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Help and hope are available for male sexual abuse survivors

Howe Sound Women's Centre is a safe place for all genders in need of sexual assault support.
Drazen ZigicGetty Images
Help is available for men who have been sexually abused.

Content warning: This story deals with the sexual assault of boys and men.

Chances are, there are guys in your life who are holding what they feel is a dark secret about surviving sexual assault they vowed never to share.

Or maybe you have such a secret.

If you do, those who offer sexual assault supports want you to know that help is available. 

And you aren't alone. 

While the often-cited statistic is that one in six men have experienced sexual abuse or assault, experts believe this is a low estimate.

"I think it's almost impossible to imagine that they're not higher than that," said Mason Shell, a clinical counsellor at the BC Society for Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse (BCSMSSA), which is based in Vancouver. 

"I think a lot of men are much less likely to report; they are more likely if it's historical."

Shell said he has known men who held onto their secret for decades. 

"I always try to tell my younger clients, and they're like, in their 20s, 'Good on you for actually opening up about this now,'" he said.

Social attitudes and stereotypes may make boys and men feel that if they were masculine enough, sexual abuse wouldn’t have happened to them. 

"As tragic as it is, being... raped or sexually assaulted as a man is still perceived as quite incongruent with the idea of masculinity. So that's something that I think people still struggle with," he said. "Even our clients have their own misconceptions and biases. And there's a lot of 'I should have fought back,'...or 'Am I weak or [less masculine] because someone else kind of was the dominant one?' There are lots of those narratives that obviously we work to dispel."

April is sexual assault awareness month.

What to say to a survivor?

If a friend or a loved one reveals they were sexually assaulted, the instinct is to try to fix or help the situation, but that is not what Shell advises. 

"The classic thing when you're being emotionally trained as a therapist is to be able to empathize but not always problem-solve," he said. 

"A lot of it is just making sure the person who went through it is seen and that other people understand it was a terrible thing."

When hearing someone's story, make sure that the impact of the event is defined by the survivor, not the listener, Shell said. 

"If someone's telling a story, and you're thinking, 'Oh, I don't think that would have bothered me that much,' shelve those feelings and really sit in it with the person. Or if someone's telling a story that you think should be really horrific, yet they're actually OK with it, not to make them feel weird that it's not more traumatic than you think it should be," he said. 

“The main thing I'd suggest is, they're not going to be looking to you to go back and solve it or to find the perpetrator or to convince them that they do love themselves...You just kind of have to sit in the shit with them. You have to sit and understand that that's terrible."

'Justice versus healing'

Shell says there can be some conflation between justice and healing for survivors and their families. Getting justice — the conviction of a predator, for example — doesn't necessarily mean the survivor is healed by that.

"Trauma… comes from people being in a situation where they don't have control or where they look back and feel like they were manipulated, so they were operating without control. So, I think there's a bit of a conflation, even for clients, with this pursuit of justice, as a way to give the nervous system kind of a sense of control," Shell said.

The legal system can be intimidating and traumatizing for victims of crime, so try not to shame survivors if they aren't choosing to pursue charges, he added. 

There are a lot of myths around sexual abuse of men and boys, including that being abused is a straight line to being an abuser and that is not the case, Shell said. 

 "It's more or less about one in 10 people who have been abused go on to abuse. And even then, it's actually more linked to whether there was alcoholism in the family or neglect and stuff like that," he said. 

These types of narratives work to keep men ashamed to tell, Shell said, adding he has seen tragic cases with clients who were abused as kids avoid their children as fathers out of fear they will abuse them. But, in fact, they have none of the urges that would lead them to abuse. 

For some victims, there can also be a lot of shame around their bodies having a biological reaction to the abuse. 

They question if it didn't physically hurt, was it abuse?

"There's certainly a difference between having a physiological response to it and consenting," Shell said. 

"There's often like a feeling of being complicit in the abuse people went through, even if it's like a 40-year-old and a six-year-old." 

Shell said sexual abuse of children often involves grooming and is commonly perpetrated by someone whom the child trusts. The reactions to sexual abuse are therefore nuanced. 

"I think because of the complexity and the nuance, it's easy for people to look at a distance and be like, 'Oh, well, I never would have...' or 'that person chose to do that.' But almost always, there's some reason that the child felt safe with someone... And that's often when people feel bad about finding the experience traumatic," he said. 

One more therapeutic piece of advice Shell offers is to not focus so much on the survivor’s feelings at the time of the abuse, but on how the survivor feels today. 

"Allowing them to come back into the present and realize, hey, there's something valuable about me speaking about this right now. And it's a kind of subtle reminder that they did survive, they are in the room with you, or they are on the phone with you."

The ripple effect of the secret

Being sexually abused without healing that trauma can lead to ripple effects throughout life, Shell noted. 

There is a lot of crossover between being abused and addiction, for example. 

Or life just becomes harder. 

"People have issues with trust or anxiety, or they're always vigilant, or they can't feel intimate or sexual without kind of wanting to run out of the room, and they can't figure out why," Shell said. 

While suffering abuse is a terrible thing, there is plenty of hope, Shell stressed. 

"I've never had a client that regretted coming in to start unpacking this stuff," he said. 

"A lot of clients who come in suicidal, having a very dark time, and now they are in stable relationships and doing well. And they're not ashamed of the type of abuse they suffered," he said. 

His message to anyone reading this who is suffering from sexual abuse is there is help and hope.

"They probably feel isolated, they probably feel alone, even if they're in a room with loved ones. They probably feel like no one understands them because they've never been fully vulnerable or authentic because there's that part of them that they're hiding from everyone. And there's something beautiful about bringing that into the light. 

"And that I think that that part of them is lovable. That even if they don't seek help professionally, and they want to work through stuff on their own, I mean, I hope they're able to look at that little kid [inside] and treat him with compassion rather than beating their adult self up in the present."

Help in the Sea to Sky

Though the name highlights females, the Howe Sound Women’s Centre is a safe space for all who need it, says Ashley Oakes, the centre's executive director. 

"Our Sexual Assault Response Program has become a 24-hour program through what's now being called TRAVERSE [project] and our sexual assault response team is able to reach both ends of the corridor and all throughout accessing support for survivors, meeting them where they're at, and assisting them in accessing additional supports, whether that's a forensic examination or RCMP accompaniment, and third-party reporting as well. And the program is open to all genders experiencing sexual violence," she said. 

On the centre's website, there is a chat widget that connects directly to an on-call sexual assault worker.

Folks of any gender can also go to the drop-in centers, in Squamish and Whistler, both of which have sexual assault support workers available.

"Our space is open to men who are seeking support and are safe," she said, addressing the perception that perhaps the Women's Centre is not open to men.

"We can manage client needs within the space to make sure everyone feels safe."

Further, men can feel comfortable coming into the centre to support their partners, children or friends as well, she said. 

She added that many of the staff are taking their master's in counselling and so free counselling is available as part of their practicum. 

"The counselling is completely free and is open to all genders."

Oakes said, like many organizations over the last few years, the Howe Sound Women's Centre has been re-evaluating to make sure it is gender-inclusive. 

"Our understanding of gender has changed and grown and become more inclusive over the years and Howe Sound Women Centre is adapting to that as well. We want the community to know that our space is a safe space for gender-diverse and gender non-conforming folks, whether they are two-spirit, trans, or non-binary. Our emergency housing is available to gender-diverse folks, our crisis support services are available." 

Over the next year or so, the centre aims to continue to evaluate its brand to ensure everyone feels safe and welcome, she added. 

Find out more about the Howe Sound Women’s Centre and its programs on its website.

The crisis line is 1-877-890-5711.