Do lower conviction rates for sexual assault mean such crimes are less likely to be reported?
By Rhiann Hanson | Instagram @rhiannlouisehanson | Image by Rhiann Hanson
Fewer than 1 in 6 people in the UK report their sexual assault to the police.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Of all the people in the country who have experienced some form of sexual assault – and it’s a lot of people -somewhere around 1.6 million according to the Office of National Statistics – 84% of them didn’t report it.
As a young woman myself, appalled by stories like Sarah Everard’s murder and the incidents that inspired the #metoo movement, I was shocked and alarmed by this statistic. Why is reporting so low? To try to find out the answer, I spoke to some experts who work with the victims.
A recent YouGov survey asking whether the police take sexual assault seriously enough showed a signficant majority who thought that they didn’t, rising from 54% in October 2020 to 68% in March of this year. Yet speaking to Detective Inspector Beth Lee of Derbyshire Police, I’m told this is not fair. She feels that the police’s response to sexual assault is improving; Beth is aware of “ongoing work with partners and communities to tackle violence and initmidations against women and girls”. “Prosecution rates are quite high when it comes to sexual assault cases,” she tells me, “because more people are reporting it.” But are they?
What I really want to get to the bottom of is why some people don’t report their sexual assault cases. As stated by the Office of National Statistics – the second main reason was they didn’t think the police could help (the first is ‘embarrassment’ and the third ‘humiliation’, indicating a much wider societal problem).
Even if the perpetrator is arrested, they may not be charged due to lack of evidence or because the victim may not wish to proceed with the prosecution. Beth told me that “samples of forensic evidence and DNA” are taken as soon as they can and before the victim may be ready to take it further. This shows that there are things put in place to help victims get justice even if it isn’t straight away. Forensic evidence plays a crucial part in sexual assault cases and can determine if justice is served so it is good to see how seriously it gets taken.
Beth offers an interesting perspective on low levels of trust in the police. She makes the point that once the police have successfully pressed charges, what happens in the courts is “out of their control to a degree: when you take into account the views of the juries”. This poses another risk for victims: even though the police might believe them, will the judge and jury? Is there a fear of embarrassment, shame and reliving the experience putting victims off? It seems clear that this fear contributes to low conviction rates.
At the moment, this lack of trust is creating a vicious cycle. It appears to the public that a lot of perpetrators do not get the justice they deserve and the guilty will walk the streets unpunished. It is understandable that the public believe that the police, CPS, judges and juries have allowed this to happen, which creates the perception that they aren’t protecting the public from these people. At times, I believe this – however Beth concludes that this is often not the case. The more people come forward, Beth explains, the better the understanding of the scale of the situation and how to tackle it. Also, “Whilst detection rates are low, there is a good success rate at court”.
However, there are some positive signs of reporting.
Karen Jardine is the campaigns and administrations officer at Nottingham SVS Service (a registered independent charity working with survivors of sexual violence) and she explains how “there has been a year on year increase in calls and referrals.” After 35 years and still running, Notts SVS have many options for how they can help, including counselling and support. They also help a wide range of people – from young people to sex workers and many more.
I’ve been growing up in the age of #metoo, so I often find myself wondering how much this increase in reporting has been driven by this high profile campaign. I thought it would be important to know the effect this may have had on charities and services that are out there for survivors of sexual violence. Although the Sarah Everard case caused a spike in awareness to sexual assault and rape cases, Karen tells me that there has also been a “ general raising of awareness of sexual violence and abuse”.
Nottingham SVS service are funded by police commissioning. “In Nottingham and Nottinghamshire we are very fortunate to have commissioners who are responsive to the ongoing and changing needs of survivors and are willing to provide longer-term models of funding”. This shows that the police do care as they are willing to support these survivors in the aftermath of the sexual assault, not just through the process from reporting it. Compared to other areas in the country, Nottingham has better access to support for survivors when they need it. Karen says “some areas in the country do not have access to the range of services available here or that funding is more short-term”.
Since I discovered that Nottingham SVS supported 13-17 year olds, I thought it was important to know if people this age were being well educated on sexual violence topics. Karen Jardine informed me that services such as SVS help form something called the ‘Consent Coalition’. Formed by Nottingham SVS and other organisations, The Consent Coalition aims to create a better understanding of consent and to challenge sexual violence in Nottingham. Karen describes it as “empowering those who have experienced sexual violence to get support and report”. The Consent Coalition can help as it gives survivors the information that is needed to make informed choices following sexual assault or rape. It has been created for many reasons, one being to improve the understanding of consent. A lot of victims may not realise they are victims of sexual assault or rape until they contact services such as Consent Coalition so it shows why such services need to exist.
This isn’t even an issue that solely affects women. Whilst according to Rape Crisis sexual assault happens more to women, it is important to know how males feel about coming forward. 0.8% of men aged 16-59 had an experience of sexual assault in the past year of the year ending March 2017. Although 0.8% seems like a very tiny number compared to that of womens – which was 20%, it is actually 138,000 men. That’s enough to fill Wembley Stadium one and a half times. After asking Karen if SVS have seen any increases in male reporting, I was surprised to find out that there has been a general increase in referrals and ‘the male increase is proportionally similar to that of female survivors’.
Reporting rates are rising, but it still doesn’t seem enough. If people are not reporting their cases or even just not wanting to take it to court – that perpetrator is let back into society to possibly reoffend. This causes sexual assault cases to rise and rise. The only way we can fix this issue is for more people to come forward and report their cases and take it to court if possible. Although the process can be long and hard this is the only way to address this vicious cycle and see improvement in justice.
It will take time, and, perception of sexual assault will take time to adjust as well.
“I was on a dog walk the other day and saw a group of about 5 guys and turned around and went the other way, even though I know assaults on strangers are rare” DI Beth Lee tells me.
When even someone who has an informed understanding of the issues instinctively acts defensively like this, we clearly have a problem that goes very, very, deep.