The National Council of Psychotherapists
RAPE - THE VICTIM’S PERSPECTIVE
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
The modern definition of rape is that a man commits
he has unlawful sexual intercourse, whether vaginal or anal, with a
person who at the time does not consent to it and
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
that the person did not consent and
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
IMPACT ON THE VICTIM
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
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
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:
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.
They re-experience the trauma in the form of dreams, flashbacks,
intrusive memories or unrest at being in situations that remind them of the
They show evidence of avoidance behaviour
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
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.
HELP THE VICTIM
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Victim Support. Information leaflet.