“Man up,” “Boys don’t cry,” or “Grow a pair”—these are just a few of the common terms thrown around to describe how a man should act. In our society, men are not supposed to show emotion, even in the face of traumatic events such as abuse.
“One in six men will be or have been abused by the time they are 18. To think that it is a non-issue is disingenuous and it is not helpful to the people who have the courage to come forward,” says Lynne MacDonell, a psychotherapist and founder of Lynne MacDonell & Associates, who specializes in male abuse victims.
The problem with male abuse—either physical, sexual or emotional—is people in society are often not exposed to it so it is out of sight and therefore out of mind.
“Female abuse has been recognized for so long. There is a time—you go back to the ‘60s and ‘70s—and there was a time that they didn’t talk about it, and weren’t allowed to talk about it,” says Curtis St. John, past president and media spokesperson for MaleSurvivor.org and a survivor of abuse. “It is about women paving the way for men so that we can finally start to talk about it. They got a head start at smashing the taboo.”
Trying to cope
St. John points out from his personal experience that victims often develop depression and grow up not feeling “normal.”
“I can recall sitting in my house, and I had a great family, but I was looking out the window crying wondering why I can’t be normal. A lot of men secretly wonder why they can’t be normal,” St. John says. “What I am not seeing in the media is that happiness and recovery is possible—you simply have to be able to talk about it, talk to the right therapist or person, and then happiness and recovery is possible.”
“The problem is many men will not associate what happened when they were kids to the challenges they face in their adult life,” he continues.
MacDonell explains victims use other outlets to help them cope with the pain or shame of the abuse, which often further complicates their lives.
“If they have problems with anger management, they may end up in broken relationships or end up in jail. If they have problems with substance abuse, they may end up in jail. And if they become workaholics, their families don’t get the chance to have a partner or father figure in the home,” MacDonell says.
The main reason many males don’t come forward about abuse is because of the societal stigmas.
“One of the most common and the most dangerous misconception is that if a boy is abused, then he automatically grows up to be an abuser himself, and that is not true. Eighty-nine per cent do not go on to be offenders themselves,” St. John says.
Another misconception is that men should get over it, but they are just as wounded as a woman who has been a victim.
“Men feel just as much shame as the women,” explains Ellen Campbell, president and founder of the Canadian Centre for Abuse Awareness. “Women have people to talk to like their girlfriends and can process it—men don’t. When they finally come out with it, they could be married, and their wives and families don’t know. When they finally do come out it is incredibly difficult.”
Seeking help and reporting abuse is key to recovery.
“Women, as well as men, may be reluctant to come forward to report abuse,” says Sylwia Gomes, senior media relations advisor for the Public Health Agency of Canada. “Ensuring that women and men have access to the right supports is key to reporting abuse.”
One of the most famous cases of male abuse came to light in November 2011 when Jerry Sandusky, a former Pennsylvania State football assistant coach, was arrested and arraigned on 40 criminal counts of sexual assault.
“At Penn State there was a 10 year old child being raped. Someone saw that, but because that child was a little boy, they did nothing. If that had been a little girl, the person who witnessed it would have freaked out,” MacDonell says. “The fact that it was a little boy, the men walked away thinking this is a gay issue. How can somebody have informed consent for sex when there is such an age disparity and power disparity? It is unbelievable.”
Penn State was not the first, nor will it be the last, case of male victimization. In 2009, former NHL player Theoren Fleury came forward about being abused as child by his junior hockey coach Graham James.
“About 20 years ago I did the first national conference from survivors of childhood sexual abuse and only a handful of men came out, and that was true for many years until Martin Kruze [the first victim to speak out about abuse at Maple Leaf Gardens] committed suicide 13 years ago,” Campbell explains. “That brought the issue out in the open about male victims. Because there have been some high profile cases around male victimization, it is now a lot more accepted. We are now getting more calls from men asking for help.”
St. John expresses the sentiment that if it is not talked about you can’t fix it.
“Men do not tend to seek treatment because no one talks about it, so they must not be allowed to talk about it,” St. John said. “[With] the most famous case to the day, the Sandusky case, our website statistics for men seeking help skyrocketed by 66 per cent, practically overnight. Men don’t talk about this, however men talk about sports, and you can’t talk about sports without talking about Sandusky. What that has done is given them permission to be open and say ‘me too.’”
MacDonnell says from her experience, personal and group therapy are key to helping men overcome their abuse.
“There are two things I see working magically—therapy and group therapy. Group therapy allows the victim to hear other men and find out that he is not alone, and find out that some of the feelings he’s been feeling don’t make him crazy, it is kind of normal given what he’s been through.”
MaleSurvivor.org offer a variety of resources for victims including an anonymous discussion board, live chat rooms, online articles and a function to find a therapist in your area that is qualified to handle sexual abuse cases.