Belfast Telegraph

We might not be able to prevent rape but we can, and must, treat its victims much better than this

By Hannah Fearn

It is controversial and difficult to swallow, but it is a fact: we will never get rid of rape. Rape, like war, will always be with us. It's also true, of course, that most incidents of rape could be prevented - with better education, by creating a more equal society in which women share a stake and in a world in which the crime is properly reported and punished, rape being met with the gravity it deserves. But we're not in that world.

Stanford University student Brock Turner sexually assaulted a woman he met at a student party when she was intoxicated.

He has been found guilty in a court of law, but his sentence - which could have been up to 14 years in prison - ended up as just six months.

Outrage at the leniency of Turner's sentence led to a copy of his victim's statement being shared on Buzzfeed (who spoke to the victim and obtained it with her permission) in which she not only describes the disturbing events of her attack, but also the appalling way it was handled by the authorities afterwards.

Her deeply upsetting testimony has been shared on social media and a petition to see the judge who let her rapist off so lightly, Aaron Persky, removed from his job has gathered almost 400,000 signatures.

Turner's victim is not an outlier, nor is this a story confined to the US. Rape victims who report the crime - a rising number are doing so: official crime figures suggest a leap of almost a third in a year - describe the same scenarios over and over again. They talk of a system that can compound, rather than help heal, their emotional wounds.

In 2009, in her role as victims' champion, Sara Payne compiled a report for the Home Office looking at the experiences of who reported and prosecuted a rape case in the UK. It makes for troubling reading.

There's no need to paraphrase; her interviewees tell their own stories, share their own experiences, in the most revealing language.

"There really should be females all the way through. It's simple things, like a male liaison officer returned my clothes ... there he was, holding up my underwear, ticking it off. It was awful."

"The person who went with my daughter when she reported her rape was made to leave the room. She was left on her own at one of the most vulnerable times in her life."

"Social services were s***. They threatened to take my kids off me, never mind trying to give me any support."

"I went to my GP and he wouldn't believe me. He even wrote 'raped' in inverted commas on my doctor's note. What if I needed my medical records in court?"

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As Payne points out herself: "A raised eyebrow can be the difference between a rape victim deciding to continue with a case, or to withdraw from the process."

It is a positive step that more victims are today willing to come forward. The outpouring of support for the victim in the Stanford case and others like it no doubt has something to do with that rise.

Now that victims are willing to make the difficult decision to share their experiences with the authorities, we must have the right procedures in place to look after them sensitively while nevertheless treating each case with the fair scrutiny that a functioning judicial system requires. That's not, however, a contradiction in terms.

There are some basic steps that ought to be possible immediately. Every victim of rape or sexual assault, female or male, should be able to deal with an officer and sexual health worker of their own gender while undergoing questioning or testing. Sensitive HIV and STI testing should also be available.

Having a friend, family member, or other support available throughout the legal and medical processes involved is a kind gesture that need not compromise the quality of evidence. Giving victims control over the pace of each process, too, especially where invasive medical testing is required, would be helpful.

These are all simple measures with hugely significant effects. It will cost little in economic terms to implement them immediately, but the cost of failing to do so - both morally and economically in preventing promising lives being destroyed by painful experience - will be vast.

It's not much to ask from our public authorities that they treat rape victims with the respect and gravity they deserve.

Belfast Telegraph


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