Jim Holland says he was raped by a priest when he was 13 years old. For the next 30 years, Holland locked his trauma away, holding it at bay with drinking, drugs and promiscuity. The 2003 Boston Globe Spotlight investigation of sexual abuse by priests triggered his memories.
"I kept on saying, 'No, it was no big deal. That really didn't happen,' " says Holland.
Holland knew he needed help, but there were few therapists specializing in this kind of trauma. So he shoved his pain back down.
It took another five years, his brother's suicide and a pulmonary embolism for Holland to find the men's support group at Fenway Health in Boston. At the first session, Holland remembers, everyone's eyes were locked on the carpet.
"It was uncomfortable, my heart was beating hard and I didn't want to be there," Holland says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 6 men have been sexually victimized. It's a largely silent epidemic despite the high-profile revelations of abuse by Catholic priests and Boy Scout leaders. A failure to confront this issue complicates recovery and healing for many men and most of the estimated 21 million male survivors who never disclose that they were abused.
Sharon Imperato of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) helped facilitate Holland's group and has worked with male survivors for nearly 20 years. She says that men typically seek services around age 40, prompted by depression or anxiety. Many men don't recognize their trauma as sexual abuse or rape, yet must face the impacts.
"They just know that someone had hurt them and chose to hurt them," Imperato says.
She says that even the mental health field does not fully recognize the prevalence of male survivors and that many providers are still shocked to learn that men experience sexual violence at such high rates.
Holland says he could not have recovered without his support group. It taught him that he was not alone and to let go of his shame and blame.
"It allowed me to bare my soul in front of a group of other guys without being judged," Holland says. "You always have to remember you are not to blame for what happened to you — you were a child."
Participating in the group also helped Holland reconnect to his 13-year-old self. He remembered his hideaway in a closet where he buried himself among trash bags filled with clothing.
"I was hiding from everybody and I didn't want to be seen, but at the same time, I also wanted to be found," Holland says. "I let that little boy know that he was OK and I would protect him. Nobody's going to hurt you."
In 2013, Holland became the first man to speak publicly for BARCC. He says that's when he began to see just how many other male survivors are out there.
"From kids who were 20, 25 years old to elderly men, 70, 75, 80 years old ... firefighters, police officers, teachers, doctors," Holland says.
Holland is frustrated by what he calls society's block in recognizing this issue. But the public's lack of knowledge doesn't surprise Matthew Ennis, CEO of 1in6.org, a national organization serving male survivors.
"Men just have not been willing to share their stories," Ennis says. "We live in a society that teaches us that men are supposed to be strong, that we're not allowed to be vulnerable."
Ennis says the paradigm of male perpetrator and female victim obscures the full story, but he sees signs of change. Demand for 1in6.org's training services has tripled in the past two years, including requests from the military and universities, and online support groups for male survivors are full.