Gary Jennings didn’t know he was sexually abused as a child until he was 50 years old.
He said that for a while a large part of his childhood was completely blocked out, and it wasn’t until his mid-forties that memories started coming back.
“They started to increase in frequency and that’s when I started putting the puzzle together,” Jennings told Global News.
In his early 50s, he said he opened up to a psychiatrist about the flashbacks.
“He would listen and he knew what was going on before I did. But he couldn’t ask specific questions because he ran the risk of implanting false memories,” said Jennings.
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He said talking about his feelings and the flashbacks helped him remember the sexual abuse he experienced as a child by a family member.
“The person that was supposed to be protecting me was actually in fact abusing me,” explained Jennings.
Jennings said coming to terms with everything was challenging.
“I think it was just an overwhelming shame and triggers that would set me off. I couldn’t cope with them or anything,” he said.
He said he realized that in order to heal he had to cut off ties with the family member.
“I knew I had to get away from him so I could deal with my issues because every time I saw him it would just start everything up again,” he said.
A few years later, Jennings said he was introduced to Family Service Thames Valley (FSTV), an organization that conducts therapy for male sexual assault survivors. He said he started there with individual counselling and has since moved on to group therapy.
“It made such a huge difference in my life,” he said. “There was no judgement amongst the group members because we’ve all been through the same thing. It made me feel less alone.”
Jennings said that since starting he’s worked through how the abuse affected him and the triggers that comes with it.
“I learned that I deserve self-respect,” said Jennings. “Without the therapies I would still be stuck and either not acknowledging it or just thinking it was something that can’t be fixed.”
He said he thinks there needs to be specific training for male survivors of sexual abuse since traditionally women have come out more about their abuse.
“I’m sure there’s a big difference between how it effects women’s lives and men’s lives. I’m not saying one is worse than the other it’s just different.”
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Rick Goodwin, founder and clinical services director at Men & Healing, conducts training for therapists on male sexual trauma. His organizations yearly event, Male Sexual Trauma & Recovery, is based in Ottawa and provides healthcare professionals and frontline workers techniques in working with male survivors.
“The sexual abuse of men is the topic area we’re most noted for in terms of training,” Goodwin told Global News. “It’s such a specialized area where there is not a lot of resources, and if you want to do work in this field sometimes you have to travel far to receive training.”
The organization said on its website that counselling and psychotherapy isn’t designed for men, so they teach a male-centred approach to psychology and therapy which is helpful when dealing with sexual abuse for men and boys.
Goodwin told Global News that there are still cities in Canada that don’t have services for male survivors or therapists that can recognize signs of male sexual trauma.
“This is kind of the angle for why we put the effort in the training and by doing so we know that there are a number of communities across Canada that now have male survivor services. It’s an important part in helping address this issue.”
The director explained the event, which is running from June 5 to 7, covers masculinity, mental health and sexual trauma of men, healing techniques and skill building, as well as issues around anger and sexual expression.
“I think there is great reluctance for men to come forward. The average age for men coming into the trauma recovery program is 45 and the average age for sexual abuse for boys is between nine and 10. On average they’re waiting three and a half decades before tending to these wounds.”
Chuck MacLean, the executive director at The Family Services of Peel, said statistics show that one in seven men have been victims of sexual abuse, and that in Ontario there are approximately seven million men over the age of 16 that need support.
According to a report by The Family Services of Peel, only five per cent of programs that serve male victims have services designed for men.
“Many crisis centres either explicitly refuse to serve male victims, or are highly insensitive to their needs,” said the report.
Jonathan Schmidt, a clinical lead at FSTV where Jennings attends, said their organization offers group work for men who’ve experienced childhood sexual abuse.
He explained that having survivors work and hear stories in groups can be powerful in reducing stigmas.
“You have the benefit and opportunity to support the other group members and make a difference,” Schmidt told Global News. “You also receive that care from them and that can feel different than it does from a therapist.”
He explained that therapists need to know how to work with male survivors since it’s difficult for the men to be vulnerable.
“Men are socialized that they’re sexual and that they always like sex,” Schmidt told Global News. “In this context of men are tough and men aren’t victims there tends to be less services available for boys and males.”
In order to help men, Schmidt said that it’s important to notice the survivor’s energy, then take a step back and let them know they’re safe.
“As treatment providers I think we need to be more compassionately present to men’s victimization and how that shows up and offer services that are more accessible for them,” he said.
Despite the work and stigmas that need to be changed, Jennings said he’s happy the issue is being recognized and that people are getting together to help survivors.
“The more we learn on how to recognize and how to treat male survivors is a wonderful plan,” he said.
He said he wants survivors to know that it isn’t their fault and in order to heal they have to seek help.
“Everything gets twisted around in one’s own mind,” said Jennings. “By not coming forward we’re all staying isolated in that aspect of our lives.”
In Jennings case, he said he’s farther in the healing process than he ever thought he could be.
“It’s like giving you back your life and everyone deserves to live their life to the fullest,” he said. “There are healthy ways to deal with it and learn that you can live a normal life.”