Written by Trinity Barnatt
Content warning: This article contains mention of sexual assault. If you or anyone you know is affected by the issues in this article, please use the resources at the bottom of the page or contact the University’s well-being services on 0116 223 1780.
Between March 2016 and March 2017, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimated that there are 3.4 million female and 631,000 male victims who have experienced some form sexual assault, from the age of 16. Arguably, even more shocking is that 31% of young women reported having experienced sexual abuse in childhood (NSPCC, 2017). Rape and sexual assault are regarded as one of the most severe criminal offences – a crime that I myself am a victim of.
Speaking as a survivor of not one but two sexual assaults, which both occurred before the age of 16 (the legal age of consent in the UK), I can confirm that these crimes are truly devastating on a person. Sexual violence violates a person on the most personal level – an incredibly intimate act is forced upon people selfishly, and the effects are long-lasting.
There wasn’t a day that went by where my mind wasn’t haunted by the memory of his body on mine.
I remember feeling suffocated and trapped, as though he filled the space so much there was no room for me; no air for me. At such a young age, my comprehension of sex was skewed. The assault called into question everything I knew about sex and set into motion a desperate attempt to reclaim my sexuality as my own. Little did I know that the assault would stalk my sexual experiences for years to come.
The experience of sexual violence is a trauma that I believe only a fellow victim can understand. Too many people in England and Wales share this understanding; 97,000 people to be exact – 97,000 victims whose lives are forever tainted by the awful experience.
Something must be done.
The conviction rates for rape are far lower than other severe crimes, with only 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator. That figure comes from an already small minority of total rapes (including unreported cases) that occur. In fact, to put a number on it, only 15% of those who experience sexual violence report it to the police.
So many try to deny the unnerving reality of rape in our society – these harrowing statistics prove them wrong.
My assault was unreported due to fear of societal stigma. The minds of the people around me, including my own to an extent, were full of myths and misconceptions about sexual violence. My definition of rape was limited to a violent attack by a stranger in a dark alley, where the victim would be kicking and screaming. While this is the case for some rapes, many are quite different experiences.
Approximately 90% of those who are raped know the perpetrator prior to the attack (An Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales, 2013).
They could be friends, family, or even a romantic partner. That’s another misconception—rape can occur within a relationship or marriage. The victim also doesn’t have to be desperately trying to escape their attacker physically; they could be entirely still and appear calm.
For me, my attacker was a friend of an ex-boyfriend of mine. During our relationship, I had learnt of my future attacker’s reputation for being violent and short-tempered when he didn’t get what he wanted. I remembered this during my attack; he was older, taller and stronger than me, and I knew my chances of escaping him were slim. So, to prevent further violence being inflicted on myself, I decided to squeeze my eyes shut and wait for it to be over.
I believed that, for a long time, because I didn’t say the word ‘no’, what I experienced couldn’t be classed as rape. A recent poll confirmed that 18% of college students also think that someone has consented as long as they don’t say ‘no’. This proves that education about consent is essential and should be a requirement in all schools.
My school provided a sexual ‘education’ of sorts, but the delivery was inadequate. It involved a 3-minute video about consent using a metaphor about drinking tea. While I appreciate the effort to have made the idea of consent easier to digest, to a room of teenagers, this was only cause for laughter. A day full of jokes and ‘mimics’ was all that followed the so-called lesson. This lesson also occurred in Year 11, where many of my classmates has already become sexually active.
By this time it was too little too late for me—I had already endured two sexual assaults.
Perhaps the biggest problem of all, though, is the stigmas around rape and sexual assault. How is a victim supposed to find the strength to come forward when they are likely to be faced with questions about what they were wearing, or what they’d had to drink? Or my personal worst one: ‘What did you do to lead them on?’ The assumption of any fault on the victim is immensely insensitive and discouraging. All it does is create fear of rejection of their claim.
These misinformed beliefs about sexual violence fuel the lack of convictions for rapists, and deny millions of people their well-deserved justice.
Justice for myself has become something I crave more over the last year, but due to how long ago the rape occurred and the lack of evidence, pursuing a legal case is futile. What I wish I knew about was SARCS—Sexual Assault Referral Centres. These centres offer a wide range of support services which are entirely confidential and can be accessed without any requirement to report the attack to the police.
You can receive a forensic medical examination who can help with any injuries acquired, pregnancy and STIs. Something I was only recently made aware of though, is these centres are able to take and preserve forensic evidence that can be used at a later date (if the victim wishes) for criminal convictions.
If I had been aware of this service after my assault, I would have been able to report my rape with a fighting chance of criminal conviction. In a system that fails sexual assault victims so much, it’s vital to take every opportunity we can get to get justice.
Trinity Barnatt is a first year English student at University of Leicester, originally from Bourne, Lincolnshire. You can find her on Instagram here: @trinity_b._