KELVIN'S NIGHTMARE began when he was raped by an older cousin at a picnic in a secluded country park. He was seven years old, too vulnerable and too weak to struggle free. He sought solace from his mother, but she took no action other than to speak to his aunt about the attack. 'I felt very ashamed, and angry at the same time. I'm really enraged whenever I think about it today,' writes Kelvin in a book, Children, Don't be Afraid, published recently by the Caritas Project for Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Now an office worker in his 20s, Kelvin had kept his pain bottled up until he spotted a poster publicising the Caritas programme in Kwun Tong a year ago. He had finally found help. 'I'd thought about seeking help or having therapy. However, I gave up the idea because of people's ignorance of sexually abused men - and because counselling fees were expensive,' he says. 'When I saw the poster, I submitted my application right away. I was glad there was someone out there who cared about us.' Although Caritas started providing counselling for sexually abused women in the mid-1990s, the programme for men emerged only after it launched the adult survivors' project in 2003. It's the only service of its type in Hong Kong. The Social Welfare Department and non-government groups such as Against Child Abuse run several programmes for sexually abused children and women, but none are dedicated to helping men. There are no statistics available on the number of sexually abused men in Hong Kong, but of 139 calls to Caritas hotlines between July 2003 and June 2005, 49 were from men. The project provides counselling services for adult males who have been sexually abused. It began by offering an information hotline, a twice weekly phone-in support line and individual counselling. Last year the project expanded to include group therapy sessions. These gave Kelvin a chance to share his feelings with other men who had experienced similar trauma. 'I'd never talked about my past with people other than social workers and professionals. The group is a safe place for me to let my feelings and emotions out and it is where I get peer support,' says Kelvin, one of seven men who took part in the sessions last year. 'It is something I can't get from individual counselling.' At first, organisers used techniques adapted from the west, where agencies have decades of counselling experience, and from therapy for women. But when these methods proved largely ineffective in helping Hong Kong men, they had to devise their own approach. There isn't any reference in Chinese society to learn from, says Kong Po-cheung, a social worker running the group therapy sessions. 'For women, we can study materials and experiences from Taiwan. But for men, there are none.' Compared with foreign abuse victims, it appears more difficult to get local men to talk about their experiences. 'Although Hong Kong is more open than some parts of Asia, it's still hard for men in Chinese society to come to terms with their sexual abuse,' says Kong. 'They have very little trust in people. It's hard for them to talk about their problems to a social worker in person,' he says. 'They find it more comfortable to approach us through our hotlines, or via the website and e-mails.' Victims usually suppress their emotions and feelings of shame because of gender stereotypes that characterise men as being strong enough to deal with psychological and emotional damage. 'Many people think men won't be sexually abused or they assume men can recover quickly and there's no long-term damage,' says Tsang Kai-tin, a participant in last year's group therapy sessions. By listening to others' experiences in the support group, survivors gain a better understanding of sexual abuse and are able to view their childhood ordeal differently, he says. 'Other members are like mirrors, reflecting my situation and feelings. The sessions let us see ourselves from another angle,' says Tsang, now an office worker in his 30s. 'I know I'm not alone.' Kelvin agrees. 'Although I was a victim, I didn't know what effect childhood sexual abuse would have on a person,' he says. The group sessions offer relief and allow an objective trauma assessment. Before joining group therapy, however, the men must undergo individual counselling to help them identify the source of their problems. Unless the person is ready, it can be 'very dangerous' to bring him into group therapy, says Kong. Survivors need to realise their past can drive them to depression or risky behaviour in adulthood, such as heavy drinking, drug abuse or even dangerous driving. They often resort to such actions to desensitise themselves to pain, Kong says. 'It's like their bodies and emotions are separated,' he says. 'They fear losing control of their emotions and feeling helpless.' Many survivors try to dissociate their problems from the past because they find the childhood traumas unbearable. 'Dissociation is a kind of protective device,' Kong says. 'But it's very important that they can face and accept their past. Otherwise, they will suffer denial or blame themselves.' To help the men dredge up hidden childhood memories, social workers may go through their childhood pictures with them, or get them to write a diary or log. As therapy progresses, the survivors are invited to write letters to their inner child as a way to express emotions. Some abused men may feel confused over their sexual orientation. 'Some are very worried that they may be homosexual and become afraid of physical contact with other men,' Kong says. They can react violently to being touched, he says. That's why members in group sessions are required to get the consent of the other person before making contact, even when it's an action as innocuous as a handshake. 'Their bodies are very sensitive,' says Kong. 'It's a way of setting up a safe environment for members.' Although Kelvin, Tsang and their friends no longer need group therapy sessions, they still find it useful to meet once a month under a social worker's guidance. 'It's an occasion to comfort our souls,' says Kelvin. Caritas has since begun therapy with another group of men in Sha Tin, and will launch an e-learning programme to help victims who are afraid of sharing their stories. But Tsang, who has been invited to share his experiences with the new group, complains that people like him tend to be neglected by society. 'There still aren't sufficient counselling services and support for sexually abused men. There are loads of hidden cases out there,' he says. Kong adds: 'It took us 10 years to develop support services for women. For men, there is a lot more to be done.'