Robert Uttaro is a Rape Crisis Counselor, Public Speaker, and Community Educator. Inspired by his Undergraduate studies in Criminal Justice, he continues to embrace a life long commitment to activism and advocacy for survivors of sexual violence. He published his book ‘To The Survivors’ in the year 2013. Bookstalkist spoke with him about his work and related subjects. This interview was conducted in March, 2018.
You have used the medium of a book to speak to the world about the problem of sexual violence. There are many people in today’s age who would have preferred a motion picture to a book. The question comes from a context. As a human race, we are increasingly growing thicker on our skin. It follows that we aren’t moved today unless we are shown images or videos. A documentary perhaps hits more than a newspaper story on any crime. What led you to write a book on this subject?
I did not consider myself a writer and never once tried to write a book until the experience of an intensely vivid dream one morning changed my life. I woke up from this dream and said, “I have to write a book.” I interpreted this dream as a vision from God. I prayed to God, moved from the bed to the computer, opened up Microsoft Word, and continued to pray. That is how To the Survivors began. In other words, God inspired me to write To the Survivors. God never asked me to make a movie or documentary, and I never once interpreted anything I have experienced in life or my dreams as a signal to make a movie or documentary.
I am not opposed to taking part in a documentary if someone ever asks me to, but creating a documentary was not the purpose for To the Survivors. I believe that To the Survivors can spread throughout the world because there is rape, evil, pain, and suffering in the world; and a book can help to educate, inspire, and heal. I love documentaries and movies but there is something powerful about the written word where people sit alone and read. Also, I love that there are no images or faces in To the Survivors. I have always hoped that people would interpret the book any way they choose and connect with it in any way they can. I always wanted it to be a universal book with universal messages. I believe people can possibly have more of a personal connection with messages in the book without images of people but through words and emotions. They can pick it up and read it any time and hopefully find comfort, strength, and peace in it.
You have also touched upon the subject of ‘Forgiveness’ in your book. That was a part we don’t usually see in common civic discourse. A large part of the public asks for retribution. Why is ‘Forgiveness’ so important to you?
Forgiveness is important to me because God has forgiven me of my sins. I have experienced God’s love and mercy over and over again, so it makes sense to me to extend the same to others. I believe forgiveness is one of the hardest things to do for people who have been hurt but the effects of forgiveness and unforgiveness are incredibly powerful. I believe in forgiveness even though I have struggled with forgiveness at various points in my life.
I am not here to tell people what to do and how they should live their lives. I believe forgiveness can mean something different for all of us and all of us make a choice to forgive or not forgive if we have been hurt. Do the survivors want to forgive? Do the perpetrators ask for forgiveness? It’s not for me to say but one of the saddest effects of sexual violence is when people blame themselves. So many people all over this world experience horrible, evil violations and they blame themselves. So, in terms of sexual violence, I do hope and pray that all survivors forgive themselves.
And if the unforgiveness of the perpetrators is continuing to hurt them, then I hope they can forgive, so that they can heal for themselves. As Timothy said in the ‘Forgiveness’ chapter, “lastly, be able to forgive their attacker for the survivor’s sake, not the perpetrator’s.”
In terms of sexual violence, many perpetrators feel no remorse. Sexual perpetration is arguably the hardest criminal activity to change. I believe God’s mercy is endless for those who genuinely ask for it, but not everyone does. I have seen some perpetrators achieve true remorse and change, while many continue to rape. This sadly will continue. I do believe perpetrators should be incarcerated for long periods of time and we can still have punishment and forgiveness. But does retribution solve anything? Does retribution stop evil? I wrote in To the Survivors, “What if we are not able to forgive? Does it hurt or affect us in the short and long term? If so, how does it hurt or affect us? Does it help people who are able to forgive, regardless of what they are forgiving? If so, how is it helpful? Ultimately, what are the impacts on our lives if we forgive or don’t forgive?” I believe our answers to these questions deeply impact our lives and that is another reason why forgiveness is important to me.
A lot of these people who perpetuate sexual violence might have had a difficult childhood. A few of them have themselves been victims at some point in their lives. Have you met such people? Are they open to be healed?
A lot of people have difficult childhoods but do not rape or attempt to rape. It is true that some of the perpetrators of sexual violence have been victimized but sexual violence should never be accepted or minimized. I have met perpetrators and people I have suspected as being perpetrators. In my experiences and from everything I have learned thus far, it is rare to see sexual offenders open to being healed.
That does not mean it can’t happen because it can but I would not say it is the norm. Human trafficking continues to be on the rise and is now the second most lucrative criminal activity. Some people travel from different countries to rape children, even if they think it is just sex (which it is not). That demand and desire is not going away any time soon. It is more common for me to see people who have been victims/survivors be open to healing as opposed to the perpetrators but like I said before, anyone can choose to change and be open to healing. That is their choice.
Have you found anyone in your personal relationships who has been sexually assaulted? Have you tried to help them? Have you been able to heal someone close? What was your approach like?
By the grace of God, I have played a positive role in the healing process of some survivors. Yes, I have known people in personal relationships who have been raped and I have tried to help them in any way possible. I believe we should try to help each other with anything, not just people who are sexually assaulted. My approach is the same as what I described in the book. I believe people and listen to them. We must believe and listen to each other. The way we respond to sexual violence is incredibly important. We have the ability to send people down a path of healing or destruction. Believing, listening, and supporting people in whatever they need is vital. I try my best to meet people where they are at. Some people want to talk, some cry, some want to just listen to music or watch television. Some people want to go to the police and others have no desire to speak to the police. So, I try my best to help survivors with whatever they need.
People who are raped or sexually assaulted have their power and control taken from them. We have to help them regain their power and control. I don’t think we should tell others what they must do but rather support them and allow them to make their own decisions. We need to be sensitive, gentle, empathetic, and compassionate. I wrote in the ‘Victim Blaming’ chapter, “If we believe, listen, and validate, we strengthen and help. If we blame, we confuse and hurt.”
How do you see the entire #MeToo movement?
I think it has been very empowering for many women while also negatively affecting others. I personally believe it has been great for women who connect with the movement and use their voices. Sexual violence is extremely difficult to talk about for so many people, so I do believe it is special for so many women to speak out against sexual assault and harassment. I know of one woman who was raped and struggles deeply with shame and insecurity. Sadly, she sabotages almost everything good in her life. But she was moved by the #MeToo movement and joined it. For her, it was empowering. And to me, that is beautiful.
The movement has also brought a significant amount of awareness to some of these issues, so I think it is good that much of the public has been thinking and speaking about it. It clearly has caused dialogue. However, some women have been upset with it. They do not openly talk about their experiences and don’t want to feel pressured to do so. They don’t want to feel like they haven’t reached a certain point in their healing. So I think it’s important to also respect those people who do not wish to participate.
Finally, the #MeToo movement has done wonderful things for millions of women who have suffered and continue to suffer, and I think that is special. But I also think the pain that many men and boys experience has gone unnoticed. I will never diminish the pain that countless women experience but men and boys are sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, and raped as well. When discussing sexual violence, I believe we must think about and care for all genders and all victims/survivors of these crimes.
Do men assault more than any other gender?
Are assaults on men not being taken seriously enough? Is it discouraging men from opening up and talking about it?
I do think assaults of men are taken seriously in certain parts of the world but I would not say that is the norm. Can that deter some many men from opening up? Absolutely. Far too many men are not believed or made to feel even worse when they do choose to open up. But some people do care and take it very seriously.
I will never forget an event I went to for male rape survivors where the male survivors’ wives expressed complete devastation. Their tears and facial expressions pierced my heart. Many of them came over to me and bought my book. I do not believe they knew their husbands were raped as kids when they began dating and I am willing to bet, it has been difficult in their marriages.
They were very supportive and sought resources to help but they also looked completely lost. As for the men, some men stood and shared their stories while people continued to cry. I remember a man in particular who shared his story and did so in angry tones. He yelled, “I ain’t thriving, surviving, none of that!” I believe many men are like this man, but I know it is possible to get to places of healing like other male survivors have.
You have written about survivors who were assaulted during their childhood. The problem is that children do not realize that there is something wrong happening to them before they grow up to understand crimes of sexual nature. What would you suggest the parents or the society at large to prevent sexual assaults on children?
This is true. Many children do not realize something wrong is happening to them before they grow up, while others may know but do not know how to speak about it. So many children are also terrified to speak and worry that no one will even believe them. Parents and society as a whole, need to be aware of what is going on with their children and others around them. Most of the sexual abuse committed against children is perpetrated by someone the child victim knows. So, much abuse exists within families and other safe spaces where pedophiles have easy access to children. I believe we need to be educated on the realities of sexual violence, stop abuse from occurring if we see something happen, and check in with our children. I also think we have to acknowledge that there are people from all genders sexually abusing children of all genders.
First of all, the best way sexual violence against children can be prevented is for people to not sexually abuse children. A change in the heart must occur for those who are committing these evil crimes. There is a desire for far too many to rape and molest children. They choose to commit atrocities against our most innocent and they can choose not to. Sadly, many will not change and not all sexual abuse on this earth will be prevented. With that being said, there are plenty of things we can do.
In To the Survivors for example, there are two stories of men (Jim and Chris) who were sexually abused as children. In both stories, the pedophiles groomed the boys. There were many inappropriate things happening, mainly isolation from others. Jim was taken out of school during the day to smoke a cigarette with a priest, and Chris’ camp counselor constantly took him away from everyone else at the camp. How did no adults see these things occurring? And if they were aware, how could they not step in and confront the issue? Adults could have prevented the sexual abuse of two young boys and the suffering that they endured for many years but that did not happen. So, we must be aware and act. We have to act if we see adults trying to isolate kids for no reason. The least we must do is check in to gain clarity on what is happening.
Another odd behaviour we can notice is unhealthy touching. Kids need physical affection and should feel safe and protected. I work with kids quite often and we play tag games where kids and adults are touching each other by tagging. This is normal. It’s also normal for an adult to hold a child’s hand when necessary and help them when they are physically hurt.
But unhealthy touch is different than healthy touch, and we need to know the difference. No adult should tag a kid or touch a kid on the buttocks, chest, or genitals. We have to be aware when adults have kids on their laps for significant periods of time unnecessarily and when we see any kinds of unhealthy touch.
We need to act if we see abuse occurring. Far too much abuse is happening and people know but do not act. For example, plenty of children are sexually abused by family members. Some do not know that their loved ones are being abused, but some do. Those who know abuse is happening and do not act to stop it are allowing it. They may not intervene for different reasons such as fear, not being believed, cultural norms, or not wanting to break up a family but survivors suffer deeply as a result of our inaction. And if someone cannot intervene themselves, they need to seek out a trusted adult to intervene and that adult should intervene.
Our legal systems must also incarcerate paedophiles who abuse children when convicted. Most perpetrators are never arrested or incarcerated. We need to have a supportive and welcoming environment for people to make reports of sexual abuse against children. Convictions can be difficult in sexual abuse cases but if a legal system does find a perpetrator to be guilty of sexually abusing a child, I believe the person needs to be incarcerated for a lengthy period of time. Many perpetrators are never even brought to trial while others are brought to trial but exonerated. Others are found guilty but receive a light sentence.
Lastly, we need to check in with our kids. How are they doing? Are they happy? Are they receiving what they need? Are they struggling mentally or emotionally? If the answer to the last question is yes, what are we doing to help them? We need to protect children at all costs and cultivate their education and development. We need to help in their trust and healing if they have been abused. Children are so deeply influenced in both good and bad ways by us. The way we treat them and respond to them is incredibly important. We have the power to make powerful changes in their lives and I hope and pray more adults support children in any way they know how.
Humanity continues to be in chaos. Too many people hate, fight, rape, and kill each other. Human beings differ in so many ways but no matter where we come from, what language we speak, or what we believe in; all of us should love and protect children.
India is debating marital rape at present. Do you think the issue of marital rape is complex in nature from a legal angle?
I do not believe marital rape is complex from a legal standpoint. Rape cases can be complex, but not every rape case is complex. Some cases are quite clear, so why would marital rape be different? Complexities can be the same whether it is marital rape or non-marital rape. For example, if a man rapes a woman and there is clear evidence that she was raped, that is not complex. It is complex if a woman is raped but there is no evidence of rape. The same is true in a marriage. If a husband rapes his wife and there is clear evidence of rape, what is complex about that? But if a man rapes his wife and there is no evidence, then that is complex.
I just read that the Supreme Court ruled that marital rape cannot be considered a criminal offence in India. That decision is truly horrible. The Supreme Court has continued to allow men to rape their own wives. This decision says it is perfectly acceptable to rape your wife. There is no logic in that decision and it is infuriating and sickening. How do we prevent sexual violence? We can at least begin with not allowing it through the law.
Think of the pain so many women go through. Think of the fear so many women live with. Think of the utter lack of love so many women experience. Also, think of what the Supreme Court’s decision endorses and teaches Indian men. Think of what this shows and teaches Indian boys. My heart breaks for the people of India and other countries that legally permit marital rape. I pray for everyone affected and I pray for a legal change in the future. The Supreme Court’s decision is inhumane and will play an active role in the rape and deep shame and suffering that many will continue to experience.
You mention in the introduction to the book that it is painful to know of the stories of survivors. There may also be rage to see so many people affected by this. Does it take a toll on your psyche? How do you deal with this feeling?
Yes, working with rape on a daily basis affects my psyche but I love what I do and will never stop. How do I deal with it? God. Jesus. Mary. Music. Meditation. And my beautiful wife.
I cannot begin to explain how much God loves us and how God is always with us, even when we do not feel it or believe it. God has never once left me and has always strengthened me and given me anything I have needed. God is more powerful than any pain on this earth. Sadly, far too many people keep their pain inside and suffer inside. I want them to give their pain away, either to someone else or to God. I take my pain and give it to God, and when I do that, I am relaxed and strengthened to continue this work. I am always moved when I pray with my heart.
Jesus is my greatest teacher. I learn so much from him when I read the Gospels — especially the Gospel of John — and when I meditate and pray. I ask for his guidance and wisdom, and I ask for his gentle words and touch to heal others. I have seen it happening. I also have a deep love of Jesus’ mother Mary, the queen of peace. I pray for Mary to use her motherly love to help those who are suffering. For me personally, praying the rosary gives me clarity, peace of mind, and strength.
I love to mediate and listen to music, and I equate the two. Today while I was teaching in school, another teacher led a yoga class with 8th grade students. I participated and experienced so much relaxation and peace through yoga and the sound of the music. I also just have a deep love of music. I can listen to music for hours and hours. Music means so much to me and has impacted me throughout my life.
Lastly, I am so incredibly lucky to have met my soulmate. My wife means the world to me. She is a constant source of love for me and she is always there for me, especially in my darkest moments. She has seen how working with rape has sometimes affected me in negative ways and she has always been a light to me. I can go to her with anything and she has always been there with me through this journey. I can look into her beautiful eyes and feel comfort. I truly am a lucky man.
We have often seen people turning away from God in the face of pain or misery. As someone who comes face to face with so many stories of suffering and pain, how do you continue to believe in God? Or how do you explain so much pain to yourself in spite of the presence of a divine power?
You are right that many people turn away from God in the face of pain and misery. It makes me very sad. This is one of the reasons why I believe I was meant to do this work and write To the Survivors. My faith is what strengthens me and keeps me going. I can understand why so many people don’t believe in God but ultimately, God is always with us on this earth.
Just look at the world we live in. Many people say things like, “God can’t exist. Look how horrible this world is.” I say, “Look how horrible this world is. This can’t be all we have. Paradise awaits anyone who wants it.” Too many people blame God for the pain of this world but the reality is that human beings commit atrocities against each other. Too many people like to blame something, anything else other than looking at their own lives and choices.
People have asked me the exact same question you asked. My relationship with God has grown even closer since becoming a rape crisis counselor. My faith in God has strengthened while my faith in human institutions has decreased. Just look at this world. Far too many people put their faith in our political leaders. How are our political leaders doing? Are they fixing our problems? India just ruled that marital rape is not a criminal offense. So many American politicians do not do what they should do and lead. Our political systems are corrupt and human institutions are flawed. They always will be.
Look at our religious leaders. How are they doing? Are they teaching the truth about God or are they distorting God? Are they using religious texts to promote peace, love, and mercy; or are they using these texts to promote division and violence? There are far too many religious leaders who lie, manipulate, and even rape. Too many take money from people, including poor people, for their own selfish desires. Some religious leaders truly care and teach the truth about God’s love while others use God for evil. This is part of the reason why many do not even believe.
You say there is a divine power. Just look at the universe. It is endless. We can’t even see it but we know it exists. I hope and pray people look up to the sky, see the stars, and commune with the universe. I have already told you that I wrote a book due to a dream. I have had spiritual experiences through dreams that I will never forget. For me, I can think of them as I continue to live my life. Thinking of those dreams strengthens me and gives me clarity to continue in my work and to continue asking for God’s guidance.
I talk to God in both good times and bad. People from every ethnic, socio-economic and religious background have difficulties in life. Jesus never once said life was easy but Jesus did say, “Do not let your hearts be troubled”, “Do not fear”, and “Have faith.” Some people say that to believe in God makes no sense. To me, it’s one of the only things that make sense.