Recent allegations of child molestation against a former Penn State University assistant football coach have again cast a spotlight on the tortured legacy of sexual-abuse victims.
Jerry Sandusky, 67, was arrested earlier this month on 40 counts of molesting eight boys over a 15-year period.
Such stories don’t stop at the border. There have been cases across this country of abuse by Catholic priests, as well as more recent allegations involving Scouts Canada. Hockey players have stepped forward to tell their harrowing tales of abuse, including allegations by former NHL star Theo Fleury.
In fact, thousands of men across Canada -an estimated one in six – have been victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18.
These men are haunted; some have uncontrollable fits of rage; and a disproportionate number of them are believed to be filling this country’s prisons.
But despite the toll such abuse has taken, victims and experts say there is still a lack of resources directed toward men, and that male victims face a unique stigma.
“I’ve been in an emotional prison for 25 years, and I will be for the rest of my life – there’s nothing that’s going to change that,” Jason Davies told Postmedia News.
Story continues below
Like many young boys who are targets of sexual predators, Davies says he was quiet and shy as a youngster. He said he was vulnerable because his parents both struggled with alcohol abuse and he said they saw Richard Turley – Davies’ Boy Scout leader – as a positive influence.
In 1996, Turley was convicted of assaulting four boys, three of whom were Scouts, and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Speaking from his Vancouver home, Davies, who is now 37, said that from the age of seven, he was afraid every day. After five years of consistent sexual abuse, Davies ran away from home, at age 12, to live on the streets of Victoria. He stayed there for two years.
Flashbacks of his abuse still haunt him. He’s on daily medication for clinical depression. Sometimes, he has panic attacks twice a day. He says he can’t trust anybody, “which makes it impossible to have relationships.”
Although research on the long term consequences of child sexual abuse on men is limited, experts agree many trends are clear.
The majority of prison inmates across Canada have been physically or sexually abused, experts say.
Many men and women turn to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain, or to stop the memories. For many, it can be difficult to hold down a job or to maintain intimate relationships.
For men in particular, promiscuity, uncontrollable rage and aggressive behaviour are common coping mechanisms as they attempt to overcompensate for what they experience as the emasculating effect of sexual abuse at the hands of an older man, said Jim Hopper, a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School, who has studied the long-term effects of sexual abuse on men.
Many who suffer from mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, have a history of sexual abuse. And, the destruction doesn’t stop in the mind.
The body’s immune system, the stress-response system and brain function are all damaged by trauma during childhood, Hopper said.
“Relative to girls, boys are socialized to not be aware of, to not express, and to not have empathy for vulnerable emotions,” said Hopper. “So, when you’re abused, you’re hit with these overwhelming emotions, and, as a male, you’re conditioned not to be able to deal with them.
“This makes it incredibly hard for them to report it, initially, and then to seek help,” said Hopper who says that despite the obvious uphill battle, men who have had unwanted sexual experiences can heal with appropriate therapy.
But, the road is long. And every victim’s healing process is different.
Rick Goodwin, of The Men’s Project, says there is no “cure” for the effects of childhood abuse. Trauma therapy “can be a hellish process, but we see guys finish this program in much stronger shape.” He said therapy programs give men tools to cope with what, for many, is a lifelong process.
Above all, Goodwin said the work is not short-term. “It requires a pretty informed plan of treatment to address these deep and looming issues that the guys carry – resources that, in Canada, are few and far between.”
Today, while there are 39 centres for female victims of abuse in Ontario alone, there are only four agencies across Canada devoted to counselling men who have been victims of sexual abuse – The Men’s Project in Ottawa, Criphase in Montreal, Victoria Men’s Trauma Centre in B.C., and Vancouver’s B.C. Society for Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse.
Goodwin said the future of The Men’s Project, which is funded through the Attorney General of Ontario, is unclear as funding past March 2012 still hasn’t been guaranteed. “If we lose that core funding, and can’t find another donor, we’ll have to close our doors,” he said.
And, that, Goodwin said, will leave many men out in the cold. “We fail to recognize that children become adults, boys become men, and after age 18, all the social safety supports are missing from 48 per cent of the population,” said Goodwin, “I think we’re still up against a lot of social denial that we’ve got to really think about what we do as a society if we want to make it healthier.”
For his part, Davies is not enrolled in any treatment plan. He used to see a psychiatrist, but now he breeds exotic birds such as macaws, Amazons and African greys, and plans to start a business where he will set a third of them free in Brazil. “It’s very calming,” he said, “that’s what works for me.”
Davies said coming forward – and going public – with the story of his abuse has made some of his symptoms worse. “My doctor just upped my anti-depressant dose.” But, he said, if his voice helps just one young person, it will be worth it.
“Parents, and caring adults, need to watch their children closely for signs of potential abuse,” he said.
He warns that a child who is emotionally distant, one who stares out the window for hours or who has violent outbursts out of the blue, could be suffering, and they need to be approached delicately.
“Don’t get angry,” said Davies. “That’s exactly what stops a child from coming forward. Just tell the child that anything they want to say is OK. Talk to your kids.”