THE revelation this week of alleged widespread child abuse at the elite Horace Mann School in New York City, most of it occurring during the 1970s and ’80s, is only the most recent instance of men coming forward, many years after the fact, with horrific stories of sexual molesting from their childhood.
Most of those accused of the abuse in the Horace Mann case are dead, but under New York State law, if alive they would most likely be safe from justice. The state’s statute of limitations on child abuse is five years from the victim’s 18th birthday. After age 23, the victim has no recourse.
Yet young adults, particularly men, who suffer the aftereffects of abuse are rarely in an emotional state to bring charges. Given what we now know about why it takes victims so long to come forward, the law needs to be changed.
Many people cast a skeptical eye on those who wait so long to reveal instances of child abuse, particularly when it happened to them as teenagers. They assume that accusers are making it up, blaming what were at most minor incidents for their troubles.
But in my decades of experience working with abuse victims, I have found that men spend years putting their emotions in a deep freeze or masking post-traumatic reactions with self-defeating behaviors like compulsive gambling and substance abuse. Eventually, they are forced by internal or external events to find treatment.
I once conducted a training seminar about how to treat men with histories of sexual abuse. One student, a semiretired social worker in his 70s, asked a barrage of questions and was consistently derisive of what he saw as other people’s overly emotional reactions to the horrifying histories.
Another participant finally criticized him for derailing the conversation. He was silent for a long moment. Then he began to weep.
Between sobs, he poured out the story of his own childhood sexual trauma. In the 60 or more years since, he had barely hinted about it to anyone, and the years of silence had left him isolated in unemotional, unsatisfying adult intimate relationships.
He was, sadly, typical of male abuse victims. Even in 2012, we are socialized to think that “real men” should be resilient, and certainly not victims. For a man to acknowledge sexual victimhood, even to himself, is to say he is not really male.
What’s more, conventional wisdom says abuse turns a boy gay, despite strong evidence to the contrary. Straight boys wonder why they were chosen for sexual victimization, afraid they might be gay. Gay boys may feel rushed into defining themselves as gay or decide that abuse caused their orientation, complicating their ability to develop positive identities as gay men.
Even worse, perhaps, and again without evidence, common folklore tells us that sexually abused boys almost inevitably grow up to be sexually abusing men. This terrifies a male victim, even if he has no thought of becoming a sexual predator. He worries he may become predatory without volition or warning, or that others will assume he is an abuser if they know his history.
Finally, since boyhood abuse was not part of the public conversation until recently, many boys and men assumed their experiences were repulsive and aberrant. And a man who has not talked about it might feel it would be humiliating to first disclose it in middle age or later.
Needless to say, the decades spent trying to bury the memories rarely work. The man in my seminar is a prime example of how sexually abused men who remain mute become isolated, frightened of emotions and hypervigilant.
Things may be changing, thanks, in part, to the recent spate of abuse revelations. Many older victims have gained the courage to come forward. In my own practice, I received almost as many calls from sexually abused men in December and January, soon after allegations surfaced about abuse by the former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, as I usually get in a year. With Mr. Sandusky’s trial set to begin next week, I expect to get even more calls.
But more needs to be done. Every year since 2005, Margaret M. Markey, a New York State assemblywoman, has introduced a bill to extend the statute of limitations for five more years, a modest increase; it would also create a one-year window for adults up to age 53 to bring charges against alleged abusers. The bill has passed the Assembly four times but has consistently been blocked from coming to the floor of the Senate, largely thanks to fierce lobbying by the Roman Catholic Church. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has yet to take a position on the bill.
The stories of abuse at Horace Mann and elsewhere are truly horrifying. But the victims will have done a great service if their actions persuade others to come forward — and the State Legislature to, at long last, set a realistic statute of limitations for going after their abusers.
Richard B. Gartner is a psychologist and psychoanalyst and the author of “Beyond Betrayal: Taking Charge of Your Life After Boyhood Sexual Abuse.”