By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
Trigger warning: This article contains disturbing — though not graphic — descriptions of acts of child sexual abuse.
There are few crimes darker than child sexual abuse and incest. Such acts are so disturbing that we shudder at the thought and skip past mention of them in news and television dramas. But some folks can’t just change the channel. For survivors of sexual abuse, triggers may lurk around every corner, latent in even the most tender touch.
Iciyapi Tate O’Shaughnessy knows too well the minefield that life as a survivor of sexual abuse can be. But rather than retreat, he is doing his best to expose these dark corners to the light.
“As a survivor, one of the big frustrating things for me is the thought that we should just get over it, let it go, forgive and forget, and move on with our lives,” O’Shaughnessy says. “That would be awesome, but it just doesn’t happen that way.”
The recent media coverage of the Jerry Sandusky scandal has brought considerable attention to the sexual abuse of boys. And yet, little of the press deals with what actually happened to the victims. While it’s not pleasant to read, these kinds of details matter. They drive home the seriousness of what as many as one in six children, regardless of gender, experience in their lives. They get to the heart of why the failure of adults to prevent such abuses is a serious crime in its own right.
“In the first two weeks after the sexual abuse allegations at Penn State, our Help Services experienced a 130 percent increase in contacts,” says Jenny Coleman, Help Services coordinator for StopItNow, in a release. “This case shines a spotlight on a challenging and difficult topic. People need somewhere to turn to talk about their own situations. We heard from survivors of childhood sexual abuse who didn’t understand why no one ever stepped in — even though there were many signs that there was something wrong.”
BETRAYED BY BLOOD
O’Shaughnessy’s story may be one of the more brutal. To hear him tell it makes it obvious why it isn’t easily forgotten, let alone forgiven. For 15 years, from age 4 to 19, he suffered near constant sexual abuse at the hands of his uncle, his father, and a number of his father’s friends, including one who lived with the family.
It began, he says, with his uncle taking O’Shaughnessy on drives and setting candy on his lap while he held the young boy. After the rides ended, a new abuser entered the picture — Danny, a 19-year-old friend of his father’s who stayed on a cot in O’Shaughnessy’s room and molested him repeatedly, telling O’Shaughnessy “this is what special friends did with each other.”
After Danny moved out, O’Shaughnessy’s father, who was already verbally and physically abusive to the family, began sexually abusing the now 11-year-old boy. After getting violent with the family, the father would take out his aggression on O’Shaughnessy in the shed, forcing him to perform sexual acts. By the time he was 14, O’Shaughnessy’s father was penetrating him.
The boy had little recourse. Threats of violence against his mother kept O’Shaughnessy quiet, believing he was protecting her. He suffered increasingly cruel and violent abuse. O’Shaughnessy says his father, who died in 2000, eventually invited friends to join in, sometimes watching while they assaulted his son.
After graduating from high school at 17, O’Shaughnessy tried to get away, but found himself living with his father again after jumping off a cliff and breaking his neck. While O’Shaughnessy did physical therapy and tried to recuperate, his father and friends resumed their abuse. Meanwhile, he tried and failed at killing himself with muscle relaxants.
“I was convinced that if I ever told he would do something to my mother,” O’Shaughnessy says. “That had been his latest thing to say to me, that he would drive a truck full of dynamite through her front window.”
COMING OUT OF THE DARK
By the time he turned 19, O’Shaughnessy was standing up to his father more and more. After a particularly intense fight, his father assaulted him with such violence that O’Shaughnessy had to go to the hospital.
“I had to have reconstructive surgery,” he says. “Since I was 19 I lied and said it was my boyfriend and we had just gotten rough. I was humiliated. Not only was I outing myself, I was telling a stranger that I was into rough sex in Grants Pass, Ore.”
This was the last straw. O’Shaughnessy changed his last name, moved to Portland, and began attending beauty school. Though his father spread rumors about him from home, he was finally free to begin the long process of recovery.
After a period of recklessness, O’Shaughnessy began to get support for post traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, and started connecting with other survivors.
“It’s not easy. I can only speak for myself,” O’Shaughnessy says. “I deal with self doubt, stress, body image, etc. I still suffer from PTSD and have been triggered into severe panic attacks by things. I have memory loss of certain times in my life, and I am really good at disconnecting.”
Still, in true survivor style, O’Shaughnessy carried on, starting his own salon, and finding the love of a supportive and understanding man. He also has a strong spirituality and an online network of survivors to lean on.
SHINING A LIGHT
And though he struggles daily with the effects of the abuse, O’Shaughnessy remains committed not only to being open about his own experiences, but also to sharing the stories of others.
Every April, he displays survivor photos and stories in his salon for Sexual Abuse Awareness Month.
“I have done small things every year since I opened in 2005, but this year I wanted to try bigger,” O’Shaughnessy says. “I believe there were about 25 to 30 people this year.”
The display included photos of abuse survivors as well as facts and myths about abuse and artwork by survivors. It’s important to address myths, O’Shaughnessy says, especially when it comes to male survivors.
“A major misconception is that we as men cannot be raped — if our bodies react then we must have enjoyed or wanted it — and that because we were molested that we are going to turn around and do the same to someone one day,” he says.
He also shoots down the notion that sexual abuse contributes to gay identity — a theory popular among some religious conservatives.
“To be told my being gay was because I was abused makes me say what we in the LGBTQ community say all the time: Why would I ask to be put in a situation where I have to struggle so much? I was molested by men. Every time I am touched by a man I have to deal with any trigger that may come up. That is hard enough, then add to that intimacy.”
Next year, O’Shaughnessy hopes to expand his awareness event to reach even more people and potentially raise funds for an advocacy group such as OAASIS (Oregon Abuse Advocates and Survivors in Service). As hard as it can be to face his demons, he says the results are worth it.
“The impact of the event has been amazing,” O’Shaughnessy says. “I have had many clients of mine and Facebook friends come out as survivors, and I feel like many people learned something.”
To find local resources for survivors of sexual abuse, visit oaasisoregon.org.