In September 2011, less than two months before the dismaying news started emerging from State College, Pennsylvania, NBC aired an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that tackled the rarely discussed topic of sexual abuse of boys and men. “Personal Fouls” told the story of a long-time, respected coach sexually abusing the boys on his teams over many years. Then came Penn State. Then came Syracuse. Then Poly Prep in Brooklyn. The stories of predators and prey, of complicity and cover-ups, of shame and fear and pain and isolation, are harrowing. Unfortunately, they won’t be the last. We cannot change what happened, but we can change how willing we are to talk about it. And before our attention turns elsewhere, we can seize this moment to shed some light into the darkness that surrounds this issue.
An estimated one in six men, or nearly 19 million adult males in the United States, have had an unwanted or abusive sexual experience in childhood. The median age for reported sexual abuse, male and female, is 9 years old. Male survivors are even more likely than women to bear the burden of their trauma alone, as they are less likely to disclose their abuse. And perhaps most startlingly, men are far less likely to know they have been abused. In a study of men and women with documented histories of sexual abuse — abuse so serious it warranted the intervention of a social service agency — 64 percent of the women considered themselves to have been sexually abused. Only 16 percent of the men did.
The FBI recently took a significant step to break through the secrecy that surrounds male survivors of sexual abuse and violence by changing how the Uniform Crime Report defines rape. For the first time in its 80-year existence, the definition of rape will include male victims, allowing our national statistics on sexual violence to reflect more accurately what is happening in our communities.
We as a society must build on this achievement and take further steps to acknowledge that sexual violence affects men and boys. We must commit ourselves to engaging men in the movement to address, prevent and, one day, end all sexual violence. Two organizations are already leading the way in this effort: 1in6 is a national organization that helps men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood live healthier, happier lives; and A CALL TO MEN is galvanizing a national movement of men committed to ending violence and discrimination against women and girls. Each in their own way, these organizations use information, support and compassion to dispel the isolation that male survivors experience. They promote healthy relationships, and they boldly redefine “manhood.”
At Joyful Heart, the foundation I started in 2004 to help survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse heal and reclaim their lives, we are proud to share in the vision of one day ending violence against all people. We hope to send this message to all survivors: We hear you. We believe you. We feel for you. You are not alone. And your healing is our priority.
I invite you to watch the re-airing of “Personal Fouls” tonight on NBC, guest starring the NBA’s Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh. I hope it will inspire you to think and talk about the issue of sexual abuse of boys and men. And I hope it will inspire you to take action — on behalf of your child, your spouse, your friend, your co-worker, yourself — and join me in the effort to engage men in the movement to end sexual abuse and violence. To learn more about this important issue, please visit men.joyfulheartfoundation.org.
Mariska Hargitay is the Emmy Award-winning star of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit on NBC and the founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation. Joyful Heart’s mission is to heal, educate and empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse and to shed light into the darkness that surrounds these issues.