Sexual Abuse Often Taboo For Black Boys
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, my commentary. But first it's time to go Behind Closed Doors. That's our weekly conversation, where we try to talk about issues that people, well, don't generally like to talk about, often because of stigma or shame, and this is another delicate topic.
Now, if you follow entertainment, especially some of the top African-American divas, then you may have noticed that a number of them, Oprah of course, and most recently Mo'Nique, have chosen to disclose painful experiences of sexual abuse when they were young. Now, each has said she hoped that by coming forward, she might in some way spare another youngster that experience or perhaps caution adults about how better to protect their daughters.
But if some female celebrities have raised a red flag about sexual abuse, it seems to be a very different story with their male counterparts, where the issue is often dismissed or played for laughs. For example, here is Lil' Wayne on the late night show, "Jimmy Kimmel Live." He's talking about losing his virginity at age 11.
(Soundbite of television program, "Jimmy Kimmel Live")
Mr. LIL WAYNE (Rapper): The girl was older than me. She cut the lights off, and I don't know what happened. She pulled my pants down.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JIMMY KIMMEL (Host): Oh boy. How much older was she?
Mr. LIL WAYNE: I was 11. She was, like, 14, and when she pulled my pants down, when I went to feel her, like what are you doing, I felt she was naked. So I just stopped, like…
Mr. KIMMEL: Do you feel like that affected you negatively in your adulthood?
Mr. LIL WAYNE: It did, yeah.
MARTIN: He's not alone. Rappers T.I., T-Pain, Flavor Flav, have all talked about being introduced to sex at an age most people would consider entirely too young, and few have seen it or identified it as abuse. So we wanted to take a moment to talk about this, and I have to warn our listeners at this point that there will be some explicit sexual language in this conversation. So if it's not appropriate for you, we want you to be aware.
We've called Dr. Carl Bell, a clinical professor of psychiatry and public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Sylvia Coleman, she's an award-winning health journalist and advocate for sexual-abuse survivors. She is a survivor herself, and in 2008, with a grant from the Leeway Foundation, Coleman launched the Black Survivors Network, a national online support group and resource center for black sexual abuse victims. And also with us is Talib Darryl. He is also a survivor of sexual abuse. I thank you all so much for joining us.
Dr. CARL BELL (Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Public Health, University of Illinois at Chicago): Thank you.
Mr. TALIB DARRYL: Thank you.
Ms. SYLVIA COLEMAN (Health Journalist): Thank you.
MARTIN: Dr. Bell, I wanted to set the table with some numbers that we've gotten from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. It's a data set that is maintained by Cornell University. In 2007, the latest numbers they had said that there were some 25,000 reported incidences of sexual abuse of females under 12, but there were 14,000 cases of boys under 12, which means it's not as commonly reported but nevertheless not a small number. And I wanted to ask: Does this sound right to you? Do these numbers sound right?
Dr. BELL: It's probably more common than that. A lot of people get abused. And the problem is we tend to deny it and tend to hide it away.
GROSS: What's your reaction when you hear a celebrity like Lil' Wayne making - talking about this kind of experience in the way that he did? I'm just wondering how you reacted to that exchange that we just heard.
Dr. BELL: I guess it's interesting because part of the difficulty is if you've been abused, if you catastrophize the incident, you're actually more at risk for developing psychiatric symptoms than if you would deal with it in a much more appropriate way, a much more balanced way. The way that you protect yourself against a horrible incident is to develop a sense of mastery or a sense of power around the incident.
MARTIN: Do you think it's a double standard when it comes to boys? And I'm sitting here, I'm thinking to myself if this were a girl talking about being 11 years-old and having a 14-year-old boy experimenting with her, I mean, I'm just trying to imagine, would people be laughing? Would they think this is funny?
Dr. BELL: No, no, absolutely not, but boys - see for boys, having your cherry busted is a mark of manhood. You get somebody pregnant, your father goes, yeah, you're a real man now. If you're a girl, you get pregnant, then your stigmatized and kicked out of life. So it's a double standard.
MARTIN: Talib, how do you react to Lil' Wayne's comments?
Mr. DARRYL: I think that it's a common reaction amongst males. A lot of us, I know at least for myself, it was sort of viewed as a rites of passage. So a lot of men don't take it too serious. Most men don't even understand that, you know, they were sexually abused. So when interviewed, someone like Lil' Wayne interviewed about the situation, to him or to individuals like him, it's like, you know, a cool thing to have had happen to you.
MARTIN: Can you tell us what happened to you?
Mr. DARRYL: I had more than one account, but the first one that I can remember, I had to be maybe 10, probably nine, and she was 13 or 14. You know, probably the same thing had happened to her. So we were together, and we were in a room playing house, like children do, they play house, and my cousin said, well, I'll be the mommy, you be the daddy. And I was like, all right, cool, but I didn't understand what that was. And she, you know, pretty much did the same thing to me what happened to Lil' Wayne. She pulled my pants down, and you know, she showed me how to masturbate.
MARTIN: Did you remember thinking at the time that something wasn't right? And I'm wondering, did you ever tell anybody, or…?
Mr. DARRYL: I probably shared it with my brothers, but at the time, I definitely felt that something wasn't right about it. But it was like wow, this is happening to me. You know, I heard about it, I saw images of it on TV, and now it's happening to me, and it was like thumbs up.
Dr. BELL: You know, Michel, this is Dr. Bell. There are two things here. One is that when you're young, you really don't understand as an adult because you're a child. So there might be a feeling of there's something a little wrong here, but I'm not real sure what that is. Then you get older, and you really understand what did happen.
The other thing we are hearing is that there is a lot of sexual play in younger children. And the other thing is this was heterosexual, and so if you throw in the element of homosexual behavior, it becomes even more difficult for people to disclose.
MARTIN: Do you think that is, in part, why because it's heterosexual behavior that it's not, kids don't think to discuss it with their parents, or - they think it's more normal, if you will, or more acceptable, Dr. Bell?
Dr. BELL: You know, there have been some studies on boys, and in one study I remember by the age of 18, about a third of boys have had some sort of homosexual experience culminating in an orgasm. So there's mutual masturbation, there's sexual play. Now the question is if they're children under, say 14 or 15, is that abuse? It's certainly wrong, because you shouldn't be doing that children, and absolutely if you're over 18, that's absolutely, clearly abuse, but it's actually a very common phenomenon in society that we don't talk about, especially boys or men, because you know, men don't talk. We run or fight. Women, on the other hand, because they're more intelligent, actually talk to each other.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. I'll be answering the mail on that, but I'll seek your guidance when I do, so…
Dr. BELL: Good luck, good luck.
MARTIN: Sylvia, given what we've talked about here, when men do approach your network, why do you think they do? What gets them there?
Ms. COLEMAN: A lot of men hear about it through word of mouth, and men will approach me after I do a workshop. You know, once I've initially had a conversation with them, they feel more open to join the network. And one of the things that blacksurvivors.org provides is the anonymity. You can come and be a part of that network and share this experience and get advice without having to deal with the shame that surrounds this issue.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the sexual abuse of boys, and we're speaking with Sylvia Coleman, the founder of the Black Survivors Network; Dr. Carl Bell from the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Talib Darryl, who is a survivor. And I want to mention once again to our listeners that some parts of our conversation, we're using some fairly explicit language. So if you don't feel that that's appropriate for you at this time, this is maybe a good time to make another choice.
Sylvia, when men have disclosed that this has happened to them, have they had any negative reaction, you know, from peers? Is that another reason why, perhaps, people don't talk about it?
Ms. COLEMAN: Oh absolutely. This experience is celebrated and considered a rites of passage among boys who have this experience with a woman. But if this experience comes at the hands of a male perpetrator, then they're viewed in a negative light. And it becomes very difficult for men to disclose because there is still a lot of stigma and misconception in society that men are not sexually abused, and to risk losing your macho image is a very big deal to a lot of men.
MARTIN: Dr. Bell, do you have some advice for us? I'm sure there are people who will be listening to this conversation, saying, oh, you know, I'm a parent, what should I - is there something I should be doing differently?
Dr. BELL: The best thing to realize is that risk factors, being sexually abused, seeing daddy beat up mommy, whatever those risk factors are, risk factors are not automatically predictive of bad outcomes because people have protective factors in their lives. They have safety. They have adults who love and care about them. They have the capacity to learn social and emotional skills. They have the capacity to develop a sense of power. They have the capacity to develop spirituality. And so, those horrible, traumatic experiences are not automatically predictors of remaining a victim.
You can, in fact, become a survivor, and if you're really lucky and work very hard, you can become a conqueror, which is a person who begins to put systems in place to protect other people and to help other people recover from these things.
MARTIN: Talib, can I have a final thought from you? Is there anything else that you'd like to share with us?
Mr. DARRYL: One thing that I found in being able to disclose this information and deal with this obviously painful experience is, you find a new sense of power and freedom in being able to talk about it, even sometimes down to the details, to be able to let go of that fear. It's very empowering and it will transform your life.
MARTIN: We thank you for that. Sylvia, final thought from you?
Ms. COLEMAN: Yes, I would like to just encourage people that whether it's blacksurvivors.org or if it's therapy or a support group, or if it's their pastor, to make sure that you seek help and also make sure that you teach your child about sexual abuse as early as possible. And also, if they are adults then to seek the help that they need in the support system around them because there are so many different options and so many different ways to heal and become victorious.
MARTIN: Dr. Bell, I appreciate that the back end of this process of having an incident like this does not have to rule your life.
Dr. BELL: That's right.
MARTIN: But what about on the front end? Are there other things we should be thinking about?
Dr. BELL: Oh yeah, no, no, we've written grants for sexual assault and sexual abuse prevention. And we've got to figure out to change the society's concept of girls, because girls are more sexually abused than boys. We've got to change society's concept in how they value children so that we don't exploit and take advantage of helpless children and helpless people.
You've got to change men because men frequently are the people doing the abusing, but there are systems - strong families, strong communication in families, teaching children social, emotional skills that keeps them out of that harm's way. And again, giving children the opportunity to show mastery and growth and strength and resilience. Frederick Douglass said it is easier to raise strong children than fix broken men, and that's exactly the case.
MARTIN: Dr. Carl Bell is a clinical professor of psychiatry and public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was kind enough to join us from Bosco Studios in Chicago. We were also joined by Sylvia Coleman, the author of the book "Creating a New Normal" and creator of the Black Survivors Network for survivors of sexual abuse, and we'll have a link to the network on our home page. That's the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org.
We were also joined by Talib Darryl, a massage therapist in Philadelphia, and he was kind enough to share his story with us today from WRTI at Temple University. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.
Dr. BELL: You're welcome.
Mr. DARRYL: You're welcome.
Ms. COLEMAN: Thank you.