Not many people know that rape and sexual assault victims with cases going through the criminal justice system in England and Wales are told not to discuss what happened to them with counsellors – and if they do, notes from their therapy sessions can be used in court. The restrictive guidelines have prompted calls from sexual violence campaigners and Labour's Shami Chakrabarti for urgent reform. But what is it really like to be told you can’t go to therapy after you’ve been raped? VICE spoke to three women who experienced this firsthand.
Jenn Selby, 32, journalist, campaigner and Women’s Equality Party candidate
I was raped in 2014 by someone I knew really well. He was friends with other people that I was close with, which made things hard. I decided to go to the police after he started harassing me via Facebook and text. The stress of it caused me to have a mini-breakdown, and a colleague of mine ended up taking me to police.
When you’ve been raped, the trauma of having to go through a medical examination and all those other things feels so intrusive. It’s a whole other ballgame. It took a year for police to charge him, and another year and a half for a court date to be set. The stress of trying to keep myself afloat in that period and hold down a job was so intense.
I was struggling with PTSD. My body felt like it was locked in the moment of the assault. I had flashbacks, insomnia, depression and anxiety. For ages, if I saw someone on a bus who looked like the guy that attacked me I’d have a panic attack and have to get off the bus. I was an absolute wreck and suicidal – I made a few attempts on my life in this period. I desperately needed therapy.
I ended up reaching out to Solace Women’s Aid, the sexual and domestic violence service. They referred me for 12 sessions of pre-trial therapy. In pre-trial therapy, you’re not allowed to talk about the actual assault – only about your emotions around it. I just thought, why aren’t I allowed to talk about what happened? It felt like I was on hold, my feelings were on hold, my emotions were on hold. Meanwhile, my entire life was on the table for the prosecution and defence to take a look at, and use whatever they wanted against me.
Pre-trial therapy wasn’t enough. When you have PTSD following a sexual assault, suicidal thoughts are a big part of that. If survivors like myself are being told not to go to therapy, that can be a death sentence. You’re sentencing people to live in the worst way possible, and encouraging them to listen to their thoughts because no-one is stopping them.
Three days before we were meant to go to court, the CPS ended up dropping my case because they didn't think there was a sufficient prospect of conviction, which devastated me. After that, I was in therapy for a good, long time. My therapist helped me to realise that what happened to me wasn’t my fault. Without that therapy, I think I might not be here at all.
Hazel Southwell: "As more time went on, I began to lose faith that the police were ever going to catch the men who attacked me."
Hazel Southwell, 32, motorsports journalist
In July 2010, I was abducted, drugged, and gang-raped. I went to the police immediately, so at first I thought – naively – that there would be a conviction, especially as I was able to identify the house where it happened.
I began to regret reporting to the police almost straight away. After a rape, your own body is evidence. Your phone is taken away, you can’t eat or drink, and you’re held for hours and hours whilst people examine you. I was at the police station from 9AM until 11PM at night.
The police never arrested anyone. As more time went on, I began to lose faith that the police were ever going to catch the men who attacked me.
I was referred for counselling through the Havens, which is a specialist sexual violence service. My therapist warned me that everything we spoke about could be requisitioned by the court, including my counselling notes. When we spoke, I had to be careful not to mention too many things about my life.
When it comes to sexual assault, the character of the victim is so often called into question. You’re asked whether you were walking home late at night, or if you were wearing a short dress. Being able to use victims’ counselling notes in court just feeds into the narrative that they’re the ones on trial. It’s not like the accused is having their innermost thoughts read out in court.
Jenni Hill, 29, marketing
I was raped in 2006 when I was 15. I didn’t report it to the police at the time, because I blamed myself. I just bottled it all up until February 2018, when I Googled my rapist’s name. All these news articles came up, saying he was in prison for another sexual offence. I felt devastated for not reporting him and went to the police to report my assault.
The police told me that I could see a counsellor once I’d reached the top of the waiting list, but any information I gave the counsellor would potentially be seen by them, as well as by my rapist’s lawyer. I remember being really shocked. When I was referred to a sexual assault centre, my ISVA [Independent Sexual Violence Advisor] confirmed what the police had said. Obviously, that was quite upsetting to hear. She also told me that I wouldn’t be able to discuss the assault itself, only how it made me feel. We had a bit of a laugh about how ridiculous that was.
The police also asked for details of my old university, because I’d seen an onsite counsellor a few times while studying, before I reported my assault to police. It felt frustrating, knowing that they could read my notes. If I’d mentioned anything that undermined my account to police, I knew that might be used against me.
Knowing police would be looking at my counselling notes made the thought of going to court even more daunting. I was terrified of the thought that a lawyer would try and humiliate me with my notes. It felt so lonely. The ISVA was really nice and helpful, but there was a part of me that thought, Can I even talk to her in confidence?
Not being able to go to counselling was really hard. I felt like I couldn’t speak to anyone, and I got really depressed. There would be weeks where I would get home from work and cry every night. When I told my mum that I couldn’t speak to a counsellor, she just said: “Talk to me about it!” But I was like, “How can I tell you? How can I go into details with my own mum?”
I read that one of the limitations on counselling for victims is because people are worried the victim might be coached. But that’s something you can’t prevent anyway. When I was waiting for my case to be brought to court, I became so obsessed that I would sit at home and practice what I was going to say. You hear all these stories about victims being torn apart by the rapist’s lawyer, and I just thought, there’s no way that’s happening to me – I’m not going to sit there and not be prepared. It’s frustrating to hear that could be perceived as dishonest.
In October 2018, the police told me that there wasn’t enough evidence to take it to court. I was devastated, but also relieved I’d finally be able to talk about the assault. Since the case got dropped, I’ve been seeing a counsellor. Talking to her in detail about what has happened has been really helpful.
For me, pre-trial therapy feels like it’s just offered for show. If rape victims can’t use it in a way that’s meaningful, what’s the point?