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‘On an island:’ How male sexual assault victims deal with trauma

Richard Strauss in his Ohio State College of Medicine photograph. Ohio State has interviewed more than 100 former Ohio State athletes with sexual abuse claims against former team physician Richard Strauss. Credit: Courtesy of Ohio State

Brian Garrett felt sick when he saw the picture.

It had been just over 20 years since he stopped working for former Ohio State University doctor and team physician Richard Strauss at his private clinic. Twenty years of suppressing the memories of what was done to him by the now-alleged sexual predator.

But when Ohio State announced its investigation of the doctor, a picture of the doctor made its way to the internet. Suddenly those memories of the few days he worked at the clinic, suppressed for years, began to resurface. And he hasn’t been able to get them out of his head since.

Working for Strauss as an administrative assistant at Strauss’ clinic — which Garrett said was called “Men’s Clinics of America” — in 1996, Garrett, a former nursing student at Ohio State University, said he witnessed first-hand Strauss’ sexual assault of men.

During one shift, Garrett said Strauss called him into the examining room while he was with a patient. Garrett said he walked in to see the athlete with his pants down with the doctor masturbating him until orgasm.

“I was standing there like, ‘What the hell am I witnessing?’” Garrett said. “I saw the guy’s face, and his face is red and embarrassed.”

When the athlete left the room, Garrett said Strauss asked him if he had any issues, to which he responded he had heartburn. After laying him down, Garrett said Strauss pulled down his pants, spending five to 10 minutes trying to give him an erection.

Deciding not to come back to work at the “Men’s Clinics of America” after the incident, Garrett said he was feeling alone, isolated as he struggled to comprehend what had happened.

“I was on an island. I didn’t know any of the athletes. I didn’t know any of that shit that they talked about [at] Larkins Hall or anything like that. I didn’t know any of that,” Garrett said. “I thought it was just an isolated thing, like maybe there is something wrong with me. My parents always told me not to put myself in bad situations. Did I screw up?”

Dr. Howard Fradkin, a physician who specializes in male sexual assault and recovery based out of Columbus, said this emotional response is common for victims.

“If a man is sexually assaulted today, the most likely response he is going to think is I’m the only one,” Fradkin said. “That’s still one of the things that goes on and the next thought is, ‘It’s my fault.’”

When it comes to treating cases of sexual assault, Fradkin said some things are the same no matter what gender is involved. He said the event of assault creates trauma, something he defines as the outcome of an overwhelming situation out of the victims’ control.

However, he said the treatment between male and female sexual assault starts with acknowledging the difference between how men and women are socialized.

“Traditional masculinity states that men are supposed to be powerful and in control, so it creates a much different dynamic in terms of talking about it and acknowledging it,” Fradkin said. “Many men who I worked with did not even consider what was done to them as sexual abuse. They would say, ‘That’s how I learned about sex. That’s how I was initiated.’ They don’t think, ‘This is something terrible that was done to me.’”

Fradkin said male sexual assault victims, without the ability to hide their arousal “internalize and blame themselves” no matter the sexual orientation of that particular male.

Emma Carroll, a Ph.D. student at Ohio State in gender and sexuality studies, describes male sexual assault as “de-masculating,” using the male stigma as the notion that the victims should have been able to protect themselves against such events from occurring.

“I thought it was just an isolated thing, like maybe there is something wrong with me. My parents always told me not to put myself in bad situations. Did I screw up?” – Brian Garrett

In the years following, Garrett said he had not told only a few friends about his experiences with Strauss. However, even then, the concept of sexual assault, especially involving males, was not considered prevalent.

“Back then you didn’t call it sexual assault,” Garrett said. “There was rape and there was everything else. Nobody called it sexual harassment, assault. I just said some dude touched me and felt me up for 10 minutes and jacked a guy off.”

However, in the years following, Garrett said he had a constant level of anxiety, even after he moved on from working at Strauss’ clinic. He said he continues to want to be isolated and continues to have trust issues in every aspect of his life.

Carroll describes the effects of sexual assault as similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, saying victims commonly struggle with anxiety and fear.

Fradkin added that some side effects including depression and addictions, such as alcohol, drug and sex, are common in victims recovering from sexual assault.

After sharing with a few friends, Garrett said he internalized the events, not sharing his experiences with anyone. He said he kept it in the back of his mind, trying to move on with his life, trying not to think about it.

However, when Ohio State announced its investigation of Strauss and the alleged sexual assaults he had performed while a team physician at the university, Garrett said looking at a picture of the doctor in a news story made him feel like he needed to throw up.  

“The problem is, I haven’t seen his face in 22, 23 years since it happened,” Garrett said. “Here’s the crazy part about it, as soon as I saw his face, the whole box opened up in my head and man, it hasn’t stopped since.”

As multiple stories were released, showing other athletes and people allegedly victimized by Strauss, Garrett said there was a sense of validation, even if that did not change his other feelings towards what had happened.

Fradkin said this problem is more widespread than people think. To put things in perspective, he would mention the ratio of men sexually assaulted and compare it to the number of fans at a football game on a given Saturday.

“When I do trainings, I would put up a picture of Ohio Stadium,” Fradkin said. “I would say there are 100,000 people in this stadium and let’s say 60 percent of them are men. That’s 60,000 men sitting in the same stadium on one football Saturday. If it’s one and six, that’s 3,600 men in that stadium on one day.”

Fradkin wants people to know that this is something that happens to men around the country in all aspects of life, whether as a child or as an adult. However, with help, he said healing is possible and achievable.

For Garrett, he is still mad at Strauss. He said he is still mad at Ohio State, saying the events between Strauss and his alleged victims were “100 percent preventable.”

However, Garrett feels like he has a role to play moving forward. He views himself as one of the main spokesman for the alleged victims of Strauss in his time as a team doctor at Ohio State and his time at Strauss’ clinic.

Even though he might not be comfortable with that responsibility, Garrett said that is a sacrifice he is willing to make for the betterment of future college students around the country and the eradication of sexual assault on campus.

“I want this to stop,” Garrett said. “How many universities does this have to happen to before it stops? I’ll go through the exposure of being in the public light.

“I just can’t sit back and not say anything. If nobody says anything, nothing changes. My way to process it is to speak out, tell my experience and maybe others come out. If other guys don’t come out, that’s fine, but they have to go talk to others about it. It’s going to eat them up inside.”

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