3 Things “Leaving Neverland” Reveals about Male Childhood Sexual Abuse
Michael Jackson with Jimmy Safechuck, then 10, on Jackson’s tour plane in 1988. Dave Hogan/Getty Images, retrieved from RollingStone.com.
FTND note: The intention of this piece is not to make a statement about “Leaving Neverland,” but to join a needed conversation about the realities of childhood male sexual abuse.
Leaving Neverland: Exposing the truth of male sexual abuse
By Matt Morrissey, a licensed therapist in Chicago, IL
By now you’ve probably either watched or heard of HBO’s controversial documentary, Leaving Neverland. Ever since the bombshell film about the alleged perpetual sexual abuses perpetrated on young boys by Michael Jackson first premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, there has been public outcry.
The two-part HBO documentary is 4 hours of shocking storytelling and gut-wrenching interviews with two alleged victims, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, and their families. Now, more than a week after its national premiere, much-needed conversations are taking place about the realities of male childhood sexual abuse, and the lifelong impact it has on too many men.
Just as in the cases of #Metoo and #Timesup, and the explosive docuseries and scandal surrounding R. Kelly, Leaving Neverland is about so much more than the accused—it reveals the complexity and nuances of male childhood sexual abuse.
Regardless of varying opinions on the specifics of the accusations detailed against Michael Jackson in Leaving Neverland, this is ultimately a cultural moment that requires addressal of the epidemic of childhood sexual abuse—an issue which has plagued society since the beginning of time.
As a therapist who works primarily with male survivors of sexual abuse, I am grateful for the conversations that Leaving Neverland has sparked. As a society, we have still yet to fully understand or recognize how boys and men experience sexual assault and/or abuse.
The reality is that one in six boys will experience sexual abuse before the age of sixteen.  Although much research has shown that girls tend to be sexually abused more frequently than boys, the rate at which men experience sexual victimization during childhood is not insignificant. The sexual abuse of boys is common, underreported, unrecognized, and under-treated.
These are the needed conversations that Leaving Neverland is sparking, drawing back the curtain on the realities of male sexual abuse.
3 unspoken issues Leaving Neverland reveals about male childhood sexual abuse
1. The grooming process
There is almost always a grooming process with strategies that involve befriending and establishing an emotional bond between an abuser and the child, and sometimes family, in order to build trust and lower inhibitions.
The first two hours of Leaving Neverland make a case for an elaborate and lavish alleged grooming process, for both the young boys and their families. Robson and Safechuck were invited into Michael Jackson’s inner circle as young prepubescent boys. They were offered cash, luxurious travel, and shopping sprees. But more than that, they were offered attention, friendship, and connection, making them feel special and chosen. Both accusers tell their stories to show that a genuine love and connection was established before any alleged sexual contact began.
This is especially important in understanding male survivors of childhood abuse. A sophisticated abuser set on establishing a relationship that will hold a lifetime of secrets will establish a romantic and seductive relationship—a trust and bond that can only be formed between two “lovers.” For many boys, this is the place that they hold themselves most accountable and feel the greatest shame. They may think that because they felt genuine care and friendship that they could not have been manipulated into unwanted sexual experiences.
Grooming is a fundamental component of all childhood sexual abuse. During her one hour special, After Neverland, Oprah highlights that we need to not think of sexual abuse as violent sexual assault, but instead as “childhood sexual seduction.” Society is often confused with images of forced rape and bondage (which can be the case), but we need to also see how gaining complicity through loyalty is often the basis of childhood sexual abuse. And that abuse is more often than not full of what feels like tender, seductive, and arousing sexual play.
When recounting the first alleged sexual encounter, Robson says, “There was nothing aggressive about it, nothing abrasive, I don’t remember feeling scared, nothing about it felt strange.” And yet, when he remembers and tells the story, his speech is stuttered and his face is terrified.
For many boys and men, because the grooming process is built on care, protection, and connection, it is hard to understand that this same person may have been using these very things as a way to gain access and later betray the trust they built.
2. The role of porn in male abuse
The role pornography plays among male survivors is so extensive, it is almost astonishing.
I have sat in rooms with many men that are struggling with unwanted pornography use. When we begin to assess a timeline, almost always there is an early exposure or introduction at the hands of an older adult or more sophisticated peer. In both cases of alleged abuse brought against Jackson, pornography and mutual masturbation are the beginning stages of their alleged sexual relationships.
Pornography is often shown to young boys as a means to set up an erotic experience and bond between the abuser and the child. Robson alleges that as the abuse evolved, “He started to show me some pornography. Pretty graphic, heterosexual porn: oral sex, full penetration, anal stuff. It seemed like he liked that, that Michael liked it, so I wanted to like it.”
We need to understand that pornography is inherently arousing to the body and is often used within the grooming process. It creates excitement and fear that, for a young body, can become dysregulating. Often it is in this context that an abuser will utilize the body’s natural reaction to erotic material as a means to reestablish a young boy’s desire. This also opens up the possibility for an abuser to create scenes for the young boy to “play out.”
We are now seeing the long-lasting medical and psychological impact of early exposure to pornography. As a therapist who primarily works with male survivors of sexual abuse, it is my belief that this setup is traumatic and often produces the same kind of fragmentation that we see in other complex trauma survivors.
For survivors of childhood sexual abuse, often pornography and ritual masturbation become addictive patterns and a way for young children and adolescents to unconsciously reenact the process of abuse.  This is the way that many cope with their distress and psychologically replay sexual acts, but this time in control of their own bodies.
Secondly, in a society where men still bond over the objectification of women, this is the way that they build a relationship with their peers again in order to feel normal and accepted. For those boys who experienced same-sex arousal in their abuse, excessive heterosexual pornography use is often the way that they will soothe their anxiety about their own sexuality.
3. How masculine norms keep survivors silent
A fundamental obstacle for many sexually abused men is the struggle to reconcile abuse with their inner vision of what it means to be a man.
I have found that because of the ingrained gender myths that “boys can’t be victims” and “men can’t be weak,” many men think of their early sexual experiences as “normal” sexual initiation. As men, we learn early how to compartmentalize and read our experiences through a lens that nothing happens to us unless we wanted it or asked for it, especially sex, so therefore we are not a victim.
Both accusers in Leaving Neverland showed the same symptoms of crippling fear and depression in the beginning of young adulthood. Over and over again, this is the stage of life that most men with childhood sexual abuse begin to experience distress.  There is usually some kind of overwhelming event—a marriage, a new job, the birth of a child— and then new PTSD symptoms will emerge. And because many men don’t know what to do when they need help, many begin to soothe their pain through substances, hypersexuality, or busyness— all socially acceptable forms of “masculine” behaviors.
Denial and shame work together to keep many men silent until they can no longer bear it or until the imminent threat of an abuser is removed. Robson says, “I never once thought that what happened between me and Michael was abusive or harmful until my son was born.”
He explains that because he was so cut off from his childhood experiences that he never once thought of himself as a child performing sex acts with a grown man. Instead, it was, “just something that happened” and yet he promised himself that it was something that he would keep secret until death. This is a common commitment for many male survivors because so many have forgotten what it feels like to be a child, a young boy. Accessing that part of themselves is crucial in order to heal, which is why I spend a lot of time with male survivors teaching them to be playful and curious again.
The research and clinical findings reported about the after effects of boyhood sexual abuse are both complex and scarce. However, what we do know is that among sexually abused children, a greater portion of boys than girls suffer abuse from outside their family.  And yet, according to recent national surveys, boys are still 4.5 times more likely to know their abuser and 22.5 times less likely to disclose the abuse. 
Suddenly, that one in six statistic feels like only a snapshot.
My hope in the aftermath of Leaving Neverland is that we as a culture and society rethink how we believe or not believe alleged victims who tell their stories.
I hope that this moves beyond Michael Jackson and we truly begin to have a national dialogue around gender, sexuality, and the prevalence of male sexual abuse and assault. I hope that we listen to Terry Crews, Brendan Fraser, Anthony Edwards, and the many others who have spoken out about their own stories. There is power in our collective stories as men, and we must share them for the sake of the hidden.
Over the last several years, brave girls and women have taught us what it means to be courageous in sharing how they have been abused and misused. Women are far more likely to experience sexual assault or aggression simply because of their gender and the ways that men feel entitled to their bodies—and we know pornography contributes to this epidemic. Likewise, I also believe that the same systems that harm women continue to keep men in their own cycles of abuse, remaining silent and bound to shame. And when we as men feel shame, we often harm others or stay complicit.
Finally, may we also learn that it is too easy to depict pedophiles as monsters hiding in closets, terrifying the unexpected and innocent. We teach our children “stranger danger” but it is far more likely to be the people closest to us, who we love and adore, who may also harm us.
If you are a male with childhood sexual experiences, it is far more likely that even perhaps your own abuser was kind, generous, charismatic, while also being profoundly manipulative. And this set up creates ambivalence and confusion in confronting our own injustices. Know that there is hope for you. And the brave step forward is to lead with vulnerability.
Michael Jackson denied allegations that he sexually abused children until his death in 2009, and was acquitted in charges brought against him in 2005. The Jackson estate has condemned the film and continues to deny any wrongdoing.
National Hotline for Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Assault
If you’re not an adult male, but you’re looking for support regarding an experience with sexual abuse or assault, visit rainn.org.
If grooming is happening online and through texting, it can be detected with the right tools. Bark is the only software that can alert parents when it picks up any grooming activity on your child’s device. Try Bark for 30 days at no cost today.
About the Author
Matt Morrissey is a therapist in Chicago, IL, helping boys and men unmask the shame, fear, and loneliness often hidden behind unwanted porn and sexual addictions. He is passionate about helping teen boys and men learn to connect and thrive both relationally and sexually, and overcoming boyhood sexual trauma. You can check him out on Facebook or visit his website for more information.
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