He was an older man and Susan had just turned 18. After he started physically and sexually assaulting her, she was ashamed and afraid that the community would not stand by her if she left him. When she thought he would actually kill her – seven years into their relationship – she ran away with nothing but a few clothes. She was free from bodily harm, but she had to face another obstacle: the people who did not believe her.
The woman, now in her mid-30s, has chosen to share her story anonymously as her ex-partner still lives in the San Juans and she fears retaliation for speaking out. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.
“The sad thing is that his employer and everyone wanted to protect him,” she said. “I was horribly harassed by his friends and they were aware of what had been going on. People were taking sides and they were protecting the abuser.”
She reported the abuse to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of the San Juan Islands and applied for a restraining order, but dropped it for two reasons: pressure from her ex’s friends and because she didn’t really think the order would work.
“It’s just a piece of paper,” she said. “If he had wanted to hurt me it wouldn’t have stopped him.”
Though her case occurred more than 10 years ago, her story is becoming more frequent in San Juan County. Local law enforcement and staff from DVSAS told the Journal last week about the uptick in the number of sexual and domestic abuse cases. One disturbing trend is the number of sexual assault victims who are children, ages 0 to 17, seeking services from DVSAS. From 2012 to 2015 the reports tripled from two to six. In the last six months, DVSAS already has four reports. Kim Bryan, DVSAS director, stated that it’s likely the increase is due to more victims reporting such crimes.
This has not always been the case. For our anonymous source, talking about the crime was almost as painful as the event itself.
“Rape is not easy to deal with, but it’s so much more personal coming from your spouse,” Susan said, describing how painful it was to re-live her trauma with detectives. She chose to let go of her anger and move on rather than pressing charges and going to court.
“It would be very hard and they treat you like victims not survivors,” she said.
A San Juan County man who was raised on the mainland in the 1950s has also come forward to share his story years after the fact. He asked to remain anonymous, and his name has been changed to protect himself and his family. Although he has come to terms with the abuse he suffered, he said it’s hard for others to handle the weight of his difficult past.
From the ages of five to 13, Dan was sexually abused by his mother, grandmother and several of their female friends.
“I am sure that they were abused too,” he said. “When I was supposed to be taught how to be nurturing and loving and kind, it’s not what was happening. There is a huge emotional chapter missing for me.”
His older siblings had already left home and his father, who was often gone working for weeks at a time, died a few years after the abuse began.
“As a child, you are led to believe this is normal behavior,” Dan said. “You live in a bubble, and you are manipulated into situations that you have no control over. And in that era there wasn’t any press or information readily available about sexual abuse.”
Although there is more information now than in the 1950s, rape is still the most under-reported crime: 63 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police, so the real number of men facing this trauma is unknown. Men are in the minority of reported cases because less violence occurs or because they are less likely to admit assault. Websites by anti-sexual violence organizations estimate that at least 10 percent of all sexual assault victims in the U.S. are male.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old. One in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives and 27.8 percent of men were age 10 or younger at the time of their first rape/victimization. In the last five years, DVSAS tallied three adult men who reported abuse perpetrated by adult women.
For our anonymous source, it took 35 years for him to face his past and to make peace with being a statistic.
In the ninth grade, Dan moved out of his home and began living on his own, eventually earning his GED and attending university. As an adult, he worked long hours, traveled the world and never told a soul about what happened in his childhood. Instead of abusing others, he abused himself. He started drinking around age 12, and had a realization in his mid-50s that alcohol played too big of a role in his life. He hasn’t touched a drink since, and chose to confront the reality of what he’d been avoiding for so many years. It wasn’t until his therapist told him “you were raped” that he recognized he was a victim.
“There isn’t a lot of information about young men who are sexually assaulted by their mothers early in life,” Dan said. “It’s hard for men to talk – period. And with something that is so volatile and intimate, it would behoove us to communicate more and not feel threatened, but you are still judged for being vulnerable. It’s nice to think we have evolved beyond that, but we haven’t. Everyone will say ‘this is a terrible thing’ but no one really wants to talk about it.”
Dr. Hani Miletski, who wrote the book “Mother-Son Incest: The Unthinkable Broken Taboo Persists,” states that society’s denial about incest is not diminishing but has rather reached a plateau, especially when it comes to prevention and recovery needs.
“Men who were sexually abused as children continue to encounter ridicule, minimization, and dismissal,” wrote Miletski.
Dan credits his wife and their child with balancing out his negative experiences and helping him focus on the positive.
“I didn’t stay in that revolving door,” he said. “You go out and you create a better life for yourself. You can’t go forward if you are looking in the rearview mirror. The abuse has certainly shaped my life. Emotional connections don’t always come easily for me, and there are huge gaps in my memory that are disorienting. It’s just always going to be a constant.”
He says the $64,000 question is: why did the cycle of abuse stop with him? There is not an easy answer other than he saw what a normal family looked like and wanted to have that in his life.
“You can’t overcome what happened, but you try to get it in order. You push out the negative triggers. I can’t be angry anymore,” he said. “I want the people around me to get the best of me. I don’t want to be restricted by this.”
For Susan, who left her partner in 2005, the insulated nature of the island community at that time made her struggle with reporting the abuse.
“I think our community is different in that victims are so scared to be judged,” she said. “If you lived in Seattle you would only worry about your group of friends. In small communities it’s tougher to speak out.”
Despite the fact that false reporting of rape is less than 10 percent, victim shaming is a common occurrence in society. According to the Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness: “Victim-blaming attitudes also reinforce what the abuser has been saying all along; that it is the victim’s fault this is happening.”
Its website explains that victim shaming is often born from the fact that people want to distance themselves from the horror of the event, giving them a false sense that somehow they will be safer from being abused themselves.
Our anonymous survivor said she recalled someone looking at her with pity after news spread that she had been abused.
“They either hate you or pity you,” she said. “No one says, ‘good for you for speaking up.'”
Despite the negativity, she found friends who did support her and helped her to move on. She eventually relocated to another island to start fresh.
Her advice to others is, “Don’t be afraid. Your life is more important than what others think of you.”
Dan recommends that victims find someone trusted to confide in – whether that person is a therapist, friend or family member.
“You have to commit to talking to someone about it,” he said. “You have to be able to be honest and say: ‘This happened. And it’s okay. I survived it.’ You have to own it – for better or worse. You can get comfortable with it. You can live with it. It doesn’t have to control you.”
Sounder editor Colleen Smith Armstrong contributed to this story.