How Childhood Abuse Contributes to Violence Among Men

April 13 5 min read

“Hurt people hurt.” It’s a saying quoted to remind ourselves that when people mistreat us, it’s only because they’ve been mistreated themselves. This applies on an individual scale as well as a larger societal scale, and that may be especially true when we look at the epidemic of sexual assault and other forms of violence committed primarily by men. 

A 2019 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that boys are more often victims of physical violence, neglect, and sexual abuse by adults than girls — and the more violations like these a boy experienced, the more likely they were to commit violence later on in life. In recent coverage of this study, The Washington Post highlights the stories of men who have survived sexually abusive hazing, violent bullying, and sexual assault by a variety of genders.

“Our data suggest that the myth that boys are advantaged and girls are disadvantaged simply isn’t true,” physician Robert Blum, one of the authors of the study, told the publication. 

This may come as a surprise to many people because men are often hesitant to disclose having been victims of abuse. “Over the years of being a clinician, I have had a disproportionate number of men versus women say to me, ‘I never told anyone (about sexual abuse) until now,’” says psychotherapist Jennifer Tomko, LCSW. This happens because men often feel ashamed of being victimized or being unable to “get over it”. 

“From birth, we often treat boys differently from how we treat girls,” agrees psychotherapist Nick Bognar. “We even often hold them less and provide them with less physical affection. Once they're old enough to play, we place expectations on them that are sometimes violent — things like teaching them to have fist fights in order to solve conflicts. We teach them not to cry, and to toughen up when they face adversity (including violence and abuse). In effect, we indoctrinate them with a belief that they are built to dish out and take violence and aggression.”

Men also may not realize they’ve been abused, especially in cases of sexual abuse, because parents don’t always think to tell boys it’s not OK for someone to touch them without their consent. 

Perpetrators themselves take advantage of this. “The abuse is often presented to them as consensual, through grooming, or they are threatened to keep it quiet,” Tomko explains. “Sometimes it is a violent experience, but this is often not a violent attack but — in my experience — a psychological manipulation that makes it difficult to view themselves as victims of assault.”

Men who are victims of physical or sexual abuse may be more likely than women to respond by then abusing someone else, she adds. “Boys are more likely to act out through physical aggression, whereas girls through relational aggression. So if the perpetrator is a man who was once abused, it would be a cyclical effect of violence begets violence.”

To interrupt this cycle, we need to become better about educating all children, boys included, about sexual assault and other forms of violence. “Community awareness is essential in educating boys on how to get help, what assault is, the body's involuntary responses, how to keep themselves safe, how to recognize red flags of perpetrators, and what is good touch/bad touch,” Tomko says. “This is an area that we are under-educated in, leaving boys and men having undiagnosed trauma until they are well into adulthood.”

Another way we can raise boys to become men who treat others kindly and respectfully is to show them compassion if they report incidents of abuse, says psychotherapist Meira Ellias. “When it comes to the idea that male survivors then go on to commit acts of sexual violence, I would want to take a look at their familial and societal supports after the abuse. Were they believed or blamed? Did they receive help processing what was done to them, or told to suck it up and enjoy that they 'got laid'?” she says. “Many times, the response to the abuse by family, friends, and loved ones has a deeper impact than the abuse itself.”

The main takeaway from this study, then, is less about how hard boys have it compared to girls and more about the need to believe all victims regardless of their gender, says Bognar. “Since we definitely see a connection between victimhood and later perpetration, it benefits us all to avoid making assumptions about whether people's stories ‘don't count’ (or to ask ‘who has it worse?’), and to create spaces and relationships that allow children to report what has happened to them.”

Suzannah Weiss
« Suzannah Weiss is a freelance writer focused on gender and sexuality. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, and more. » All posts →