'Talking will help': Edmonton man speaks out about recovery from childhood sexual abuse

Neil Campbell was sexually assaulted by a neighbour when he was nine years old. He hopes sharing his story helps other men feel comfortable finding help and speaking out about their own experiences.

Up to three-month wait for men's group counselling at Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton

Neil Campbell, at the age of 10. Campbell was sexually assaulted by a neighbour when he was 9 years old. Now an adult, he wants other men to know it's OK to talk about sexual abuse. (Supplied/Neil Campbell)

Neil Campbell was 12 years old and sitting in bed reading a comic book when he was suddenly crushed by a wave of fear, anger and confusion.

Three years earlier, he was raped numerous times by a teenaged neighbour in a shed near his home. He'd blocked it out of his mind until that moment, when something triggered those memories and he had a panic attack. He told his parents, who told the police.

The teen admitted his guilt, and Campbell's family discussed pressing charges against him. Police told them it would be best if they didn't — it would save Campbell from an embarrassing trial and teasing from other kids in his Edmonton neighbourhood. His attacker moved away.

Don't talk about it. Bury it. Forget it, police said. So that's what Campbell did. He drank and suffered depression and suicidal thoughts throughout the years as he kept everything inside.

"[It's] kind of the pattern that most sexual abuse victims go. They hide it and they don't really talk about it, especially with males," he said.

Campbell is now 47 years old. He's been with his wife for 20 years. He has two teen daughters, and works as an operations manager.

"I've been able to put on a pretty good mask over the years, stay productive at work. I hear it all the time, 'I can't believe what happened to you. I would have never guessed, I would have never known.'

"I hid it very well and was able to function."

Although he knows sexual assault is an issue that victimizes mostly women, Campbell is sharing his story because he wants other other male survivors to know it's OK to speak up as well. Reading about NHL player Theo Fleury's experience with childhood sexual abuse gave him courage to tell his story, as did the recent #MeToo social media campaign, in which women have shared stories of sexual abuse and harassment, primarily by men.

Neil Campbell was able to begin his recovery with the help of men's group counselling at the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton. (Supplied/Neil Campbell)

Three years ago, he decided to walk into the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton and ask for help. He received private counselling and enrolled in group counselling with other men after a wait list of almost nine months. It was in meeting these other men with similar experiences that he realized the damage caused by a society that tells men to "suck it up."

"Some of these other men I met in the group are just barely functioning. You can just see in their eyes they're defeated. They're just in a bad place and it was just heartbreaking to see," he said.

"You feel so alone, especially males, because men don't go out and talk about these things. Even though we live in a different day and age there's still that unspoken kind of macho, pound your chest kind of mentality. It's not easy."

Months-long wait lists for counselling

One in three girls and one in six boys will be affected by some form of sexual violence at some point in their lives, typically before the age of 18, says Mary Jane James, Executive Director of SACE.

In Canada, only eight to 10 per cent of sexual assaults are ever reported to police. According to a recent report from Statistics Canada, sexual assault is the most under-reported violent crime in Canada. Last year, there were 76,000 reported cases of sexual violence in Alberta. 

The vast majority — 80 per cent — of clients at SACE are women, while 20 per cent are boys or men.

"Sexual violence is an issue that affects all genders and all sexualities. The reality, however, is that women and girls are disproportionately affected and the vast majority of offenders are men," James said.

"Even though it's mostly women and girls who are affected, there are a significant number of men. The shame and stigma surrounding sexual violence is what allows it to continue. But for a man, there's an even greater degree of shame and stigma that accompanies this crime and it is what keeps them from speaking out."

For a man, there's an even greater degree of shame and stigma that accompanies this crime and it is what keeps them from speaking out.- Mary Jane James, Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton

Calls to the centre have spiked "dramatically" since the #MeToo campaign, James said. The centre offers private and group counselling services, but wait lists are long — there's a constant two to three month wait for group counselling tailored specifically towards men who have experienced child sexual abuse, she said. Survivors are encouraged to do individual counselling before group sessions, but the wait list for individual counselling is around six to eight months. Some wait lists for women can be even longer, she added.

The hardest thing to do after a sexual assault is to tell someone, and although the national conversation is changing, it's still common to find ways to blame the victim, she said.

The best way to support a survivor of sexual assault is to listen to them, support them and believe them, James said.

"That may give them the impetus to go on, to get the counselling that they need, and perhaps even report it to the police, if that's what they choose to do," she said.

Campbell said sitting on the wait list for counselling was a "long and drawn out process," but he found an instant connection and shared understanding when talking with the other men.

He's still dealing with the aftermath of what happened to him as a nine-year-old boy. Whenever he visits his parents' home, it's still difficult to drive past the house two doors down where the attacks happened. As part of his recovery, he donates to the Little Warriors Be Brave Ranch, a long-term treatment centre in Sherwood Park for children who have been sexually abused.

He says he wants other men to know speaking up helps, and with support, they'll be OK too.

"It happens to boys, that turn into men," Campbell said. "I used to feel that it defined me, but I know now it's not. It's a part of me, but it's not everything that I am.

"I know it's terrifying, I know it's uncomfortable to feel weak, but it's OK to have those feelings because it will help you to move forward. The talking will help."


Andrea Ross is a journalist with CBC Vancouver. andrea.ross@cbc.ca Twitter: @_rossandrea