The Metropolitan Police have dropped their policy of automatically believing those who report instances of rape or sexual violence. Here, three rape survivors tell Stylist’s digital features editor Sarah Biddlecombe how damaging this could be.
The decision to report a rape or instance of sexual violence is not an easy one. The mere process of reporting is often gruelling for the victim, and involves numerous interviews, an investigation and at least one forensic medical examination. While exact figures are impossible to obtain, it is estimated that only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report it to the police. And one of the most common reasons for this is that victims are scared they won’t be believed.
So the news that the Metropolitan Police will be dropping their current policy of automatically believing victims who report such crimes seems misguided, at best.
Speaking about the decision, Cressida Dick, the Met Police commissioner, said she had instructed officers to maintain an open mind when dealing with such reports.
“You start with a completely open mind, absolutely,” she said. “It is very important to victims to feel that they are going to be believed. Our default position is we are, of course, likely to believe you but we are investigators and we have to investigate.”
However, while she said she wanted to encourage rape victims to come forwards, she was clear that believing their stories would not be the force’s top priority. “Our job is not all about victims,” she said. “Our job in investigations is to be fair, to be impartial and when appropriate to bring things to justice… and of course, to support victims. But it isn’t ALL about victims.”
The current policy has been in place since the police were accused of failing to properly investigate allegations of abuse in 2011, when the extent of former BBC presenter Jimmy Savile’s widespread abuse became clear. However, following a failed investigation into false claims of a Westminster abuse ring made by a man known only as Nick, the policy has now been dropped.
Dick also told The Times that the Met would not be using a lot of resources on cases that appeared “very trivial” or were unlikely to result in a conviction.
“What might be a misunderstanding between two people, clumsy behaviour between somebody who fancies somebody else, is not a matter for the police,” she added.
Cases of rape and sexual violence are one of the thorniest issues in the justice system, and rape has an incredibly low conviction rate. Statistics estimate that approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales every year, amounting to roughly 11 rapes (of adults alone) every hour. Of the 15% of people who report their experiences of sexual violence to the police, only 5.7% will see their perpetrator convicted.
So what effect will removing the current policy of automatically believing victims have on these (already low) conviction rates?
Speaking to stylist.co.uk, Katie Russell, a spokesperson for Rape Crisis England and Wales, warned that the decision could deter women and men from reporting sexual violence.
“It’s important to remember that while there has been a steady increase in sexual violence victims and survivors reporting what’s happened to them to the police in recent years, the vast majority still never do,” Russell said. “Government statistics suggest that over 80% of those who experience these serious, traumatic crimes choose not to report.
“We work with victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, rape and all forms of sexual violence. Among the many reasons people we support tell us they don’t pursue criminal justice for what they’ve been through is their fear of not being believed. There’s still a widespread myth that people who report sexual offences are more likely to be lying than people who report other kinds of crimes; this is completely untrue but it can stop survivors getting the justice and support they want and deserve.”
And in light of the Met’s decision, Russell added that it was crucial to consider the messaging used around the topic.
“If we want to improve criminal justice for the thousands of sexual violence victims and survivors currently failed by the system, we need to think carefully about our messaging and how we can encourage, not deter, reports,” she said.
Here, stylist.co.uk hears from three rape survivors about what the decision means for them.
“We should be able to trust our criminal justice system to take violent crime seriously, and rape is a violent crime.”
After the CPS decided not to prosecute her alleged rapist, Emily is crowdfunding to bring the UK’s first private prosecution of a rape.
In May 2015, I was drugged and raped by a stranger. I did everything right. The police were called immediately. They had me, him and the hotel room, and yet my case and I fell through every crack there was. While the police did eventually suggest to the CPS that they should charge my rapist and take it forward to trial, my case was unfortunately one of the 88% of rape cases that the CPS decided to not take forward. They said there was insufficient evidence, but in the last 18 months I’ve discovered that there was ample evidence, they just didn’t look at it.
What I am doing now should absolutely not be the standard. We should be able to trust our criminal justice system to take violent crime seriously, and rape is a violent crime. The hope is that with my case, and the many I want to help bring after mine, we can show the CPS how rape can, and should, be prosecuted in the UK. I want to put myself out of business: the CPS should absolutely be able to succeed in prosecuting rape cases. This isn’t the Fifties. They should stop acting like our society is too backwards to understand that rape is wrong. I have more faith in the British people than that.
In my experience, the police were, frankly, horrible. At their best, a few of them were bumbling. At their worst, more than a few treated me inhumanely. The morning after I was raped, I had to deal with two police women sitting in my living room telling me that sometimes these things just happen and that if I didn’t report it, no one would find out. I was stunned, absolutely stunned. I didn’t think it could get any worse, until two and a half days after I was raped when the police finally called to tell me that my rapist had admitted to having sex with me. Until that point, I didn’t know whether or not I’d been raped. Turns out they knew all along, but didn’t think that it was important for me to know. I had received no after rape care, so it was a seriously big deal that they didn’t tell me.
More than a year after I was raped, the police sat me down to tell me that my rapist had taken a one minute and two second long video of me unconscious and naked on the hotel bed. Again, it wasn’t something that they thought that I needed to know.
I cannot begin to imagine how much worse I would have been treated by the Met if they’d been formally “allowed” to not believe me. At every turn I felt like they didn’t believe me, or were discounting what had happened to me. Only 15% of women in the UK report their rapes, and that is not going to be improved if women feel like the police don’t care.
“This contributes to the greater problems of complacency and complicity in tackling rape and rape culture”
Nathalie was graduating from her masters when she was raped by a fellow student after an end-of-year party. Thinking she wouldn’t be believed, she couldn’t face reporting the rape to the police.
I think the Met’s decision would have exacerbated everything I already thought about reporting: that you are the one being put through your paces to find justice for a horrible experience you played no part in, that you have to defend your right to be believed and justify that what you have lived through actually did happen, that you will be made out to be a liar/slut/attention-seeker and that you will have to answer questions that are designed to catch you out and show that you cannot possibly be telling the truth. This decision would only have confirmed that reporting to the police was definitely not an avenue I wanted to pursue for the sake of my mental wellbeing and ability to come to terms with what had happened.
There is already so much stigma around rape that prevents people from speaking out, and I think the Met’s decision to stop automatically believing victims adds enormously to that. It creates a hostile environment for victims who want to report for the sake of seeking justice for themselves, or trying to flag up a dangerous person in society to the authorities who have the power to do something about it - both of which should be encouraged by the police.
If victims are not automatically believed then they will be assumed to be lying. That is a difficult and horrifying thing to get your head round as a rape victim, when you are already trying to come to terms with the rape itself. Reporting is hard enough as it is because it requires you to relive a horrible and traumatic experience multiple times over, to total strangers. When you factor in that you have to mentally prepare yourself for a defensive argument because you are confronted with a party that is set up from the start to not automatically trust the truth of what you’re saying, it becomes almost impossible to find the strength to do so. At least when you went to a police station knowing that officers were inclined to believe you, because that was procedure, it made the ordeal a lot easier to face and I would imagine that a lot of victims found strength and comfort in that.
Rape is greatly under-reported and even when it is reported, very few cases see a conviction. The police play a very important role in this, because they provide the first port of call for those who want to pursue action through the criminal justice system. When they pursue measures that do not encourage victims to come forward (even worse when those measures actively discourage victims from coming forward, as I suspect this will) they contribute to the greater problems of complacency and complicity in tackling rape and rape culture. I am surprised that such action is being pursued at a time when there is increasing awareness about the prevalence of sexual violence and increasing demand to tackle it.
This kind of decision also puts increased pressure on the wonderful charities and organisations that help victims of sexual violence - increased awareness through #MeToo etc means that more people are speaking out, but if they are not encouraged to speak to the police due to the creation of a hostile culture of reporting then I suspect people will increasingly turn to charities such as Refuge and Rape Crisis. Funding cuts and increased volume of victims isn’t a good combination… Action to encourage victims to speak out, to report, and to seek support is sorely needed, yet the Met’s decision pushes in the opposite direction.
“If anyone should be on the side of victims it should be the police. It’s heartbreaking.”
Faye was raped on a study year abroad in Australia. Having struggled to be believed without any physical evidence, she questions what the new policy will mean for future rape survivors.
I was raped in 2014 while studying abroad in Australia. I was a student at Melbourne University and during my summer break I went backpacking up the east coast of Australia by myself, which is very common. Towards the end of the trip I went to Fraser Island on the most popular tag-along 4x4 driving tour in the area.
On the tour, you are put into groups of seven and camp for two nights on the island, which has no phone signal and is quite cut off from mainland Australia. On the final night of the trip I was raped by my tour guide - a man in his 40s who is married and has four children.
When I arrived back to mainland Australia I stayed in my hostel room for the entire evening, while the other backpackers from my trip enjoyed drinks with my rapist in the hostel bar. The next evening I travelled 14 hours north on an overnight bus, and the town was so small I was too scared to leave the hostel for the whole day to get food for my journey, in case I bumped into my attacker, or his wife and children, in the town or at the supermarket.
When I reached Airlie Beach, I booked a flight back to Melbourne that evening, which is where I was living at the time. Around a week later I went with a friend to a police station in Melbourne to report that I had been raped. I spoke to specialist police who deal with rape and assault cases for around three hours. It’s very uncommon to be taught at school what to do if you are raped or assaulted, so I had already failed to do a number of things which may have strengthened my case. For example, I had already washed the clothes and bikini bottoms I had been wearing and I had not had a forensic swab taken within 72 hours of the rape, so there was no evidence that he had even been near me, let alone had intercourse with me - consensual or otherwise.
I reported the rape to the travel company and was not believed at first. After a month of back-and-forth by phone with the owner of the tour group, I was informed that he had been let go from his job. Despite reporting it to the police, I was advised by both a barrister and the police themselves that it was unlikely I would win the case if it went to court due to lack of forensic evidence and no eye witness accounts - it was my word against his.
A week after speaking to the police, I was invited back to the police station to retract my complaint. I signed an agreement form saying that I did not wish to take the complaint any further (to statement stage). Of course, I wanted to take this further, and to see this man behind bars. But what other choice did I have? I knew nothing could be done and that the only option was to learn to live with what had happened to me.
With this in mind, I find the Met Police’s new policy wholly disappointing. When I reported my rape in 2014, I was made to feel like the perpetrator, and this was before the new policy had been introduced. The law is supposed to be there to protect victims of crimes, and to ensure that those who have committed vile crimes against them to justice. But instead I was told by the police it was unlikely anything could be done and it was highly unlikely that the case would ever go to court. I contacted the same policeman I spoke to initially this past summer by email, to see if I could persue a restorative justice case. He informed me that the police were unable to help with this process and that he did not recommend I contact my rapist at this stage.
If this were to happen to me again, taking into account my last experience with the police and the new policy that has been introduced, I wouldn’t even bother reporting it to the police unless I had hard evidence such as CCTV evidence, eyewitnesses and forensic evidence. But even then, with all of that on your side, you still might not win. The majority of rapes happen in the home by someone known to the victim, so the likelihood of there being any witnesses is slim. Forensic evidence can only prove intercourse took place, but not whether or not consent was given by all parties.
This new policy almost makes me feel lucky about the experience I had with the police. Despite there being no statement given and my case not even coming close to making it to court, at least for the three hours I spent with the police I felt that I was being believed. Those victims who come after me might sadly not be so lucky. If anyone should be on the side of victims it should be the police. It’s heartbreaking.
For details of your nearest specialist Rape Crisis services, visit: rapecrisis.org.uk/centres.php
Images: Getty, Leana Catherine Photography, Channel 5, iStock