A new book shares the powerful testimonies of rape survivors - and the struggles they faced in deciding whether or not to report their rapes. Here, the author shares six of their stories with Stylist.
It’s estimated that only around 15% of rapes are reported to the police. Why is that? Most people assume that survivors, like myself, would report what had happened to them - or even, that it is our responsibility to report it.
And often, that is our only real motivation for reporting: that sense of obligation to the others who might come after us.
In my book, To Report Or Not To Report: Survivor Testimony of the (In)Justice System, I share a collection of testimonies written by rape survivors. Some of them decided to report what had happened to them, and some of them didn’t.
Here, I share six women’s stories.
Editor’s note: The details in this article may be triggering or disturbing for some readers. Please, read on with caution if you are sensitive to this topic.
Part one: women who chose not to report
Elizabeth was at her mum’s birthday party, at her home. She had been drinking, a lot. She’d gone to bed. The only men at the birthday party were her brothers. One of them raped her whilst she slept.
She remembered only snippets in her haze, and thought she must have been imagining things. She went to work, as normal. A few weeks later her period was late, and the pregnancy test was positive. She knew she hadn’t been sexually active all year; she knew that her brother had raped her, and that she was carrying his child. She had an abortion.
Elizabeth didn’t report the rape, despite the police becoming involved when the abortion clinic were duty bound to tell them. She was scared to be questioned about something that she couldn’t even share with her family. She felt that perhaps she had caused this. She did not think she would be believed. There was no physical evidence. She felt that she was partially responsible and ‘deserved’ it because she had been drinking. She was scared that her past sexual history would be paraded in front of others.
In her chapter, called Did I Deserve This?, Elizabeth writes, “In the eyes of the media, I deserved it. The rhetoric in the press these days is one of ‘victim blaming’… To me, it meant that I must somehow have been asking for it… I dared to believe that I was safe, therefore I am to blame.”
And, of course, he was her brother. What kind of justice can there be, when your rapist is a family member?
Hannah’s story is one you might expect to see in a sensationalised and melodramatic movie. It is not something you’d think could happen to a student nurse on an elective abroad in Africa. When I first read Hannah’s chapter, and knew that she wanted to write under her own name, I feared for the tabloid headlines: ‘student nurses kept as sex slaves in Africa’. I’m writing that here to steal their thunder, because whilst that is what happened, it is not a helpful way to treat Hannah’s story.
On a week’s placement to a rural village, miles from any other habitation, Hannah was repeatedly raped by the ‘King’ of the village who wanted to make her his wife. When she was finally back in the town, feeling safe, she unhesitatingly went back to save her friend who had been kidnapped. They were both then raped by multiple men.
Hannah and her friend both made it back to their home countries. Here, Hannah tried to compartmentalise what had happened, but over time the flashbacks and nightmares began to surface. She told her tutor what had happened and a letter was sent to the company who had arranged the elective. Unfortunately, their response smacks of a business trying to protect itself by disparaging the victim. They questioned why she had waited to disclose, and asked why she had left a positive evaluation of her experience on their website. They said they would ‘issue a warning’ to the ‘King’ concerned, but would take no further action unless further complaints were made.
Hannah was asked if she wanted to report what had happened to the police. However, she didn’t think they could take any action as the crime had happened in Africa, and she didn’t think the African police would do anything. She didn’t think she would be believed; the company hadn’t believed her, so why would they?
Furthermore – and this is a common reaction from victims who choose not to report to the police – Hannah wanted to block it out, put it behind her, and move on. Since then, she has been focusing on her recovery and receiving help from the Rape & Sexual Violence Project in Birmingham and Solihull. She shares her story in the hope it will raise awareness of the impact of sexual abuse crimes on victims, and increase understanding about the difficult decisions that victims make about whether to report.
Part two: women who chose to report
On Sasha’s 16th birthday her teacher showered her with gifts. She became sucked into a love affair that the rest of the world ‘just didn’t understand’. When he asked her to do things that she didn’t want to, and when those things were painful and she said no, he said they were part of a normal adult relationship, and that she didn’t love him as much as he loved her. Sasha would try to leave, but he would draw her back in.
When she became pregnant and had to have an abortion, she knew that enough was enough. She fled to another city and told him on the phone that it was over. Believing that this had been ‘normal’, Sasha bounced from one abusive relationship to another. Eventually, hitting rock bottom and seeking counselling, she started to recognise that this relationship had been one of grooming, mental and emotional manipulation, and rape.
Sasha began considering reporting, at a time when the media was covering high profile cases that made her feel that she might be believed. With help from Rape Crisis (her ‘Super Ninja Angels’), she went to the police station to report what had happened to her over those four and a half years.
The experience with the police was not as sympathetic. By the end of the conversation she felt ‘exhausted, misunderstood, silly and small’. Throughout the process of reporting, which involved further visits and testimony over video, Sasha increasingly felt that the police officer was trivialising her story, and changing her words.
It was a year before Sasha heard that the police had decided not to take the case any further. Her case of grooming happened before the law changed in 2003. He hadn’t been her teacher at the time the abuse started. There were no witnesses to the abuse. And her teenage diaries told the story of a girl in love with an older man.
Now, Sasha is confident she did everything she could for the girl she once was. She has spent time and focus on her healing, and is stepping fully into her power. She is flourishing.
Kirsty was at a party, and another guest tried to rape her. She went straight to the police, and her statement was taken. She had been drinking, but not that much – the police officer even commented that it was good she hadn’t been more drunk, as it meant people would be more likely to believe her.
The next day, the police came to her home to take her statement again. It was a shared student flat, and there was no privacy - her flatmate came into the kitchen while they were speaking. They asked her questions and wrote down her answers. When they read her statement back to her, there were numerous errors that she had to dispute. Eventually, there was a version that she was happy with, and she signed it.
Then the police proceeded to talk her into retracting her statement, citing the stress of trial and suggesting that she had misconstrued an attempted hug as something else. Kirsty eventually acquiesced but stated unequivocally to the officers that she was only withdrawing her statement because she didn’t feel like she could go through the trial process. They were satisfied with that.
Kirsty’s chapter in the book is called ‘Justice Dissuaded’. Her story is not uncommon. That is a travesty of justice.
Yvonne was just 11 years old when her mum passed away, on Mother’s Day. Three days later, and for 18 months afterwards, her cousin started assaulting her. She didn’t know how it was wrong (she hadn’t yet had any conversations about periods, much less sex), but she knew it felt wrong. He made her promise not to tell anyone, and she didn’t.
Over 30 years later, and as a mother herself, she began to look at self-development. As these issues were coming to the surface, she found it increasingly difficult to live with herself. The Jimmy Saville scandal was unfolding and she found herself in her church role advising other vulnerable women. Memories were triggered. Yvonne realised that even though decades had passed, it had slowly been eating away at the core of her soul and the ‘silence was destroying [her]’.
She reported the childhood abuse and, even as an adult, with the distance of time, the process was traumatising. The police advised her not to tell anyone, not even family members: they would be witnesses too. As an adult, just as a child before, she was to keep this secret to herself.
When the case eventually came to court (about three years after reporting), Yvonne’s rapist was found not guilty. The jury was made up of 11 men and one woman. Eleven white people, and one Asian man. Yvonne is a black woman. As soon as she saw that jury, her heart sank.
Today, her rapist is working with vulnerable young people and vulnerable elderly people. Yvonne was silenced by the rapist as a child, silenced by the reporting process, and is now silenced by the court verdict. The ‘not guilty’ verdict made her feel like her mouth had been bound up. Yvonne has vowed to be silent no longer, and instead become a Voice of Freedom to empower others to regain their lives, too.
Winnie M Li
Winnie’s case is perhaps the most ‘typical’ of what we expect a rape to be – the predator who leaps out and drags you into the bushes. However, her story is very atypical.
Winnie was out hiking in a park in Belfast when a 15 year old boy followed her, and raped her. She has told the fictionalised version of this event, and the fallout of his attack, in her debut novel, Dark Chapter (which won the Not the Booker prize last year).
In her chapter of To Report, Winnie tells the real-life version of what happened to her, and how it felt to have the process of criminal justice done to her. She also discusses how it felt to be characterised as a ‘wee Chinese girl’ in the Irish press. Winnie talks about how it felt to live through the case, and the jarring feeling of relief she had when he switched his plea to guilty.
Winnie also shares her experience of researching rape trials for her novel in both London and Belfast, and how horrified she was by what she saw – especially the inhumanity of the cross-examination process. She explains why she wanted people to become enraged with the system when she wrote the court scenes in Dark Chapter.
Winnie is also the co-founder of the Clear Lines Festival, which addresses sexual assault and consent through the arts and discussion. She is completing her PhD researching the use of social media by rape survivors to share their experiences and form a community.
Note from the author: It is my hope in publishing this book that we can start to break down more of the myths that stigmatise rape, and that a better understanding of rape and the reporting process will be widely shared within society. I hope that other survivors take courage from these stories, and know that they are not alone. In solidarity. Emily.
To Report Or Not To Report: Survivor Testimony of the (In)Justice System is available to buy here, with all royalties going to charities chosen by the authors and survivors.
Images: Courtesy of Emily Jacob / iStock