It is time to recognize the alarmingly high rates of sexual violence globally, and the survivors and advocates who are working to break this cycle. While violence against children is certainly gaining more attention around the world today, there is still a deeply troubling narrative that remains largely hidden. It is the story of sexual violence against boys, and it is a story that deserves recognition.
Anyone can be a victim of sexual violence, men and boys included. Unfortunately, when society’s collective consciousness is focused on only one narrative – that of female victims and male perpetrators – we are failing to draw attention to the issue, and most importantly, the needs, of male victims of sexual violence.
The data on sexual violence against boys is revealing: Violence Against Children Surveys (VACS) led by CDC as part of the Together for Girls Partnership found that up to 21% of boys experienced sexual violence prior to age 18. We know that experiencing any type of violence during childhood can have devastating impacts on the future health and development of victims, especially if they do not receive proper support or care to aid in their recovery.
At the present, many children are not receiving care because their experiences with violence are not properly addressed. According to the recently released INSPIRE, "violence against children is often hidden, unseen or under-reported…a meta-analysis of global data finds self-reported child sexual abuse 30 times higher and physical abuse 75 times higher than official reports would suggest.” VACS data in Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Kenya revealed that only 36%, 31% and 45% of boys reported their assault, respectively. In all three countries, less than 5% received services.
Children around the world are shouldering the burden of the impacts of violence without support or professional care at disturbingly high rates. This can be for a variety of reasons: certain forms of violence may be seen as normal and thus not something that warrants care, or adults may not believe children who report violence. Additionally, many children do not receive services because they do not report the violence at all due to shame and self-blame, fear of the violence worsening if they report it, or to protect their perpetrator who may be a relative or someone else they know and trust.
Sexual violence against children, especially boys, carries a particular taboo in many societies around the world, often making it even more challenging to report. Paired with harmful socially constructed ideas surrounding masculinity, boys face major barriers in reporting sexual violence and receiving care. Stereotypical expectations that “real” men should be dominant, aggressive, unemotional and physically strong further silence male victims due to fear that their sexuality or “manliness” could be called into question because of the incident.
Unfortunately, violence often occurs cyclically, and boys who were victims of violence in their youth are more likely to become perpetrators of violence later in life, especially if they do not receive the care necessary to help break the cycle of violence. Thus, as a society, if we do not create an environment that allows all victims of sexual assault to feel comfortable reporting and receiving care, their narratives will continue to be hidden. For male victims in particular, this could lead to the perpetuation of violence across generations.
We must do more to uncover the hidden narratives of male victims of sexual violence. Though men and boys are more often the perpetrators, that fact should not cloud our ability to understand that they can be victims, too. We must also promote an environment where reporting sexual violence is taken seriously for all victims, regardless of their gender and the social expectations that gender holds in any given society. We are making progress toward raising awareness about sexual violence, but there is still more to be done to ensure that the narratives of all victims are uncovered, and their needs are met.