the target.
Even when the sexual abuse provided a measure
of physical or psychological gratification, not one boy spoke of it in terms of
pleasure. It is generally very difficult to know, moreover, whether the homosexual
or bisexual orientation of an abuse victim developed before or after his ordeal,
since most of the abuse took place when the victim was very young.
sum up, when the perpetrator of abuse portrays his acts as an altruistic "sexual
education," and when the young person gets a certain gratification, the event
is all the more likely to be seen as sexual initiation rather than abuse. This
perception protects the aggressor from denunciation, at least to begin with, since
the boy sees himself as having complied with his initiator.
This perception, if
it does not change, may in the long term falsify the young man's vision of sexuality
(or, should it be the case, homosexuality). Perception of abuse as a form of initiation
is likely to encourage the victim to paint his abuse in erotic colours. It may
also encourage him to behave in a similar fashion.
- Dorais, Michael, Don't
Tell: The Sexual Abuse of Boys, McGill-Queen's University Press: London, 2002.
Reflection Exercise #12
The preceding section contained information
about unbridled sexuality and sexual initiation. Write three case study examples
regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.
What would tend to confirm that, in general, it is not the homosexual
nature of the act that arouses abusers, but the power relationship that surrounds
the sexual abuse? Record the letter of the correct answer the