A Conversation with Richard Gartner

01conv.184Beyond Betrayal: Men Cope With Being the Victims
By CLAUDIA DREIFUS, The New York Times
Published: March 1, 2005

For the past 25 years, Dr. Richard B. Gartner, a faculty member at the William Alanson White Institute in Manhattan, has been developing therapies and treating men who suffered sexual abuse during childhood.
With a new book about to be released by John Wiley & Sons, “Beyond Betrayal: Taking Charge of Your Life After Boyhood Sexual Abuse,” Dr. Gartner, 58, sat in a Chelsea kitchen on a recent Saturday morning and spoke about the experiences that drew him to this work.

Dr. Gartner is a past president of MaleSurvivor: The National Organization Against Male Sexual Victimization, a support network devoted to “overcoming sexual victimization of boys and men.”

Q. How did the issue of sexual victimization among men and boys become important to you?

A. In the mid-80’s, I began to see a male patient who very slowly began to recover some memories of childhood sexual abuse, which took us a long time to identify.

At first, the memories came in very strange fragments. Mainly he was remembering images of roses, which turned out to be the wallpaper in the living room where he’d been molested. It took us a long time to put together what he was talking about. I didn’t know what to make of it.

Although I’d previously had other male patients tell me about childhood sexual abuse, I wasn’t thinking much in those terms. I’d done my analytic training in the 1970’s, and in those days, thanks to the later writings of Freud, the conventional wisdom was that memories of abuse were fantasy or wish fulfillment.

So I began to look in the professional literature. There wasn’t much to be found, and most implied that this was very rare and that you should treat men and women in the same way. Neither turns out to be true. So I had to make my own way.

With time, I connected with the handful of professionals across the country who worked in this area, and we shared ideas. Eventually, my patient needed group therapy with men who’d been through similar experiences. Well, in New York, the city with everything, there was no such group. So in 1991, I started one. It’s still running today, with different men.

Q. How widespread is this problem of sexual abuse of children?

A. If you read the professional literature, the research supports the idea that somewhere between 1 in 6 or 1 in 10 males have, by the age of 16, experienced some explicit unwanted sexual contact from an adult or an older child.

Depending on what questions they are asked, there’s wide variation in what the men report. If you ask whether they’ve been abused, they tend to say they weren’t. If you ask about “unwanted sexual activity” and you start to go through it, they’ll tell you it happened.

For females, the literature says 1 in 3 admit to unwanted childhood sexual contact. Girls tend to be more frequently victimized by family members, often by their fathers. But plenty of boys are molested by fathers and stepfathers.

Q. Why, until recently, was the sexual abuse of boys something one heard little about?

A. I think it strikes a raw nerve, particularly in men. There’s a piece in our culture about what it means to be a man that says “a man can’t be a sexual victim, that’s the province of women.”

To many victims, their abuse translates as, “I’m not male” or “I’m gay” or “I’m a woman.” For some, recognizing the abuse brings up fear of homosexuality. If the patient was abused by a man, he might ask: “Why was I chosen? Did the abuser know something about me I didn’t?”

Some gay men might even blame their homosexuality on the molestation. They have a tough time developing a positive sexual identity.

They may think that to say “I feel good about being gay” would mean “my abuser won.”

What childhood abuse creates in most men, gay or straight, is a great confusion about sexual relations.
Often, there’s a lot of acting out. But the most important thing is that adult intimate relations are ravaged.

Q. You’ve written about the lengths some men will go to keep from defining themselves as victims. Why the resistance?

A. If you’ve decided that being a man means not being a victim, then you can only keep your self-concept by saying, “I have not been victimized,” even if that isn’t true.

So you put yourself in charge of the situation by saying, “I created it,” or “It wasn’t a trauma.” Almost every man in my group therapy first said: “I don’t really belong here. My experience wasn’t really that bad.”

Men tend to minimize their own trauma. Women survivors, I think, are different. They’ll say, “This really was terrible.” And it’ll take a man a while to get to that point. While men are getting there, they tend to manifest a range of symptoms.

Alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling, sex addiction, inability to have a relationship are very common. Men tend to come for treatment in their 30’s and 40’s, after trying a whole lot of other “solutions” like substance abuse.

Sometimes they come because they’ve never had a relationship that lasted more than three months. And yet they’ll say, “The abuse wasn’t really that bad.”

Q. Can a boy be molested by a woman?

A. Of course he can, as we’ve seen in those cases of schoolteachers and young boys.

When it comes to sex, we live in a society where boys and men are supposed to be in “in charge” and thus able to get out of sexual situations, if they want to.

So if a reluctant adolescent boy has been molested by a woman and if he feels anxious about it, he won’t find a lot of places where he can voice his anxiety. His friends and even his family are likely to tell him he was “lucky,” not abused.

Q. When the news stories of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church first hit the headlines, were you surprised by them?

A. I thought, What took them so long? I certainly knew about many, many men who’d been abused by clergy, Catholic or others. These men were coming to me as patients. For the Catholic men, the problem wasn’t just the abusive priests, but also how the church had handled their accusations.

I have great admiration for the men who came forward. They were disbelieved for such a long time – even, often, by their families. As horrible as their stories are, the good part is that the scandal has opened up public discussion of male sexual abuse. For many, it’s now easier to talk about it.

Q. You’ve said that therapists who work in the area of child sexual abuse will be traumatized by it. Did that happen to you?

A. Absolutely. Writing the book was traumatic. As I was going through these men’s stories and thinking through their implications, I felt the world was evil. I looked for exploitation everywhere. I felt depressed. Luckily, I have wonderful colleagues I can talk to about these things.

Q. How have therapists and other professionals changed on the issue of child sexual abuse since the 1970’s?

A. I used to go to professional meetings and ask colleagues, “Who here is treating male sexual abuse patients?” It was rare that anyone raised their hands. These days you can see many more therapists working with these sorts of men, and finally more men are coming in for treatment.