Magazine Upfront The unspoken truth about sexual abuse By Matthew Hodson @matthew_hodson Ever since the Jimmy Savile revelations, there’s hardly been a day when there hasn’t been a news story about sexual abuse. Teachers, politicians and especially entertainers from the 1970s have all been accused. Having let Savile get away with it, the law and the media seem determined that others will be punished. The stories make grim reading, perhaps more so for me than for some others. When I was 11 I was sexually assaulted. The man who did it was a stranger to me. To my knowledge I never saw him again, although he still haunts my dreams. I was talking to a friend the other night and he told me about his own history of child sexual abuse. We both had a little cry. The considerable amounts of alcohol we had each consumed by that point of the evening may have had something to do with that. My friend is also HIV-positive. Sadly, our experience is far from exceptional. One survey of UK gay men found that almost 18% had experienced some kind of sexual assault; two thirds of these had been assaulted as children. Worryingly, this survey found that younger gay men were more likely to have been assaulted than older gay men, which would indicate either that sexual abuse in childhood is becoming more common, or that younger gay men are more able to acknowledge their experience of abuse. The same survey found that almost 2% of gay men had been raped within the last year. There is a theory that men who have been sexually abused or assaulted may have greater difficulty in controlling their sexual safety and may be more likely to acquire HIV (and other STIs) as a result. However convenient it would be for me to blame my own HIV status on my history of abuse, I don’t feel able to. It all happened so long ago that I can’t separate out who I am now from who I might have been if it had never happened. It’s plausible that, bar the occasional bad dream or drunken sob, I may be exactly the same person now as if it had never happened. In the survey, men who had experienced sexual abuse were more likely to have tested positive for HIV. However the difference was not enormous. The vast majority of men who had been abused were not HIV-positive; in fact higher proportions of men who had been abused had tested negative than men who had not been abused. Men who had been abused were significantly more likely to have tested. When it happened to me, I didn’t report it to the police. I had so little understanding of what had happened: I didn’t even know that it was illegal; I barely understood that it was, in even the sickest way, sexual. All I knew was that a man had hurt me. As an adult, I regret that decision. I hate to think that another child was hurt, possibly as a result of my inaction. But I also remember the deep sense of shame, and of stupidity that I felt at the time. I didn’t want to talk to the police about it; I just wanted to pretend it hadn’t happened. So if I take anything away from the horrible experience, it is that it should not dictate your life going forward. In most respects I consider myself to be truly fortunate. I have a loving family, many fun and supportive friends and a job which I am passionate about. My life is in no way defined by what happened when I was 11. I’ve also found some strength in talking about it, not to the point of boredom, I hope, but with a clear acknowledgement that this is something that happened, and that there is no reason why I need to feel shame about it. It wasn’t my fault. If something like this has happened to you, I’d recommend that you find someone to talk to about it. If you don’t feel able to talk about it with your friends, seek professional help. There are free counselling services available for gay men in most cities in the UK. It’s better to deal with it than to let it fester. It doesn’t define you. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a happy and healthy future life. And always remember, it wasn’t your fault either. Matthew Hodson is the Executive Director of NAM.