For more than three years, John Smith’s stepbrother sexually assaulted him on a weekly basis. He didn’t tell anyone because even at the age of seven, he knew it would break up his family and lead to financial crisis for his mother.
“This is what masculinity does. It told me that I did not matter; what mattered was that I could protect my mother,” says Smith, whose real name has not been used in order to protect his identity. “I was a man; I wasn’t supposed to hurt.”
Smith eventually went to live with his father and spent years using drugs and alcohol to escape constant night terrors.
“I would go to raves all night because trying to sleep scared the shit out of me. I convinced myself I was just a wild partier, but really blacking out was the only way I could sleep,” he says.
He struggled with his sexuality for years and attempted suicide twice.
“I was abused by the one person that was supposed to teach me how to ride a bike and play basketball; instead, he stole my childhood and caused me to grow up with so much hate for myself,” he says.
According to Rick Goodwin, of the Men’s Project, one in six men are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and 80 percent of abuse occurs before the age of 18. Despite this, only 16 percent of male victims will admit to experiencing abuse.
Many factors keep men quiet, Goodwin says. Two basic tenets of masculinity are strength and control over one’s sexual experiences, so it’s often assumed either that a man cannot be victimized or that being abused makes a man less of a “real man.”
Homophobia also plays a role in men’s silence, says Ron Couchman, an Ottawa activist and support worker. Since 80 percent of men are sexually abused by other men, the victim fears his sexuality will be questioned if he speaks about his experience.
While there are programs in Ottawa that seek to combat these myths and break the silence around violence against men and boys, they are generally underfunded and operating at capacity.
When it comes to domestic violence, some agencies offer support for men, but those fleeing a violent partner won’t find a shelter in the city. “I don’t believe there’s a bed in Ontario for a man who’s been abused,” says Goodwin.
Men could access other emergency shelters, such as the Salvation Army, says Mark Holmes, coordinator of New Directions, an Ottawa program for individuals who have been abusive to their partners.
“This actually isn’t much different than the situation facing abused women,” he says. “In Ottawa, there are only about 100 to 125 beds available, so women often can’t find space.”
It isn’t lack of need that stands in the way of providing services for abused men, gay or straight.
In 2004, Statistics Canada found that six percent of men had experienced some kind of spousal abuse in the previous five years, compared with seven percent of women. That translates to an estimated 653,000 women and 546,000 men.
Holmes says that when looking at statistics, it is important to be aware of the type of violence being recorded. There are three main types of intimate-partner violence: coercive controlling violence, a pattern of violence used to exert power and control in a relationship; violent resistance, violence used by the victim of abuse, often in self-defence; and situational violence, violence that is not linked to a pattern of controlling behaviour.
Coercive controlling violence is what women’s groups have been organizing around since the 1970s.
“This is almost always used by men against women, which is why there is a network of shelters for women, but not men,” Holmes says.
Some research suggests the rates of domestic violence are higher in gay relationships, but most services are still oriented around heterosexual experiences, experts say.
“We have a sexist presumption around who’s in need of victim services, and we have a heterosexist assumption of who’s in need of services,” says Goodwin.
According to a 1998 US study, abuse occurs in 25 to 33 percent of gay and lesbian relationships.
“I have spent a lot of time over the last 10 years lobbying the provincial government for funding to either increase the programs or create a shelter, and I’ve gotten absolutely nowhere,” says Theo Boere, of the Nanaimo Men’s Resource Centre. “There’s no political appetite for funding that.”
The Nanaimo Men’s Resource Centre is the closest British Columbia comes to a shelter for abused men. The centre finances short stays at a guesthouse in Nanaimo for men escaping domestic violence, Boere says.
He says programming has been cut in half due to lack of funding. The centre now receives only 44 percent of what it was granted two years ago by the provincial government.
The situation is similar in Ottawa, with the Men’s Project receiving less provincial funding this year than it has in the past.
“Funding tends to be more projects-based, so there’s not a lot of sustainable funding that exists,” says a source at a local organization that tackles violence against women.
With most funds in the anti-violence sector granted in two or three year increments, it’s more difficult to obtain funding for long-term projects, such as domestic violence shelters, she says.
But the services that manage to tough it out are valuable, especially to survivors like Smith.
Six years ago, he finally came out to his partner about his abuse.
“After that night, I spent a year attending group therapy at the Men’s Project, and I will forever be in their debt,” he says.
“It is amazing being a survivor, because for a long while, I almost didn’t. Finally getting support not only saved my life, but made me want to live it. I love every minute of every day now, and I love myself.”