Columns 2009

The last dirty secret

Rae Fancher spent a childhood in which physical, sexual and emotional abuses were rife.  I read about this 23 year old being the first Alaska Native female ever accepted into the Naval Academy with joy at the thought that some kids can escape their abusive past without putting a bullet to their head or a noose around their neck.

But even as I read about Rae’s choice to survive, I found myself thinking of the recent statistics about suicide in Alaska. We have the highest rate in the nation, twice the national average. The rate for youths in Alaska between 15 and 24 is three times the national average. Alaska Native males in that age range seem particularly vulnerable.

There are a lot of reasons suggested for this phenomenon. It is posited that since there is little economic life in our small villages, young men can see no future and so turn to drinking, drugs and despair. It is suggested that there is so little to do to stay occupied in our small villages that substance abuse and suicide become attractive alternatives.

All that might be true. But I think there is another reason that leads to a bullet in the head, a noose around the neck, or a drunken one-way trip on the tundra in the freezing cold of winter. That reason is the sexual abuse of boys by men. If you think it’s hard for a girl to talk about being sexually abused by a relative, an Elder or a village leader, imagine how much harder it is for a boy. Look how long it took Native men to speak about abuse by Catholic clergy when they were boys. Think how much more difficult it would be to admit abuse by someone still in the village, still with a grip on your life.

We talk about the sexual abuse of girls in our state.  But the taboo surrounding the sexual abuse of boys is so profound as to be a scream in a vacuum, soundless. We have shelters and counselors for the girls. Who do the boys talk to?

The answer is no one. Because for a boy to admit being used sexually by a man is to unman himself before he is old enough to even be a man.

Most offenders will sexually abuse whatever child is available, regardless of sex. At an age when neither boys nor girls have acquired secondary sexually characteristics, ease of accessibility to a victim is more important than a victim’s sex. The sexual abuse usually ends for boys with puberty, when the boy has either become big enough to fight back or the drunk is put off by the boy’s transition to manhood

In many small villages, the men who abuse when drunk are often the hunters and elders the boy will look to as he grows up to teach him how to be a man. So the boys push the past as far down as they can; they try to pretend it was a nightmare, something that never really happened to them. They get on with their life until the day they try to end it.

There aren’t a lot of statistics available about this problem for the very reasons cited above. If incest and the sexual assault of girls are still fighting to emerge and be dealt with, sexual assault on boys is hidden even deeper in the darkest recesses of village life. It is one of the final taboos.

Anyone who has worked with damaged kids in this state knows about the abuse. But there is little we can do because it is something almost impossible to get a boy to talk about. How do we know it’s happening? Well, you work in the field long enough and you can see these boys coming a mile away. They have a look, an attitude, a certain something that tells you they will talk about anything but the one secret that takes all their psychic energy to hold down and keep from the light of day.

And when it all gets too hard…the economic realities of village life, the monotony of a day without purpose, their repetition of the abuse they suffered on the next generation, the horrible secret never told …then death can seem a sweet release.