A new support service for male survivors of sexual abuse is run by men, for men, with a particular focus on te tāne Tairāwhiti.
Published in Pīpīwharauroa / Tūranganui-ā-Kiwa.
“YOU’RE weak.” “You let him.” “You’re gay.” “You were asking for it.”
These falsehoods often run through the minds of male survivors of sexual abuse and, as a survivor himself, Winton Ropiha has heard them all.
And it is that lived experience he brings to his role as peer support for the fledgling service Te Hōkai: Male Survivors Tairāwhiti.
Launched in Gisborne at the end of April, Te Hōkai is linked to the national Male Survivors Aotearoa (MSA) group and is overseen by Tauawhi Trust, a community partner to Tauawhi Men’s Centre and Presbyterian Support East Coast.
But the service is separate to the well- established Tauawhi Men’s Centre, and trustee/centre co-ordinator Tim Marshall says that is important.
“Many of the men we work with at the centre are deemed as perpetrators of violence or abuse, but we know that for a number of them a contributing factor to their behaviour is their own childhood trauma,” he says.
“However, many male survivors of sexual abuse have not gone on to perpetrate abuse themselves and we want to ensure they feel secure in their own space.”
The service offers support to male survivors, whether that be help navigating around agencies that could offer
assistance, just being there for a chat, or even deeper engagement.
Tim Marshall says the roots of Te Hōkai go back nearly a decade, when it became clear that many men Tauahwi worked with had been sexually abused, most as children.
But he acknowledges that, for many men, contact with Te Hōkai may be just the start of a long journey.
“If they are trying to address trauma that has affected them for decades it’s not going to be an overnight fix, but that first step can be a meaningful start,” he says.
“Winton is here to support them, and we are here to support him, on a journey that could improve and enrich their lives and the lives of those close to them.”
MSA advocate Ken Clearwater says it’s all about being able to talk about trauma without being judged and Te Hōkai is unique in that, being set in the bicultural rohe of Tūranga, where appropriate it can offer a te ao Māori view.
Winton believes that is crucial in that, when working with Māori, it may not be only the “survivor” who comes looking for help.
“This sort of abuse can have long reach, right into whānau and hapu, and down through the generations,” he says. “That’s why we are also here for whānau who feel ready to reach out.”
His beliefs are backed up by research findings that, while family and sexual violence were rare in Māori society prior to colonisation, modern Māori are over-represented as both victims and perpetrators.
And when it does happen, it is often not seen as an assault on only one person: According to the 2016 report Māori Cultural Definitions Of Sexual Violence, it can impact on the collective mana of whānau, hapu and iwi as “a violent transgression against a person’s whakapapa that reaches back to past generations, and has direct impacts on generations of the future”.
For Winton, offering support could mean being available to all aspects of the life of a male survivor or, should they prefer, just keeping it one-on-one.
“It can take a lot for men to acknowledge abuse, even to themselves,” he says. “That’s why they must lead the journey.”
He admits there can be an element of whakama – shame or stigma – attached to disclosing a history of sexual abuse but believes that is misplaced.
“That is not their shame to carry,” he says, “and it never was.”
“In any case, we have strong policies around confidentiality and privacy,” adds Tim. “Even in a group environment, because participants are in the same boat
they respect the space, they respect each other, and they respect what they share.”
It was idyllic . . . until it wasn’t
Winton Ropiha (Ngāti Kahungunu/ Te Whānau ā Kai) is a former Tauawhi counsellor who was mentored by the centre’s very first men’s counsellor, Tangi Hepi.
His own journey began in the 1970s when he was growing up as a “pa child” at his Te Whānau ā Kai tūrangawaewae at Waituhi, dividing his time between there and his mum’s home at Whakakī.
“My mother loved and was much loved by all her whānau but she worked very long hours so being able to go and stay with my nan worked well for me,” he says.
“Even at Waituhi I was never alone. I had lots of whangai brothers and sisters, and being a marae child in the country meant we all lived as a hapu, in each others houses.
“And while my mum taught me about the fundamentals of love, she made sure there were good men around me – role models and older cousins – so I could learn about things like work, mateship, all that stuff that comes with being a man.”
Having been whangai’d by his loving whānau at Waituhi, he and the other tamariki thrilled in running wild around the awa and farmland so it was in many ways an idyllic childhood, he says.
That was until it wasn’t.
Now aged 54, Winton had not even started primary school when an adult started abusing him at Waituhi: “I didn’t even know it was abuse”.
That ended after about a year when he left the home they shared but then, five years later at Whakakī, it happened again.
“It was a different abuser, a different form of abuse, but really, predators can turn up anywhere,” he says.
“At the time, I knew it was wrong but because I had been threatened by my abusers, I couldn’t say a word.
“I just carried on my life, just being a normal child, but I always had to keep this secret that separated me from my friends and whānau.”
Winton kept that secret right through his teens, a time when he began thinking about his abusers wondering where they were, if they had abused others and, if so, would that have been his fault for not speaking up.
“Even though that is never true, that’s the cycle of blame that goes through your head,” he says. “It is too much for anyone to bear, no matter how old they are.”
Winton eventually disclosed the abuse to his wife but, not taking it any further, the impact showed itself in some unhealthy behaviours within his relationships.
By the time he was in his 40s, however, he had fully disclosed his trauma and made big steps on the road to healing through group work and counselling.
“We went as a whānau on a huge roadie to the bottom of the South Island, where I knew one ‘bad uncle’ lived, in an effort to see him and tell him I forgave him,” he said. “That was never my job, to forgive, but that’s what I wanted to do.
“We never tracked him down but when he died a few years ago my former wife asked if I wanted to go to the tangi to seek some closure. I just said ‘nah’, there was nothing to be gained from talking to a box and I had already come to my own place of acceptance.”
In hindsight Winton belives that, like many survivors, he didn’t speak up because he wanted to protect those who loved him.
“But while in one way that can feel like the right thing to do, in another you are bowing to the wishes of your abuser by not telling what they did.
“At the end of the day, your whānau only want what’s best for you.”
As the father of six children – the oldest now well into his 30s – he says that’s certainly what he wants for his loved ones.
“Tangi Hepi always said my lived experience would guide me in this mahi and that is why I do it. I feel I have been able to reclaim the mana taken from me, and I want other men to be able to do the same.”
If those men do choose to contact Te Hōkai, Winton can meet them at his Peel Street offices, or he’ll go to them at a place of their choosing.
“It is their journey so it needs to be a space that feels safe. I just want them to know that I am here, I may be able to help, and how that happens is up to them.”
– Contact Te Hōkai peer support worker Winton Ropiha by phone (0274-124-495); e-mail (info@malesurvivortairāwhiti.nz); or via the website:
By Winton Ropiha
Published in Pīpīwharauroa / Tūranganui-ā-Kiwa.