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The National Council of Psychotherapists

Est. 1971



Article published anonymously





Rape laws originally came from the Roman law of “raptus”. Raptus was a violent theft that could apply to any kind of property belonging to a man, including his wife or children. From the beginning, rape laws have been designed to protect a man’s property, not to protect women.


This is why, until 1992, a husband could not be prosecuted for raping his wife. A man could not be charged for taking what was legally his.


The modern definition of rape is that a man commits rape if:


a)     he has unlawful sexual intercourse, whether vaginal or anal, with a person who at the time does not consent to it and


b)     at that time, he knows that they do not consent or he is reckless as to whether they consent to it.


Being “reckless” means there is an obvious risk that the woman was not consenting and the man ignored this. The prosecution must prove


a)     that the person did not consent and


b)     the man knew the person did not consent


It is only rape if there is penetration by the penis – any other acts (including oral sex) are classified as “indecent assault”.


Between 1977 and 1996, the number of women reporting rape rose by 500%, yet the number of convictions remained almost static. This means that in 1977, one in three women saw their rapists convicted whereas in 1996 less than one in ten did.


The criminal justice system is failing women. It sends out a message that rape is a low risk, high reward activity. Statistics also indicate that at least 75% of all rapes go unreported.




Every woman needs to make her own decision about reporting a rape or sexual assault and it is important that she feels supported when she does make the decision. Police training has improved tremendously over the last few years, but it is not easy to go to a police station to report an assault or rape.


If the victim does decide to report the rape, it should ideally be done as soon as possible and without washing or changing her clothes.


However, all is not lost if the assault is not reported at an early stage because improved DNA techniques means that forensic evidence can be recovered from unwashed items of clothing many weeks, months or even years after the attack.


The victim will need a lot of support when reporting a rape to the police and may well wish to take a friend with her. Rape Crisis Centres provide a safer way of reporting if the victim is unable to face going directly to the police. Although not every area has such a centre, there are confidential helplines to give support or advice. Another option is to contact the local Victim Support organisation. Or the victim may wish to approach someone who she feels she can trust such as her family doctor or other health professionals.


Many victims are afraid to tell anyone and these may be quite reasonable fears since even close friends may withdraw from her because they are not sure how to react – others may become over protective.


Once the rape has been reported and the police are involved, a specially trained police officer is appointed to be a “chaperone” to the victim. They will explain the procedures which need to be gone through.


Most police stations now have a rape suite and the victim will be taken there. At some stage, if the rape is reported early enough, the victim will need to be examined by a doctor and if she requires medical treatment, the doctor will arrange for treatment at a hospital.


The victim will be required to give a detailed statement to the police and this can be a very traumatic experience in itself. Before she signs the statement, she should read it thoroughly and make any alterations necessary.


The statement is not confidential and will be released to the defendant as well as being used in Court. She will not be allowed to keep a copy of her own statement and will not see it again until the case comes to trial, so it is essential that it is as accurate as possible when it is given to the police.


The average survivor may not realise that the criminal case is not her case. It is the Crown’s case because rape, like other criminal charges, is a crime against the Crown. Whilst she is a very important witness, the survivor is exactly that – a witness.


The prosecuting solicitor and barrister are not her representatives but represent the interests of the Crown. Often, the victim will not even meet these individuals until the day of the trial. Should a conflict arise, the interests of the Crown come before the interests of the victim.


The victim has no rights in the decision making process and this can be very painful and disempowering for her. Even if expert witnesses are involved by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to help with the prosecution of the case, the victim is not told the content of their reports. On the other hand, the defendant will get to see all the evidence.


One important thing to remember is that once the rape has been reported to the police, the victim is granted lifetime anonymity and can never be named by the media unless she makes a conscious decision to publicise her case. The case can be reported, but she can never be identified.




The first formal stage once the rape has been reported to the police and it has been decided that there is enough evidence to arrest the defendant, is the Committal Hearing. The attacker is brought before a Magistrates Court where it is decided if there is enough evidence for the case to go forward to the Crown Court for a full trial. The victim is not normally required to attend the Magistrates Court, but she should be prepared for several adjournments or delays at this stage, which can be intensely frustrating and stressful.


If it is decided that the case should go to Crown Court, then there will be a number of pre-trial hearings which are purely administrative in nature and again will not require the victim to attend. During this stage, the actual date for the trial will be decided. This would normally be about 6 months after the committal to Crown Court, but even this date is not fixed and may be adjourned at the last minute. The various individuals working for the Crown Prosecution Service or the police are used to seeing this happen and almost take it for granted, but these delays can have a devastating impact on the victim.


The Crown Court can seem intimidating and confusing, but the Witness Support Service will provide a volunteer who can be with you to explain the procedures. They also arrange for the victim to visit the Court a few weeks before the trial starts so that she can see the layout of the Court and see where the witness box is in relation to where the Judge/jury/barristers and defendant will be. With rape cases, they are often able to ensure some privacy within the Court building so that there is no risk of the victim accidentally seeing the defendant outside the Courtroom.


If the defendant pleads guilty, then she will not need to give evidence as it will simply be up to the Judge to pass sentence.


If he pleads “not guilty” then plea-bargaining may take place. The defendant may be asked if he will plead guilty to a lesser offence eg. sexual assault rather than rape. This would guarantee a conviction and the victim would not have to give evidence, but the punishment would be less severe.


Assuming that he continues to plead “not guilty” and no plea-bargaining is entered into, the trial will proceed. At some point during the trial, the Judge will make a “corroboration warning” which seems to make it harder to convict the attacker. The Judge directs the jury not to convict unless there is evidence or witnesses to support the victim’s version of events. The prosecution barrister will then outline the case against the defendant and witnesses will be called to support their case. The victim is not allowed to be in Court prior to giving evidence.


The victim is usually the main prosecution witness and will be called to give evidence first. The prosecution barrister will take her through her detailed statement and then the defence barrister is allowed to ask questions (cross examine) with the aim of discrediting the victim’s account.


The questioning will be rigorous but it is important that the victim does not allow herself to feel pressurised. If she does not understand a question, she should ask the barrister to explain it more clearly and should not be afraid to think carefully before answering it.


Once she has given evidence, the victim may sit in the Public Gallery and watch the rest of the trial. However, if she shows any emotion then it can be argued that she is influencing the jury and the Judge would ask her to leave the Courtroom for the rest of the trial. She should also bear in mind that relatives of the defendant could be in the Public Gallery.


After the barristers have finished presenting their evidence, the Judge will sum up the case and the jury will be sent to a separate room to consider their verdict. If the defendant is found guilty, then the Judge will set what he considers to be an appropriate sentence.




For most women, rape is the most serious life crisis they will have to face, with some exceptions. They have probably never felt the extreme and overwhelming emotions before – the fear, the rage, the panic attacks or the worthlessness. There is no such thing as a “normal” reaction to rape.


Fear is a pretty universal response to rape – but the things that you fear may be different for different women. It could be the fear of accidentally seeing the rapist again. Some victims may fear situations that remind them of the rape – they may associate places, sounds and smells with danger. Or the fear may be more generalised because of a loss of an inner sense of security.


The victim may feel discouraged and depressed about the future as if there is nothing to look forward to. Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or self-disgust may result. Decisions about even small, day to day matters may seem impossible and there may be an overwhelming sense of exhaustion that makes concentration difficult. The depression can vary from day to day in its intensity and may also be associated with intense anxiety or agitation.


Rape victims may experience a significant, immediate loss of self-esteem that could last for a long time. The events that occurred and the memory of them are so degrading that she will feel humiliation and shame, and fear rejection by others who know the terrible acts she was forced to endure.


It is increasingly recognised that rape victims may suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The diagnosis is now frequently made in reference to those crime victims whose distressing symptoms persist for an extended period of time after a traumatic event. It is a normal reaction seen in normal people who have been through a terrifying situation that they had no control over. According to the psychiatric diagnostic manual DSM-IV, the following are some of the criteria that need to be met:


a)     The person must have been exposed to a traumatic event involving actual or threatened injury or death, during which they responded with panic, horror and feelings of helplessness.


b)     They re-experience the trauma in the form of dreams, flashbacks, intrusive memories or unrest at being in situations that remind them of the original trauma.


c)     They show evidence of avoidance behaviour


d)     They experience physiological hyperarousal as evidenced by insomnia, agitation, irritability or outbursts of rage.


PTSD can be either acute or delayed onset. Acute PTSD occurs within 6 months of a traumatic event. In delayed onset PTSD, the symptoms occur after 6 months and it has been known to occur as long as 20 or even 40 years after the traumatic event. It is not incurable, but any intervention should be swift and appropriate. The wrong therapist can do more harm than good, and effective therapists should do the following:


-        See the trauma as real and important in itself, apart from any pre-existing psychological problems


-        View the victim as being a survivor capable of being healed – not as a hopeless psychiatric case


-        Educate the victim about the nature of trauma and the nature of the healing process


-        Teach coping skills such as assertiveness, stress management and anger management or make appropriate referrals for her to receive such help


Although the NHS system means that often the victim does not have much say about the therapist/counsellor/nurse or psychiatrist who she is referred to, it is important for effective healing that there is some kind of emotional match between the victim and the therapist. The victim needs to feel that the therapist or doctor is supportive and respectful towards her. For example, does she feel that she can talk about the trauma and her innermost feelings in safety? It may take several attempts to find a therapist who she feels able to trust, but without trust it is unlikely that any therapy or counselling will be effective.




The resources or agencies listed below cannot guarantee consistency of approach between regions or even from one individual to another, but they make a good starting point.



1.     The Police. Not many women report a rape to the police, but they can get the victim to a safe place and will know what resources are available within the local community to help her. They will know which hospitals will have specialised staff to help treat her, both physically and emotionally. Although at first, she will feel intimidated and afraid of the rapist, she may well get angry at what he has done and that may be the time when she wished that she had reported it to the police. However, it is no easy thing to walk into a police station to report a rape and this is when other agencies may be of assistance.


2.     The GP. The family doctor can have an important role to play. The victim may report the rape to them, not just because they are concerned about their physical or mental health after the rape, but also because they cannot face going to the police. It would be helpful if the GP is aware of what facilities are available within the local area to help rape victims and also if they had a contact within the local police force so that reporting the crime can be made easier for the victim.


3.     St. Mary’s Centre (Manchester area). For victims who are living in the health authorities around Greater Manchester, the St. Mary’s Centre (based at St. Mary’s hospital) is an invaluable resource. Victims can go there in strictest confidence and they can undergo whatever medical examinations are necessary. Counsellors are available to provide support and help her look at her feelings surrounding the rape or sexual assault. They will offer to call the police if she wishes them to be called, but no pressure is placed on her. If the police were called, the initial interview would take place in the safety of the Centre and with a Counsellor present to support her. The telephone number for the centre is:  0161 276 6515.


4.     Rape Crisis Centres. These are in many city centres and also offer counselling services. The Rape Crisis Federation was launched in 1996 and exists to encourage the development of Rape Crisis Groups throughout England and Wales. They act as a referral service to individual women who are seeking advice and/or support around the issues of rape or sexual assault. Their national telephone number is:  0115 934 8474.


5.     Victim Support. Victim Support volunteers can accompany you to the police station or to court and the help they give is confidential and free. The volunteers are trained to deal with all sorts of crime and not specifically with rape, but they can give general assistance and help explain the court procedure. Victim Support is also responsible for organising the Witness Service in every Crown Court centre in England and Wales. These volunteers are specially trained in the Crown Court procedures and if the case does go to Court, they will be there to offer advice and support to the victim. The national helpline for Victim Support is:  0845 30 30 900.





Throughout this article, because women are the primary victims of rape, I have referred to the victim as she. This is not intended to exclude or discount men who have been the victims of such assaults.



Ledray, Linda E. (1994). Recovering From Rape

Matsakis, Aphrodite (1996). I Can’t Get Over It – A Handbook for Trauma Survivors

Rape Crisis Foundation. Information leaflet

The St. Mary’s Centre, Manchester. Information leaflet.

Victim Support. Information leaflet.



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