Last March when I was feeling overwhelmed with the juxtaposing emotions of hope from the Women’s March, and the Women’s Marches all around the world, and yet the several, many, personal stories of failures in the attempts to get justice from the women in my ReConnected Life Community, I decided to channel that overwhelm, and anger, into something else. I asked them if they wanted to share their stories and help others understand what it takes to report our rapes, why we usually don’t, and the feelings of betrayal when the promise of justice fails to materialise.
Today, as I write this, I am struck by similar juxtaposing emotions. While we’ve been writing, and editing, and getting ready to publish, the world has embraced #MeToo. Time magazine made the #SilenceBreakers person of the year, and all the women who’s stories feature in ‘To Report Or Not To Report’ are silence breakers too. Oprah spoke at the Golden Globes about the importance in telling our stories, and now the movement is moving on to #TimesUp and #MeTooWhatNext. Our little book could not come at a more fortuitous time if we had planned it (and honestly, we really didn’t).
And yet, while when you look at all of that it feels like the world is turning, that survivors’ voices are starting to be heard, and listened to, that change might be coming, when I look at what is happening in our justice system, I do not see forward change. I see backwards regression. And I feel sucked back into that emotion of futility and despair and disillusion.
Since the turn of 2018 alone, we’ve had news that John Worboys, the serial rapist, was set to be paroled. We’ve heard that those reasons won’t be shared with the general public, or with his victims. We’ve heard that the Government refused to challenge the Parole Board’s decision, and it has had to come to two of his victims crowdfunding a judicial review which will happen between 6-8 February, when this book is published.
In January of this year we’ve also had the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, the head of the Crown Prosecution Service, say that victims who stay silent during their rape, and don’t say no, might be allowing the rapist to walk free. As if we have a choice! This is so far backwards in the understanding of what happens to a body during trauma. It would be laughable coming from someone who is supposed to understand crime, if it were not so dangerous. To freeze is the body’s natural response to trauma; the conscious mind has no control at that point. And even if the body does not go into freeze, saying no might not be an option. When someone is bigger than you, stronger than you, pinning you down, and giving you no options, going along with it is often the safest thing to do. The human body and mind is wired for survival and it will endure what it can to those ends.
And we’ve also had Lord Judge cast warnings that the collapse of recent rape trials causing the Met Police, and Surrey Police to announce that they were having a full review of all ongoing cases would mean that rapists would walk free because juries would not trust the system.
Rapists are already walking free. It is the victims who don’t trust the system, and it is the victims for whom the system should be working.
In bringing this book into the world, I spoke with a number of professionals working to support survivors. I asked each of them, what would they change, how they fix this? They all had different answers. Mine are simple:
- Do not allow the police to decide that a case should have ‘no further action.’ Every report of rape or sexual violence should be treated seriously, regardless of whether the victim is ‘credible’: drunkenness, mental health, previous sexual history, occupation, skin colour. None of these things prevent a victim from being credible (in fact, they can often make the victim more at risk of attack. The CPS should have the responsibility for deciding if a case goes to trial.
- Give the victim the right of judicial review to challenge the CPS’ decision in the event that they decide it shouldn’t go to trial. At the minimum, they must demonstrate their reasons are valid in law and probability.
- Treat sexual violence as a serial crime. Join the dots. We know it is an escalating crime that is committed multiple times.
- Educate juries on how victims might, or might not, behave on the stand. There is no ‘typical’ victim behaviour. Help juries understand that memory does not work in a logical timeline, that trauma provides gaps. Help juries understand freeze, and flop, and friend.
- Give all victims the compassion and support they deserve to help them put their lives back together. This means respecting them and not treating them as just ‘another witness.’ This means reducing court delays. This means giving them access to the mental health support they need, regardless of the court case.
In the context of rape and sexual violence cases already taking up about a third of court time, of course this might all be hard to practically achieve. And in the context of only about one third of adult rapes being reported, if that were to be 100%, then that court time would be overwhelmed already. From where I’m looking, it feels as though there is a real, financial and economic reason why government is not trying all that hard to encourage women to report, or to increase the volume of cases that go through the court system.
In closing, I have been so humbled by the bravery of the women who share their stories in this book. There simply wouldn’t be a book without them. The act of putting our stories to paper can be healing and cathartic, and it can also bring to the surface emotions long repressed. I know the pain that writing has caused some of those women, and the pain some have felt in not yet being able to write their story. I am humbled and proud and grateful. To all the silence breakers everywhere, we stand on each other’s shoulders, and one day we shall overcome. Thank you.
This blog is part of a mini-series to highlight rape survivors’ experience of the justice system - to coincide with the release of Emily Jacob’s book ’To report or not to report’. We have also published accounts from survivors under the pseudonyms of Sasha Midou and Jasmine.