A recent study from University of Toronto has found an important link between heart attack risk and childhood sexual abuse. The findings, which were published in September’s Journal of Child Abuse & Neglect found that male childhood sexual abuse victims were three times more likely to suffer a heart attack than men who were not abused as children.
The researchers did not find a similar link between heart attack risk and female sexual abuse. While the reason for this unclear, researcher believe that it suggests that men and women might have different coping mechanisms when it comes to recovering from childhood sexual abuse. It is believed that cortisol (the stress hormone behind the fight-or-flight reaction) might play a role in this gender difference, as men and women often react differently to stress.
Instead of going into fight-or-flight mode, it is believed that women might go into tend-and-befriend mode. In other words, instead of fighting or fleeing from the stressful situation, women tend to turn to one another for support. They might choose to deal with stress by talking their feelings out and by turning to friends for support, while men might not have the social impetus to open up and unleash their emotions in such a degree. As a result, they might have no outlet for the pain and stress they feel, which can cause cortisol to build up in the body and increase one’s risk of heart attack.
It’s understandable that men might feel as open discussing their sexual abuse as women do. In our society, we tend to expect men to be strong and stoic, and we tend to assume that all sexual abuse victims are female. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), one out of ten rape victims is a man, and 3% of boys grades 5-8 and 5% of boys in grades 9-12 reported sexual abuse.
Sadly, the numbers are probably much higher, as many childhood sexual abuse goes unreported, especially when it comes to boys. Grappling with the effects of childhood sexual abuse is never easy, but when a person must do so alone and in silence, it can be difficult to ever truly move on and heal.
Additionally, many men might also feel guilty about their sexual abuse because (as with women) sometimes the abuse can feel pleasurable. Boys and men sometimes get erections or orgasms when being abused, and women can experience lubrication and orgasms as well. This doesn’t mean that the victim wanted the sexual contact at all. It is simply the body’s natural physical response, yet it can complicate the victim’s healing process especially if they don’t understand that the response is natural and not their fault. If they have no outlet or no one to talk to, it can only heighten their pain and sense of shame and guilt.
We need to realize that women aren’t the only ones who can be sexually abused and assaulted. Men can be victims too, and when they are, it’s crucial that they receive the same help and compassion that women. Sexual abuse doesn’t bias based on gender, so neither should treatment.