Have you ever watched something or listened to something and felt so inspired you have wanted to talk about it with anyone and everyone?
That was me this week, listening to a webinar by Zoe Lodrick, a specialist in sexual trauma. Don’t worry, this blog isn’t going to go into all the science stuff of how our bodies react to threat and trauma – well, maybe just a little. No, this blog is going to focus on the bit that really got me thinking, why is rape such an under-convicted crime and how do we tackle this serious societal failing?
According to our criminal justice system, rape is considered the 2nd worse crime, after murder, and yet statistically it is one of the worse prosecuted crimes in the UK. It is suspected that of all rapes committed, approximately only 10% are reported and of those reported, approximately only 1% result in convictions – this works out to less than 0.1% of rapists being made accountable for their actions. The Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird describes these figures are “utterly shameful” and have actually fallen to their lowest ever.
Reasons given for such appalling rates of prosecution and conviction are generally based around the difficulty in getting enough supporting evidence to prosecute a case, which as Zoe Lodrick pointed out in her webinar is because sex offenders and victims of sexual violence don’t tend to act in the stereotyped ways society believes they ‘should’ act.
Sex offenders are expected to be creepy, loners who ‘look’ like a dodgy character and act in weird ways, having few friends. However, in reality, sex offenders are highly socially skilled, with friends and family who would sing their praises and could never believe they would be capable of such actions. And if you think about it, that makes sense – in order to successfully target, isolate and attack another individual you need to be pretty socially adept and look normal or safe. If some crazed character came towards you, you would probably run a mile. So, we have a problem in terms of what The Criminal Prosecution Service (CPS) are looking for in terms of ‘an ideal offender’.
In terms of victims of sexual violence, as a society we ‘expect’ victims to conform to a specific stereotype – surely, they would have severe injuries because, of course, they will fight with all their worth, right? They ‘should’ be able to recall all details with high accuracy because, surely our memory would hold onto every single detail if we experienced something like that, wouldn’t it? Surely, they would scream and shout and in the struggle cause injuries to the offender, because nobody would just let someone violate them, would they? And they certainly wouldn’t be able to be in the same space as the offender again without crumbling into a tortured mess, would they?
Unfortunately, these stereotypes do not reflect the reality of a victim of sexual violence.
Most sexual violence victims don’t have serious injuries because the survival mechanism in our brain, namely our amygdala, works from a sole purpose to maintain physical integrity i.e. reduce the harm we experience in the moment and so when all other fight, flight, friend and freeze responses have not worked or are calculated as likely to cause more physical risk (rape in itself doesn’t kill you but an angry offender with means could), will resort to flop in which our body and all its muscles relax so an not been excessively damaged by the force put upon it. In this state we also become a lot more compliant, in part due to the rush of opioids the body releases to numb us – but a victim won’t know this bodily response to explain how their own biology kept them safe in the moment without considering how this might impede their ‘case’ at a later date.
Most sexual violence victims struggle to recall lots of details, or struggle to report in a consistent and concise way. Again, this is because when that pesky amygdala detects danger, it floods the body with cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline and does an oxygen dump from the brain region. This effectively takes the frontal cortex (the bit where logic and reason are) offline. This means areas related to speech and language (Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area) shut down, making the ability to understand all that is said to you and even speak or make noise stops. It also means the bit of our brain related to processing and strong memories, the hippocampus, stops functioning as normal. It sucks in a lot of sensory information around you, so the sound of fireworks outside, the pressure of the perpetrators body on you, the smell of their chosen scent all become strongly stored, but without the logical, time-orientated anchors usually pinned to memories these now become floating triggers, with no timeline. Just a jumble of sensory inputs, which our brain tries to make sense of after the event.
The expectation about victims not able to share the same space with the offender is actually more to do with the type of offender than a judgeable flaw of the victim. Firstly, it has been estimated that 8/10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, so they are going to be integrated into their life already. Furthermore, Sex offenders can be categorised, broadly into 3 types – intentional rapists, opportunists and deluded. Intentional rapists commit sexual offences because they are motivated by power and control and sexual violence is a perfect conduit for having absolute dominion over another human being. Opportunist offenders are motivated by their needs. They want sex and will get it whenever and however it presents itself – if someone is willing to meet that need voluntarily, great, otherwise, they will look for an opportunity to present itself whereby they can take sex and meet their need. The potentially scariest type of offender is the deluded sex offender, someone who can not admit to themselves that what they are doing is rape or abuse and so rewrites their explanation of events so their actions are acceptable. For example, the victim that pushes them away, turns away and says ‘please no’ was just playing hard to get at first but then their freezing response (which would be a big loud ‘NO’ to anybody else) and the flop response was actually them ‘coming round to the idea’. The deluded offender may believe they are in a relationship with the victim and so after the rape, may make them a cup of tea, encourage them to have a bath, even walk them home to ensure they get back safely, as that’s what you do with someone you love. This response is incredibly confusing for the person who has just been raped, their head is trying to make sense of what has been done to them and align it with the caring response also offered; “they couldn’t do that to me and then make me a cup of tea, they can’t have heard me say no, they can’t have known, it must have been my fault”.
And here the Teflon nature of offenders - where societal judgement, guilt and shame runs off them and ends up sticking to the Velcro victim. “He’s such a nice guy, he wouldn’t do something like that, look at how he is always running around after her looking after her” becomes “why is she lying, I always see her with him and her social media pictures show she must have done something to encourage him anyway” – offender Teflon, victim Velcro.
Yet we hold the stereotypes of ‘exemplar victim’ or ‘devious offender’ up as the gold standard of what is credible in court and without these defining characteristics and evidence of a ‘perfect victim’ the CPS do not follow cases to court as their ‘is not enough evidence’, the biological responses are ignored or not deemed enough to prove a case. It is the offender’s word against the victims, and the offender is highly socially skilled versus a traumatised victim put under ‘pressure’ to prove their account.
I have always assumed that the only way to tackle sexual offences is to change the Criminal System to improve prosecution and conviction rates. I still believe this is necessary, however, I feel incredibly downhearted to think about how this could be tackled. Education of the nature of biological responses to threat, the psychology of offenders (which is primarily based on the few that actually receive custodial sentences and let’s face it, as these are only 0.1% of actual offenders, they are probably not the most representative of the sex offender cohort!) and how to work with survivors of sexual violence which supports their process and improves their credibility rather than pressure and condemn them is needed from grass-root police level call handlers to those in the Criminal Prosecution Service who decide which cases are ‘viable’ for prosecution, to barristers, lawyers and judges, and society as a whole, from whom which the jury will be selected. If the magnificently inaccurate 'image' of victims and offenders are left unchallenged, how will victims ever get justice? How can they be treated as the survivor they are instead of pressured to prove themselves? In a criminal system where the assumption is that the offender is innocent until proven guilty – why in this arena of crime, is the victim deemed lying until proven truthful?
On the assumption that the above is a pretty big undertaking, which requires lots of organisations to join together and be heard, what can we as individuals do?
We can educate ourselves so that we don’t live with inaccurate stereotypes, volunteer our services at local rape crisis centres or organisations supporting survivors of sexual crime.
We can listen to survivors’ stories and provide empathy and compassion, accept them without pointing the finger at them and how their actions justified what happened to them. RAPE IS NEVER JUSTIFIED OR ACCEPTABLE and is solely the choice and action of the rapist.
We can stop hiding behind the argument of false assumptions and facts that the number of ‘false rape allegations’ justify our distrust of victims. The fact is that false rape allegations are extremely rare – this isn’t just me on my high horse spouting a convenient truth this is a fact that the CPS has verified. So, is it justifiable to dismiss and silence the 15,670 reported cases of rape in England and Wales in 2020 (remembering this is just the figures from the 10%ish who actually report) because of a few allegations?
All the above are well and good, but they are all reactive suggestions, things we can do following someone being raped. Is there anything we can do to stop it?
Again, educating all our children in their value and self-worth, the meaning of ‘no’ and what actually constitutes consent in the eyes of the law is a good start. By the way the legal definition of consent is:
“that someone agrees to sexual activity by choice, and also that they have the freedom and capacity to make that choice.”
With that definition in mind, someone who has frozen is not consenting, someone who is drunk or has taken drugs is not consenting. Someone who is asleep or unconscious is not consenting. Someone who has said yes, and then says ‘no’ is not consenting, someone who is trying to move away or push you away is not consenting, someone who has sex with you before but isn’t actively agreeing this time is not consenting, someone wearing a short skirt, who posts provocative pictures of themselves or is flirtatious is not legally defined consent in itself – catch my drift?
Back to Zoe Lodrick’s webinar, because Zoe suggested an absolutely mind-blowingly simple way to tackle rape – bystander intervention. Huh? If training was provided to bar staff, bouncers, taxi drivers, street preachers, hotel workers, restaurant workers etc to stop a ‘couple’ where they see one person seems particularly vulnerable (for example intoxicated) and just stops and asks the vulnerable person ‘are you ok?’ this may give the person an opportunity to ask for help. It may put doubt in the identified rapist and opportunist rapists mind as the odds of an ‘easy fix’ shift out of their favour, the deluded rapist is forced to see the reality of what is happening as opposed to their cognitive distortion. And why stop at workforce staff, we can all do this right? By asking if someone is ok and pointing out their potential incapacity, yes it may feel uncomfortable but I’m not suggesting you tackle anyone physically, it just pauses things for a moment giving the potential victim a chance to engage their logical brain, it gives you a chance to take a look at someone’s face, see where they are heading and call the police with your concerns, it may put enough doubt in a potential offender’s mind to not proceed. Yes, it may be a genuine couple where one partner is supporting their vulnerable partner home, but then, what is the harm? I know my husband would rather be questioned as a sign that people are looking out for my safety than a potential perpetrator is ignored and allowed to walk me somewhere and attack me. This simple act could save someone’s life from being unequivocally impacted. Now, admittedly this won’t stop all rape or sexual violence but it could go some way in preventing some – and in all honesty, stopping one person being raped is a blooming good start.
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