There is an image etched into my mind long after meeting Jane Doe, who was raped nine years ago while hiking in a country park in Hampshire which was extreme, and her terror during it when she thought she might be killed. What lingers and is also etched on my mind is of this woman three days later, huddled in a London flat, traumatised and alone, desperately ringing around sexual health clinics across the capital for help.
But that’s a fact that begins to demonstrate just how poorly some rape victims are served by a reporting and healthcare system that remains patchy, disjointed and poorly tailored to the needs of people in deep shock.
Jane, an American who has been based in the UK since her early 20s, her self-possession is immediately obvious – and in stark contrast to how she describes herself after the attack. “It’s like you’ve been gutted like a fish – it was like somebody had gouged the life out of me,” she says calmly. There has been progress in the treatment and attitudes encountered by rape victims seeking help, but no one is pretending that the quality of the service you get doesn’t depend on where in the country you live, and which professionals happen to be on duty at the time.
Other examples of the poor aftercare she experienced abound. When it became clear early on that her attacker would face trial, She contacted the independent charity Victim Support for help with understanding the criminal justice process. She was immediately referred to the London head office, whereupon she was told London couldn’t help because her rape had happened elsewhere in the UK. Counselling offered by a London sexual assault clinic was “mediocre” and unhelpful, and although she describes NHS cognitive behavioural therapy as “great”, it took nine months for her to reach the top of the queue. Although debilitated, panicky and unable to leave her home for long periods, she survived the wait. She points out that “other victims could become suicidal because there’s such a gap between the trauma and the care they get”.
Meanwhile, demand is soaring. With reports of sexual assault to police in England and Wales more than doubling in four years – from more than 16,000 adult and child rapes reported in 2011-12 to 35,798 in 2015-2016 – standards set by the Istanbul convention on combating violence against women suggest there should be three times more than the 45 specialist counsellors that currently operate in England and Wales. Cumbria, for example, doesn’t have a single Rape Crisis branch. At the end of March this year, the national Rape Crisis waiting list had reached 5,000.
The injustice this postcode lottery imposes on victims’ ability to recover is part of what should drive any campaign for better awareness of how disastrously sexual violence affects people’s lives.
“All the things that had brought me joy before, like hanging out with friends, seeing movies or exploring the world, I didn’t have any of that any more,” she explains matter-of-factly. “The sadness was not knowing if I would be ever able to regain that. It felt like the rest of my life was going to be this unending monotony of loneliness and anxiety.” Wealthier rape victims have the option to pay for timely trauma therapy. Poorer ones simply cannot. If you’re a mother of five, you still have to look after your kids.
If a rape victim pursues a complaint to trial, their chance of getting justice seems to be declining, too. The conviction rate for reported rapes in 2015-16 was 7.5% – half the 15% it was four years before. Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) records show that 58% of cases that reached court last year resulted in a conviction, which sounds better. However, the disparity between the two figures seems to highlight the immense difficulty perceived by the CPS in finding evidence strong enough for prosecutors to believe that a jury could convict.