Opening up about childhood sexual abuse is never easy, especially in the macho world of sport.
In Canada, NHL players Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury are the most high profile athletes to broach the difficult topic in public.
Now another big name has joined in: the newest Toronto Blue Jay, R.A. Dickey.
“Sport has provided us with the opportunity to get the white elephant out of the room,” the 2012 Cy Young winner said Tuesday during his first interview with Canadian reporters since he was traded from the New York Mets to Toronto.
Dickey shoved that elephant into the public in his memoir, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball, in which the 38-year-old father of four detailed his unlikely path from the minor leagues to baseball’s best knuckleballer. He also disclosed for the first time that he had been sexually abused as an 8-year-old, first by a female babysitter on several occasions, and in a separate incidence by a male teenager.
In doing so, Dickey became a powerful asset in the fight against sexual abuse suffered by boys. Experts say that since professional athletes are often viewed as the ultimate tough guys and manly role models, to have one come out as a survivor shows others that it’s okay to disclose past abuses, and seek help.
“It’s extremely powerful for an athlete to be able to speak about sexual abuse, because in our culture, being sexually abused as a man means, unfortunately, that you’re perceived as weak. You didn’t protect yourself. You weren’t strong enough. You weren’t brave enough. You didn’t take care of yourself,” said Howard Fradkin, a psychologist who works with male sexual abuse survivors, and the author of Joining Forces: Empowering Male Survivors to Thrive.
Experts say that as many as one in six boys will experience unwanted sexual touching by the time they are 18. Yet, more often than female victims of sexual abuse, they keep the abuse a secret.
Counsellors who work with male victims of sexual abuse say that’s because stigma surrounding abuse are intertwined with societal concepts about masculinity.
The abuse can cause survivors to question so much about themselves: their strength, their sexuality, whether or not they somehow asked for the abuse, or enjoyed the touching. They struggle with the idea that they should have been strong enough to stop the molester. They fear that other people will believe that they can’t be trusted around children, that being a victim has somehow turned them into a predator.
“Men have such a hard time. They feel so much shame. They feel like they somehow were participatory in the abuse, because they should have known better,” said Lynne MacDonell, a Toronto psychotherapist who works mainly with male sexual-abuse victim.
Opening up about his experience was not easy, said Dickey.
“Honestly, I had a lot of fear about releasing a book like that, because it wasn’t necessarily a baseball book, it’s much more a book about life, and darkness and redemption and a lot of other things. So I had a lot of fear about baring my soul to not only my teammates, but the world,” Dickey said.
In the book, published in March, Dickey described his troubled childhood in Tennessee. Money was tight and his family moved often. Meals were eaten with silverware that had been lifted from a local steakhouse outlet.
In the summer of 1983, when he was eight, he was sexually abused on a number of occasions by a 13-year-old baby sitter, and separately by a young man.
“Every time that I know I’m going back over there, the sweat starts to come back,” Dickey wrote in his book. “I sit in the front seat of the car, next to my mother, anxiety surging. I never tell her why I am so afraid. I never tell anyone until I am 31 years old.
“I just keep my terrible secret, keep it all inside, the details of what went on, and the hurt of a little boy who is scared and ashamed and believes he has done something terribly wrong, but just doesn’t know what it is.”
Those feelings are common to men suffering from abuse, said Sgt. Shelley Tarnowski, provincial co-ordinator of abuse issues in Ontario for the Ontario Provincial Police, who, over a 20-year career, has investigated sexual abuse crimes and done police training and public awareness campaigns about the issue.
Those feelings of shame make them less likely to report the abuse. And when they do, they are less likely to receive the help they need, because there are fewer social services available to men than women victims of sexual abuse, Sgt. Tarnowski said.
Dickey’s story also highlights shame felt by men and boys who have been abused by females, Fradkin said.
“As bad as it is if a man abuses you, or an older boy abuses you, if a female abuses you, it’s much more shameful. Because again, that stereotype is, men, even boys, are supposed to be in control of sex. And sexual abuse is not sex.”
Dickey said telling his story has been cathartic, allowing him a sense of freedom that he said he had never felt before.
“I even had other teammates share similar stories with me they had never shared with anybody,” Dickey said. “So that made for a very rich experience. I’ve never had anybody come up to me and express anything outside of encouragement or how it might have impacted them in a positive way.” Dickey said that high-profile sexual abuse stories such as the one that engulfed Penn State University and led the imprisonment of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on child molestation charges has made it easier for people to now step forward with their own stories.
“I think … that it’s created a forum for us to be able to talk about things that are very difficult to talk about,” Dickey said.
Dickey has helped open up the conversation a little further, Fradkin said.
“For an athlete who’s respected as highly as R.A. Dickey is to come forth with this kind of story counteracts the myths. And helps very brave men who are scared to speak their truth, to come forward now and tell the truth of their abuse as well.”