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Survivors of sexual trauma share experience through art, dialogue

Published: Monday, April 14 2014 10:16 p.m. MDT

Cathy Brinton, left, a victim of sexual trauma while serving eight years in the Army, shows event host Breeze Hannaford some of her art displays during "A Night of Healing" at the Urban Art Gallery at The Gateway on Monday, April 14, 2014, in Salt Lake City.

Hugh Carey, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — For Alan Morris, photography is more than a hobby. It's a depiction of his survival and resiliency.

"It's nothing verbal, just a release," he said. "I can just be myself in that."

Morris was one of many survivors of sexual trauma who expressed their experiences through art, music and dialogue at the Urban Arts Gallery on Monday.

"A Night of Healing" was a collaborative effort between the Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City Health Care System, Rape Recovery Center, Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault and MaleSurvivor.org.

Sculptures, photography and words inscribed on T-shirts were some of the items on display. Many sculptures were made from recycled plastic — a fitting medium, according to Breeze Hannaford, former military sexual trauma program coordinator at the VA.

"Oftentimes you think of plastic as disposable or trash, and survivors often feel they are disposable or trash after something has happened," Hannaford said. "The process of healing is really about finding the beauty again and reclaiming their souls. And that's what these artists have done in reclaiming the plastic."

Many of the survivors at the event were military veterans who endured sexual abuse during their service. According to Hannaford, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men report being victimized by some kind of sexual abuse, but hundreds more go unreported. Reports of sexual abuse within the military has risen 20 percent in the past three years, she said.

James Asbrand, a psychologist with the VA's military sexual trauma program, said although a greater proportion of women in the military are victims, the "raw numbers" of men and women who have been victimized are about the same.

"It's the most underreported crime in the military," he said. "For men in particular, they run into a lot of resistance when they try to report it. A lot of men don't want to believe that this actually happens to men."

Asbrand saw Monday's event as a chance for survivors to share their internal burdens with fellow victims.

"I think it's really helpful to reclaim their sense of self, to face the trauma," he said. "By actually confronting it, accepting it and acknowledging that it happened, they're better able to recover."

Such methods can be "intense but very helpful," Asbrand said.

Preston Jensen, a survivor of sexual trauma as a child, has spoken to a variety of audiences about the emotional and physical challenges he has endured. But talking about his experience, Jensen says, has helped accelerate his journey toward recovery.

"I think every time I'm asked to do a presentation, I hope I'm helping somebody else, but I think it does more for me," he said. "Just getting it out there gets it off my chest."

Jensen will be speaking at Sandy City Hall, 10000 Centennial Parkway, at 7 p.m. on April 21, along with other survivors of sexual abuse.

Cathy Brinton, a victim of sexual trauma while serving eight years in the Army, attributes her recovery to participating in programs through the VA.

"I'm still struggling, but I am a survivor," Brinton said. "If it wasn't for the VA, I'd probably still be carrying this on my shoulders for many more years. If you're a victim, get help and don't wait like I did."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

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