“Helping you gain control over the things you want to change”

Fiona Nicolson

Survivors of Sexual Attack – coping with the legal system is a challenge

Posted on 14 Oct 2021

A lot of therapy is about working with memory, how we store memories, how we process our memories, and how we fit our memories of traumatic events into the pattern of our lives. When we are dealing with traumatic memories, we need to be able to process them so they become part of our life narrative. We know the event or events happened, but we don’t respond to the memories of them emotionally or physically. The memories do not dominate our thoughts for the rest of our lives and they do not shape how we feel about ourselves. This is nowhere truer than in cases of sexual assault, sexual attack, and rape. Here the circumstances, where you have been a victim of a sexual crime, can make coping with the memories especially difficult.

If you have been sexually attacked and the legal system has become involved, whether through an investigation or trial, this can be a whole other set of hurdles to overcome. You are not really in control of what is going on, you cannot control the speed, the pace or the form that any investigation or trial takes. Sexual assault is characterised by a feeling of powerlessness and the legal system can make this worse rather than better. This would be true of any legal system but is especially true of the current legal system in the United Kingdom.

The system is very slow, it is very cold, and it can be alienating for victims. The legal system is a machine which has very little space for a victim’s feelings. In fact, it does the opposite, treating the victim as a witness rather than as a human being whose needs should be at the centre of the case.

Then there is the sad and current truth that very, very few cases of reported rape ever get to court, something under 2 per cent on some estimates. This means that for many they never have an acknowledgement of the wrong done to them.

Even if the experience of a victim is taken seriously, the time it takes for the case to move on causes its own damage. The truth is that in this most sensitive area, the time it takes the legal process to deal with a horrendous crime can hurt rather than heal. The legal process, which is supposed to deliver justice and enable the resolution necessary to allow the healing process to complete or in some cases begin, can actually work the other way. These long delays, the perceived lack of justice, the complexities of the legal world can all work against this healing process. The victim can feel stuck in the traumatic event and see no way of moving forward.

It can usually take years before a case comes to court and the vast majority of cases are dropped well before this point. This is pretty well recognised fact and is reflected in the decision of many victims not to proceed along a legal path. Many victims, knowing how onerous, invasive and re-traumatising the process can be, don’t report the crime in the first place.

Whichever decision or route is taken, it is a difficult path to navigate.

I work with people at all stages of this legal minefield. I work with people whose case has proceeded and they will be appearing in court to give evidence. I work with people whose cases have been dropped and are trying to come to terms with what feels like unfinished business. And I work with people who have decided they cannot face bringing the crime to the police and just want to try and forget what happened and get on with their lives. Each decision is an individual one and brings its own challenges.

If you have experienced rape or a sexual attack, there is help. I am going to run through some of the things you are likely to experience and how someone like me can help. You do not need to live with the trauma of what has happened to you or be on your own with the experience.

If you find your case does not go forward, or if you decide you cannot face the process it is important that you get help. You will need to find a path where you can begin to put the trauma behind you and rebuild life. This is often not easy, and professional help is needed. If your case did not go forward you may have to deal with the unresolved anger and feeling of broken trust with the society in which you live.

If you decide you cannot face the added trauma of going to court you may find you have to deal with feelings of guilt and a sense that the situation is not over, that there is not a resolution. It is necessary that you get support so you know, at a deep psychological level that what was done to you was in no way your fault.

There can often be a whole number of underlying myths and assumptions which can put blame on the victim. These myths are so prevalent in our society that you may have absorbed some of them into your own belief system without even realising it. Good therapy can bring these assumptions to the fore so we can deal with them and get rid of them!

Sexual attack often results in mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), low self esteem. It is important that victims get help to deal with these and change them as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, not all forms of therapy are allowed pre-trial. Some eye movement therapies are allowed though, and these are very effective for dealing with trauma.

One thing which will be central to any therapy is how you function as an individual. Your own belief system, built up over your life from your earliest childhood will impact on how you cope with the crisis. If for example, you were told as a child that things were ‘your fault’ then you may carry unbearable levels of guilt and shame. If you were told that you must always be quiet and polite and then things would be okay, you may find that you feel utterly powerless and completely vulnerable.

I use modern techniques, such as eye movement integration (find out more here) but I do so after making sure that I understand your mental map, how you process the world, and process the things which happen to you. It is absolutely and unequivocally possible to recover from sexual attack.

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