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This Harrowing Study Reveals Why Victims of Sexual Violence Don’t go to the Police

The reaction to the Russell Brand allegations shows why so many women don’t feel safe reporting the crimes against them, reports Jamie Klingler

A memorial vigil is held in 2021 for Sarah Everard, the British woman murdered by a serving UK police officer. Photo: Denise Laura Baker/Alamy Live News

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‘Why not go to the police?’ That was the refrain seen across social media from staunch defenders of Russell Brand this week, after he was accused of rape and sexual assault by Dispatches on Channel 4 and the Sunday Times.  

Of course when Szilvia Berki went to the police about Brand in 2014, she was told not only was there no case to answer, but that she was harassing him and his then girlfriend Jemima Khan.

As a landmark new report this week shows, many other women face similar experiences.

The Home Office-funded Operation Bluestone Soteria has just released the largest ever study of survivor’s experiences reporting sexual assaults to police.  It found that over 2,000 women reported their experiences with police in England and Wales between January and June of 2023.  When reading the entire report, I was overwhelmed by the impression of a system that is ostensibly designed to protect these people at their most vulnerable, but is in reality failing them miserably.  Overall, 75% of respondents nationwide reported that their mental health worsened as a result of their interaction with the police.  

In some ways I am amazed women are still going to the police at all. When Nottingham’s former Chief Constable Sue Fish said she would not report it if she was raped it was dismissed as histrionic. However, 2,000 women’s experiences cannot and should not be denied. These women have come forward to make their voices heard to protect future victims.  

In trusting Dr Hohl, the lead academic of the survey and former joint strategic academic lead of Operation Soteria Bluestone, and her team, with their experiences, they are painting a roadmap for better impactful policing that centres the victim and treats them with the respect that was denied the survivors in this survey.  

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Dr Hohl said: “It is thanks to the bravery and generosity of the more than 2,000 survivors completing the survey that these findings are now here to be read and acted upon.  

“The findings are sobering. They evidence the tremendous harm poor policing has caused to many rape and sexual assault survivors. 

“Survivors are not asking the impossible. The survey shows that good policing can be achieved, because it is already being done by many officers.”

I know that most readers won’t have time to go through the entire 75-page report, but I did and these women deserve that you read some of their experiences in their own words. Here are just some of them:

The report also details horrific scenarios of women being asked to re-enact the crimes against them with a detective; left naked in front of male police after clothing being taken for forensics, and often being denied female officers when requested.  

The results show the traumatic effects of poor policing on survivors’ safety, including exposure to ongoing sexual and domestic abuse, suicide, physical health, and family life.

Countless respondents said their rapist went on to sexually offend again against them and others because police did not take their report seriously. “Many felt deep regret for having trusted the police with their case and wished they had never reported the crime”, one survivor told the study.

The survey also shows that police experiences for survivors from BAME backgrounds or survivors with autism or disabilities are even worse off.

So why not go to the police?

Well, because the police do not believe victims.  But, imagine for a minute if they did.  Imagine if we listened to and believed women, imagine if the police that are paid to protect and serve us did those two very basic things.  

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These women took part in this survey to explicitly spell out how policing can be improved.  They detail the amount of influence the responding officers have on victims;  and when it is done well it can save lives. The findings show the concrete actions officers can take to improve survivor experience, including referrals to independent victim support, telling victims about their Victim Rights, protecting them from the suspect, and looking at all the evidence.  All sounds pretty basic and straightforward, no?  

All the survivors are asking for is that they be “treated like humans.”  That’s how low the bar is. It’s the very least that they should deserve after having already been subjected to such horrific crimes.

The findings show that the most common reason for reporting to the police is to stop the perpetrator from offending again.  Women are trying to use the system to protect other women even knowing that the odds are stacked against them. Don’t we owe them that at the very least?  

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