Resource aims to help the one in six men who suffered childhood sexual abuse
TORONTO - Some of the psychological baggage is similar, to be sure, for women and men who survive sexual abuse in childhood. But there are special issues that can plague the men - as many as one in six, research suggests - who suffered sexual abuse as children. An Ottawa program that has been helping men in the National Capital Region come to grips with this trauma is now offering badly needed assistance for men across Canada.
That program, the Men's Project, has launched a web-based resource called 1in6 Canada. The idea, says national manager Rick Goodwin, is to connect men who need help with the resources that are within their grasp.
At this point there are too few, Goodwin admits.
Despite the attention the problem has received in recent years through the unearthing of residential school scandals and the sharing of the experiences of high-profile hockey players like Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury, there are only four agencies in Canada dedicated to offering programs for men who survived childhood sexual abuse, he says.
"We hear the stories of Fleury and Sheldon and we could go on," Goodwin says, "But that doesn't mean that good solid professional resources are available to those men who are victims."
Vancouver, Victoria, Montreal and Ottawa have agencies dedicated to this type of work. Elsewhere, communities may have some programs or services run within more broadly based agencies.
"But of course there are communities - and there are some provinces - that don't have anything for male survivors. That's how undeveloped the sector is compared to women's services," says Goodwin, a clinical social worker who is executive director of the Men's Project.
The need is great, as Scott Thompson and Jean-Paul Dufour can attest from personal experience.
Thompson, 50, and Dufour, 53, are graduates of the Men's Project. Both were sexually abused as young boys. Both spent years trying to repress their feelings about the abuse, without success.
Thompson, who was subjected to repeated sexual experiences mixed with violence, grew up to be a man who was quick to anger. Dufour turned to drugs and alcohol.
Dufour stopped using drugs and has been sober for 21 years with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. When he was 44, he met a man at AA who became a friend. The man shared stories of his childhood that were heartbreakingly familiar to Dufour. This new friend gave Dufour information about the Men's Project and its program for men who are sexual abuse survivors.
"I didn't want to go, you know. Because all my life I've been running away from it. But I thought I'd give it a try. And I went, because I wanted to stop my behaviour," the soft-spoken Dufour admits.
For Thompson, a run-in with the law finally convinced him he needed help. The police had been called when he and his son got into a fight. He asked a police chaplain for assistance, and was connected to several services, including the Men's Project.
"I had spent a lot of years lashing out at people for how I felt about myself. And I was determined that I wasn't going to spend the rest of my life lashing out at people for what had happened, that I had to get some help and work through it. And that's what I've done," he says.
Goodwin says on average, boys who are sexually abused experience the abuse starting about the age of nine or 10 - though for both Thompson and Dufour, the abuse started earlier, around the age of seven.
But men who've been abused sexually often don't seek help for it until decades later, Goodwin says. When they eventually do, it's generally motivated by a crisis in their life.
"We're working with men here who have tried to tough it out, tried to will it away, tried to drink it off," he says.
"Mostly men call us round these issues when they're in crisis. All their coping mechanisms, they no longer work. The relationship could be in jeopardy. They may be suicidal. They may have had an admission to hospital."
For both Dufour and Thompson, there was enormous relief in learning there were other men who felt the way they did.
"I think the reason for those meetings is to help us to establish connections -to understand why and that we're not alone," says Dufour, who grew up in Northern Ontario.
"I thought I was alone. Nobody else suffered like I did. But I was wrong."
Thompson discovered his problem wasn't anger, it was shame. It's at the root of the problem for many men who suffered sexual abuse in childhood, he says.
"Honestly, when I first walked into the Men's Project, I never even considered that shame was on my radar. I considered my issue was totally anger. And of course, it had nothing to do with anger, it has to do with shame," he says.
"And the hardest thing that I've seen every single guy walk in there with is that they feel like they should have done something to prevent it. And they feel guilty because almost every guy I've ever met there has taken their anger out on other people - usually their kids or their partners."
Goodwin says men who've been sexually abused by men can question their own sexuality. If they are straight, they may wonder if the fact a male abuser targeted them meant they were actually gay. Some won't seek help because they are convinced others will think they are gay, Goodwin says.
Regardless of sexual orientation, when unwanted stimulation brings on sexual arousal, the confusion that response evokes compounds the damage of the abuse.
"It's not just ... being overcome physically. It's that their body has betrayed them. That is also just another level of injury, if you want to call it that," says Goodwin.
If a boy's abuser is an older female the problem can be amplified by the fact that some in society wouldn't see that as abuse.
This problem was portrayed in an episode of the TV show "Glee" this season. A male character confesses he was abused by a babysitter when he was younger. His teacher is horrified but some of his buddies offer to high-five him. The character then tries to bury his story, convinced others don't understand the shame and confusion the experience triggers in him.
Goodwin, who saw the "Glee" episode, says it captured well the myth that being initiated into sex by someone older is not abuse.
"We've got lots of cultural messages - (films like) 'The Summer of '42,' 'The Graduate' - lots of media imagery to suggest that it's a non-issue," Goodwin says.
And often, there's the sense that males are just not as vulnerable to being sexually abused.
"For men, it is much, much harder for men to come forward because the idea is that you can't possibly have been sexually abused because you're a guy," says Thompson. "And if you didn't like it, you would just tell the person 'Go away' or you'd just hit them, or you'd stop it - because you're a guy."
On the Net: 1in6 Canada, www.1in6.ca
The Men's Project, www.themensproject.ca