The first time I was sexually abused by my stepmother, I was 12. She and my father weren’t married yet, but we were all staying together in Boca Raton that night. We’d just gotten home from dinner at a tropical-themed restaurant, Bimini Bob’s, where I’d earned high score at the ringtoss game while my dad watched, drinking more light beers than usual. I knew it would be hard for him to drive home, so from the backseat of our SUV, I leaned forward to turn down the radio to help him focus on the road.
As soon as we got home, my dad went upstairs, leaving me alone in the kitchen with her. We talked about my ringtoss skills; she was probably humoring me. Then in her early 40s, she was a competitive person, a successful businesswoman. She leaned against the Formica island, her sandy blond hair done up in a bulbous, frizzy ball.
As the conversation petered out, she hugged me-a stronger one than usual. Naturally, I hugged her back. Then, after a few seconds, she leaned out, looked at me, and kissed me on the mouth. Her alcoholic breath mingled with her perfume, suffocating me. The house was dead quiet. I had no idea what to do. This was my first kiss. My arms were clenched, frozen by my side, so she grabbed my hands and placed them on her chest, moving them around. She asked if I liked it. I don’t remember what I said.
She and I didn’t speak about what happened, but it kept happening. Every few weeks, she would find me alone, make out with me, encourage me, and then chastise me. If your dad ever found out, she’d say, he’d be furious. It was clear this was somehow my fault, though I barely comprehended the reality of it all.
A few months after that first encounter, she took my virginity. It was nighttime at a shabby rental house in the Keys, too early to sleep, but she and my dad had been drinking and went to bed early.
Later I heard a sound outside my room, so I opened the door to see what was going on. I saw her standing in the doorway of the master bedroom. My siblings weren’t around. She walked up to me and started kissing me, and then escalated things: She reached into my pajamas and took out my penis. It was the first time she’d touched my genitals, and I didn’t understand what was going on. She pulled aside her shorts, and, still standing in the hallway, placed my erection inside her. I stood there, feeling cold and bizarre. There was nothing intimate about it; I don’t remember ejaculating. After she’d had enough, I turned and silently walked back to my room, utterly ashamed.
This continued for three years. Out in public, she was my dad’s cool, hip girlfriend. She played up to me and my siblings, whispering that she was on our side, that she could convince our dad to do whatever we wanted. She was fun. She wanted us to believe she was our friend.
My life went into a tailspin. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d slipped headfirst into depression. I couldn’t focus on school and sometimes skipped whole days to stay at my biological mom’s house and work on computer projects. As my grades plummeted, I blamed myself for being stupid. By the end of seventh grade, my teachers considered holding me back.
When I was in my early teens, my stepmother was abusing me several times a year, usually when we were alone in the Keys. I began avoiding these trips as much as I could. By the time I turned 15, around the time she became my stepmother, I started to understand more of what was happening.
That’s when she began worrying about getting caught, and the brutality of our relationship evolved from sexual abuse to mental abuse, mean pranks, and manipulation. When I bought new clothes for my job, she “accidentally” poured bleach on them; she once backed into my car in the driveway and claimed she hadn’t seen it. She’d withhold money, her vise grip so strong on my dad’s funds that while I was in college, he had to take me grocery shopping in secret. When I graduated, she handed me a card from the two of them with cash inside. Then she told me my car payment was due and grabbed the money back within seconds.
She justified all this to my father as “tough love,” belittling my anxiety and stress and saying I needed to be more of a man.
I wanted nothing to do with her, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone-not my father, not my siblings, not my school friends, not my biological mother.
I learned to compartmentalize at an early age and have been leading a double life ever since she first kissed me: In public, I was always a normal boy, popular but shy with girls, into filmmaking and computers. Then, some nights, I believed myself a kind of adult, hiding a cataclysmic secret. I couldn’t make sense of it; I couldn’t even acknowledge it.
The mere thought of it paralyzed me with fear.
One in 20 boys in the United States will be sexually assaulted by age 18, according to the Journal of Adolescent Health. Research from 1990 to 1997 put estimates much higher, with as many as one in six boys being the victim of sexual abuse by the time they reach adulthood. In fact, the preeminent outreach group for sexually abused boys in the United States is called “1in6.” Yet the problem remains “underreported, underrecognized, and undertreated,” according to JAMA.
Behavioral problems resulting from sexual abuse are immediately apparent. Victims are more likely to be aggressive, abuse drugs and/or alcohol, and attempt suicide. Males are uniquely conflicted and less likely to speak out than females are. If the abuser is male, the victim may not report the activity for fear of being identified as homosexual. If the abuser is female, the victim may fear that the abuse will be culturally excused and that he should feel “privileged,” not violated. Men are crudely congratulated for their trauma, as summarized in a Chicago Tribune head-line from 2015: “Victims of sexual abuse: Girls get our sympathy; boys get high-fives.”
When I began researching my trauma, I was frustrated by the lack of resources. But the few studies that do exist are illuminating. Researchers behind a 2008 study in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, for example, say they had a much harder time getting men to volunteer for their research on sexual abuse than women. The stories from the 16 men who did participate all felt instantly familiar to me. The men compartmentalized their memories, didn’t know how to tell their families, wanted to just forget it, or said remaining silent seemed more “masculine.”
In my case, I shoved my adolescent memories aside as soon as I moved out of the house. I became an editor at a national news company and was staunchly independent, refusing help so I could keep control over my life. I enjoyed healthy romantic relationships that lasted years, but I never allowed my partners to be my equals. I insisted on dominating the dynamic; in retrospect, it’s clear that I never wanted anyone to have control over me. And as soon as those relationships started to feel too serious, I found an excuse to tear it all down and start again with someone new.
I rarely took time to think about my trauma. But sometimes it still crept up, like the time we reported on the story of Debra Lafave, a female teacher who had sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old male student in the summer of 2004. In the editing room, one of my colleagues turned to me with a smirk: “Lucky kid.”
This mentality seeps into our legal system, which is being increasingly recognized as ill-equipped to deal with male victims of sexual assault. Abusive female teachers, for example, frequently receive lighter sentences, while young male victims see smaller awards in court, according to L.A.-based lawyer David Ring, who has defended clients of both genders in hundreds of sexual assault trials. Likewise, male pedophiles will be jailed exponentially longer than female pedophiles, who sometimes avoid prison altogether. (Having pleaded guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious behavior, Lafave was sentenced to three years of house arrest, followed by a seven-year probation.)
After all, some argue, what boy hasn’t fantasized about his female teacher? How can it be called rape if you ejaculated? What if the boy bragged about the experience to his friends? These questions, frankly, are irrelevant to sexual trauma-especially sexual trauma involving a minor.
Some children show symptoms immediately, but others appear asymptomatic until adulthood. For me, both turned out to be true. Despite my middle-school depression, I pulled my life together in my late teens. But I gravitated toward extremes. I never did drugs-as many abuse victims do-but instead chased adrenaline highs. None of them lasted. Once, I went on a flight with a stunt pilot; we flew straight into the air, and then the pilot killed the engine. The plane barreled straight for the ground-his idea of a prank. After we landed, he looked surprised and said, “I’ve never seen anyone so calm.”
I traveled to the Himalayas to attempt a tough trek but developed a lung condition that cut my trip short. That threw me into a depression like no other. All I wanted from my long-term girlfriend was comfort and condolence. But when she told me she felt abandoned during my trip, we fought instead of talking it through. I broke our relationship off cold.
More than two decades after my stepmother first molested me, I started psychotherapy. My periods of depression had grown more intense and more frequent, and my breakups showed that I had a clear pattern of being unable to accept intimacy. I didn’t mention my abuse with my therapist for almost a year, even though he repeatedly asked me why I hated my stepmother, why I’d distanced myself from my family.
Then I blurted it all out.
It was the first time I’d fully revived the painful memories out loud. I told him that she raped me dozens of times. I flooded the room with years of shame and embarrassment, crying tears of fury and regret. My therapist hugged me and told me a familiar line: “It’s not your fault.”
When I stepped out onto the busy city street that afternoon, I could barely keep myself together. I felt naked and alone, shivering in that landscape of glass and steel. I hailed a cab to a friend’s apartment, where we cried for hours on her couch. But I wasn’t ready to commit to a real solution. As the authors of the 2008 Journal of Counseling Psychology study write, “Depending on personal readiness, initial disclosures may be tentative and incomplete.”
I was so overwhelmed by my first admission that I mostly avoided it afterward. Talking about it made it real. I spoke to my therapist for another year after that, switching to phone sessions after I moved to another big city. But when I quit therapy, I barely told anyone else. I tried to tell my sister the next time I flew down to Florida, but when we met for lunch and she asked me what was new in my life, I froze up. I just couldn’t do it.
“Untreated sexual abuse is a time bomb,” says Padma Moyer, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., a Bay Area therapist who works with adult survivors of incest. “Sometimes it ticks so quietly that even the victim doesn’t hear it. But if it isn’t defused, eventually there’s an explosion.”
My explosion came in late 2017. I’d been seeing a woman for a year, and I was convinced I was going to marry her. She was, of all things, a psychiatrist; I felt I could open up to her in ways I never could before. I was the happiest I’d ever been, and our romance inflated my entire sense of self. We developed pet names foreach other, and she became “my person.” We giddily invested in a life together, planning for kids and marriage, even planning a date for our formal engagement later that year.
But then my career took a turn for the worse: A big pitch was rejected, a reliable client scrapped my ad campaign, and I had a falling out with my business partner. So I did what I have always done when things go wrong: I sabotaged my life. While out of town on business, I met with a woman I considered a friend. I don’t know why, but after drinks we went back to the house where I was staying. Again, I was daring myself with self-destruction. I’d never cheated before, and after 30 seconds of sex (we never even kissed) a panicked instinct flooded over me. I stopped, pulled up my pants, and kicked her out.
I assumed I could hide the lapse from my girlfriend. Living with a dark, looming secret felt natural. But I did share an abbreviated version with her. We were working it out. She passed her boards a month later, and I threw her a huge celebration party. She told me she’d “fallen in love with me all over again”-a line I’ll never forget. But the very next day, my girlfriend talked on the phone with the other woman. I had left for a work trip when my girlfriend called to say she was leaving me. I bumped up my flight, but by the time I returned to my apartment, every trace of her had vanished.
The months following our breakup, I had a breakdown and couldn’t function. I barely left the house. But eventually I realized that this depression could be a catalyst for profound change. I somehow found the strength to visit a new therapist-two-hour sessions, three times a week. I plunged into books and articles about relationships, affairs, and sexual abuse against men.
In our post-Weinstein era, it’s critical to include abused men in the conversation. If we don’t, we risk deepening the alienation of those who’ve quietly suffered for decades because our pain is ignored, misunderstood, or laughed off.
I’ve finally begun talking about all this with my family and friends, while identifying my own triggers for self-sabotage. I am most comforted by the understanding of my truest friends, even those I’d lost touch with or spurned in the past. The solidarity of others who have suffered in similar ways assured me that speaking up was the most healing thing I could do. I’ve relied on the love of my family members, for whom this has been uniquely difficult-especially my mother. She has been wonderful, respecting my privacy and offering support. I’m deconstructing my own walls into manageable hurdles, and today I feel closer to almost everyone in my family.
The exception has been my father. A week after my breakdown, I made the hardest phone call I’ve ever had to make. Crying uncontrollably, I told him he needed to come to New York immediately. I didn’t say why. We rode to my therapist’s office in quiet, uncomfortable tension. It took all my strength to not spill everything out and cry.
Once we stepped into the therapist’s office, I just threw everything out there at my dad: How his wife took my virginity, how she subjected me to constant abuse and manipulation, how she traumatized me sexually and emotionally.
My dad sat there, stunned. He kept repeating the same phrase: “My world is turned upside down right now.” Then it was his turn: His marriage had been unraveling for a decade. She didn’t respect him. They often slept in separate bedrooms, living separate lives under a shared roof. He hadn’t loved her for years and was thinking of divorce. This revelation, he said, might finally push him there.
Relief overwhelmed my anxiety. Finally there might be justice-not the kind of justice that can be had in a courtroom, but at least my family would have a chance at healing. As he flew back home, I focused on getting my life back in order, ready to recover from my trauma and begin anew with my father.
Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way. My dad separated from my stepmother after she moved out, but that was as far as it got. At 69, terrified of loneliness and change, he went to work, frequented his bars, and came home each night more anxious and afraid. My stepmother claimed she felt bad about my breakdown but never admitted to being a pedophile (although she did consult a criminal defense attorney). She also helps with my dad’s business, so it was even harder for him to untangle her from his life. By January of last year, she’d moved back in with my dad. As she’d always bragged, she can manipulate my dad into anything.
The last time I saw my dad was February. He agreed to sit down with me, my sister, and her therapist. My siblings and I had agreed to give him an ultimatum: We loved him, but we couldn’t have his wife in our lives. Until he changed that, we would cut off all contact with them both. My dad suggested we could still see him-for his upcoming 70th birthday, or for holidays. “Why can’t she go away for a few days and you come over?” he asked. “You wouldn’t have to see her.” I told him that was impossible, and by the meeting’s end it was clear he’d chosen her over us. From his perspective, I realized, this whole ordeal was less about me or his wife than about him. We shared an awkward hug, and I left the room. It honestly felt like I said goodbye to my father.
When I was growing up, my family lived in discrete boxes of depression and guilt, ignorance, and abuse. My father prefers it that way-he will continue compartmentalizing his life, shutting his eyes to the tsunami crashing around him. But I can’t live like that. I’ve spent too long pretending that problems don’t exist. I have to be open about my trauma, and I want to help others do the same. After two decades, I have to believe what I’ve never believed before-that despite it all, this was not my fault, and that, like every victim too afraid to speak out, I am not alone.
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