'I no longer identified with being a victim'
Ninety-five per cent of childhood sexual assault victims know and trust their abuser. This was true for Calgarian Desmond Biss, who, as a seven-year-old, was abused for five years by a male teenager close to Biss’ family.
In the 29 years since then, Biss has confronted the abuse of his childhood and embarked on a journey of discovery, growth and acceptance. His self-development gave him the strength to publicly speak about his experiences, including the stigma surrounding male survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Biss’ parents separated when he was young. He grew up with his mother and sister, and was not close to his father. He explains that the individual who committed his abuse had been like a male role model to him as a child.
“The circumstance around the abuse was associated by me, at the time, as being that in order to have any fatherly-closeness, this is sort of what came of it,” says Biss.
Born in Ituna, Sask., in 1975, Biss says that in his small hometown, topics like childhood sexual abuse were not often discussed.
“Therefore my level of understanding was not really quite there,” he says. “No one had ever said that this sort of stuff could happen to someone one day, maybe to yourself.”
As Biss reached adolescence, he realized that how his abuser treated him was not normal.
“Essentially it got to the point where as I started to mature and was old enough to realize that the circumstances I was experiencing wasn’t something that happened to my friends,” he says.
“That was when I was able to change the circumstance so that the abuse was no longer being perpetuated,” says Biss, who began to avoid encountering his abuser.
“A lot of kids don’t know what is happening to them when they are young if they are sexually abused,” says Danielle Aubry, executive director of Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse — of which Biss is also a board member.
She adds perpetrators are highly manipulative, and they often create scenarios that can make children more vulnerable and isolated from their families.
No longer able to cope
After distancing himself from his abuser in middle school, Biss graduated high school in 1993. Afterwards, he moved to Alberta to work on oil rigs for five years. He then moved to Saskatoon where he attended the University of Saskatchewan and majored in marketing.
“It was my second year of university when I actually began to struggle,” explains Biss. “It got to a point where I was recognizing that I couldn’t cope. I couldn’t manage the pain and suffering that was going on inside while keeping up appearances to the world like everything was fine.”
Aubry explains that abused children employ coping strategies that make them feel safe, often through hiding the secret of their abuse. However, as children grow into adults, those coping strategies don’t always continue to work.
“If you feel fundamentally that the world is an unsafe place or that you cannot truly trust people, how can you have a good relationship? How are you going to be able to take those risks?” she says.
When Biss realized his coping mechanism was no longer working, he chose to confide in his family.
“I shared with my sister and my mom. And even as someone who was starting to share, it was very difficult,” he says.
He adds that, for survivors “it takes a lot of courage to stick their neck out. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, I’m just being matter of fact.”
Aubry says that although disclosure is different for every person, Biss was ahead of the curve.
“A lot of men wait until they are in their 40s, if ever, to disclose,” she says.
When Biss shared his experience with his family, he says while “it was definitely something painful for anyone to hear,” his mother and sister were supportive.
“When someone comes forward with this, the best thing that the person who is hearing it can do is let the person know that they are believed,” says Biss.
He adds that he thinks to this day his mother blames herself to some degree.
“A lot of the conversation that popped up at the time was, ‘How could I have not known? How could I have not seen this?’” says Biss. “She has done a good job parenting me and protecting me from perceived harm.”
Because 95 per cent of childhood sexual abusers are known and trusted by the victim and their families, Biss knows it would have been difficult for his family to detect the injustice happening right in front of them — abuse that even he didn’t fully understand until years after it occurred.
“The impacts of child abuse can look from this end to this end,” says Aubry, forming a spectrum with her hands. She advises that it is important for people to realize that it is not always clear when a child is being sexually abused.
Upon confiding in his family, Biss attended counselling at the University of Saskatchewan. After two years, his therapist at the time recommended he join a male support group for fellow survivors in Saskatoon.
“It was the first environment where I really felt strongly supported, because I was in an environment of individuals who unequivocally accepted what had occurred and backed everything I was experiencing, feeling and thinking,” says Biss.
“I knew my family members were supportive, but they were just as lost as I was,” he adds.
Although Biss has not been stereotyped as a result of sharing his story, he says there is stigma surrounding male survivors — particularly when speaking up about being sexually abused as a child.
“Men in our society are not vulnerable, we are not supposed to be,” says Biss. “There is all sorts of language around ‘manning up’ and ‘being a man’ and when there are issues that men face, those are often the first reactions that come from people.”
Frances Wright, CEO at the Canadian Centre for Male Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse, says that our society regards men as strong and able to protect both themselves and others.
“When they cannot protect themselves, it is very damaging to the self-esteem of the male,” says Wright.
Indeed, Biss says the persisting internal struggle he experienced as a man who was sexually abused as a child promoted a negative understanding of the world around him in adulthood.“I recall having a self-created perception that everyone would judge me, and that was essentially as equal as if people were judging me.”
Biss believes many individuals who were sexually abused as children share that mentality, because survivors develop guilt and accept blame as a result of taking responsibility for their abuse.
“Which isn’t rational,” he says, “but that is just how a person in that circumstance feels.”
Wright says that survivors of childhood sexual abuse must “accept in their hearts that what happened to them was not their fault in any way, shape or form,” and that — with professional help — the shame or guilt they feel can be overcome.
“Healing is possible,” she says.
As part of Biss’ healing process, he connected with his abuser in 2008 — five years after he finished university, and 26 years after the first instance of abuse.
“I wanted to show that what he had done was wrong, and I was able to share the impact of what he had done to me,” he says. In the same conversation, Biss informed his abuser that he needed to forgive him.
“It’s not a good mental place to be in if you are holding hatred and a grudge against someone,” says Biss. “Ultimately, it is more freeing and empowering to be able to forgive them.”
After graduating from university, Biss moved to Calgary where he worked at MacLaren McCann and Shaw Communications before being hired for his current position as a business performance specialist at Enbridge Inc.
Three years ago Biss decided to speak publicly about his abuse, a choice he describes as liberating.
“I got to a point in my own healing where I no longer identified with being a victim, and I recognized that there is a lot of empowerment around speaking out,” he says.
Aubry says that although it is hard to predict if more people will come forward about their experiences upon hearing Biss’ story, it will “plant a seed of validation” for victims of childhood sexual abuse.
“Even if there is only one person who hears my story, that is worth it,” says Biss. “As a result of me speaking, they know that they are not alone and that it is possible to heal, move on and have a healthy, happy, productive life.”
Biss stresses that raising awareness about resources available to survivors of childhood sexual abuse is key to enabling the healing process. In Alberta, organizations like Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse, the Canadian Centre for Male Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse, the Calgary Counselling Centre, Little Warriors, and the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre offer a variety of services for both victims and their families.
According to Wright, there are 323 assault centres and 123 shelters for women and children countrywide. Many of these facilities also offer their services to men, but there are only four centres specifically dedicated to male survivors. The Canadian Centre for Male Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse is one such facility.
However, Wright does think attitudes are shifting as more people become educated concerning male childhood sexual abuse.
“It’s one of those issues that is coming to the fore,” she says.
Aubry agrees, saying that compared to when she first started working in the field 30 years ago, the types of services, understanding of the issue and research available has grown exponentially.
As for Biss, he hopes to continue speaking out about his experiences, as part of his healing process, but being an advocate against childhood sexual abuse is not something he wishes to devote his life to.
“It’s not something that I necessarily want to make the epitome of my existence. I want to speak and move on as well,” he says, adding that he wants to focus on being happy, travelling with his wife and looking towards retirement.
“I guess we’ll see where life takes me,” he says.
- By Sarah Comber