Ireland’s First Conference on Sexual Abuse Against Boys and Men.

by Peter Devlin

Irelands’ First National Conference on sexual abuse against boys and men took place in the Quality Hotel, Oranmore, Co. Galway on the 25th and 26th September 2004. Even though the fourth Sunday in September is a very sacred one for me, All Ireland Final Day, I volunteered to attend. Men taking the initiative to organise such an event are to be highly recommended and supported. The conference was organised by MASC, a Male Abuse Survivors Centre located in Galway.  MASC. is a free, independent, voluntary support service for adult male survivors of sexual abuse.  It was their opinion that there is an urgent need for male survivors and those who work with them to come together in a forum to share their experience, knowledge and expertise.

Keynote speakers at the conference included Mike Lew, Colm O’Gorman, Ian Warwick and Bob Balfour.  Each of these people play a major role, nationally and internationally in highlighting issues around adult male survivors of sexual abuse. Mike Lew is an internationally acclaimed expert and renowned author of “Victims No Longer” and “Healing upon the Mountains. Ian Warwick is a senior lecturer in Huddersfield University and is an expert on issues relating to male sexual abuse. Bob Balfour is founder of Survivors West Yorkshire and co-founder of the Survivors Trust. Colm O’Gorman is a leading campaigner and founder and Director of “One in Four” an organisation which works to support men and women who have experienced sexual violence. One of the most notable features of the weekend was the fact that even though this was an event about mens’ issues, it was chaired by Fiona Neary, the National Co-ordinator, Rape Crisis Network Ireland representing 16 Rape Crisis Centres.

The conference was really well attended with both men and women from Ireland and abroad.  I met delegates from Australia, Norway, New Zealand and Britain. Two inputs were given each morning and delegates had an opportunity to choose various workshops on both afternoons.

The following are the main points, which I took away from the conference.

  • It is possible to make progress in recovery without significant memory, yet when the proper conditions are met, memories present themselves.
  • There is a huge need to reach men who have suffered sexual violence.  It is more difficult to have men come forward since the culture we live in expects men to be able to mind themselves.
  • The suicide rate among males continues to increase. Many males die each year in single car accidents.
  • Groups for men are needed.  One suggestion from Mike Lew was to advertise a group for males who have difficulty relating to women.  In many instances sexual violence is at the root of this problem and it is easier for people to attend such a group rather than one, which is advertised as a Male Abuse Survivor’s Group. Often our culture refuses to accept their men have been sexually violated and “if men are not victims then victims are not men”.  (Mike Lew). We expect little boys to be little men.
  • Homophobia is sexual abuse – abusing one’s sexuality.
  • Men are portrayed in magazines etc. as sexual predators.  ‘Do we ever hear of the beauty of men’s sexuality ?’ (Colm O’Gorman)
  • The Church has come under so much criticism in the area of sexual abuse. The question has to be asked as to why society gave the church so much power. What is the pay off?  Perhaps it allowed us to live in a society where we did not have to think of right and wrong. We abdicated responsibility in that area. (Colm O’Gorman)
  • The SAVI report is mandatory reading for those of us committed to working with sexual violence. This report informs us that Irish women are eight times more likely than Irish men to disclose abuse to Gardai. One in six men (16.2%) reported experiencing contact sexual abuse in childhood 60% of all young men had not previously disclosed the sexual abuse they experienced in childhood.
  • Most abuse of boys is by heterosexual men.
  • Therapists, social workers and other health professionals need to consider asking their clients if they have suffered sexual violence.
  • Runaways – 60% had suffered physical and sexual abuse (Shiffman 1989) and Prostitution 85% sexual abuse survivors (Janus et al 1984)
  • Some people have no experience of anger and violence as being separate.
  • We have no right to judge people’s survival strategies or try to take them away unless we have something to replace them with.

Conclusion

It  was a powerful weekend, encouraging and yet sobering. While much work is being done in helping people reclaim their lives, much more is needed.  It was notable that ethnic minorities were not represented.  It was also unfortunate that the Western Health Board did not respond to the invitation to have a representative present. Huge sums of money are being spent to research reasons for male suicide, huge resources go into maintaining our prisons, newspapers report nightly violence among young people, the number of murders in our land continues to increase. Organisations such as MASC work with anger and rage. They facilitate people who have been severely hurt to tell their story without judgement yet they receive so little funding. It is imperative that we put pressure on our elected representatives to divert money into such groups as MASC. We have got to help break the silence.

A heavy oppressive energy hung over the weekend. This was not helped by the hotel environment, which was much too small for the event. Unfortunately little attempt was made to move this heavy energy and to process it. We were advised at the end of the conference to take extra care as we would be deeply affected by the weekend. I returned home feeling challenged and enlightened. The heavy energy accompanied me. It was as if an outside power had taken me over. Perhaps it gives me an insight into the effect of sexual violence.

Finally, Mike Lew quoted from a man in Ontario who was once asked for advice by a therapist on how to work best with people who have been sexually abused.  “I will give you three pieces of advice”, he said.

    “Identify and actively work on your own issues”
    “Identify and actively work on your own issues”
    “Identify and actively work on your own issues”

I know what I will be talking about when I next meet my therapist.

Peter Devlin, MIAHIP – works as a psychotherapist on a part time basis with the Family Life Centre in Boyle.