It is hard to know how common sexual abuse is among boys. A survey by researchers at the University of Massachusetts–Boston suggests that approximately one in six men is sexually abused before the age of 16. If correct, that means more than 17 million American men share this ugly history. But many never disclose their victimization. Some may not recognize their early sexual encounters with older men or women as abuse; others blame themselves. In one study, 75 percent of male survivors reported being ashamed that they had failed to fend off the perpetrator. Another reason for keeping their abuse a secret is that they don't want people to think of them as easily coerced or forced, according to Gail B. Slap, MD, professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who has studied the issue.
Research over the past three decades points to the tremendous difficulty these survivors have in their relationships—the anger, fear, and isolation that typically result from childhood sexual abuse is particularly corrosive to healthy love. As for how their women fare, that's less clear. Very little research has been done on the wives and girlfriends of male abuse victims. "This is really a shame, because they have so many needs," says Richard B. Gartner, PhD, a psychoanalyst and leading expert in the field, who practices in New York City. "The bigger the betrayal, the more the boy reacts as though relationships themselves are traumatic. He becomes kind of allergic to being in relationships. It's very hard for a wife or partner to deal with that." Such relationships can be emotional—and physical—battlefields. Or the men seem coldly remote and "zone out" at home. Many also turn to drugs and alcohol, or become obsessive about food, exercise, or work, devoting so much energy to a career that their families are neglected. Experts call this a hypermasculine response. "We use the phrase 'the ripple effect,'" says Janice Palm, a Seattle therapist and executive director of Shepherd's Counseling Services, which runs one of the few support groups for the partners of adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. "This isn't just in the life of the person who was abused, but in the life of anyone in their relationship sphere."
One common ripple, as the Skettinis discovered, is a disruption of sex. Julie and Craig Martin have struggled with this in a different way. Craig, 52, first disclosed his abuse by a family priest when he began dating Julie more than 20 years ago. At the time, he owned a bar in Waite Park, Minnesota. "I told him," Julie says, "'Whenever you are ready to deal with it, I'm there for you.'" But Craig dealt with it by binge drinking and having an affair, at one point fathering a child with another woman. "I didn't cause him to cheat on me, [but] you go through terrible feelings of 'What could I have done? What did I do wrong?'" Julie, now 47, explains. Thanks to rehab and therapy, including counseling for sexual compulsion, they are still married and in love. Craig has been sober for eight years and attends monthly sessions for victims of childhood sexual abuse at the University of Minnesota. He sold the bar to attend graduate school and is now a social worker helping troubled boys. Not that all their problems have been solved. "I don't believe we've had any intercourse for several years—it's awful," says Julie. "It's almost like we're married singles or best friends living in the same house and raising kids together. I can laugh, but I cry inside. It hurts. It's very sad."