Sexual Trauma & The Effects on the Brain

by Robert Uttaro
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As someone who has been called to a life-long mission of trying to help anyone affected by sexual violence, I have seen a glimpse of the evil and the devastating effects on humanity. I do not believe we have adequate language to truly describe the deep suffering that so many women, men and children experience from sexual violation. The damage these crimes so often causes to the brain, heart and soul are incalculable. We know this pain does not just last in the moment; it can easily affect people for years or even a lifetime.
However, people do not have to continually suffer, nor do they have to be controlled or defined by the transgressions and atrocities of others. People do grow in their healing process, as difficult and excruciating as that can be, and they live healthy, normal, productive lives. I see immense strength and perseverance from many people even when they do not see it within themselves. I believe one of the biggest problems we face is people not seeing the truth about themselves and their abilities. Sexual trauma teaches us lies about ourselves, and this negative thinking often becomes part of our psyche and part of our being. Still, we can overcome the pains of these crimes and heal from within.


Through the grace of God, I wrote a book called To the Survivors. To the Survivors is about my journey as a rape crisis counselor with true stories of women, men, and one transgendered man who experienced rape and sexual assault. There are interviews, stories and poetry shared in their own words by people brave enough to reveal such intimate details with me and the world. Their stories are simultaneously sad, infuriating, moving, and inspirational. The survivors do not shy away from their darkest truths but instead voice their realities, bringing light to others through their words. The book allows us to see the impact of sexual violence in terms of the reasons for being silent and how powerful that can feel. Further, the book explores isolation and the journey from despair to strength. They, and so many others, are proof that people can grow down a healing journey while not denying or diminishing the devastation on their lives. My hope is that the book accomplishes all of this and more while recognizing the ongoing life work in coming to terms with sexual assault.


Sexual violence is justifiably the least reported violent crime. Usually, these crimes are hidden in secrecy and there is no physical evidence of violence or trauma having occurred. You cannot fully see the pain on the brain, heart or soul, and many individuals are left to deal with the repercussions by themselves, especially young children. These experiences are extremely difficult to talk about, regardless of who a person is or where they come from.
So how do people express themselves? How do they share such intimate details? How do they attempt to make sense of what happened?  How do they release the painful effects of sexual violation? How do they move forward in healthy ways? One of the best ways people connect and express themselves in terms of what they think and feel is through art. Music, dance, painting, writing and so many other art forms directly impact human beings’ brains and hearts which help us through life. When something feels impossible to verbally express, we can do so in other ways. Poetry is a beautiful way to convey thoughts and emotions.
To the Survivors begins with a poem written by a woman named Jenee. She wrote this poem in response to visiting her friend in the hospital who had been beaten, choked, burned, and raped.
March Fourteenth
Here is a list, God, of everything I’m never forgetting.


Burns on her legs.
Impressions of his hands around her neck.
The all over purple-ly skin.
She can not
will not
can not
will not
can not
will not do the internal part of that effing kit, no.
(I hang back in the waiting room as they implore her for hours and pray they will…oh-my-god…stop raping.)
She can not
will not
can not
will not
can not
will not
can not
will not say his name, no.
(She gives up, writes alphabet letters only kind of true; no matter love, I understand you.)
A 72-hour psych hold.
Cops and detectives.
My brother-in-law in rare tears the morning not-one-of-us-slept after.
Silence all these years.
And the prize for speaking? A brand-new horror show.
Doesn’t seem worth it now or ever.
She never feels clean.
She’ll never.
Not after a hundred hospital showers.
Her fear of the past.
Her fear of today.
Her fear of tomorrow and every hour before and after this moment.
The questions.
The shaking.
The stares of strangers and remembering when.
(I’m struggling not to vomit. We’re trying not to live this.)
“Can they see it on me?” She wonders like before.
“Why can’t they see it, the secret I can’t say?”
She says prayers, but not like the ones she prays when he comes home to decide, “I miss your mother” and “You know, you’re so pretty.”
Try again. I see a light in the sky.
Your heart is broken.
My heart is broken.
Our heart is bro-ken.
(But… try them again.)


This poem gives us some insight into what this young woman tragically experienced and how a friend is also impacted and traumatized. This is only one story in a world of endless suffering, but relatable to so many. Jenee mentions the word “fear” multiple times. Arguably, the two most powerful forces on this earth are fear and love. Many human beings are crippled by fear, and it is fear that directly correlates with some of our mental illness and dictates some of our choices and lives. Sexual violence instills fear, but we do not have to be afraid. Fear does not have to destroy us. We can overcome the fears we may have and grow in strength. I have always found it powerful to listen and meditate on Jesus’s words when he says, “Do not fear” and “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
Trauma in any form can be severely damaging and even fatal. There is a vast range of potential effects a survivor may experience, either immediately post-assault or years later. This is not true for everyone, but here are some of the damaging outcomes that may result from sexual violence:


Shame                                    Depression                  Anxiety                                  Suicide                       Guilt                               Fear
Sadness                                 Vulnerability                 Loss of Control                   Anger                          Substance abuse        Rage
Cutting                                    Shock                           Eating Disorders                 Confusion                   Burning                         Isolation
Sexual problems                   Nightmares                 Startle responses                Safety concerns        Sleep problems           Distrust
In To the Survivors, I shared my thoughts on the overall detrimental impact of these experiences with the following: “I do not believe human beings fully understand the powerful effects of sexual trauma given our limited knowledge as finite beings. It is my opinion that even our medical professionals do not fully understand the powerful effects of sexual trauma. The brain is extremely intricate.  As advanced as we are with our knowledge of the brain, we still know so little.” Distorted memories and memory repression do exist and can be a deterrent to one’s own healing. The brain can repress traumatic memories which can be used to protect a person, but that protection may only last for a certain amount of time. Also, a person may be triggered which can bring up memories they tried to forget or repressed experiences they never knew they had. Triggers can be so intense that a person may have a panic attack or believe they are back in the same place and time. This sort of re-experiencing the assault is similar to war veterans who suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Triggers can easily occur at any time and may cause massive problems in an individual’s life and the lives of their loved ones. A trigger could be a sound, a smell, a comment, a television show, a song, a political or legal decision, or something else that will ignite horrible experiences, fear, insecurity, shame, depression and other setbacks. A crime can happen one time, and the painful effects to the brain, heart and soul can last for years, even a lifetime. If you are reading this and you are still affected by something awful that happened to you from the past, please know that it is normal to have setbacks. It is normal to have flashbacks. It is okay to be angry, to be sad. It’s okay to feel confused and lost, not knowing where to go or where to turn. But please be patient with yourself and have compassion for yourself. Do not speak lies to yourself or listen to the lies that come flooding into your head. Please seek help from a trustworthy source like a friend, family, religious or spiritual guides. If you have access to a therapist, hotline or online group, these anonymous supports can help you as well. Have faith that there is someone who will listen to you, believe you, and not judge you. You are not alone. You are never alone.
Far too many people suffer and will continue to suffer, but there are also too many people who are not responding to disclosures adequately. Survivors find the strength to share and are sometimes received and treated poorly by others; this makes the trauma and effects even worse. The last chapter from To the Survivors is titled “B.L.E.S.S.” This is a simple tool I teach people in an attempt to help them respond adequately if they ever receive a disclosure. So I ask the same thing of you: if someone ever comes to you in pain and wants to share something, please “B.L.E.S.S.” them. Here is how:

Believe: Believe that person if they disclose.

Listen: Listen to that person when they need to talk, cry, or scream.

Empathy: Empathize with that person as best you can.

Safety: Ensure that person’s physical, emotional, mental and spiritual safety.

Support: Support that person in whatever they need at the time.

            This is not just a mental issue but a spiritual one. Shame is the deep, underlying issue that so many people suffer with and struggle to release. Shame can be deeply destructive. This is incredibly sad because people feel shame when they did nothing wrong. They are not to blame for what happened to them, but rather someone took advantage of them. The soul suffers and the soul can be renewed and strengthened. People have their power and control taken from them when they are raped or sexually assaulted, but they can regain their power and control back.
The B.L.E.S.S. chapter begins with another poem by Jenee that she wrote two weeks after visiting her friend in the hospital, which happened to be on Holy Thursday:
March Twenty-Eighth


“But try praying again,”
We offered on the night everything changed.
For example, “Dear God”, we might say, “won’t you please help us?”
To practice breath-taking in a whole new world
of her public shame,
To find good things in the goodness
of never-before-held fears.
To spite despair and the scream sounds
of our waking dreams.
To just keep singing, singing
till normal life noises can’t condemn.
To scare away the phantom-feel of his hair
on her face, her neck, her arms, her person –
and the black bruises that 
deepen in dark there.
To fist off flashbacks,
every sneaking, creeping sense of his weight on things,
and broken pinky swears of silence on violence in that house.
To nibble pizza, play card tricks,
or read the “Justice” chapter in bite-sized bits.
Or yes, my “survivor” story,
and no, I know nothing in life makes sense.
To hold at bay stunning lies she still believes,
ten years not counting
about her worth
her purpose
her due to loves that left her helpless.
To maintain hope and faith
in this hell-like place of voices
always wanting,
measuring sanity against that of hospital room mates
who stay to stare and then leave.
“Dear God”, we do pray,
“Hide her safe in your sweet arms,
each hour every day.
Send her angels and guard her heart,
though we doubt,
we fear you will not show up for us on this
and hopes like these.
But…Jesus…would you please?”
So we try them anyway on a Holy Thursday.
Thinking oh how He loves, oh how He must…
and then we see you,
our Light in the sky,
descend with hope and healing.
True safety now,
and a peace that we can claim on this,
the second night
that everything changed.
God exists or does not exist. If God does not exist, then this world is all we have in an endless universe. If God does exist, then God is love and mercy. If God does exist, then you must know that you are loved more than you humanely understand. If Goes does not exist, then the powers on this earth can be all consuming and we cannot rise above them. If God does exist, then this earth is not as powerful as it seems to be because God is far more powerful than anything on this earth. The evil outcomes of rape, sexual violence, sexual exploitation and the lies that inevitably come with it are ultimately trampled underneath God. We have the tools and strength to overcome this evil; I hope and pray we use them as best we can. To believers and unbelievers, God is always with us even when we don’t believe, and God is always listening even if it doesn’t feel like it.
I have shared two poems by a woman named Jenee, but I have not shared that she has her own chapter in To the Survivors. Sadly, Jenee has experienced sexual trauma multiple times, but her faith has never left her. She continues to persevere as a gentle and strong fighter, as are so many others, and we must continue to fight as hard as we can through this life. She is a testament to possibilities and I know you can heal if you are struggling as well. Jenee’s chapter is beautifully uplifting and I want to leave you with how she ended it:
“Make peace with all people if you can, and especially, make peace with yourself. Always know there are friends somewhere rooting for you. There are people you don’t know, always praying for you and lifting you before God.”
Robert Uttaro
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