It’s never easy coping with the aftermath of rape, but Covid-19 has made life even more difficult for the one in five adult women and one in 10 adult men who have experienced sexual violence.
While – quite rightly – much has been written about the potential exacerbation of domestic violence during lockdowns, not much has been reported on the likelihood that sexual violence will also increase. Perhaps that’s to do with the rape myths that imply it’s a crime perpetuated in alleyways or on the way home from clubs and bars. But to suggest that curtailing nightlife might lead to a drop in sexual violence is to misunderstand its nature – around 90 per cent is carried out by someone known to the survivor, and often occurs at home.
The pandemic has just made the situation more complex for survivors. All support now has to be offered remotely, which means that many have paused their treatment. It may be that they can’t access a space at home where they’re not overheard, or are now looking after their children all hours of the day. While others feel understandably reluctant to bring the trauma of what’s happened to them into their safe domestic space.
“I initially found lockdown quite difficult - it reminded me of spending a lot of time in my flat when I was first recovering from trauma,” says survivor Claire. “Covid affected access to specialist services for me, which meant a delay which I found quite stressful. If I was seeking help for the first time I think it would most likely have delayed me making contact, and I think I would have found it harder to disclose what had happened over the phone or online. Which isn't to take away from these methods of support, which can be very helpful – I think it just depends on specific circumstances and timing.”
Sexual violence charities have done an amazing job of providing uninterrupted support to those able to continue, as well as taking on thousands of new referrals throughout the pandemic (Rape Crisis England & Wales reports a ‘significant increase’ in web traffic in recent months). However, the impact of paused sessions mean many centres anticipate a deluge of referrals once life returns to normal. Certainly Peterborough Rape Crisis Care Group , where I’m Vice Chair, received a sizeable bump in referrals after the first lockdown ended, with a 53 per cent increase overall from April – September compared to 2019.
While it may be too early to say whether sexual violence is increasing in lockdown (although many experts speculate that it is) some survivors who have received support in the past have found themselves re-triggered by the stresses of lockdown. Plus, many who have experienced non-recent sexual violence are reaching out for help for the first time (for the record, most referrals to rape crisis centres are connected to non-recent abuse even in pre-Covid times). And it’s highly likely that their needs will be more complex as a result of Covid chaos.
“Rape Crisis Centres were reporting [during the first lockdown] that they might be seeing fewer clients but providing more sessions for those clients, because the support needed was more intense,” says Katie Russell, national spokesperson for Rape Crisis England & Wales. “Firstly because many statutory services have been shut down and aren’t available. Secondly because of the wider context, and even the language used, around the pandemic can exacerbate pre-existing issues and create new ones.”
Then there are those affected by lockdown court closures. Getting a sexual violence case to court is a notoriously slow and painful process, and court closures have created an average wait of two to three years (which looks likely to increase further). “I just want to get it over with, it’s mentally draining,” says Helen*, who reported to the police back in 2019 and had a court case scheduled for earlier this month, but at the moment it’s been postponed indefinitely. “[The trial being postponed] impacts my everyday life. I will never forget what happened to me, but I want to be able to move forward.”
And sadly, she’s far from alone. “We’re looking at huge delays,” confirms Katie. “And there have been examples of really unhelpful practice. Obviously people understand that the situation is impacted by the pandemic, but there have been things like survivors being told very last minute that their trial’s been postponed or having the date changed several times. There’s also a potential impact on criminal justice outcomes themselves, which are already woefully low.” As time elapses between offence and trial, there’s a detrimental impact on witness and survivor memories and testimonies, which could affect the result. And that’s without mentioning the increased likelihood that survivors end up dropping cases altogether.
With schools remaining shut until February half term – or beyond – professionals are also concerned for children and young people experiencing abuse. “Schools can often be a place where young people are able to disclose any sexual violence they’re experiencing, as well as receiving in-person support in a safe space,” says Jacqui Campey, CEO of Peterborough Rape Crisis Care Group. “So there’s obviously a concern that this can’t be provided during lockdowns.”
Ultimately, the breadth of Covid-19’s impact on survivors is immeasurable. And the main worry for Rape Crisis Centres is their ability to pick up the pieces over the years to come. “Our concern is that a lot of longer term strands of funding may have been diverted to the emergency response,” says Katie. “While our concern is not about funding in the immediate term, to the end of March or even the next year, it's what happens after that. When we know that funds are going to be scarce and there’s going to be more competition. So there is a residual concern about longer-term sustainability.”