At least 1 in 6 men has been sexually abused or assaulted, either in childhood, in their teens or as adults.
To put that in perspective, every year, 1 in 5 people catch the flu.
Let that sink in.
This statistic alone demonstrates a clear need to help men process trauma and heal. But the severe lack of resources for male survivors of sexual abuse makes it incredibly difficult for them to move forward with their lives.
Crippling loneliness, unhealthy relationships, difficulty holding down a job, self-destructive behaviors, addiction, mental health issues like depression and suicidal thoughts and even violence are common consequences of sexual abuse.
For Peter Hamer, the reality of dealing with sexual abuse is all too familiar.
During the 1980’s, Peter was a student at Bell High School in Ottawa, Canada. His music teacher Bob Clarke, someone who Peter liked and trusted at the time, sexually abused him on several occasions. He went to the principal about the abuse inflicted on him. The only recourse was Clarke being transferred to another school. Another teacher, Tim Stanutz, replaced Clarke.
Like so many sexual abuse survivors, Peter didn’t disclose for decades, even though he had come close several times over the years. However, in 2016, he came across a news story about Stanutz being arrested on sexual assault charges. This shocking event drove Peter to finally press charges against his abuser, which subsequently triggered a year-long investigation by the CBC into the rampant sexual abuse and assaults at Bell High School in Ottawa.
In the end it was discovered that three different music teachers, including Clarke and Stanutz, abused their positions of power to manipulate, groom, sexually abuse and assault about 44 students over a span of four decades from the 1970s to 2005. Like Peter, the other survivors, both men and women, took decades to fully disclose what happened to them.
Speaking specifically about how difficult it is for men to open up about their sexual abuse, Peter says, “Men are still taught to be strong all the time. We’re supposed to be the providers. Even though society’s view is shifting, it’s still very much part of who we are. I’m a 52, almost-53-year-old man, and that’s how I was raised, intentionally or not. That was the world that I, and so many others, lived in.”
He continues, “If something happens to you when you’re a young boy and you don’t like it, you’re certainly not going to tell anybody about it because being a victim is also being weak. And for men, the idea of being weak goes against our very core.”
Because these men don’t come forward, it’s hard for people and organizations to recognize the need for resources to help them.
For female-identified people, including gender-fluid and gender-neutral individuals, who have survived sexual abuse, there are safe spaces to which they can turn. But there are few resources specifically catered to men who have been sexually abused funded by the government or anywhere else in Canada.
Strength Found’s mission is to fill a huge gap in a space where there are very few resources for men. In Ontario, there’s only one other survivor-led peer group for survivors of sexual abuse called The Gatehouse.
The Barriers to Getting Support
Survivors of sexual assault often struggle for years, even decades after their abuse. Those who can’t keep a job for extended periods of time or rely on social assistance won’t have the money to invest in $200/hour for therapy.
Even when money is not an issue, people can sometimes encounter a lack of expertise on how to help men who have survived sexual abuse. Like other mental health issues, working with male victims of sexual assault requires more than general mental health therapy knowledge. There are many specific considerations that need to be taken into account—these men need somebody who has the necessary skills and training to help them heal from their trauma.
How Peer Support Groups Can be a Saving Grace
Therapeutic solutions can provide survivors with answers and strategies through a clinical framework. However, a peer group, which Peter Hamer likens to Alcoholics Anonymous for sexual assault victims, exists to provide support from people who have experienced similar situations. There’s a level of connection and understanding you can’t get from talking to a therapist or confiding in a loved one who doesn’t know what it’s like to be a survivor.
In fact, Peter and the other survivors of the sexual abuse committed by the teachers at Bell High School started an informal support group at Peter’s house. The humour at these dinnertime get-togethers can be dark, but these men and women have found a welcoming place to socialize and express themselves without judgment or shame.
For survivors of sexual abuse, the benefits of having a conversation with people who can validate their feelings and understand what they’ve been through are immense. It’s valuable because they can feel very alone and believe that they’re the only ones dealing with this kind of abuse.
What if Peter had met the other survivors from Bell High School in 1986 when he graduated? He imagines he would’ve gone to law enforcement a lot sooner and been more open about what happened to him.
“I’ve been to some pretty damn dark places. I can only assume that things would’ve been different if I had the opportunity to process what happened to me sooner and not live with feeling alone. If I had known that there were other people that went through what I did, I can only imagine how incredible that could have been for me.”
Despite the hardships he’s endured, Peter doesn’t let the darkness in his past prevent him from building a bright future. Whether it’s leading a group of physicians and health professionals as the Executive Director of the Ottawa Valley Family Health Team or providing guidance as one of Voice Found’s board members, he leads a life dedicated to serving others.
“The lack of resources for male survivors is largely due to a lack of understanding, but it’s also because there aren’t many of us survivors who have stood up and said, ‘This is what we want’. Encouraging that is part of my mission. My hope is that as more survivor-led programs like Strength Found becomes available, people can heal faster and change the trajectory of their lives for the better.”