Fathers with a history of child sexual abuse: New findings for policy and practice

CFCA Paper No. 6 – July 2012

Why is this issue often overlooked?

As discussed above, many males who have experienced child sexual abuse deal with unique experiences and difficulties in connection with fatherhood. Looking at the prevalence rates of child sexual abuse, it is also clear that this is not a rare phenomenon (Price-Robertson et al., 2010). So why, then, do researchers, practitioners and policy-makers seldom address this issue? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to investigate the contemporary social and political context that shapes how we view the relationship between gender and sexual violence.

Partly, this issue is hidden because much of the increased attention to the issues of child sexual abuse and sexual assault more broadly can be attributed to the consciousness-raising activities of specific segments of the feminist movement in the second half of the 20th century (Crome, 2006; Finkelhor, 1982; Hepburn, 1994); activities that were conducted, it should be added, in the face of widespread social "repression, dissociation and denial" of the seriousness and high prevalence rates of sexual abuse and assault (Herman, 2001, p. 9). While this has undoubtedly been a positive development, it has also meant that sexual violence has come to be construed by many as an issue that only affects women and children (Chaitowitz, van de Graaff, Herron, & Strong, 2009; Crome, 2006). As the broader issue of sexual abuse of boys and its effects often fails to garner much attention, more specific topics, such as the influence of child sexual abuse on men's perceptions and experience of fatherhood, can go unnoticed.

Another reason this issue is seldom addressed is that the sexual abuse of boys and its effects challenge traditional Western notions of masculinity; therefore it is a subject that can be difficult for people - perhaps especially the victim/survivors themselves - to acknowledge, accept and discuss (Getz, 2011; Teram et al., 2006; Washington, 1999). Some of the key features of traditional masculine norms are: a repudiation of "feminine" characteristics, such as emotionality, vulnerability and passivity; homophobia; the expression of aggression, power and sexual prowess; self-reliance; and stoicism (Connell, 2005; Cossins, 2000; Kia-Keating, Grossman, Sorsoli, & Epstein, 2005). Since the act of sexual abuse commonly exposes boys to a sexual experience with another male and casts them as vulnerable and passive victims, it places them in a position that is starkly at odds with the dominant constructions of masculinity (Foster, 2011; Teram et al., 2006). Moreover, the "path to recovery [from child sexual abuse] winds straight through masculinity's forbidden territory: the conscious experience of those intense, overwhelming emotional states of fear, vulnerability, and helplessness" (Lisak, 1994, p. 262). This creates powerful barriers to male victim/survivors of child sexual abuse disclosing their experiences to others, accepting their experience as one that may have had a formative influence on their lives, and healing from the trauma of the abuse (Crome, 2006; Etherington, 1995a; O'Leary & Gould, 2010; Sorsoli et al., 2008). It also means that many in society have difficulty fully acknowledging and accepting the reality of the sexual abuse of males during childhood/adolescence, and the trauma it can inflict (Kia-Keating et al., 2005; Sorsoli et al., 2008).

When children are added to the equation, as is the case when victim/survivors are or plan to be fathers, it appears there are even further incentives for victim/survivors to keep their abusive experiences sequestered. For instance, earlier sections of this paper discussed the general heightened anxiety in contemporary society surrounding children's interactions with adult males, as well as the "victim-to-offender" discourse. Consider the bravery required of male victim/survivors to publically confront this issue (in a parenting class, for example) when they a) are aware of the heightened societal anxiety that exists around adult male and child relationships, b) are aware that they are a member of a group that is often assumed to be at high risk for being a perpetrator of abuse, and c) feel inhibited (by dominant constructions of masculinity) from discussing the struggles associated with their abusive experiences. It is little wonder that, although it often appears to be causing them significant distress, many male victim/survivors of child sexual abuse feel unable to share the ways in which their history shapes their experience with their children.

In summary, the issue of child sexual abuse impacting on men's perceptions and experience of parenting is hidden for two main reasons. Firstly, there is a common assumption that sexual violence is not an issue that affects men. Secondly, there are gendered social factors that make the effects of child sexual abuse on males, especially as they pertain to male victim/survivors' interactions with children, difficult for individuals, as well as society as a whole, to confront.