Late last year, a new campaign from Leicestershire Police entitled ‘All is Not Lost’ implored of rape victims, “Please, help us to help you, get justice.” The campaign’s main five-and-a-half-minute video drew criticism for a host of reasons, not least of all its brutal 18-certificate content and its perpetuation of the myth that most rapes involve violent struggle. But perhaps most controversial of all is its central premise that if you’re simply a ‘good’ victim, who ‘does everything right’, including preserving forensic evidence and going straight to the police, you’ll see your perpetrator locked up for a very long time.
And Leicestershire Police is by no means the only source of this kind of message. As Rape Crisis England & Wales said in a statement yesterday, “Public institutions and society consistently encourage sexual violence victims and survivors to report to the police, often implying it is their moral and public duty to do so.” And indeed, many of those who do choose to report cite their desire to ‘stop this from happening to anyone else’ as a strong motivation for putting themselves through what can undoubtedly be a long and difficult process.
So what message are we now sending to victims, including the 105 women who took the hard decision to report John Worboys’ crimes against them to the police?
After all, the 93 of them whose cases weren’t prosecuted did try, in the words of the Leicestershire campaign, to help the police help them get justice, but to no avail. Until now though, they might at least have been able to draw reassurance from the knowledge Worboys was set to stay behind bars for an indeterminate amount of time, until he ‘no longer posed a threat to the public’, which no-one could have predicted could be considered by the Parole Board to be any time soon.
And we might imagine that the 12 women against whom Worboys was convicted of drugging, rape and other serious sexual offences might have felt some sense of justice when he was imprisoned, even if they still have to go on living with the wide-ranging and sometimes lifelong impacts experiences sexual violence can have.
We can only speculate how any of them feel, of course, unless we know them well, but I do find myself wondering how many feel a sense of justice today.
Sexual offence cases often take as long as two years from report to court, if they make it that far, and our rape conviction rates have long been among the lowest in Europe. At the same time, despite unprecedented and increasing demand, specialist services like Rape Crisis that offer victims and survivors the support and advocacy they so very much want, need and deserve - whether or not they report to the police - remain chronically under-funded.
Justice to most survivors doesn’t just mean seeing their perpetrator locked up, safely away from them and other potential victims. It also means social justice, in the form of humane and respectful treatment, specialist listening, support, counselling and therapy, and advocacy to help them through difficult legal processes. But while most don’t even have access to a local Rape Crisis Centre, and those specialist services that do exist are forced to close their waiting lists due to lack of capacity, can we claim to be offering either?
Of Worboys’ many victims who decided not to report to the police, I wonder how many question that decision today. Regardless of that we think we would do in their shoes, it’s certainly clear we have no right as a society to carry on guilt-tripping sexual violence victims and survivors into reporting, when the criminal justice system it plunges them into is so very inadequate.