Beliefs & Facts about boys & sexual abuse in Cambodia

If we want to help boys and young men who have been abused, an important first step is to explore our own ideas and beliefs.

Popular social and cultural views about men, boys and masculinity, children and sexual relationships strongly influence the seriousness with which people consider sexual abuse of boys, often in an unhelpful way.

Many beliefs lead to discrimination which can make boys feel isolated and keep them silent. Adults and others in positions of power, including parents, carers and helpers often tell us they are confused about beliefs and the facts and that this makes it harder to help. Boys and young men may also be confused about the truth.

Therefore it is very important to share accurate information that can lead to positive change. Some of the most common and unhelpful beliefs and myths are described below – alongside important and accurate information.

For any male who has been sexually abused, becoming free of these myths and beliefs is an essential part of the recovery process.

Our training curriculum and workshops explore these issues in more detail and enable people to overcome unhelpful, harmful and discriminatory beliefs and attitudes.

“Sexual abuse of boys does not happen much”

“Sexual abuse of boys does not happen much”

Fact: It is far more common than we care to think. Research in Cambodia and other places in the world suggest that at least one in six boys and men will have experienced some form of sexual abuse in their lives (16.5%). It may even be higher. Research carried out by UNDP and Partners for Protection (P4P) in Cambodia, due for publication in 2013 - shows that 16% of men in Cambodia report being sexually abused at some point in their lives. We can no longer say that it is a rare occurrence


In Cambodia this means that over a million men and boys have been abused at some time in their life. Most of them never tell anyone about it and do not receive the help they need. This has serious implications in both the short and long term.

“Children lie a lot about being sexually abused”

“Children lie a lot about being sexually abused”

Facts: This is not true. We often forget that secrecy has a defensive and protective function… Most children are in fact too terrified, scared and ashamed to tell about what happened and keep it a secret – often for a very long time. It is vitally important we believe children when they tell us about abuse.

There are many understandable reasons that children may not talk or tell everything about what happened.

Some children may be frightened to tell the truth as the abuser may have threatened them or their family. The child may also feel responsible, confused or worried that they may be blamed and therefore not talk or share all of the details. Others may not tell the truth because they may feel they have to protect the abuser or their family. Abusers often ‘groom’ children and those around them to make them confused about what is ‘ok’ or ‘not ok’ and disguise sexual abuse as love and friendship. Grooming is designed to maintain the silence, and protect the abuser from discovery.

Many boys don’t talk or find it hard to tell everything because they know they have little to gain from making it public– boys are expected to be strong and tough and be able to protect themselves but they fear they will not be believed, mocked, punished, or accused of being gay.

Not telling the whole truth, or failing to remember everything, or finding it hard to tell does not mean a child is lying. It is very common for victims of all forms of abuse not to remember all the facts, ‘block out’ things in order to survive or be confused about what happened. This is to be expected and normal.

“It is mostly foreigners that abuse boys – it’s not part of Cambodian culture”

“It is mostly foreigners that abuse boys – it’s not part of Cambodian culture”

Facts: This is false. Of course some people who abuse boys are foreigners who may travel here to abuse Cambodian boys and girls - we read about these cases in the newspapers and this is a very serious problem.

However, the reality is that abusers can be anyone – including parents, family members, friends, neighbours and other people known to the boy and in positions trust. This includes women and other young people. The fact is that Cambodians are responsible for most abuse of children in this country, not foreigners.

This is important to understand when considering how we can prevent abuse and protect boys from all people that may abuse them, and is discussed in detail in the training and workshops provided by First Step.

“It is not so serious when a boy is abused – he can recover quickly”

“It is not so serious when a boy is abused – he can recover quickly”

Facts: Cambodian cultural and social views about boys being strong and tough and not having virginity and reputation to lose, lead many to believe that this is true - but it is false. The belief that boys are ‘pure gold’ (and do not lose value if they have sex or are abused) is not helpful at all.

Boys are also human beings and can be hurt physically and emotionally like anyone else. They also feel pain and shame - this should be understood if we want to help them. Sexual abuse is always serious and can impact upon all parts of a person’s life in the short and long term. This is an important issue which our training explores in depth – leading to a greater understanding about how to help boys recover.

“Women can not abuse boys and even if they do, it is not harmful”

“Women can not abuse boys and even if they do, it is not harmful”

Facts: False – some women can and do sexually abuse children. You do not need to be a man or have a penis to sexually abuse a child. See the ‘definitions of sexual abuse’ page on this website for more information.

Any sexual abuse is harmful. Many boys and other people might think that having sex or being abused by a woman makes the boy “lucky”. There is nothing lucky about being abused – whoever the abuser. The First Step training explores this issue in more detail.

“Only poor, homeless and, or uneducated boys are abused”

“Only poor, homeless and, or uneducated boys are abused”

Fact: Any boy or man can be abused – rich or poor, educated or not and from any walk of life. Sexual abuse knows no boundaries. Just because we do not hear about it much does not mean it does not happen.

“If a boy has an erection when abused, it proves he wanted it”

“If a boy has an erection when abused, it proves he wanted it”

Facts: This is false. Having an erection does not mean a boy wanted to be abused at all – it is very common for abusers to make a victim aroused and ejaculate - they know that this can be very confusing for boys and makes it more likely they will not tell anyone.

It is a fact that it is very easy and common for boys and men to get erections – sometimes through fear, or when having medical examinations and other times that are also not related to sex. Having an erection during abuse does not mean he wanted it or consented. Some times boys may feel that they enjoy the physical part of what happens when they ejaculate and this can be very confusing and upsetting.

Our training explores this in more depth and suggests ways we can help boys make sense of what happened to them.

“It’s easy for boys to talk about sexual abuse – they are not shy like girls”

“It’s easy for boys to talk about sexual abuse – they are not shy like girls”

Facts: False – our research shows that most boys feel great shame and try and hide what happened to them. Most never talk about what happened to them – often because they know that they will not be believed or mocked or worry that they will be blamed and punished.

Sometimes boys may joke about the abuse and act as if they don’t care about it. This can be confusing to people around them – others may think the boy is not harmed at all - and as a result they may not offer help or listen. Acting like this is a common way for a boy or man to cover up their true feelings.

What we do know is that many boys and young men often feel that they have to act tough or deny the seriousness of abuse as a way of coping with their distress. Boys learn that showing feelings, emotions or crying is considered a sign of weakness by others, so they try very hard to hide the way they feel. This is not helpful for them at all and keeps them trapped in fear and silence.

The training First Step provides helps to explore how the influence of culture and social expectations of boys can limit their ability to ask for help and also limits the help offered to them by others. It also shares ideas about how we can work with boys to help them understand more about themselves and learn to express their feelings and needs in a healthy way.

“If a boy receives money it is not abuse or harmful”

“If a boy receives money it is not abuse or harmful”

Facts: False – many abusers use ‘grooming’ techniques such as giving money and gifts as a way of attracting boys but also as a method of keeping them quiet during and after the abuse. Abusers also exploit poverty and lack of awareness to ‘trap’ boys in a cycle where they are continually abused in exchange for money or other gifts.

The specialist First Step training helps participants understand more about how abuse happens, what is called the ‘cycle’ of abuse, the many grooming techniques used by abusers in Cambodia and importantly, how a deeper understanding of these can help us protect all children from sexual abuse.

“Gay men are responsible for the abuse of boys”

“Gay men are responsible for the abuse of boys”

Fact: Not true. Cambodian and international research shows us that abusers can be anyone – men or women, other children and young people. Most abusers are not gay men at all.

Our training curriculum and workshops explore these issues in more detail and help people overcome unhelpful, harmful and discriminatory beliefs, myths and attitudes.

For any male who has been sexually abused, becoming free of these myths and beliefs is an essential part of the recovery process.

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