On Monday in The New Yorker, author Junot Díaz wrote for the first time about being raped as a child by a grown-up whom he trusted, and how it continued to affect him throughout his life, especially when it came to forming romantic relationships. Experiencing sexual abuse or assault as a child is a lasting trauma that can affect people in different ways; for Díaz, it led to a habitual pattern of cheating and an aversion to intimacy, as well as severe depression that included repeated suicide attempts. As he writes in the moving piece, which is worth reading in full: “I was creating model homes, and then, just as soon as they were up, abandoning them. Classic trauma psychology: approach and retreat, approach and retreat. And hurting other people in the process.”
While #MeToo has prompted many women to share their own experiences with sexual abuse and assault, the stories of male survivors have often been elided, in part because of cultural stigmas that prevent men from men speaking out. The Cut spoke to nine men who have experienced sexual abuse about how the experience affected their ability to form and maintain romantic relationships.
Some names have been changed. Interviews have been edited and condensed.
Keith, 53, scientist
When I was either 11 or 12 years old, I was sexually molested by my fifth-grade music teacher.
I had some anger issues in my teenage years that carried on through my adult life, and I had substance-abuse problems. For me, I always felt different than other people. I met the love of my life when I was 21 years old and she was 19. I knew there was something wrong with me, or not marriage material. I think that’s why it took me so long before I asked her to marry me. We dated for seven years, we were married for 18 years.
Even though I had anger issues, in those 25 years together I never swore at her, or raised a hand, or anything like that. I would be sarcastic and use other forms of anger rather than swearing, or getting physical. But, what happened to me is there’s many different directions somebody who gets molested can go and the direction I took is, I was promiscuous with other women during my marriage. I finally told my ex-wife that, out of guilt, and that’s when we divorced. That was about seven years ago. The way I see it, it definitely contributed to the demise of my marriage.
Jared, 22, student
I got my first job when I was 17 at this salad café place. I’ve since come out as gay, but at the time I was still figuring things out. There was this older man [who worked there] — I think he was 22 or 23 at the time — who immediately took an interest in me. It culminated in him calling me into work, on a school night, with the pretense of helping him out with closing the store after a particularly busy night. He put his hands and mouth on me behind the shopping center without my consent and I just had to stand here and take it because I didn’t want to make a scene and screw up my first job. I told one of the managers that I didn’t want to be scheduled with that man anymore. Somehow he found out and sent me a series of angry text messages, saying I was “worth less than dust,” among other hurtful things. I didn’t last much longer at that job.
I’d say the most profound way it affected me is that I’m super wary of attention from other men, especially in the workplace. I guess that’s how it’s supposed to be, but that bled over into other areas of my life. I’m now much more communicative of what I want, almost to a fault and to a degree that intimidates men. I always demand that intentions be made clear from the jump, and I wish this came from a better place, but I feel so hardened. “Why can’t we just go with it and see where it goes?” they ask, and I don’t have a good answer for them. I find it hard to trust them even when they’re up-front.
This incident came at a time when, like I said before, I was really exploring the possibility that I was gay. Being told that I was “worth less than dust,” by a man that I thought was attractive, generally very appealing, smart, accomplished, and more worldly than me was extremely hurtful, and I internalized it. I didn’t go on another date with a man until age 21 — four years later — because I always thought, What man could find me appealing? If I screwed it up with this guy — even though I objectively did not, as I’m slowly realizing now — then what were my chances with other men with similar qualifications? Would they think I was worth less than dust? Would they violate me and take advantage of me in similar ways?
Donald, 52, owns a company
I was 11 and it was a family friend. This man and his wife were close friends of my parents and we lived on the same street and his children would invite me over. It became sort of a common every-week thing. As a male with a male abuser, especially 41 years ago, there are all sorts of other implications that are less problematic today but were very problematic back in the ’70s, like feeling Oh my gosh, am I gay? — it was very difficult for me to absorb that.
I think the guilt and shame are pernicious and sort of grind away at who you are. I’ve thought a lot about the abusive relationships I’ve been in — I was married for 21 years and I think about how much nonsense I put up with because I think children of sexual abuse feel like they will latch onto any relationship that feels meaningful and worthwhile, even if they know in their gut it’s counterproductive. And that’s what I did. And then you get into this whole thing of Are you worthwhile, and are you deserving of happiness and joy and love? It wasn’t until I got divorced, ironically, that I realized that this was a real problem and challenge for me — that I was letting somewhat abusive people be a part of my life, and it’s a behavior that I’ve been repeating, and maybe that was something I needed to work on: self-compassion and self-forgiveness.
I was raped when I was 8 or 9 years old, by my stepbrother, my mom’s son. It was a situation that happened multiple times. It’s something I necessarily wasn’t comfortable speaking about, just because of the constructs of society that I was instilled with: Men had to have machismo, be strong, dominant, you can’t show emotion, you can’t cry, you can’t be weak.
For me, after that, it was easy to be sexual with people. That was something I desired heavily. Sex was a way to live within my own element of what I was comfortable with. With relationships, [how] I was finding love for myself was through receiving validation from somebody else. That was my viewpoint towards relationships: I need somebody to fulfill my needs, because I can’t love myself.
I didn’t tell anybody about the rape up until my first serious girlfriend when I was 19 or 20 years old. It wasn’t received too well, because she personally didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t know how to communicate it and even talk about it, because I never talked to anybody about it. Then there was a marriage that happened four, five years ago; we were married for 11 months and divorced after that. It was a situation where we both fell in love very quickly, but we both came from traumatic pasts. Within that relationship there was a pivotal moment to understand that I didn’t have a healthy relationship with myself, nor did my partner have a healthy relationship with herself. Within that relationship I started seeking help. Now I’m okay talking about it to anybody, with anybody. It doesn’t define me. I embrace it 100 percent.
Sean, 32, operations manager
It started, my best guess is third grade. We would go down to Texas every summer, and my parents would kind of just drop us off down there, and we’d spend the summer with my grandparents. There was a neighbor who was a little bit older. He was in high school. A lot of times, if my grandpa had something to do, he would put this kid in charge of watching me. And he started out touching me and it proceeded into oral sex and it got more and more physical. Every summer this would happen.
Sex became meaningless. I was exposed to it so young and somebody was just doing it to me and I didn’t have a choice, so to me it didn’t have the kind of meaning that it did to other people. Having sex was not an escalation in a relationship to me. If we had sex, it felt like: Who cares? I also kept a lot of distance, so it was a really terrible combination of me sleeping with people and then just distancing myself and not being close to them and then just disappearing.
I really had only two long-term relationships; one was my wife and the other was a longer-term one in high school. My wife and I literally just divorced. But it was very amicable and not really having to do with any of these issues. I got help while we were married. The divorce was a positive for both of us, and I think part of it was being me able to not be so co-dependent by finally figuring out this part of me.
Larry, 45, writer
I was sexually abused by my father, starting at a very young age, before I even started kindergarten, and it lasted for a long time.
I basically blocked it out for many, many years. And in my early 30s I started to really unravel. I started having terrible panic attacks and I had a major anxiety problem. And my memory started coming back. And I just thought, This cannot be, this cannot be. And I think there’s only so much time that you can continue to tell yourself that without finally looking at it. And I did finally look at it.
And it was devastating, because here I was, I’m a gay man and I’m having to come to terms with the fact that my own father sexually abused me. And it really made me start to see that I was in for a very rough time. I mean, how do I maintain intimate relationships with men or sexual relationships with men without my past coming back to haunt me? There was time when I needed to literally ask my partner to not walk around with his shirt off anymore and to change the kind of deodorant he was using, ’cause the smell reminded me of what my dad used. And in bed, we had enjoyed sort of an intimacy of being close to one another and I had to make sure all of a sudden, after almost ten years together, “Please don’t touch me in bed. Not your foot, not your hand, please just stay away,” because all of those things started to feel unsafe.
It’s nothing short of a miracle that he and I have managed to stay together. We ended up seeing a couples therapist that really helped us walk through and navigate this territory. One of the ways that we’ve had to navigate it was by opening the relationship up. Part of it was selfish and I basically said, “I can’t be there for you sexually anymore, I’m not sure how long this will be, so please, you have my full permission.” And in terms of how that worked for me, it allowed me some freedom to explore and to understand what could feel safe or even erotic for that matter. This year we’re gonna be together 20 years.
Mick, 32, software developer
My earliest abuse happened when I was 5 to 7 years old, by a female babysitter. When I hit puberty ages I experienced a very sudden and deep depression. I believe that the trauma from the abuse triggered some extreme self-hatred and what I now realize was an intense shame as I started becoming aware of sex. I was self-harming a lot and escalated to the point of a suicide attempt when I was 13. My parents had me committed to a hospital for an evaluation, and I was raped in the hospital. It was by another patient and it happened more than once.
I started doing drugs almost immediately after the hospitalization. I’m still a drug addict.
My relationship history is sparse. I had a girlfriend briefly in high school. I definitely was not a good boyfriend and similar to other periods in my life was not addressing the immediate issues I probably should have. Nearing the end of college I got together with my only long-term girlfriend, who helped me a lot, but I also put through more shit than I would ever do to anyone again in my life.
The last sexual encounter I had was about eight years ago and it induced an intense amount of shame in me. I was talking to her vaguely about my history with the hospital — not the rape — and mental health treatment and she remarked that this made me attractive to her. The only thing I remember is completely disassociating and feeling tons of shame in the following days. There was a clear link between me talking about the trauma surrounding my abuse that made me compelling in some way that I couldn’t handle. And the sex itself was something I absolutely could not handle. I haven’t been able to seriously approach a relationship or any kind of sexual encounter since then. I became flooded with shame. I don’t know how to describe it other than I was reenacting my childhood abuse and it was enabled by my teenage abuse. It put me in this PTSD sandwich that I’ve been deathly terrified of ever since.
Brad, 30, journalist
It was the summer and I was 13. I was in a park and two men approached be in a bathroom and had me perform oral sex on them. That was the first sexual encounter of my life. It continued to happen all through my teens and became almost a thing that I was a part of — I would go over there and leave with money in my pocket or he’d take me to a liquor store and buy me a carton of cigarettes or whatever.
After that, I remained a child. I took six and a half years to get a bachelor’s degree, I became an alcoholic and the thing that remained most stagnant was my romantic life, because there were gestures and moves towards it and I had no idea what I was doing, because instead of learning the rules at 13 and 15 and 16 I was wrapped up in this absolute evil.
Right now I’m in the longest relationship of my life and it’s not even four months. These days, its fine to talk about it. I started doing EMDR therapy and that wrecked my life for like half a year, but I came out of it — I can drive through the park where it happened, through the area of town where it happened. I can talk about it. I’m not cured but I can accept it for what it was and I don’t let it define me. Shame is a good start to describe what it feels like, but it doesn’t really cover it. It just really feels like the weight of the world, and it convinced me that I wasn’t worthy of being in a relationship, for a really long time.
I was sexually abused for about a decade in a family situation, starting from about the age of 4. I had a repetition rape when I was at college at 4 a.m., on campus — I was asleep and woke up to being raped.
In college and then when I went onto law school, I was not interested in relationships and I wasn’t interested in dating. Whenever things started to move to a sexual place I would put on the brakes, because I didn’t like being touched and didn’t think I’d ever want to have sex again in my life. I couldn’t imagine people enjoying that.
While I was in law school I met someone, and I’d never felt that before — I wanted to be in a relationship and date this person. It was surprising because I’d never felt these feelings and life had not prepared me for it. We had a long-distance relationship for two years, and after we moved in together then we had a crisis in our relationship and I knew it was related to the sexual abuse. I didn’t understand boundaries, so people were flirting with me and I didn’t know they were flirting with me and he was jealous. He was picking up cues I didn’t know about ’cause I’d never learned healthy sexuality. So it caused a crisis in our relationship and eventually I had to tell him about the sexual abuse, which I had not intended. It terrified him and it terrified me. I could see in his eyes he was like: Is this guy so broken he’s going to keep causing me pain for every day in my life, do I want to be bothered with this? And I felt like was I so broken I couldn’t be in a healthy relationship.
So we actually stopped dating for a time and I moved out. And then I got some help, and he and I talked again and he said, I really want to try dating, and I said, I don’t know if it’ll work but I’m willing to try if you’re willing to try. And I gave him permission to walk away — I said I need to heal and I don’t know what that’s going to look like and what that’s going to take, so if it gets too much for you you can walk away at any point, no questions asked. And he agreed to that, and it was very terrifying, but at that point he was the first person I had really felt what I would call love for, and I was not willing to let the abuse steal everything from me. I was willing to fight for my life and for the possibility of love, and he was willing to fight with me. And it was difficult to navigate, but we managed to work through it and he gave me the distance and space and support and we’re married today. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.