This essay was originally published in LENGUA LARGA, BOCA ABIERTA, edited by Isabel Quintero & Allyson Jeffredo, February 2017. I shared it on my blog soon after but took it down when I received threatening letters about the personal content.
The Unrecognized Impact of Sexual Violence on Survivors
by Sonia Patel
The truth of the matter is that “20 minutes of action” by men with privilege, power, and influence that “just kiss,” “grab ‘em by the p***y,” “don’t even wait,” and “can do anything,” can cause a lifetime of brain repercussions for their victims. And this is what is missing from the current discussion of sexual violence—that the effects on victims can be as biologically serious as brain injury induced by things such as concussions or crystal methamphetamine use.
As a child & adolescent psychiatrist, I’ve spent over twelve years guiding sexual violence survivors on their paths to recovery. I’m also a young adult novelist and my debut, Rani Patel In Full Effect, details the negative impact of paternal covert and overt incest and date rape on a sixteen-year-old girl. My second novel, Jaya and Rasa: A Love Story, addresses LGBTQ issues and one example of sex trafficking, including the profound damage that occurs to the development of a young girl when older men prey on her sexually from the time she’s twelve.
Sexual violence can damage a survivor’s brain at a cellular and physiological level. Time and time again medical research has shown that sexual violence can, for example, alter brain structure, change how the brain reacts to stimuli, deregulate neurophysiological interplay, and impair cognitive function. Children are particularly vulnerable to this devastation because their brains are still developing. These types of brain injuries can adversely alter everything about how children or adolescents approach and experience their life as they grow into adults. The normal development of their sense of trust, self-worth, ability to be assertive, and formation of their identity is thwarted. They are more likely to have pessimistic automatic thoughts, negative feelings, compulsive and self-destructive behaviors, and inability to maintain appropriate boundaries or form deep connections in relationships. Their brain injury might be expressed as one or more full blown psychiatric disorders.
Survivors may get lost in the cognitive and emotional manifestations of their impaired brain function. They may even accept that these symptoms are who they are instead of their brain’s unavoidable biologic response to the sexual violence.
Discussion of sexual violence is not typically encouraged and in fact society tends to at least partially blame the victim. In addition, because abusers put their own wants first and lack empathy (both of which can be hallmarks for serious psychiatric issues such as the Narcissistic Personality Disorder), their cavalier stance on the ramifications of their actions reinforces the view that the guilt rests with the victim. So survivors of sexual violence may suffer in silence. Stifled, they can’t focus on how harmful the abuse was. Rather, they are stuck in “speaking” and “living” through their troubled cognitions and emotions and end up in a vicious cycle of helplessness and shame that can lead to a lifetime of dangerous choices and various addictions, including drugs, alcohol, and sex.
Of course there are multiple factors that can alter the biological brain effects of sexual violence—chronicity of the abuse, genetic susceptibility, family and peer support, etc. But there is no doubt that sexual violence can change a victim’s brain functioning. Still, healing is possible. It takes time because it requires a survivor to essentially “retrain” their brain to think, feel, act, and connect with people in a positive way. I often tell my patients that depending on how many years they’ve lived with their dysfunctional brain wiring, it might take them that many years to fully recover. This is not to make them lose hope but rather to foster empathy for themselves about the severity of the abuse they suffered. Empathy for themselves, as it turns out, is an important part of gaining insight into their ordeal. And insight is the first step on the path to healing. As survivors gain insight into the sexual violence they suffered, they escape the muteness of their trauma and learn to find words to separate themselves and verbalize their brain’s biologically conditioned cognitions, emotions, behaviors, and connections to people. This leads to empowerment because they begin to realize they are not what their thoughts and feelings tell them. They become aware that they are worthy of being more than sexual objects for others. They figure out that they can reinvent themselves independent of the sexual violence they suffered.
And I should know. Because besides my medical training in the effects of sexual violence on patients and the years I’ve spent treating them, I’ve spent years individuating myself from my role as my father’s intimate object. I’ve thought the worst of myself. I’ve felt the depths of depression. I’ve hated myself and wanted to die. I had years of nightmares about being kidnapped and gang raped by older men. I’ve indulged in quick fix self-destructive behaviors and made impulsive, bad decisions that hurt me and those I loved.
Eventually I gained insight into my brain’s negative hardwiring and it became clear to me that I’d have to work hard to overcome the existing circuits. Many tears and years later I succeeded in creating new ways of thinking, feeling, behaving, and relating to people. My self-worth is solid and my boundaries and decision making much improved. I am my own person.
Given the recent revelations of sexual violence by many high-profile men in a wide range of industries, I am hopeful that we as a society can use this political moment and the conversation it has provoked to reshape our understanding of sexual violence. We can do this by fully supporting victims and survivors of sexual violence on their journey to recovery. We can do this by not standing for any of the excuses for unacceptable behavior thrown around by abusers. And we can do this by eliminating once and for all the disgrace surrounding victim status.