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What to expect if you report a sexual assault

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Nicola Rachel Colyer
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We spoke to specialist charity Rape Crisis to break down exactly what to expect if you decide to report a sexual assault.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, women in Hollywood and around the world have spoken out about their experiences of sexual abuse. Whether speaking privately or in a public forum, it takes an enormous amount of strength and courage for a survivor of a sexual assault to come forward and many of these women have carried the burden of their experience alone for several years, if not decades.

In England and Wales, one in five women aged 16-59 have experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. Each year, approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped and nearly half a million adults are sexually assaulted. In 90% of rape cases, those who are raped know the perpetrator prior to the offence. Approximately 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report it to the police.  

In what are already traumatic circumstances, deciding whether or not to report a sexual assault is a difficult decision and one that can only be made by the individual. There is support available to those who have experienced a sexual assault, whether recently or in the past, and you can reach out to these networks at any time if you would like to talk through your options with a professional.

While every case is unique, with its own specific circumstances, knowing what to expect if and when you choose to report an assault to the police may help you in reaching that decision.

Reporting a sexual assault

The first thing to note is that there are no time limits for investigating and prosecuting incidences of sexual violence. Therefore, you can report a sexual offence to the police at any time, whether immediately after the incident or at a later date. However, the sooner that an assault is reported, the more likely it is that the police will be able to collect evidence and effectively investigate the crime. 

Forensic medical evidence can be gathered from your body and clothes after a sexual assault, but the timeframes are short – for vaginal rape this examination needs to take place within seven days of the assault. If you report an assault at a later stage, it is likely that this evidence will be lost. However, it is important to know that the crime will still be investigated and the suspect may still be prosecuted and convicted even where the only evidence is your account.

Forensic medical examination timeframes:

  • vaginal rape (even if condom purported to have been used) - within seven days (168 hours)
  • digital penetration - within two days (48 hours)
  • anal rape (even if condom purported to have been used) - within three days (72 hours)

If you do choose to report the assault to the police, you may call 999 if it is an emergency situation or 101 in a non-emergency situation. Alternatively, you may go directly to a police station.

If you do choose to report the assault to the police, you may call 999 if it is an emergency situation or 101 in a non-emergency situation.

Forensic medical examination

When you report a recent sexual assault, you will usually be seen by a police officer (whom you may specify to be male or female) within a couple of hours. This officer will take an initial account of the incident; this should be done in private and, wherever possible, it will be taken by a specially trained officer. 

If you report an assault that happened in the past, the police will usually arrange for a uniformed officer to attend your home in order to take an initial report at a time that is convenient for you. You will then be contacted by a specialist officer once this initial report has been processed, to arrange a full and detailed statement to be taken at a police station.

If you report a sexual assault within the forensic timeframe, the police will ask you to use an early evidence kit which enables you (not a police officer or anyone else) to take non-intimate samples, such as mouth swabs or urine samples in order to preserve the evidence.

The police officer will then arrange to take you to a Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) for a forensic medical examination. In a few areas, where a SARC is too far away, the police will arrange for the doctor to see you in a special sympathy suite at the police station. 

During the forensic medical examination, a specially trained examiner will take samples of your saliva, urine, blood and pubic hair, and swabs from any area that the attacker came into contact with including your mouth, rectum and genitals. You are advised not to wash yourself, brush your teeth, have a cigarette, eat, drink, change your clothes, go to the toilet, nor clear up anything in the area of the incident before you have been seen by the SARC and/or the police. Samples collected from you, from your clothes or from the scene of the assault may then be sent for testing by a forensic scientist.

In addition to taking these samples you will also be examined for injuries such as internal bruising or cuts. Any injuries that are found will be recorded and, if they are visible, they may be photographed with your consent. However, it is important to note that you do not need visible signs of injury to prove that you have been assaulted.

The forensic medical examination cannot take place without your agreement, and you can agree to some parts of the examination and decline others. You can stop the examination at any time. The appointment with the doctor will take around two to three hours but only about 20-30 minutes of that time will be the medical examination itself. You can ask a friend or family member to come with you to the SARC if you wish.

Formal Statement

After the examination, the police officer will arrange to take a formal statement from you about the assault. This is usually done as soon as possible if you are feeling up to it, but it may be postponed by several days depending on the circumstances. The interview is usually video recorded and will last as long as is necessary to get all of the relevant information. It will go at a pace that is comfortable to you, with breaks as and when you need them. At the beginning of your interview, you will be asked for your personal details, such as where you live, your age and occupation. You will then be given the opportunity to describe what happened to you.

Details that the police may enquire about include:

• approximately what time the assault happened

• where it happened

• the sequence of events leading up to the assault

• if you know who did this to you and where they may be

• any conversations that could be relevant

• any details about the identity and/or appearance of the attacker

• any injuries that you received

• what you have done since the assault

• whether you have told anyone else about the assault

• whether there were any witnesses either before or after the incident

The police may also ask you if you consumed alcohol or drugs before the incident to determine whether or not you had the capacity to consent to sexual activity, and whether or not you are able to be sure about what happened. However, your answer should never affect the police’s response to you.

Your video statement will usually be shown to a court if there is a trial. If your statement is not video recorded, your account will be recorded by a police officer and written up into a statement which you will be given the opportunity to read and approve before signing. This statement may be used as the main piece of evidence if your case goes to trial.

When you report a recent sexual assault, you will usually be seen by a police officer (whom you may specify to be male or female) within a couple of hours.

The investigation

Once you have given your statement, the police will begin to investigate the offence. This may include:

• arresting or interviewing the suspect

• contacting any witnesses to the incident or to events before and afterwards and asking them to make a statement

• visiting the scene of the assault and taking photographs, fingerprints and collecting any other forensic evidence

• conducting door-to-door enquiries in the area of the assault

• seizing any evidence that may be relevant, such as from CCTV, a computer or a mobile phone

• sending evidence for forensic examination or analysis

• completing identification procedures

• tracing the suspect’s movements

You may be asked to help a police artist create an image of the attacker or, if the police have a suspect, take part in a video identity parade. If you have reported the offence immediately after it occurred, you may be asked if you are willing to be driven around the local area by the police and asked if you can identify the suspect.

A suspect will usually be questioned by police as part of the investigation. Suspects are not usually arrested, but this doesn’t mean the police are not taking your case seriously. The police should inform you within 24 hours of a suspect’s arrest or questioning, so that you are aware of how your case is progressing.

Concluding the investigation

The police investigation can take up to a year. During the police investigation, or after a charge is made, the suspect will be told not to contact you or get people they know to contact you.

When police believe that they have gathered all the evidence they will show it to a senior officer, who will decide whether to send it to the CPS for a decision, take the case to court, or decide that there is not enough evidence for that to happen and mark the case as “no further action”.

If the CPS decide to take the case to trial, the suspect will be charged with an offence and they will begin to prepare the case – it usually takes between nine months and a year to go from charge to trial.

If your case is marked as “no further action”, the police will contact you by telephone and arrange a meeting to talk through how that decision was made. They will also give you a letter to explain how to appeal the decision through the Victim’s Right to Review process if you are not satisfied with how they have made that decision.

The police investigation can take up to a year. 

Third Party Reporting

If you decide that you do not want to speak to the police yourself but would still like them to be aware of an incident of sexual violence, you may opt to make a third party report. This can be made by anyone you choose, such as a friend, your GP or SARC, and it can include as much, or as little, detail as you wish. The third party does not have to reveal who you are or give full details about the sexual violence you have experienced.

Third party reports are confidential but there are circumstances when the police may wish to contact you. For example, it may be that the information you give links your case to others, or that they are able to identify the person responsible for the assault. If this is the case, the police would contact the person or organisation that made the report and ask them to contact you.

Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARC)

Understandably, the immediate days after a sexual assault can be very traumatic for a victim and deciding whether or not to report the incident to the police may be too difficult at that time. If you are unsure whether or not you want to report a sexual assault, you can instead go directly to a SARC.

At the SARC, you can have a forensic medical examination, in addition to being tested for Sexually Transmitted Infections and receiving emergency contraception. The SARC can store the results of the forensic examination and/or any evidence until you decide whether or not you wish to report the assault to the police.

In London, samples are stored for a year for adult victims who visit as self-referrals. For victims aged under 18, their samples will be stored for one year after their 18th birthday. This information will never be used without your permission and the SARC should not pressure you into reporting the assault to the police.

Even if you decide not to have any forensic tests done, you can still call your local SARC for advice on emergency contraception and sexual health testing. The SARC will also have specially trained individuals who can help and support you through your immediate trauma.

Independent Sexual Violence Advisors

If you have been a victim of sexual assault and would like to speak to someone or seek advice at any stage, you may wish to contact an Independent Sexual Violence Adviser (ISVA). Many specialist support agencies, including Rape Crisis, provide an ISVA service to victims of rape and sexual assault.

An ISVA is there to provide you with information and to help you to make the right decision for you. They are trained to look after your needs and to ensure that you receive the care and understanding that you need but they will never pressure you into reporting an offence. They will help you to understand how the criminal justice process works, and will guide you through the process of reporting the assault to the police, should you choose to do so. An ISVA can help you throughout the legal process and beyond, if you so wish.

You can find further information and advice from Rape Crisis here, or you can call them on 0808 802 9999. Alternatively you can find a local support service through The Survivors Trust.

If you would like to support the work of Rape Crisis, you may make a donation through their JustGiving page or by texting “RCEW11 £5” or “RCEW11 £10” to 70070 from your mobile device.

Images: iStock

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Nicola Rachel Colyer

Nicola Colyer is a freelance writer and ex-corporate girl. A francophile and relapsing sugar-free graduate, she'll often be found seeking out the best places for brunch or struggling to choose between a green juice and a G&T.

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