It doesn’t really matter whether you watch Leaving Neverland or whether you sit through Lifetime’s docu-series Surviving R. Kelly — we all know the topic of sexual assault is finally being pulled out from under the rug. We all know things have to change. Last year, after the reigniting of the #MeToo movement, we were reminded of how vital it is to believe survivors. But somehow the message gets muffled when the survivors are men. Suddenly there are follow-up questions, biases, and assumptions made. We have associated men with abuse for a long time, but not as the abused — and it’s keeping the conversation from moving forward.
To unpack this loaded subject, I spoke with two men who shared their own experiences with sexual abuse as well as Byron Young, MD, the child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist and founder of Doing It Well, who shed some much-needed light on what happens to boys when they are left to navigate their sexuality without guidance, support and the proper language to tell their stories.
If you ask a group of men to talk about losing their virginity, you’ll hear a few things that typically differ from women. The responses are a bit casual, there is less nervousness and anticipation described. They might have been peer pressured into it by friends or family. They might have had their first sexual encounter with a much older caretaker, teacher or neighbor. I’m reminded of the video of Lil Wayne casually explaining his first sexual experience. “I was raped when I was 11,” he says in a two-minute video clip, “and I loved it.” He details receiving oral sex from a grown woman at the behest of his Cash Money cohorts. In a single sentence, he admits to being violated and also writes it off as acceptable simply because it felt good and because it was encouraged by adults he trusted.
We all know that if Lil Wayne were a woman explaining how a grown man was encouraged to perform oral sex on her at the age of 11, she would be met with concern and council and the man in question would be considered a sexual predator. But we live in a culture where hearing stories like this are filed away in a different part of our brains. For men, we assume that if they liked it and they can look back on it fondly then perhaps it wasn’t really assault. We hear accused sexual predators report having been assaulted as children themselves and it typically falls on deaf ears. While sexual abuse is not a determining factor for one’s potential to abuse others — this certainly needs to be part of the conversation. If your first experience with sex — whether pleasant or not — happens before you are cognitively able to process it, how then will you handle yourself in sexual situations? Will you understand boundaries and the nuances of consent — not just for others but for yourself?
It’s important to remember that Black boys are sexually assaulted every day, often in ways that simply aren’t recognized by society. Their childhoods are minimized by the same oversexualization that impedes prepubescent girls. Girls are told that the length of their skirt dictates their peace of mind. Boys are asked to ignore their physical and emotional boundaries for the sake of barbershop comradery. The sexualization of Black boys sneaks by us, unnoticed and underprocessed. The 9-year old Black boy who was openly accused of sexual assault because his backpack brushed against a woman at a New York City deli represented more than just racial profiling but of the way Black boys are sexualized well before they can comprehend what it means.
Stories like these have lined our history since before the Jim Crow era and have helped to shape the way we make space for Black men and boys within our own community. According to Robert D. Stone, author of No Secrets, No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal From Sexual Abuse, one out of every six men report experiencing sexual abuse as children. I hear statistics like this and have to remember that I have never reported any of the three times I was sexually assaulted as a child and teenager, so how many of those remaining five men are keeping their assault a secret?
Ultimately, this has to begin with having uncomfortable conversations about the sexual education of boys and men. We need men to speak up more and we need to be ready to listen. But focusing on the stories of men in a society still processing being abused by men is a hard ask at times. “Patriarchy, misogyny and homophobia have been getting in the way of people feeling comfortable talking about this.” Dr. Young, the founder of Doing It Well, explains, “But now that as a society we’re kind of addressing those things and rehumanize people, we are more and more likely to have those talks.” The problem isn’t figuring out what happens to boys, but changing the way we have conversations with them entirely. The notion that if something feels good it must be right — regardless of what the thing is — can be dangerous and problematic.
One man I spoke with talked about being sexually manipulated at the age of 10 by a neighbor who was in high school. “In the moment, I understood this as a secret way to show love to someone you know. I was highly submissive because I trusted and liked him so much. We would work on taking computers apart together, and before I knew it [it would happen again].” Two years later, the same man had consensual sex with a female peer of the same age. He felt the pressure to perform because he assumed it was what all the boys were doing at the time. “In my high school, it seemed like all the kids were doing it — turns out there was just a small handful of us.”
Another man admitted to losing his virginity to a 15-year-old babysitter when he was just 9 years old. “I had a huge crush on her, so I thought I was winning. I told my friends about it in school and hardly anyone believed me, but I got the cool points anyway.” He said he didn’t think anything was wrong with it because it didn’t hurt and he wasn’t forced. “I do think it made me super sexual, though. All through school and college I was just focused on getting girls in bed. I never forced myself on anyone, but if I’m being honest, I know I applied pressure at times.” I asked him if he had talked to anyone about his experience and he laughed, “I told my uncle a few years later and he dapped me up. I never even thought about it in terms of abuse until my son was born. If someone did that to him, I would lose my mind.”
It is this striking difference between how men and women socialize their own abuse that seems to be the clincher. How can you heal from something that you don’t feel hurt by? How do you bring up a subject when the subject is closed? Dr. Young is insistent that talking more is the answer. “A lot of kids have access to pornography or are learning about sex from videos that are not intended to teach. A lot of times people can develop less than healthy practices as kids. If you can’t have a healthy conversation with someone you trust about what you’re experiencing and what's going on and how it's OK if you feel a way, then a lot of times it can cause cognitive dissonance.”
Just like we have made strides in amplifying the voices of women who have been victimized by sexual assault, we have work to do to bring men and boys into the fold. We need to hear the difficult stories of abuse and miseducation from men we admire — celebrities and leaders. This can only happen in a space where their stories are not immediately criticized, cut down or filed away as an excuse for bad behavior. We have to understand that sympathizing with a man’s story of abuse will not erase their bad behavior. Our boys and men have been given incorrect information, and they are generations deep into a history of miscategorized abuse and pardoned toxicity. If we are listening to survivors, we have to be OK with the fact that some survivors are also abusers and we absolutely have to listen to them too if we want to understand and end cycles of abuse.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
Ashley Simpo is a Brooklyn-based writer and mother of one. Her essays on motherhood, relationships and mental wellness have been featured on Blavity, Scary Mommy and xoNecole. (Photos from left: Pat Sullivan/Photoshot/Getty Images, Prince Williams/WireImage/Getty Images)