The Truth About Sexual Assault

This one makes for uncomfortable reading. But it is, unfortunately, important. Written from the perspective of someone who works in a Sexual Assault Referral Clinic it is stark reminder of two things: one how depressingly common this is. And two, something I had never considered before, to spare a thought for those working on the frontline helping others and how this type of work can implicate their wellbeing.

For obvious reasons the author wishes to remain anonymous.



  • It can happen to anyone.

  • Truly. There are no exceptions – men, women, children. Married women, single gay men, students, people in the UK on holiday, stay at home mums, straight older men, children who don’t have the words to describe what’s happened to them. Black women, Asian men, Italian writers, Australian students. It doesn’t discriminate.

  • You will never not be horrified at the stories you hear of one human taking advantage of another, and will ask yourself and your colleagues ‘what is wrong with people?’ more times than you can count and there will never be an answer that adequately explains why it happens

  • That for some, coming for a medical examination following a rape or sexual assault is not the worst thing they’ve had to endure.

  • And for some, it’s not the right choice, and that is okay too. Support is whatever the person needs it to be, and a long intrusive police case isn’t right for everybody.

  • Not informing the police is the absolute right decision for some people, they don’t need or want a long, protracted investigation, and your job is to support them and their healing however they need you to.

  • Rape is not about sex; rape is about power.

  • Rape is not about sex; rape is about control.

  • Rape is not about sex; rape is about dominance.

  • Many of the phone calls you have are discussing the legal definition of what rape is and what consent means.

  • But, you spend more time discussing what it isn’t – it isn’t smiling at someone, it isn’t kissing someone, it isn’t falling asleep next to them on the sofa, it isn’t passing out from many cocktails, it isn’t snoring soundly next to your boyfriend, it isn’t the 3rd date or the 30th date, it isn’t anything but freely given.

  • This will be a difficult conversation to have, as often the person you’re speaking to doesn’t believe you.

  • They will often immediately blame themselves, and struggle to realise they did nothing wrong.

  • You will have many conversations with people who don’t remember, for whom the previous night is a complete blank, with a few terrifying flashes.

  • People who wake up alone with a feeling – pain where they weren’t expecting it, nudity where they didn’t undress themselves, hours they can’t recall. And you have to gently explain the limit to what we can do – we can’t fill in blanks. We can’t do a test that says yes or no, something happened. We can’t give you those hours back, and we can’t answer that question that’s swirling in your mind.

  • But we can give you hope. And safety, and a sense of worth.

  • We can give you time to make a decision, and support to make those decisions, and a hug if you need it once you’ve made them.

  • We can give you cups of tea and slices of toast at 4am because you haven’t eaten.

  • We can give you a pile of towels and a bag of toiletries, and some privacy to begin to wash it away.

  • We can give you choices.

  • They may seem arbitrary, but giving you back your sense of power and control after it has been taken away from you by asking you to choose what hot drink you would like is one of many small steps toward a new normal.

  • You’ll spend some nights in work till the early hours, alone in the small forensic suite, just you, your client and the doctor. And while its emotional and tiring and you’re exhausted, it also feels like you’re doing something, you have the chance to show kindness and respect, and be a safe place. And that is a great privilege, at times.

  • That you’ll be supporting someone during a medical examination and have moments of laughter, of genial, friendly small talk and momentarily forget where you are because you’ve been able to connect as 2 people for those few moments.

  • There is no limit on time; people have called for help 30 years later, because now they feel ready to report. And you help them do so.

  • Some people call days, weeks, and months later and always begin with an apology, as though they’ve done something wrong, as though needing to take your time denigrates your right to report or seek advice and help. It truly doesn’t.

  • That the police system isn’t perfect, but the officers are working so hard to try and get justice. They make cups of tea, they try to chat and laugh, they carry sleeping children out to the car following an examination, they buy lunch for a homeless woman who comes in and wave away her protesting she doesn’t deserve it, they drive people hours out of their way so they can sleep somewhere safe, they finish their shifts late making sure the evidence goes to the lab and the paperwork in the right place.

  • That some days picking up the phone can be the best job to have, because you have meaningful conversation with a stranger and help them see some light. And they’re grateful, and so are you.

  • You get to tell them how strong and worthy they are, and that it is not their fault. And that feels good, because it may not be the first time they’ve heard it, but it may be the first time they begin to believe it.

  • You discuss suicide more often than you imagined you would.

  • You know the Samaritans number off by heart.

  • You have conversations about safety plans, about suicidal thoughts and feelings of hopelessness.

  • You listen to tears and quiet sobs, and you sometimes have to fight them back yourself.

  • You often never know what happens next, and that can be difficult.

  • You hope you helped, in that conversation, and replay them often trying to make sure you said everything you should.

  • Some days you absorb the pain like a sponge and you feel heavy and full, and you can’t shake the day off.

  • You can’t sleep properly, and you dream about work.

  • You imagine what you’d do in that scenario.

  • You become hyperaware of whose walking behind you when you take that dark, unlit shortcut.

  • You become fearful of friends going on dates with men they hardly know, breathing deep sighs of relief when they arrive home safe, alone, unharmed. And you know its irrational, and unfair to those in your life to project your worries and work onto them. But then you meet someone with the same date of birth as your friend, or who does the same job as your cousin, and it all begins to feel a little bit too close.

  • You remember your boss telling you about vicarious trauma, and how those working with victims/survivors can take on the feelings and symptoms of someone who has been raped. You never imagine it’ll be you who has to say ‘I can’t do this work anymore’ because how privileged is it, to be able to choose whether to be exposed to sexual violence?

  • But the anxiety is getting worse, the panic attacks more alarming and frequent, and then nightmares more visceral. And then one day, the dam bursts. And handing in your notice makes you feel lighter than air because the saying ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ has never been truer and your cup is so empty and the longer it goes on, your ability to be the person you need and want to be in your job diminishes.

  • And everyone will say it’s because you miss your old job and career. They’ll imply it’s you and your lack of resilience, its you and your softness.

  • But it’s not you; it’s the relentless tide of sexual violence, and the feeling of powerlessness to change anything. It’s the want to speak about something other than this for 40 hours a week.

  • It’s the lack of support from colleagues after a challenging phone call or difficult case, the silence when you put the phone down and take a deep breath, and there is no supportive hand on the shoulder to say ‘are you okay?’

  • You’ll miss the naivety you had before. Before you knew it happened to anyone, anywhere. Before it dominated every conversation. Before you couldn’t answer the ‘so what do you do?’ at a friend’s party casually, without halting the fun with talk of sexual violence. Before you had to protect others from what you know now, and the fear you carry that it could happen to you too.

  • The biggest thing you’ll learn is something you already knew. Kindness knows no bounds. That the skills you learnt in your old career before apply even more now – sometimes, in the darkest moment, you just need a hand to hold, and someone to tell you it’s going to be okay, we’re here. I’m here for you; it’s not your fault.


** For those effected by any of this content please contact the following:
In London, The Havens, 0203 299 1599. 
Nationally, Rape Crisis https://rapecrisis.org.uk/
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2 thoughts on “The Truth About Sexual Assault

  1. Thanks for this list, I work with children who are sexually exploited and have recently been thinking about my own shelf life in this role. You hear about social workers etc becoming immune but for me it’s the opposite, I’m guessing there’s only so much capacity for this kind of work for one person. People always think I’m a saint when I tell them what I do, but I’m only human.

    Like

  2. Thank you so so much for this. I used to work at The Havens and absolutely loved my job there but had to leave due to moving out of London. I miss my job there terribly but have always felt it so difficult to articulate why it is also a relief to be having a break from it. Thank you for articulating so beautifully about the privilege we have to be able to take a ‘break’ from sexual violence.

    Like

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