Gender Identity Construction and Sexual Orientation in Sexually Abused Males

Article excerpt

Male survivors of sexual abuse must struggle with confused emotions, including depression and anger. They react in a different way than females, however, in that the sexual abuse forces men to face issues of gender-role identity and sexual orientation. These are questions at the level of "Who am I?" and "What is the meaning of my life?" Such questions have always been very complex for men but are especially poignant for male survivors of sexual abuse. The authors use their clinical experience and study of gender identity to address the topic, which psychotherapists sometimes find difficult to make part of their work with men. The topic is addressed at four levels: the construction of male gender role identity, sexuality in a setting of hegemonic masculinity, sexual orientation, and psychotherapy with male survivors of sexual abuse.

Keywords: male survivors, sexual abuse, identity, sexual orientation, sexuality, psychotherapy

What do we mean by identity? The issue forces an individual to look at the most basic existential questions: Who am I? What is the meaning of my life? Where am I going? These are very complex questions for every man, particularly for male survivors of sexual abuse.

The representation of the self must include the gender to which one belongs. Regarding the relation between identity and gender, Chiland (1988, p. 80, authors' translation) states that "the human being is an abstraction, only men and women exist." She adds, "We are not born as men or women, we become men and women" (p. 79). From early on, a child begins to develop a self concept corresponding to his relation with the environment (Winnicott, 1974). The sense of identity begins with internalized representations of others' expectations as to how an individual must think and behave as a sexual being. Identity represents a construct (Kelly, 1955), a synthesis (Erickson, 1957/1972) made by the individual based on what he was, what he is (the actual self), and what he will be or wishes to become (expected self).

L'Écuyer (1978) considers identity to be the organized configuration of the perception of one's personal characteristics. From that configuration, the individual selects beliefs, values, and standards to form a profile of behaviors and attitudes he uses in different life situations. Identity is established by and establishes perceptions and choices of situations and events that will confirm it (Combs, Avila, & Purker, 1979) and perhaps modify it. Identity is both the product and the producer (Combs et al., 1979), the object and the subject (James, 1946), the actor and the author (Herman et al., 1992), the I and the Me as described by Georges H. Mead (1934). Part of one's identity is the incorporation of gender roles, which are arbitrarily imposed from without rather than developing from within. Gender-role socialization is always a strain on the individual, since gender roles are operationally defined by gender role stereotypes and norms that are often psychologically dysfunctional for the individual (Pleck, 1981).

The process of identity construction goes on throughout an individual's life, but it is marked by two major phases:

- Formation of gender identity, also known as sexual identity (Money & Ehrardt, 1972; Nungesser, 1983; Shively & De Cecco, 1977) and core gender identity (Tyson, 1986). This begins in males at age 2-2 1/2, the age of toilet training (Roïphe & Galenson, 1981), when the boy becomes aware that he is expected to stand up to urinate since he has a penis like his father and is anatomically different from his mother. Formation of gender identity includes the feeling of belonging to one sex rather than another.

- Formation of gender-role identity (Money & Ehrardt, 1972; Tyson, 1986) or masculinity (Bios, 1988). Bios defines this as a process that occurs during adolescence and is marked by psychological reorganization. For Tyson (1986), however, gender-role identity begins much earlier. …