Allan Kehler was 30 when his memories of being sexually abused as a child came flooding back.
“I liked smoking at an early age because I felt as though I was killing something inside,” he said. “I never knew what that was.”
Once he figured it out, he wanted to face it head on — but Kehler was terrified to share what had happened to him.
Still, he mustered up the courage to attend group counselling for men who have experienced sexual violence.
At the first session, there was a counsellor and just one other man in the room.
“(The counsellor) asked some kind of a question and I tried to reply. And I bet 20 seconds later, I just broke,” Kehler said.
“The only other guy in that room, he looked at me and he said the words that probably saved my life. And he said, ‘It’s okay, Al, I get it.”
For the first time in his life, Kehler didn’t have to carry the weight of his shame alone.
“That was my liberation,” he said.
“Throughout all my struggles, whether it was mental illness, addiction, sexual abuse, I just wanted to be understood.”
The men’s group at the Saskatoon Sexual Assault and Information Centre has grown signficantly over the past nine years.
Megan Sawyer, the centre’s client services coordinator, said it started with just two men. This winter, 13 men registered.
“Even nine years ago, it was a big deal that we were getting numbers at all,” said Sawyer, noting at one point, demand was so low that the group went on hiatus.
While women and girls are most often the targets of sexual abuse, she said one in six men have experienced sexual violence — many of them as children.
Toxic male stereotypes make it challenging to come forward, she said, but the growth of the group points to the gradual erosion of the stigma.
“There’s been some higher-profile cases of men coming out, so it’s slowly becoming less stigmatized,” Sawyer said. “We’ve seen that in our clientele — more men engaged with the centre.”
Kehler, who still goes to support group, said the growing attendance is a sign the conversation is changing for the better.
“To be understood is everything,” he said.
“The only way to be understood is to surround yourself with other people who have similar lived experiences.”
Kehler said taking the risk of being vulnerable sent him down the path of healing.
“There are so many men who continue to suffer in silence,” he said.
“Silence has never been the answer. It will never be the answer, so we have to continue to put a voice to this.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual violence, please call one of Saskatchewan’s regional crisis lines.