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What Is The Barrier That Is Stopping Women From Disclosing Their Experience Of Sexual Violence?

Written by: Denise Stowe, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

As a trauma therapist, I have had the privilege of extensive experience working with survivors of sexual violence, and the bravery they show to engage in support to begin to make sense of their trauma is truly inspirational. Each and every person’s healing journey and experience of Sexual Violence is completely individual.

back shot of a woman with her head down in gray scale.

However, after several years of holding people’s hope, a few common themes are shared around the blocks to disclosing their experience of sexual violence to either the police or their support network.


I wanted to understand the difficulties that survivors experience in disclosing to the police or the support network around them. I want to explore this further by understanding the current picture of the justice system and gaining insight from my client’s points of view by asking direct questions about their experiences. I have gained their permission to use answers within this article and will keep their identities anonymous to further protect them.


Reporting the crime to the police can be a very traumatic experience often resulting in a long drawn-out process that unfortunately does not often lead to a conviction or a fitting sentence given to the perpetrator. The process of reporting includes sharing every detail of rape, sexual assault, child sexual exploitation, or child abuse they have experienced this can be re-traumatizing for the survivor.


Over the last ten years in the UK has seen a dramatic increase in the number of sexual violence crimes, Rape Crisis reports “The number of rape offenses in the year ending June 2021 was 61,158. The charity ‘Rape Crisis’ has reported 1 in 4 women being raped or sexually assaulted as an adult and the highest number of rape cases reported to the police in march 2022 was 70,330.”


Despite more rapes and sexual offenses being committed and reported than ever before the statistics for successful convictions are at an all-time low. Criminologist Dr. Katrin Hohl from the University of London, reported last year that under 1% of reported rapes lead to a successful conviction.


I feel this further blocks the decision to report to the police. Knowing that the process will be invasive and may leave the Survivor feeling like they aren’t believed married with the unlikely chance of a successful conviction doesn’t encourage survivors to report the horrendous crimes they have experienced.


I asked three clients a series of questions to further understand their experiences with disclosing, they have bravely agreed for me to share their experience. I will protect their identity, but they have agreed to share their gender, age, and community identity as it is important to give context to their responses. I have outlined the demographic and shared the questions and the client’s responses below.


Client A: 24 years old, British Sikh, heterosexual, female. Client B: 37 years old, white British, heterosexual, female. Client C: 25-year-old, White British, Lesbian, Female


Did you report your Sexual Violence to the police? If yes/or no why/why not?


Client A: “No, I did not report. It took me 3 years to be able to come to terms with what happened myself, let alone tell my own family. I could never think about going to the police with it, not when it was so raw when I would have to relive it not even wanting to believe it happened to me. I didn’t at the time, have the mental and emotional capacity to go to the police with it, knowing how much I would be questioned about every detail, some of which are a total blur. went back and forth from coming forward about it, but in the end decided against it because if it landed in court, and I had to become a witness, I don’t think I could’ve handled my entire life, conversations, choice of clothing and anything else being under a microscope. “

This highlights the current rape culture where survivors are often judged by society for not coming forward at the time of the trauma they experienced. I think the idea of laying your life and choices bare when you have experienced a violation is almost too much.


Client B: “I didn’t report my experience to the police, I was so scared I wouldn’t be believed and that my family would find out what had happened to me. I was worried that I would be blamed for not being able to stop what happened to me. The idea of being questioned and describing my trauma was overwhelming.”


The fear of not being believed and having to describe in graphic detail the survivor’s experience can be retraumatizing for them. Trauma memories are often non-linear and often not fully present. Client B has shared that they dissociated a number of times throughout their experience. Not being able to recall a detailed timeline of events can add to the fear of not being believed.


Client C:” I did not report my experiences to the police. Unfortunately, my experiences were not a one-off issue but instead a series of events over the course of a year and a half. Due to this, I believe it was a case of not understanding in myself that what I had experienced was something that should be reported. I think it’s often a common misconception that sexual violence is something that can only happen to girls who are drunk, wearing crop tops, and being approached by strangers. In reality of course, sexual violence can happen to anyone wearing anything and being in any state of mind. It can happen with the person you love whilst you’re wearing your pyjamas in your home. Whilst I truly believe the above to be correct, this is not the dogma of society today; particularly of those in a position of power who could actually do something to influence change. Whilst I was scared of the perpetrator, I feel I was more scared by the idea that I would disclose information that would change others’ perceptions of me. I believed at the time and still do, that disclosing my experiences to the police would have led to further questions that I either could not answer or was not in a fit state to answer. By not adhering to the same ideals, I believed that I would have been made to feel ashamed of those events; as if I had done something that caused a chain reaction so that the only logical outcome would have been sexual violence. Growing up in a rural environment, I was often witness to conversations such as “well she obviously did something to annoy him” or “well what did she expect when she talked back like that?”. Aside from the obvious victim blaming, there is a sense that this is an inevitable sequence of events that had to happen in order for the woman in this situation to understand her place. All in all, the main reason I did not report my experiences was because I was conditioned to believe 2 important things 1. This is a normal thing that happens 2. I had obviously provoked such behavior In disclosing to the police, I became part of the problem; another example of a woman trying to ruin a man’s life with stories of her own failings.”


The client is able to bravely share the impact of the subconscious messages they received from their environment growing up and how that shaped their own experiences of prolonged sexual and domestic violence. I think it’s so powerful to see how their world “conditioned” them into holding damaging beliefs about women and how they see the world through a different lens now.


Q: “Did the fear of not being believed prevent you from disclosing? If so how?”


Client A:In all honesty, this thought never really came into my head. I wasn’t actually worried about not being believed, but more so worried about being blamed. As a woman, we get a huge amount of the blame for SA committed against us, but as a woman of colour, our communities are a whole lot tougher to get through.”


Client B:Yes, I truly thought I would be perceived as if I was making it up. I thought the police might think that sexual violence happens to attractive women who are in dangerous situations. I was also worried my family wouldn’t believe me or blame me. “


Client C:Personally, I felt that not being believed was almost a given. It is common knowledge that sexual violence cases are not often convicted and I was reluctant to be another name on the list of people who had disclosed information, only to be tossed aside as a liar. I don’t think that the case would have been that it was believed I was lying about the violence, I think the situation would have been that I wasn’t believed that I did not deserve it. By admitting to the police that this had happened, I was in essence admitting that I had done something bad enough to warrant the violence as a reaction. My fear was that disclosure would lead to questions such as “if you hadn’t done this then maybe it wouldn’t have happened”. As a victim of sexual violence, you go through so many thought processes and how someone reacts to your story can influence which process dominates. If not being believed by the police had occurred, like in the case of so many others, I believe it would have led me further down a path of believing that I had done something to deserve my experiences.”


All of the clients felt as if they would be somehow blamed for the sexual violence they had experienced. Whilst the lack of convictions also seems to play a part in the reasons why women don’t disclose, I feel that rape culture and societal messaging also feed into a culture where women feel unheard, judged, and dismissed and disclosing their experiences would means they don’t receive the justice they deserve.


Q: If you disclosed to family or friends were you believed?


Client A: “For three years, I battled this by myself, but I made the decision to tell my mother first, and later my father and brother and best friend. All of whom believed me without a second thought.”


Client B: “ I have never disclosed to any of my family and probably never will I hold so much shame still around what happened to me but don’t feel like they will ever understand it or believe me. I have disclosed to one friend and my husband both of whom believed me but it still feels really hard to talk about.”


Client C:I have been relatively fortunate in my experiences of being believed by those I have disclosed my story too. However, I also have been particular about who I have disclosed to in the first place. When telling my friends, I was met with support and acceptance as I was not in an environment in which the dogma of victim blaming was predominant. In comparison, however, in telling a trusted elderly relative, I was told that it was a completely normal experience and that it would help me learn what not to do. I think being believed entirely depends on the individual person you are retelling to and their own stigmatised viewpoint of sexual violence and victim blaming.”


Reading the above response it’s easy to see that the survivor of sexual violence is still left with the decision of who to disclose to and what length of time to leave it. It’s hard to imagine carrying the impact of sexual violence in isolation whilst trying to work out who will believe you and who will support you. Client C’s response from an older relative highlights the damage long-term exposure to rape and myths can have. As a therapist I believe wholeheartedly this can lead to intergenerational trauma – the oppressive effect of their own traumatic experiences.


Q: Did you worry about the impact on your community?


Client A: “Personally, no one else aside from those mentioned and a few other friends and my now partner know about the violence I survived. That being said, as a whole, I think it is hugely important to talk about sexual assault and violence more, especially in the Asian community. It is imperative to break the stigma about survivors being at fault. This will only happen with more open conversations and education. In the future, if I ever feel ready to, I would like to be a part of this conversation and share my story and how my family supported my healing journey. I think people in the community seeing how a supportive family works and how to nurture and help someone who has endured such horrors and is still able to laugh and be happy would be a huge wake up call not to label the survivors as the problem. The accountability has to be shifted, and not just in Asian communities, but within every community. The survivors never asked for this pain, I never asked to go through what I went through. I never asked to be stripped of my sense of self, safety, dignity and mental stability.”


Client B: “ I never thought about the community in the sense that I didn’t feel I belonged or my life would impact the community as a whole.”


Client C: “This wasn’t a particular concern for me as I never had a consideration to share the information. The community that I grew up in believed that sexual and physical violence was a method in which men taught women how to behave. By telling those in the community, it would have only shed light on my own behaviour as opposed to the perpetrator. I think more than anything, it would have influenced the community’s view of me and that was something that I did not want to risk.”


I feel the responses to this question speaks for themselves. There are however, a wide range of differences between each one. This helps to put into perspective how the communities we belong to shape how we see ourselves, and perceive women and sexual violence as a whole. I was hugely saddened by the responses; from not feeling like the their experience mattered, to the client’s behaviour being questioned. But, I have admiration for the hope and potential change in the community in client A’s response.


Q: Has this impacted on your healing journey at all?


Client A:It took me almost 5 years to reach out to my therapist and get help. I wanted to talk about it from the start of my therapy journey, but I wasn’t ready to dive into it and properly heal from it. The assaults impacted my life for years, they impacted my friendships, relationships with my family and my relationship with myself, for years I couldn’t look in the mirror without feeling shame and disgust. I was only 18 when this happened to me, and I was 23 when enough was enough and I sought help. The conversation around sexual violence is not nearly as loud or as big enough as it should be. There has to be this huge overhaul on how we look at this, not just for out future generation, but for those out there like me, who survived, lived on and learnt to feel safe again.


Once I started my healing journey in therapy, it took me about 6 or 7 months to be able to talk about the assault. Only then, was I fully ready to finally heal and move past this. I’ve read accounts of other survivors who did go to the police, who ended up in court, only to have their whole life shredded to pieces and their attacker go free. This has to change. The stigma around sexual violence and how shunned upon it is to speak about it online, within your community, even in your own home to an extent had a huge impact on my healing timeline. Had the topic been more available for discussion, it wouldn’t have felt like such a huge weight pushing me into the ground for 5 years before I sought help, in fact, I wouldn’t have waited that long. I wouldn’t have hidden it from my family and friends for 3 years, I wouldn’t have silently suffered and ended up going down the darkest of paths at 18 years old. I never asked for that pain, I never wanted that pain – until it happened to me, from someone I trusted too, it was always something I heard about but never thought it could happen to me. When we, as women, say ‘All men…’, we know it isn’t all men, we just don’t know which men it is. I never thought someone I trusted could hurt me, let alone push me to a point of almost no return. It is high time for the conversation to open up and for the stigma around sexual violence survivors to disappear. We’re not the ones who caused ourselves this pain and fear, but we damn sure are the ones who survived it and lived on in spite of it. “


Client B: “ It took a long time for me to find a therapist, and when I eventually did I really struggled, in the beginning, to name what had happened to me. I thought they might blame me or assume that I deserved the experience as I had been so naïve not to see it. My therapist helped me see how it had a ripple effect on all my relationships and made me fear all men and feel as if I would never trust anyone. I think the who experience of sexual violence has damaged me long term, but my therapist has given me so much hope that I can take the power away from my perpetrator, by healing and recognising a 13-year-old is not responsible for what happened to her.”


Client C:I think being believed is the biggest thing that has contributed to my healing journey. It is often said that the first part in healing is acceptance but I do not believe this is to be true in the slightest. It was only after I had shared my experience and been believed, that I began to allow myself to come to terms with the idea that I had experienced something that should not have happened. Someone believing you allows you to believe in yourself. Often with those who suffer any type of violence, there may be gaps in memory or times in which your memory is muddled. Whilst this may give ammunition to those who’s view rests solely on the idea that ‘victims’ make up lies to ruin men’s lives, it is also the way in which a victim can protect themselves. By having someone believe me, I have been able to open those memories and fully understand them as a crime rather than a just punishment. Overall, those three words “I believe you” hold more power than that of the perpetrator and allow victims like myself to fully embrace their healing journey and allow us to understand our experiences. Whilst those who do not believe me paint me as a broken individual, it is those who do believe me that are helping me become whole.”


Before conducting this research, I wanted to clearly understand the barriers that stop women from disclosing their experiences of sexual violence to either the police or their support networks. I think it’s clear to see from the statistics and the response from my clients that there are a wide variety of issues preventing women from sharing their traumatic experiences. The combination of low conviction rates, how the police interview victims of sexual violence, and the societal messaging around current rape culture are obvious obstacles to women being able to share their experiences.


There is much more work to be done with the police and the way sexual violence victims are treated so that they can understand how traumatizing the process is. I think in the UK there is a current national outcry for the low conviction rates and sentences being given as this just isn’t good enough and certainly, it doesn’t help provide any deterrent. The problem has been further exacerbated by the recent case of a British policeman being found guilty of multiple rapes and crimes of sexual violence whilst serving. It feels as if the trust in the justice system by victims of sexual violence is understandably low.


I would like to explore further the impact that societal culture has on victims of sexual violence being heard and believed in a future article that I can dedicate more time and research to. I believe that we are very quick to dismiss the impact of messages we receive from the press, society as a whole, and celebrity culture about sexual violence.


I would like to take this time to thank my inspiration, brave, strong, and amazing clients for being able to share their experiences.


Follow me on Facebook, and visit my website for more info!


 

Denise Stowe, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Experiencing complex trauma throughout her childhood, Denise has dedicated her life to make a difference. She completed her own healing journey and trained to be a therapist. She found her calling during her placement at a local Rape Crisis Centre working with Dissociative Identity Disorder, PTSD/CPTSD and complex trauma. This enabled her to use a variety of methods and interventions to offer her clients a bespoke therapeutic approach. She endeavours to empower and give hope to as many trauma survivors as possible. Denise is aware that she can’t take away the trauma that has been experienced, but she strives to support her clients to navigate a way forward and to overcome its lasting impacts.

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