Kayana Szymczak for NPR
Jim Holland says he was raped by a priest when he was 13. For the next 30 years, Holland locked away his trauma, keeping him at bay with alcohol, drugs and promiscuity. The 2003 Boston Globe An investigation into sexual abuse by priests triggered her memories.
“I kept saying, ‘No, it didn’t matter. It really didn’t happen,'” says Holland.
Holland knew he needed help, but there were few therapists specializing in this kind of trauma. So he pushed away his pain.
It took another five years, her brother’s suicide and a pulmonary embolism for Holland to find Fenway Health’s men’s support group in Boston. In the first session, Holland recalls, everyone had their eyes on the mat.
“It was uncomfortable, my heart was pounding and I didn’t want to be there,” said Holland.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused. It’s a largely silent epidemic despite high-profile revelations of abuse by Catholic priests and Boy Scout leaders. Failure to cope with this problem makes recovery and healing difficult for many men and most of the estimated 21 million male survivors who never disclose that they were abused.
Sharon Imperato of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) helped animate Holland’s group and worked with male survivors for almost 20 years. She says men generally seek services around the age of 40, driven by depression or anxiety. Many men do not recognize their trauma as sexual abuse or rape, but have to deal with the impacts.
“They just know someone hurt them and selected to hurt them, ”Imperato said.
She says even the field of mental health does not fully recognize the prevalence of male survivors and that many providers are still shocked to learn that men experience sexual violence at such high rates.
Holland says he couldn’t have recovered without his support group. It taught him that he was not alone and to let go of his shame and blame.
“It allowed me to show my soul in front of a bunch of other guys without being judged,” Holland said. “You must always remember that you are not to blame for what happened to you, you were a child.”
Joining the group also helped Holland reconnect with his 13-year-old self. He remembered his hiding in a closet where he buried himself among garbage bags full of clothes.
“I was hiding from everyone and didn’t want to be seen, but at the same time, I also wanted to be found,” Holland says. “I let this little boy know that he is fine and that I will protect him. No one is going to hurt you.”
In 2013, Holland became the first man to speak publicly for BARCC. He says that’s when he started to see how many other male survivors are there.
“From kids in their 20s, 25s to men in their 70s, 75s, 80s … firefighters, police, teachers, doctors,” says Holland.
Holland is frustrated with what he calls society’s blocking of recognizing this problem. But the public’s lack of knowledge comes as no surprise Matthew Ennis, CEO of 1in6.org, a national organization serving male survivors.
“The men just didn’t want to share their stories,” says Ennis. “We live in a society that teaches us that men are meant to be strong, that we don’t have the right to be vulnerable.”
Ennis says the male abuser and female victim paradigm clouds the whole story, but he sees signs of a shift. Demand for 1in6.org’s training services has tripled in the past two years, including demands from the military and universities, and online support groups for male survivors are full.
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