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The clinical psychologist specialising in sexual assault: ‘I’ve not had any clients with positive experiences of reporting’

With sexual violence under the spotlight again at Bristol University, a psychologist with clients who are survivors of assault speaks out.

Sexual harassment

Content warning: sexual assault

Illustration: Sophie Filomena

I’m a clinical psychologist with specialist experience in sexual assault. Recently I’ve had a much higher percentage of students from Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter university who have suffered a sexual assault. It’s always hard to know if there are more cases of sexual violence or if people are feeling more able to come forward for help, but it feels very bad at the moment.

An experience of sexual assault often leads to lasting psychological damage including PTSD symptoms, which span heightened anxiety, flashbacks, sleep problems, panic attacks, and dissociation. It can also involve shame and self-blame, confusion and the constant feeling of being unable to piece together what happened and “if only” thoughts. Anger – at oneself, the police, or the perpetrator – is not uncommon either, as well as low self-esteem and a general distrust of men and the police, which can affect friendships and relationships in the future.

This extends into difficulties feeling relaxed in busy places, bars, and shops, difficulties going for a smear test or other examinations, and difficulties with intimacy.

All of the perpetrators were all people my clients knew – housemates, boyfriends. It’s really important that students know that this still counts. 90% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the survivor.

I’ve been shocked at reports from my clients of sexual harassment and intimidation which have happened separately to the main assault. These are in places like the university common room and at parties, including groping, exposing their breasts and catcalling. In therapy, we are working on rebuilding confidence but it feels undermined by a culture of males being intimidating. I think the increased use of porn from an earlier age, and violence in this area, might be playing a role in normalising sexual violence. 

But then of course recently, there was the wave of spiking. One of my clients, a student who had just started moving past a different experience of sexual assault, was nearly spiked in a nightclub in Bristol. The police were called; they’d had so many similar reports that they were running low on test kits.

It can take time for people to realise that they’ve experienced an assault, which is unfortunate from a forensic perspective. The quicker someone has a forensic assessment, the more likely evidence will be gathered that leads to a conviction.

“I’ve heard very damaging attitudes from the police

Gaslighting is a common trend. Sometimes the woman I’m working with doesn’t fully realise she has been assaulted, particularly when it’s by someone she knows. My worry is that this is the same for the perpetrator too.

A few of my clients tried to say that what happened wasn’t okay to the perpetrator and got responses like “nothing happened” and “why are you being so distant with me?”. They’re the only other one that was there and because of that previous relationship it’s confusing, making the survivor feel they shouldn’t be struggling in the way that they are. The types of comments that my clients have had from people they have told are also really shocking and highlight the level of victim-blaming and rape culture in our society, such as “that doesn’t sound too bad” or “why did you go there on your own?”.

I’ve not had any clients with positive experiences of reporting their assaults. I’ve heard very damaging attitudes from the police, including comments like, “he seemed like a decent bloke” or “are you sure, this could really affect his future” or “we’ll have a little word with him”. It’s also damaging to the survivor being told the likelihood of conviction is very low – currently in England and Wales 0.6% of recorded rapes end in charges, the lowest rate on record.

None of my clients have reported directly to the university they were studying at, including at Bristol. I think they felt they wanted to keep things separate from university, mostly because they fear how their friends will treat them if they know they’ve reported one of their friends. The university clearly need to advertise how to report and offer an option for reporting even mild forms of sexual harassment. It should also be set up for the fallout for the reportee after this – meaning zero tolerance for any harassing behaviours from people for having reported an incident. It can only be a good thing that Bristol University now have Sexual Violence Liaison Officers, but it feels like a drop in the ocean.

And even when you do report a sexual assault, the wait time for sexual assault is 12 times longer from report to a charging decision, compared to the average across other crimes. A rape survivor’s overall experience of the criminal justice system from report to trial completion is around 3 times as long as the average. It’s just devastating; your life is in limbo when you’re waiting.

We need to keep writing and speaking about rape culture and victim-blaming as people don’t really understand what this means. No-one will openly admit that it’s acceptable to rape, but the narrative around “what was she wearing” implies that it’s the survivor’s fault.

We need to be talking about what consent is all the time, from an early age in schools. Parents need to be doing this with their kids too, while modelling non-sexist behaviour. This includes challenging the current idea of masculinity and allowing more narratives around emotional intelligence and men as feminists to be present. As a society, we must have zero tolerance for sexist behaviour and ‘jokes’ because this makes harassment behaviour feel more permissible.

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