Posted: Monday 20th March 2017
When the producers of Broadchurch approached Rape Crisis England and Wales to advise them on the series, we were able to help ensure the show’s creators were prepared for the effect the storyline would have on survivors.
The considerable effort they have put into portraying the trauma of sexual assault sensitively and accurately is hugely welcome. Broadchurch, along with the likes of the BBC’s Apple Tree Yard, is helping to make significant strides in dispelling the myths and stereotypes around sexual violence.
The visibility of sexual violence in the media has a significant effect: it is a key reason why more and more survivors are speaking out. At the rape crisis organisation where I work, Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Assault Support (SARSAS), we have seen an increase of 284% in service demand since 2013. In particular, many survivors of historic abuse have been motivated to come forward after the reporting of the crimes of celebrities including Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris. Indeed, 80% of our calls relate to “non-recent” abuse – defined as abuse that took place more than 12 months ago.
The rise we’ve seen is in line with the dramatic increases reported by Rape Crisis centres nationwide. In March 2016, for instance, Rape Crisis England and Wales reported that there were more than 4,000 survivors on their waiting lists.
This has a huge impact on survivors. Without immediate help we know people have to continue to cope in whatever way they can – whether that’s through self-medication, overwork or raging against a system that has failed them.
For many of the people who call us to talk about historical abuse, it may be that a significant event has triggered long-repressed memories; the death of the perpetrator, for example, or the birth of their own child. Some of our younger callers are GCSE students who come to us for support, and who are dealing with intrusive thoughts and anxiety that make it impossible to revise. For these people, their experiences are as raw and immediate as if they had occurred yesterday.
At SARSAS, we have tried-and-tested services that form the core of the support we offer. But each survivor is different, and we need to be able to respond to their individual needs. Group work, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and somatic trauma therapy should all be on offer. Recovering from sexual violence doesn’t happen in a straight line, and so our pathways must be equally flexible and responsive.
In our experience, in some areas as many as 50% of those who are referred to us, or who enquire themselves, drop out of the process. This is unacceptable, and unsurprising. Faced with lengthy waiting times, many survivors retreat and choose not to ask for help again, instead facing their trauma alone and unsupported.
Inevitably, for staff at Rape Crisis centres, anxiety about the number of people contacting us – people who desperately need help – can hit us hard. When we pick up the phone, we know that we might be the only person to have heard our caller’s story. Often, it will take a few calls for them to talk at all – most of us at SARSAS have spent hours reassuring survivors as they cry down the phone, allowing them the time and space to get those first words out.
To then have to tell them about the waiting lists and limitations on our services; knowing the courage it has taken them to come forward in the first place, is heart-breaking.
The truth is that some of the most vulnerable people in society are not able to access the support and therapy that we know would help them cope with their lives in the coming weeks and years. Those who have the means can access support privately, while others must wait up to a year to get the help they need.
The fact is that the impact of sexual violence should be seen and owned as a public health issue. In our experience, many survivors do not want to report what has happened to them, as is their right. To see sexual violence as a purely criminal justice issue is therefore short-sighted and simplistic. It is a community and equality issue that not only has a long-term impact on the individual survivor, as a result of effects including depression and anxiety, but also on the people who surround them.
Sexual violence can push relationships to breaking point, even if a survivor is believed. Guilt, shame and anger can cloud judgment and have a serious impact on the survivor if the people they rely on are unable to process their feelings and prejudices. The help that we provide will only go so far, which is why we created self-help guides for those close to survivors. Rape and sexual assault sends out a shockwave that touches everyone in a survivor’s life. To pretend otherwise is to push them back into the dark and away from those who could support them.
Early analysis of our referrals in the last year shows that the majority were from those under the age of 25. We owe it to our young people to provide them with the educational and social tools they need to have healthy relationships, connect positively with others and recognise abuse and criminal behaviour.
It always sounds strange, but the increase in referrals is a very positive thing. It means more survivors are reaching out and seeking the help they need. However, if funding continues to fall short, Rape Crisis centres will remain increasingly stretched and waiting lists unacceptably long. Ministry of Justice figures have indicated that one in five women in Somerset and Avon will experience some kind of sexual violence in their lifetime – we believe that statistic is barely scratching the surface. When those as-yet silent survivors are ready to talk, we want to be there to listen, believe and support them.
Director of SARSAS
• Find out more about SARSAS by visiting www.sarsas.org.uk/
• The Rape Crisis national helpline is open daily 12-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm. Call 0808 802 9999.