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Male Survivors Of Sexual Abuse Struggle To Find Treatment

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The CDC estimates that 1 in 6 men have been sexually victimized at some point. It's a largely silent epidemic despite revelations of abuse by Catholic priests and Boy Scout leaders. Not confronting this issue only makes recovery harder. Rachel Rock brings us one man's search for support.

RACHEL ROCK, BYLINE: Jim Holland says he was raped by a priest when he was 13 years old. He locked his trauma away for 30 years, held it at bay with drinking, drugs and promiscuity. The 2003 Boston Globe Spotlight investigation of priest sexual abuse triggered Holland's memories.

JIM HOLLAND: But I kept on saying, no, it was no big deal. That really didn't happen.

ROCK: He knew he needed help, but there were few therapists specializing in this kind of trauma in Boston. Holland shoved his pain back down. It took another five years, his brother's suicide and a pulmonary embolism for Holland to try again. This time, he found a men's support group.

HOLLAND: But it was uncomfortable. I didn't want to be there, and my heart was beating.

ROCK: At the first session, Holland remembers that everyone's eyes were locked on the carpet. Sharon Imperato of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center helped facilitate Holland's group and has worked with male survivors for nearly 20 years. She says that on average, men seek services around age 40 for many reasons - a partner demand they get help in hopes of saving the marriage, a man wants to be a better father or his children are turning the age when he was abused. Imperato says that many men don't recognize their trauma, sexual abuse or rape.

SHARON IMPERATO: Which is knowing that someone had hurt them, someone had chose to hurt them and it was having an impact on their life. So it's the impacts that brings them it.

ROCK: Imperato also trains other providers. She says the mental health field itself has yet to fully recognize the prevalence of male survivors, let alone learn the skills to provide appropriate support.

IMPERATO: Even this day and age, people are still shocked that men experience sexual violence and the rate that they experience it. I'm just not sure if providers are necessarily asking or looking for it.

ROCK: Jim Holland says he couldn't have recovered without his support group. It taught him that he was not alone and to let go of his shame.

HOLLAND: It allowed me to bare my soul, so to speak, in front of a group of other guys without being judged. You always have to remember that you're not to blame for what happened to you. You were a child.

ROCK: To fully recover, Holland says he had to find a way to talk to his 13-year-old self. For the first time in 30 years, Holland remembered his hideaway in the closet of his childhood bedroom, where he'd bury himself among trash bags filled with clothing in search of safety.

HOLLAND: I was hiding from everybody. I didn't want to be seen, but at the same time, I also wanted to be found.

ROCK: Adult Holland comforted his boyhood self with words he'd waited decades to hear and to believe.

HOLLAND: Letting that little boy know that, you're OK. You're here to protect them. Nobody's going to hurt you.

ROCK: In 2013, Holland became the first man to speak publicly for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and says he began to see just how many other men were out there.

HOLLAND: Some kids who were 20, 25 years old to elderly men, 70, 75, 80 years old; every conceivable occupation - I was like, oh, my God, this goes a lot deeper than what I thought.

ROCK: Holland is frustrated by what he calls society's block in recognizing this issue. Matthew Ennis, CEO of 1in6.org, a national organization serving male survivors, understands the public's lack of knowledge.

MATTHEW ENNIS: Men just have not been willing to share their stories. We live in a society that teaches us that men are supposed to be strong, that we're not allowed to be vulnerable.

ROCK: Ennis says this paradigm of male perpetrator, female victim obscures the full story. But he sees signs of change. Demand for 1in6.org's training services by the military and universities has tripled in the past two years. And online support groups for male survivors are full.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel Rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETIT BISCUIT'S "YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.