“Our family’s life has changed drastically since my 14 year old son was forced into a sexual act by his much-loved form master, Mr X, during a school camping holiday. We have all been deeply shocked as he was respected and liked by us and the school. He is now in prison. Although the school, social services and police have been extremely supportive, Anthony, who has always been my quietest child, has become more and more depressed. He now tells us he is worried he is homosexual. I don’t know where to go. I am afraid formal therapy will stigmatise him as perverted”.
Abuse of a child or adolescent by any adult is both a personal and public blow. Abuse of a child by an adult in a position of affection and trust involves an additional kind of betrayal. The W family trusted Anthony’s form master and so did the school. The abuse of their trust as well as the nature of the incident has hurt Anthony, his family, the school and the wider community. It appears that Mr X is in prison, not just because Anthony is under the age of consent, but because he forced himself on him. First and foremost, Anthony needs skilled help to deal with his experience. Dr Arnon Bentovim from Great Ormond Street Hospital emphasises this. “Anthony has experienced a trauma. He received a sympathetic response from home, school and other agencies and that is important. However, it is not adequate to deal with all his needs. He is clearly depressed so the primary concern is to get him access to appropriate treatment as soon as possible”.
Whilst sexual abuse is an act of power, the fact that it is transmitted bodily has inevitable sexual repercussions. Mr Donald Campbell, Psychoanalyst and Chairman of the Portman Clinic, comments, “Premature sexual experience with someone outside the generational boundaries needs to be taken very seriously indeed. It may precipitate a too early foreclosure of the child or adolescent’s own choice in developing sexuality. A 14 year old like Anthony would not yet have a fixed sexual identity.”
Dr Eileen Vizard of the Young Abuser Project, agrees with this. “A tragedy for all victims, regardless of their gender or the gender of their abusers, is that they are troubled by sexual fantasies and flashbacks. We need to intervene as quickly as possible so they have a freer choice in their sexual development. With regard to Anthony, having been abused by a male he is more likely to be disturbed by same-sex fantasies and if he is not able to deal with these without putting them into action he will take a further step towards a homosexual object choice that might not have otherwise been his consenting choice”.
This lack of choice holds true regardless of the gender of victim or abuser. When 9-year-old Mary was abused by her father and became unwillingly and prematurely excited by aspects of it she was started on a path that drew her into further abusive opposite sex encounters. However, for a variety of reasons, same-sex abuse and its sequelae can arouse more concern. In that context, same-sex abuse is not homosexual abuse. Whether abuse is perpetrated by same sex or opposite sex adults the issue is not to do with homosexuality or heterosexuality as an orientation. It is the lack of choice and consent that constitutes the abuse.
Anthony is expressing a fear of being homosexual. Two possibilities need to be differentiated here. Firstly, one way of coping with abuse is to identify with the sexual behaviour of the aggressor. To compensate for having been the unwilling passive recipient, Anthony might be seeking the active part. Secondly, at his age there can be homosexual play between young men which is not fixed and is part of normal development. There might, for example, be some mutual interest in comparing and exploring genitals. However, the impact of same sex abuse on a young male might well lead to a more simplistic reckoning. In trying to make sense of what has happened Anthony has decided it must be because he is homosexual. Research by Arnon Bentovim underlines the universality of this fear. In his new book “Trauma Organised Systems: Physical and Sexual Abuse in Families” he shows how in same-sex abuse of boys the commonest victim anxiety was “Am I homosexual? Is that why I am being picked out?” Indeed, this anxiety is the main reason why boys are reluctant to report abuse.
Why are certain children targeted? Mr Campbell points out “These children are not selected because the perpetrator suspects they are homosexual but because they are perceived as lonely, hungry for some kind of psychological contact with a man; isolated sometimes, withdrawn, being slightly outside the peer group and the rough and tumble of the other kids”. Mrs W tells us that Anthony is quiet but says nothing about her husband’s view. Has he left the family? Is there any paternal loss that would have made Anthony more longing for acceptance from Mr X? In other words, the particular needs, hopes and vulnerabilities of a child prior to abuse are extremely important in trying to understand the impact of trauma.
What of Mrs W’s fears about her son being stigmatised as perverted by asking for help? Mr Campbell says, “I understand this fear as it is shared by many of the male adolescents and adults who refer themselves to the Portman Clinic. Whether they are asking help for depression or because they are unhappy or disturbed about their homosexuality and prejudiced responses to it they seek help from non-judgmental professionals who will treat them as a whole person and try to understand with them their worries or anxieties about their sexuality “. If Mrs W takes Anthony to see a specialist in the field of sexual abuse the whole family might be seen together first, and then it would be considered whether he needed work on his own. If Anthony wants to speak to someone immediately a phone call to Childline can offer support. Hereward Harrison, Childline’s Director of Counselling, has told many young men like Anthony- “Those pictures in your head are not the only ones. They can go. You can get over it and have your own choice”.
“Trauma Organised Systems: Physical and Sexual Abuse in Families” by Arnon Bentovim. H.Karnac Books, œ 11.95/
The Portman Clinic, 0207 794 8262
Childline 0800 1111