When Everett was six years old, he was placed in the care of Children’s Aid. By the time he was nine, he had been shuffled from group home to group home. At one of those group homes, Everett was sexually assaulted by a teenage male over an extended period of time.
Fast-forward 26 years, and Everett is in treatment for alcohol abuse, charged with domestic violence and has a six-year old son.
“I’m tired and I really need to change things,” he told Social Worker Tatjana Singer when he was first referred to The Scarborough Hospital’s Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre. After ten sessions, Everett (not his real name) feels he is getting the help he needs “to face my demons. I feel better and stronger for facing them.”
“At first, reaching out was hard. I didn’t know where to go and I was worried I’d be judged,” Everett says. “Maybe I would have sought help sooner, but I don’t know. Back then, I didn’t know services for me existed. I do know that when I did reach out, I was ready.”
One in four females will have experienced a sexual assault by the age of 18. The number of males who have also experienced a sexual assault is lower – one in six – but it is generally understood that sexual assaults are under-reported for both males and females.
“We offer 12 sessions of one-on-one counselling to sexual assault victims, as well as medical intervention with a clinical nurse on the team in case there are any concerns of STDs,” Tatjana explains. “We connect them to other services in the community, to transition them if they need additional help.”
Sexual assault victims find their way to the centre one of two ways: through the emergency department because they’ve been assaulted within the past 72 hours, or they have been referred to the Centre through the legal system, a family physician, guidance counsellor or find the information online.
“It’s not only clients who have a history of sexual abuse, but also recent victims who realize that, ‘hey, this doesn’t just happen to me,’” Tatjana explains.
“Throughout the community stream referral, we see victims who have had that experience within the past two years, and may be ambivalent about counselling,” explains Social Worker Rahel-Leigh Peckett. “Then something comes on the news – the sex abuse scandal at Penn State last fall, for example – and victims think that maybe it’s time to reach out. We generally see a spike in male clients after such an event. There is that window of opportunity for them.”
Once they engage in counselling, the Centre – which serves both men and women 12 years and older – provides therapeutic intervention that includes psycho-education to highlight they are not alone. While the therapy approach is similar for both genders, male clients have a tougher time dealing with it.
“I think there’s an extra layer of stigma for male clients in getting help and talking about it,” Rahel-Leigh explains. “Anecdotally, in my own experience working with males, most have been assaulted or abused by other males, so there’s that extra question: how does this affect my sexuality? What does it mean about my sexual orientation?”
“And due to male socialization – they’re raised not to cry and should be able to protect themselves – our approach in providing therapy differs,” Tatjana adds. “We have these hurdles to address early on. I also noticed male clients tend to ‘act out’ more. They’re not just dealing with the impact of sexual assault, but many are dealing with an addiction issue or a mental health issue. Those cases tend to be more complex.”
Indeed, depression, alcoholism and drug addiction are common side effects of sexual assault. And since males are less likely to come forward or take longer to come forward, “there’s time for a greater impact on other areas of their health and functioning.”
“If someone comes to Emerg, we can immediately prevent symptoms from developing into other illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder, or before it gets to depression, before the anxiety gets too great,” Rahel-Leigh says. “Since it’s harder for men to come forward sooner, it may take years for them to get counselling and by then, alcohol might be their way to cope, high blood pressure sets in or maybe their anger comes out leading to relationship dysfunction and trouble with the law.”
The Centre tries to create a safe environment regardless of who walks through their door, “and part of that safety comes from us having a real understanding of what it means for someone to be sexually assaulted,” Tatjana says.
“We do a lot of education in the schools, talking to young people about how to protect themselves, where to go for help,” Rahel-Leigh says. “Our hope is that this boy sitting in the audience can feel safe and come forward.”
For Everett, the Centre has set him back on the long road to recovery and healing. “My advice to others is, ‘don’t let the abuse control your life anymore,’” Everett says.