My mom was a victim of incest as a girl and has used it to invalidate my emotions. I blame the incest, not my mom, but it still hurts. But I can’t help but feel like I, as a man, am dirty to be sexual. I can’t draw a line in my head between good sex and bad sex. I am a virgin because when I get close to sex, the girl will start reminding me of my mom or my sister. I’m afraid if I don’t lose my virginity soon I will develop a sexual frustration that will eventually cause me to hurt someone. I know that I’m just a troubled, caring guy. But I can’t help but hate myself sexually. I don’t know what to do.
Heather Corinna replies:
I’m so sorry that this is how you have been feeling about yourself, and that you’re hurting so badly and feeling so fearful of yourself. I’m beyond sorry to hear that you hate yourself. Those are terrible, debilitating ways for someone to feel. But I’m very glad that you’ve asked me for help. You deserve to feel so much better than this, and I hope I can help give you some first steps to create that change.
I hear you being worried about hurting others, but what I’m concerned about is how you’re hurting and how you have been hurt.
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I want to start by pointing some facts you can see in black and white. I want you to know, before you read them, that I do a lot of work advocating for and supporting victims of sexual abuse and assault and am also a survivor of abuses and assault myself. So, I can very much assure you that the last thing I am is lenient with anyone who has abused or who I have any indication intends to abuse someone or expresses anything that makes it seem like they will choose to do that to anyone. I also do not ever downplay or whitewash abuse or the things I know enable or cause abuse, and the very last thing I would ever want to do is to enable or support anyone in abusing or anything that, on the whole, could or does enables abuse. I hope knowing that about me will give you some extra confidence in everything I’m about to tell you.
Perpetrating incest or other kinds of sexual abuse or assault is not about being male. Most men, just like most other people, do not ever perpetrate incest, rape and other kinds of sexual assault and abuse.
To be sure that’s crystal, most men are NOT sexually abusive and will not be sexually abusive. That is fact, not wishful thinking or denial. So, if we wanted to generalize around men and sexual violence, the only thing we could say based on facts is that being male, all by itself, is clearly not a cause of abuse. If it was, most men would perpetrate abuse. Most do not.
I know there are some people out there who believe that being male, all by itself, is why men who do abuse people do or even why abuse happens, no matter who does it or who it happens to. However, I in no way believe that to be true, and everything of any merit I have read and studied about this topic supports my belief that is in no way true, even though I understand it feels true to some people. (However, we know that isn’t true for even your mother, because here you are, male and someone male she has encountered who has not been abusive to her or anyone else, save potentially to yourself.)
Something else to know is that incest and other kinds of sexual abuse are not only perpetrated by men, but by people of all genders; and the victims of those kinds of abuses are not only women. With childhood sexual abuse especially, boys are and can be victimized just as girls are. We even know that boys tell others about abuse less often than girls, and that abuse is recognized less often when victims are boys. The ways masculinity and sexuality get conceptualized in a lot of cultures often isn’t always very good at recognizing when boys are being abused. Some people or cultures have dangerous and dysfunctional attitudes about sexual abuse involving boys or men, especially when and if the perpetrators of that abuse are women, framing some kinds of abuse as non-traumatic just because of gender, or worse still, as something boys or men were “lucky” to have happen to them, because boys and men are — according to people thinking about this in utterly messed-up ways — supposed to always want and enjoy all kinds of sex, even when sexual activity is not consensual or is otherwise injurous or harmful to them.
By all means, it is true that more men than women, so far as we know, perpetrate sexual abuses and assault. But there are some important caveats with that. Just like some people have the idea men and their sexuality or sexual behavior are innately harmful or powerful, some people feel that women and their sexuality or sexual behavior are innately harmless or powerless. Neither of these things are true. Some kinds of sexual abuses are also less often recognized by people as abuse, like sexual assault that doesn’t involve entering a part of the body (such as a perpetrator forcing a victim to masturbate or otherwise touch themselves), sexual assault or abuse that’s hidden under the guise of something else (like administering medications or punishments in a way that are sexually abusive, but are presented or seen as being about caretaking), sexual shaming and other kinds of verbal sexual harassment all of which can be more prevalent when an abuser is a woman.
I don’t know any of the details about how you grew up beyond the feelings you’re left with, but it seems possible you yourself may have even been a victim of some of these kinds of abuses from your mother, like sexual shaming or other verbal abuse.
People who abuse or assault other people do not do so because of what genitals or chromosomes they have. People who abuse or assault other people usually actively and knowingly choose to do that (with some exceptions for people with earnest impulse control disorders, though those are the exceptions, not the rules). What causes people to abuse varies, but for the vast majority of people who abuse, based on real study about abuse, those causes are not about the way anyone was born, including what sex they are. As well, sexual abuse isn’t just about an abuser’s sexuality. Sometimes it isn’t at all, but even when it is, that’s only part of a much bigger whole of abuse dynamics and motives.
By all means, sometimes personal or cultural ideas about gender, including ideas about masculinity and femininity, can and often do play a part in why many people abuse. But ideas about masculinity are not the same as being male, and not all men have the same ideas about or sense of masculinity. Many men, for instance, do not believe that because they are men, women or children should be subservient to them or beneath them, that the penis is some kind of weapon, that sex is for asserting power or that smacking people around is okay just because some men (or women) do, even when they encounter other men or aspects of culture that insist those things are so. Many, many men already have or figure out how to have a masculinity that does not involve harming anyone. And just like being male can’t make anyone abuse anyone else, neither can ideas of masculinity, even when they are a scary, hot mess. Again, for the vast, vast majority of people who perpetrate abuse, it is something they knowingly choose to do, not something their chromosomes or genitals force them to do against their will or outside their control.
Let’s give some space to the idea that your sexuality is “dirty” because of your gender. The idea that sex or sexuality are dirty is just something I just don’t cotton to. They can sure be messy sometimes, physically and emotionally, and can also call up or give us access to some of the deeper, more intense and even darker parts of ourselves or others which aren’t all full of rainbows and sunshine. But we can say the same thing about a lot of things in life. Creative work, for instance, like making art or music, can be and do all of those same things. Really loving someone can be awfully messy, too, and can also open up parts of ourselves or other people which aren’t shiny and happy. And just like we can do so with love or creative work, even when that’s the case, we can still express those feelings or aspects in ways that are healthy and don’t do anyone or ourselves harm. Just like with love, sexuality has the capacity to be healthy, rich, beneficial, safe, caring and positively powerful and empowering. Personally, I believe it has more than just that capacity: my belief is that’s its essential, truest nature.
I’d like to talk a little bit about your mother now. When people have been abused in any way and don’t get help with healing, especially with something like childhood sexual abuse, it can do a real number on them, as you unfortunately know too well. Your mother was traumatized, and, as happens all too often, that trauma didn’t stop with her, either. Her trauma, and the way she has dealt with it, have also traumatized you.
I don’t have any idea about what your mothers’ upbringing was like, what her resources and community have been, so I don’t want to be too hard on her here, especially since being a victim of childhood sexual abuse is often incredibly hard, especially if she didn’t get any help in getting away from it (and whoever was doing it to her), if she didn’t feel able to tell anyone or wasn’t believed when she did, or if she didn’t get any good help and support, ideally very soon after it happened to her, so she could get safe and start to heal.
No victim is ever responsible for being abused. That responsibility lies 100% with whoever chose to abuse them. You’re absolutely right not to hold your mother responsible in any way for what she suffered when she was victimized, nor for the pain she experienced as a result. But there is something that any of us who have been traumatized or victimized are responsible for: that’s our own healing. We didn’t do what we need to heal from, and it sucks that we have to be the ones to do the work to repair something we ourselves didn’t break, but that’s the way it goes. It’s not a victim’s fault that healing needs to be done, but it is a victim’s responsibility to try to heal, though it’s hopefully not something we had or have to do without help and support. It’s also our responsibility to care for ourselves and anyone else we agree to care for, and to work out how to do that in healthy ways, even when we’ve survived trauma and may have challenges in doing that well as a result. Having been sexually abused or assaulted does not absolve anyone of the responsibility to treat other people with care, respect, love and kindness, especially if and when we put ourselves in the position where we have agreed to provide that care. Having been sexually abused or assaulted also does not excuse any victim if and when they have done someone else harm.
You don’t have to blame your mother for anything. I don’t think this is even about blame. But you do get to hold her responsible for the ways she has hurt you, just like she gets to hold the person who traumatized her responsible. Your mother didn’t choose to be abused, but, assuming she was not forced into pregnancy, birth or parenting, she chose to be your parent. In choosing or accepting that responsibility, she agreed to provide you with an environment, including herself as a major part of that, in which you were safe and cared for. The onus was and is on her, as it is with every parent (even if few actually do it), to take real stock of themselves, identify anything they need to work through or learn to deal with that might do their child harm, and then do that work and keep doing that work, ideally before, but most certainly during, parenting.
You aren’t blaming her as a victim by holding her responsible for those things and any other ways she may have failed you or done you harm with her parenting.
I want to also make sure you know that not only is your Mom not responsible for her abuse, neither are you. The fact that you may share a set of genitals or even some of the genetics of the person who abused her does not change that in the slightest: you have absolutely nothing to do with your mother being victimized. Save for the ways she has chosen to make it about you, it is not, in reality, in any way about you. You did not do this to her or anyone else. It’s clear you grew up with some messages that might have made you feel otherwise, but I hope in time you can really feel and know what I’m saying here.
I’m not sure what you mean when you say “good sex” and bad sex.” Do you mean you can’t figure out what healthy expressions of sexuality might be, and what might be sexual abuse? If so, I can leave you a few links that should help you get a start sorting that out for that:
- Driver’s Ed for the Sexual Superhighway: Navigating Consent
- Safer Sex…for Your Heart
- What Is Healthy Sexual Development?
- 10 of the Best Things You Can Do for Your Sexual Self (at Any Age)
- Hello, Sailor! How to Build, Board and Navigate a Healthy Relationship
- Ready or Not? The Scarleteen Sex Readiness Checklist
I am not worried that if you do not have a sexual partner soon you will do someone harm. By all means, if you truly feel, now or ever, you may be a harm to yourself or anyone else, I encourage you to ask for in-person help, since those are obviously things you want to avoid. I don’t mean to deny or invalidate your own feelings about this, but at the same time, you’ve made pretty clear here that there’s sound reason for you to strongly suspect those feelings are probably more about someone else’s life (you mother’s) and about someone else (the person who abused her) than they are about your life and about you.
You know, the smartest person in the whole world could grow up with someone telling them or otherwise giving them the constant message that they are stupid and think — despite every evidence to the contrary, despite even an IQ test that shows them to be the most genius of all geniuses — that they’re stupid. Someone who grows up with the strong message that they are the “bad” child could do everything right a person can do right and still think they’re a terrible person. And someone like you could be reared with the message that, because of your gender, your sexuality will automatically be unhealthy and abusive and believe that completely, based on that messaging alone.
I strongly suspect your fears about being abusive are probably mostly based on these messages you got, messages I believe have their only basis in your mother’s trauma and none in the truth of who you are, someone who had nothing whatsoever to do with her abuse. Even if your mother didn’t intend to lie to you, and she probably did not, I need you to know that you have been lied to. There is nothing bad about you because you are a man, and nothing bad about you because you have a sexuality and sexual desires. You expressed something you know about yourself in your letter, that you are a caring person.I’d suggest you put the most stock in the positive truths you know about yourself like that one, and work on throwing away what anyone, be it your mother or anyone else, is projecting unto you that is about someone else, not about you.
I don’t know of any data that supports the idea that without engaging in sex you will assault or abuse someone. Based on all the study that I’ve seen about sexuality and about sexual abuse, there’s nothing that supports people feeling compelled to abuse because they feel sexually frustrated or because they aren’t having sex they want. For sure, that can make some people feel lonely, annoyed, angry, sad or bitter, but it’s a big leap to suggest or think that those feelings will automatically lead to sexually abusing. Our sexuality and sexual desires aren’t a ticking bomb, where if we don’t hurry and do something to stop the clock from ticking, they’ll explode and blow us or anyone else up. People have sexual desires all the time that they can’t or don’t express the way they want to, when they want to, or every time they want to. While that can certainly be a bummer, that experience is not known to result in healthy people doing other people harm. And people who choose to sexually abuse other people are not usually people with the kind of awareness you have about sexual abuse and with the clear concern you have about not doing anyone harm.
I’m most concerned about you getting hurt in sexual interactions right now, not about you hurting someone else. Sex with others is often a place where we’re really vulnerable and very open, and with the way you’re thinking about and feeling afraid of yourself and your sexuality to date, I think the most likely person to get hurt in a sexual exchange is you. That’s a big window to leave open, after all, when you’ve got such delicate, fragile things inside right now. Something else that makes me concerned is that when we feel like crap about ourselves, we’re much less likely to choose healthy people to be sexual with, and much more vulnerable to abuse, sexual or otherwise. I see you only imagining yourself as a potential abuser or harm, but what I’m seeing is someone who could be very vulnerable to abuse or being harmed.
I think that without getting help in healing for yourself, you’re likely to have a really hard time with sexual relationships right now, and not likely to feel or be very safe or comfortable in them. For that reason, I’d suggest putting dating and sex with others on the back-burner for now until you can make some good progress turning these feelings about yourself and your sexuality around and feel confident in your ability to be a sexual partner who you know is safe for others as well as for yourself. Feeling terrified about doing someone harm and only being reminded of the actual or possible abuse of your family members does not sound, at all, like the kind of headspace that supports healthy, sexual relationships or interactions that feel really good to you, physically and emotionally. If you feel frustrated sexually — something we all can feel, including when we have partners and even when we’re having sex with them — and like you want to express your sexuality in a way you can feel safe about, I’d suggest sticking with masturbation alone for a while longer, until you feel much better about yourself and sexuality than you do right now. Masturbation usually takes care of much of the physical aspect of our sexual desires very well, and can be a positive way to affirm sexuality as something safe and good, and while I understand you likely also have some emotional desires involving sex with partners, too, I think even with the opportunity, those aren’t likely to be met until you get some healing.
I strongly suggest you seek out a qualified counselor or therapist to help you get started with all of this stuff, and to take a big step in really taking care of yourself with someone who knows and will constantly reaffirm that you are a person who deserves to be taken care of, who is a good person and who is someone worthy of trust and a sexuality and sense of self they feel good about. It sounds like you’ve lived with this for the whole of your life: that’s a lot of emotional injury to undo, and that kind of healing takes time and some really good help.
In counseling, if you still have concerns about harming anyone, you can voice those and your counselor or therapist can help you to assess that reality. If it does seem viable to them, they help you to be sure you and others stay safe. If they feel the way I do, and I suspect they will, they can give you a lot of help and tools to use so that over time, you can let go of that fear and feel more free to live your life and get close to people in the ways you want to, including sexually. That person can also help you develop a better sense, if you need that help, of what’s healthy and sound in sexual choices and actions and what is not, both on your end and from sexual partners.
No one page like this could possibly undo the damage that’s been done to you and turn all of this around today. I can’t tell you how much I wish that it could, and how much I wish I had the power to magic all of these scary and negative feelings away for you right this very second. I am heartbroken to hear you, or anyone, feeling like you are and have been. You deserve a much, much better life and sense of self than this.
I hope that this at least can help you get started on a path to the good stuff, though. If you want some help finding someone in-person who can help you take it from here, I’d be glad to help you with that. You can start by looking at this database of services we have here, and if you can’t find anyone that way, just let me know and I’d be glad to help you out. I’d also be happy to suggest some books I think might help you out, both about healing and finding a masculinity that feels comfortable to you, and about sexuality in general. I have a young adult sexuality guide I penned myself that I offer free copies of, when I can, to people who really need it and can’t afford it or find it in their area, even at the library. If you think something like that would be helpful and are not in the position to buy or otherwise access it yourself, if you drop me an email with a postal address, I’d be delighted to donate a copy to you.
Want something you can get started on right now, today, besides starting to look into counseling? One thing you can do that’s very easy and can be very powerful is just to come up with a short, positive affirmation you can say to yourself in moments where you’re feeling like this, or even put on a sticky-note in places you go to and see each day, like your bathroom mirror. Maybe something like, “I’m a good man, a good person and my sexuality is a good thing that can do good,” or “I can and do care for myself and others, and my gender and sexuality can help me to do that, not keep me from doing that,” or “Men can be safe. Sexuality can be safe. I can be and feel safe for myself and for others,” or something else that gives you a positive, powerful and supportive message about your gender, your sexuality and your without-a-question capacity to be the caring, kind person I have absolutely no doubt that you are.
(P.S. If you want to get your Mom some help, or at least give her some resources she can use to seek it out herself, I can help with that, too. You’re my concern right now, not her, but if she’s never had any help at all in healing, I’m also concerned about her. You might find that it feels positive for you to help her get the help she obviously has needed for a long time. It’s okay if that’s not something you want to do or try and help with, though, and I could certainly understand if that feels way too loaded given the ways she’s hurt you. Even if you do want to do that, I’d encourage you to put most of your energy into taking care of yourself. I think it’s high time for you, who you are and how you’re hurting to come first.)