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The London Met Police Are Trying To Help Rape Survivors Come Forward

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
According to statistics from the charity Rape Crisis, approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales each year, which works out at roughly 11 rapes (per adult) every hour. Moreover, approximately half a million adults are survivors of sexual assault. In 2012-13, 22,654 cases of rape and sexual assault committed against minors were reported, although the NSPCC believe the unreported numbers of sex crimes to be much higher.

Shockingly, only around 15% of sexual assaults are ever reported to the police – with that figure falling to an even lower percentage the younger the victim. Approximately 90% of survivors of sexual assault know their attacker – meaning, rather depressingly – friends, family members, work colleagues and acquaintances are more of a danger to us than the proverbial stranger in a dark alleyway.

Sadly, familiarity with one’s attacker is often the biggest culprit behind the low incidence of reporting sex crimes. Officially telling someone can be a harrowing and difficult prospect – sometimes more so when the perpetrator is known to them.

Joanna*, 23, was raped by her older brother’s best friend of twenty-five years when he walked her home from a boozy barbecue last summer. The attack happened in her flat when he invited himself in for a nightcap.

She recalls: “I’d known S* literally my whole life. He was like an older brother to me. We’d been on family holidays and grown up together. He spent so much time at our family home, he had his own set of keys. The night he raped me, things were no different to how they’d ever been. One minute we were laughing and joking about the football, the next he was on top of me. I tried desperately to talk him out of it, even joking with him at first, but it did no good.”

After hiding the assault for 24 hours (a critical window for obtaining physical evidence), Judy confessed it to her mum. Added to the trauma of reporting the rape, Joanna also felt enormous guilt at her brother’s anguish – he blamed himself.

She admits, “I might have thought twice about reporting it if I hadn’t been sure my family would have believed and supported me. But still, it’s made a massive crack in my family, and though I know I’m the victim, I feel terrible about it.”

When you talk to those who have experienced sex crimes, fear and guilt seem to be very common reactions, which is rather telling about how society often views these types of crime – rarely do victims who have been, say, mugged express guilt or worry they were responsible. Moreover, if we had our mobile phone or wallet stolen, very few of us would be hesitant to report it to the police. Another common fear victims of sex crimes have, is the fear they either won’t be believed and/or will either be dismissed by or treated badly by the police.

There are still many myths and misconceptions about what happens in police custody and beyond when you report a sex crime, so I went to speak to DI Neil J. Smithson who works in the Sapphire Unit at the Met Police in London. The Sapphire Unit deals with allegations of rape and serious sexual offences (i.e. assault by penetration.) The Sapphire Unit is specifically affiliated to sex crimes committed in London, although every city will have their own equivalent unit.

The initial reporting of sex crimes most commonly happens in one of two ways: the victim will go directly into a police station to report it, or it will be referred to the police via a second party like The Havens or Rape Crisis. In the first instance the victim will speak to a uniformed officer, who will just want to establish the who/what/when/how of the crime.

From there, Sapphire (or the equivalent) will be contacted and the victim will be assigned a SOIT (Sexual Offences Investigative Techniques) Officer who will both support the victim and give them advice. If the crime has occurred in the last seven days, the victim will be offered a forensic examination at a Haven – specialist centres for victims of sex crimes. Smithson is keen to emphasise these centres are “not cold and clinical” and “very sympathetic to the needs of the victim.” There are specialists who specifically deal with LGBT victims, sex workers, men, mothers etc. – so Haven certainly does what it can to recognise the individual needs of each victim.

What happens next in the process is largely down to the victim – sometimes they decline to have the case taken further. The reasons behind this are varied and complex: reluctance to because the crime took place in a domestic setting at the hands of someone known to them, fear of the court process, low conviction rates, or feeling like reporting it was cathartic enough.

However, if the victim does want to take the case further, the DI (Detective Inspector) attached to the case has to make the decision whether to submit the case to the courts. DI Smithson approximates only 20% of sex crime cases ever make it to court, which does seem very low, but the conviction process is a complex business. The most common reason for a sex crime not making it to court is down to the person who has been raped’s decision not to take it forward, but there is also sometimes a "realistic prospect of prosecution" test applied. In the cases where the DI feels there is little chance of prosecution, they might decline to submit the case to court.

Giving evidence in court is undoubtedly stressful for the victim. They are expected to give detailed evidence of the crime and questions deemed to be relevant will get asked. It is common for the person who has been raped to be cross-examined on how much alcohol or drugs were consumed (if relevant), their relationship with the perpetrator (if relevant) and so on. However, Smithson is keen to emphasise how much the rules have been tightened up in recent years regarding cross examination. Character assassinations of the alleged victim are not allowed, and questions not pertinent to the case are prohibited – for example, irrelevant questions about sexual history.

How both the police and courts deal with sex crimes is never going to be either simple or perfect. The nature of sex crime usually means it is one person’s word against another, and unless there is a confession (which is rare), it then involves a complex gathering of evidence and statements. This can include everything from forensic evidence, witness statements, CCTV footage, which together will influence whether the case is submitted to the courts.

My morning with the police gave me the distinct impression the police are very ‘pro-victim’ and keen to significantly increase reporting and conviction rates in the UK.

Smithson explains current improvements being made to the court system, which make it less stressful for the rape survivor giving evidence, including applying (to the judge) for a screen for the survivor to give evidence behind, or giving evidence via video link. Indeed, there is currently a pilot scheme being tested in one London court where the survivor can give evidence and be cross-examined upfront and by video, which precludes them from attending the trial in person.

However, perhaps the biggest change that needs to be made to encourage people who have been through sex crimes to come forward is universal better education and information. Young (and older) people need to be educated around important issues like consent, what constitutes a sex crime, grooming and good online behaviour. As a society as a whole, we could perhaps do better in seeing "victims" of sex crimes as victims, and not finding ways to blame them. We need to understand that sex crimes are complex, and one does not need to include violence, a dark alley or a terrifying stranger for it to be taken seriously as a crime.

Over the last few years, things have certainly improved, and survivors of sex crimes are treated far more fairly and humanely – but the statistics speak an undeniable truth – we still have a long way to go in getting more convictions for sex crimes.