How to respond to an allegation of sexual assault

Nicole Westmarland, Durham University

This week’s New York Magazine surely has its most poignant cover ever, in a piece of remarkable journalism. With the caption: “the unwelcome sisterhood”, the cover shows black and white photographs of 35 of the 46 women whose sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby span five decades.

One of the women, Barbara Bowman, aged just 17 and trying to make it to the next level in her career at the time of the alleged assaults, describes the feelings about what was happening to her and the invisible bars that she felt trapped by. She said:

I could have walked down any street of Manhattan at any time and said, ‘I’m being raped and drugged by Bill Cosby,’ but who the hell would have believed me? Nobody, nobody.

She is, of course, correct. At that time Cosby was a well-known, much-loved and respected actor, celebrated on a global scale.

Even today, many women are having trouble getting authorities to respond adequately to allegations of sexual violence. The Guardian recently published an investigation into how university students had been let down by their institutions when trying to report their experiences of sexual assault on campus.

So what is the best way to respond if someone does make a disclosure of sexual assault to you? What can you do to help and, importantly, how can you avoid making the situation worse?

Don’t underestimate barriers to disclosing

At Durham University we have been offering training to staff about responding appropriately to disclosures of sexual violence. One of the exercises we ask participants to do is to think about the barriers that students might face when considering disclosing a sexual assault.

For every concern: “Will they believe me if I’ve been drinking?”, “Will the forensic medical examination hurt?”, “Will my parents find out?”, we place a chair in the middle of the room and line them up in a row. By the end of the exercise, participants generally move from wondering why victims don’t report to how anyone does at all.

One of the ultimate fears is that they will not be believed. Kay Davies from Rape Crisis England and Wales works with us on the training and always reminds us not to say: “I just can’t believe [name] would do such a thing, he’s usually such a quiet/intelligent/kind young man”.

In this situation rather than “I just can’t believe it” being interpreted as a figure of speech, it can be interpreted as “I don’t believe you” or “No-one will believe you”. Their worst fears realised in an oft-used phrase.

Empty chairs.

Sam Cox, CC BY-NC

Don’t panic

It’s an awful fact that rape and other sexual assaults happen every day in every town and city, particularly though not exclusively, to women and girls. Try not to look shocked and panic. Realise that someone has trusted you enough to tell you about one of these daily occurrences that has happened to them.

Feel honoured that they came to you with this important disclosure. If they are telling you about a sexual assault that isn’t recent don’t assume they have already told other people about it even if it happened in childhood – you might still be the first person they are disclosing to.

Don’t ask too many ‘detail’ questions

If a disclosure is made to you and the victim intends to also make a police report, don’t delay the situation by asking too many questions. If a full disclosure is made to you, then you become an important witness and will probably need to give evidence and be cross-examined in court. This means taking notes or having a very good memory. Better to leave it to the professionals and let the police take over with a properly recorded interview.

Even if the victim does not intend to report, you should not ask a lot of questions about the actual assault. Questions such as: “What exactly happened?” or: “What did he do?” can be inappropriate depending on the context and the relationship between the victim and yourself.

The language of sexual assault: “vagina”, “anus”, “semen”, “penis”, or the many slang versions of them, are not words that many people feel comfortable using out loud, especially with people they know only on a professional basis and to people their senior.

Speaking out is hard.

Alan, CC BY

Don’t try to ‘fix it’

You can’t fix this – you can’t make it right and you can’t take away the pain.

What you can do is respond in a caring manner: “I’m so sorry this has happened to you”, “What do you need right now?”, “Is there anyone I can call for you?”, “What do you want to happen?”. Don’t make promises that can’t or won’t be kept: “We’re going to make sure that bastard is found and locked up for a very long time.” Try not to show your anger “I’m going to kill him when I get my hands on him”. This isn’t about you and your anger, its about what the victim needs. Centre it on their needs, not yours.

Refer victim to the right place

The main services for victims of sexual offences are Sexual Assault Referral Centres and Rape Crisis Centres, though both also refer to each other.

Sexual Offence Referral Centres, or SARCs, take referrals (including self-referrals) from people who have recently been raped. They are usually run by the police and health services. Forensic medical examinations take place at SARCs and victims can either decide to proceed with a police report while they are there – the SARC will arrange this – or the victim can choose not to make a police report but to have their evidence from the examination stored for the future. This means that if they decide they want to make a police report when they feel stronger, they have the evidence to do so.

If other victims start coming forward against the same offender then the victim might feel more able to be part of a group making an allegation against the same offender than they were as a single complainant.

Contrary to what their name suggests, Rape Crisis Centres do not just work with women who are in crisis, but also women who have been raped a long time – even decades – ago. Many centres specialise in work with women and girls though some work with men.

If someone discloses to you who does not want or need a medical examination because of the time that has passed since the assault, or they want to talk to someone in complete confidence – then this is a useful place to refer them.

We cannot all become trained Rape Crisis counsellors, but as the disclosure rate continues to increase, we can choose to educate ourselves and those around us on the basics of how to respond sensitively.

They came to you, they trusted you – please don’t let them down. Help them – and us – to continue breaking the silence around sexual assault.

The Conversation

Nicole Westmarland, Professor of Criminology, Durham University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The Intervention Initiative at UWE

Guest post by Rachel Fenton from the University of the West of England (UWE)

Public Health England has commissioned and partnered with UWE, Bristol, to produce an educational resource to be used by universities and colleges for the prevention of sexual coercion and domestic abuse in student populations.

As an evidence-based bystander programme, the Intervention Initiative facilitates primary, secondary and tertiary prevention by working with the whole community of students and working to prevent harms from being perpetrated in the first place, in preference to dealing with the aftermath of incidents that occur. In addition, the Intervention Initiative equips students with analytical, leadership and professional communication skills for life and encourages an enhanced sense of social responsibility enabling them able to challenge social norms which both facilitate abuse, and which impede intervention.

The evidence suggests that meaningful, lasting attitude or behaviour change rarely occur as a result of one-off interventions such as a single workshop. The Intervention Initiative uses public health grounded evidence that prevention programmes need to be theory-driven, repeated over time, use well- trained facilitators, ensure that coverage is comprehensive and socio-culturally relevant, and utilise varied teaching methods.

The Intervention Initiative takes a positive approach, encouraging all students to be active bystanders, standing up against sexual and domestic violence and abuse in their community. The multi-disciplinary academic team (from law, criminology, social psychology and community activism) have worked closely in partnership with students in the development of the resources. A comprehensive campus-based strategy is built around – and can only work in the presence of – consistent reinforcement of positive norms within the student community led by students themselves in addition to clear institutional buy-in.

UWE students have created an anti-abuse network and have gained White Ribbon status for the University. The student network will continue to produce social marketing materials and run hard-hitting campaigns. Furthermore UWE students have made a film in support of the Intervention Initiative. Long-term institutional commitment is illustrated by, among other things, a sustainability committee working to ensure that every student at UWE will have completed the Intervention Initiative programme. Public Health England will be publishing the literature review and the sustainability committee’s report.

This year every first year law student at UWE is completing the Intervention Initiative as part of their curriculum and the project team are running a controlled evaluation funded by Public Health England.

All the materials and the theoretical rationale, which sets out the theory and the pedagogy underpinning the programme, are freely available online to download and use. The team are also actively seeking research partners to join in further longitudinal research and evaluation. Please use the form on the website if you are interested.

Stand Together @ University of Lincoln

Guest post by Sundari Anitha introducing the Stand Together project

Stand Together, an action research project that is taking place at the University of Lincoln (UL) to tackle the issue of gender-based violence, is one of the first university-wide prevention education programmes in the UK. It entails peer education programmes involving student volunteers, a poster campaign and a theatre project facilitated by Scottish Women’s Aid, White Ribbon Campaign and Tender.

As one of the core interventions, students will receive two days’ training from Scottish Women’s Aid and the White Ribbon Campaign, learning how to recognise problematic attitudes and behaviour (eg., homophobic statements or jokes, victim blaming attitudes, abusive behaviour) and will be given training on ways to speak out and challenge such behaviour safely if they encounter it, and on how to offer support to those affected by it. Once they have been trained, the students will then run further workshops in pairs for other groups of students to pass on their knowledge and skills. A group of students from the School of Fine and Performing Art will work with Tender, a charity which uses theatre to promote healthy relationships, to develop theatrical performances on the issue of gender-based violence. These performances will be shown across the university campus. Additionally, students will design posters to spread their message across the university and in venues in the city of Lincoln.

Alongside these interventions, student volunteers will also work with staff in different schools at the university to organise three periods of intensive activism against gender-based violence on the campus. These activities are geared towards raising awareness and promoting a debate at a broader social level, beyond small group private settings, which might be the arena for much bystander intervention. The first of these periods will be within the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence (4-10 December). The second period of activism will in the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, where among other issues the focus will be on consent. The third week of activism (if we can sustain this!) will be in March, soon after International Women’s Day.

This project is being conducted by a team of researchers – Sundari Anitha, Ana Jordan, Jill Jameson, Claire Markham (Schools of Social and Political Sciences), Zowie Davy (School of Health and Social Care) and Aylwyn Walsh (School of Fine and Performing Art) and is being funded by College of Social Sciences, University of Lincoln. The research team will be conducting a range of mixed methods evaluation to understand the role of prevention education in shifting attitudes and intervention behaviour in relation to GBV.

What’s driving the new sexism?


Alison Phipps is Co-Director of Gender Studies at the University of Sussex and works on the politics of women’s bodies – she can be found on Twitter @alisonphipps. Her book The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age is published by Polity Press. The article below originally appeared in the New Statesman and is reproduced here with her permission.

“Rape, rape, rape.” Last week saw news of police investigating a group of young men, believed to be members of Cambridge’s drinking society The Wyverns, who had been videoed chanting this while marching down Oxford’s high street. This came days after it was revealed that Premier League chief Richard Scudamore had exchanged emails with senior colleagues in which women were referred to as “gash”.

These incidents gave grist to recent discussions about whether sexism has become particularly vicious – for instance, Zoe Williams has…

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