Why are rape victims being denied therapy in the UK?

Rape victims often have to give up critical therapy because prosecutors fear they may be ‘coached’ by their therapists.

We need better support for rape victims - Morgan Barbour
Demonstrators march down Whitehall to Parliament during the London #March4Women 2020, part of International Women's Day on March 8, 2020 [File: Ollie Millington/Getty Images]

I first visited the United Kingdom in 2013. I was 20 years old with a sparsely stamped passport, intending to spend the summer in London studying acting.

I arrived five months after Frances Andrade, a 48-year-old professional violinist, committed suicide after being accused of lying on the stand during what would become an infamous rape case against conductor Michael C Brewer.

Andrade’s death led to a national conversation about how rape victims are treated by the criminal justice system and launched a brief dialogue about why police had advised against Andrade seeking therapy until after her trial was complete. 

Brewer was eventually handed a six-year sentence and stripped of his OBE. Andrade was laid to rest.

The media reported on Andrade’s death as if she had been one of the unlucky ones lost through the cracks of the justice system. In May 2019, Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, acting Shadow Attorney General for England and Wales, wrote an article for Vice addressing the legal hurdles a victim must navigate in order to receive aid in the UK. Once again, national dialogue was started. Once again, the outrage was fierce but fleeting. Public outcry alone is not efficacious.

Access to therapy by qualified professionals is stretched thin in the UK. It is estimated that the average wait time to access a therapist through a rape crisis centre in the UK is nine months, with a 20 percent increase in demand since 2018, despite funding remaining the same since 2013. Once therapy is secured, the services that can be offered to victims of rape who are going through court cases are limited.

In 2001, the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) updated its guidelines under the Provision of Therapy for Vulnerable or Intimidated Adult Witnesses Prior to a Criminal Trial. These are as follows: “Any detailed recounting or re-enactment of the offending behaviour may be perceived as coaching and the criminal case is almost certain to fail as a consequence of this type of therapeutic work.”

These guidelines, according to rape crisis centres throughout the UK, must be adhered to. It is increasingly common for rape victims to be told that having therapy will adversely affect the chances of their rapists being successfully prosecuted.

Even when the police do not advise victims of rape against therapy, reporting a rape to police is an effective gag order on the victim.

Enter “Pre-Trial Therapy” (PTT), a limited therapy that forbids the victim to speak of anything she may have mentioned in her victim statement.

A victim of assault can talk about how they feel but cannot talk about the root cause of why, for fear that any mention of the actual assault may hamper the success of the case.

In rare instances the prosecution can even subpoena the notes from the victim’s counselling, even if they adhere to these guidelines.

This has become a law that pigeonholes a victim and their therapist, encouraging a formal dance around ‘The Crime That Must Not Be Named’ in counselling sessions that should be free of restriction or judgement.

In January 2019, a petition advocating for a change in therapy laws in the UK was closed after failing to reach 10,000 signatures, the required minimum to receive a government response.

In September 2019, a second petition was closed after receiving 13,380 signatures calling for a review of the CPS Guidelines, spearheaded by a rape victim whose case had been dropped by the CPS.

The Attorney General’s Office (AGO) responded to the petition stating: “With the assistance of the police, government departments and voluntary sector providers, the CPS is currently updating its guidance on this subject. A consultation has taken place and the guidance is due to be published later this year after the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) reports.”

As it stands, limited PTT is still all that can be offered to victims of rape. While the AGO insists that counselling notes will only be requested if it is believed there is information pertinent to the case, victims – fearing privacy violations – are still being faced with the dilemma of dropping their investigations rather than consenting to their counselling notes or personal digital data being turned over to the police.

Meanwhile, the UK is in the throes of a rape epidemic. In 2019 it was reported that half of all reported cases are dropped, even after the suspect has been positively identified. Between 2014 and 2018 the UK saw a 173 percent increase in reported rapes, but there was a 19 percent decline in police referring cases on and a 44 precent drop in cases being prosecuted by CPS.

Three years after Andrade’s death, I was raped. Like many victims of rape, I document time less by the passing of the seasons and more by the relentless coverage of rape in our media.

In February 2016, Michael Brewer was released from jail after serving half his sentence. On June 3, 2016, Emily Doe’s Victim Impact Statement (known to the world now as Chanel Miller) went viral after being published on Buzzfeed.

The next day, I was raped in my own home by an Englishman visiting Dublin for a stag-do. At the time I was wrapping up a year of life in the city, having moved from the United States to Ireland in Spring 2015 to produce and tour my play “By the Bi” with my colleague Caroline Downs. I had just been accepted into graduate school in London at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Over the course of 24 hours I went from feeling on top of the world to being set adrift in an endless sea.

At the time of my rape, abortion was illegal in Ireland. Some of my most vivid memories of that time are of being on the top floor of FlyeFit, a 24-hour Dublin gym, staring out the window at the view of Dublin Castle in the early hours of the morning with the heaviest kettlebell I could muster pressed against my abdomen. Like a trapped animal, I was desperate and manic until my next menstrual cycle came to ensure that my rapist had not left any part of him lingering inside me. I was fortunate and did not have to travel across the Irish Sea to maintain my bodily autonomy, although 3,265 women and girls did make that trek in 2016, joining ranks with 168,705 women and girls who had made the journey since 1980.

I moved to the UK in September 2016 and did not go back to Ireland for almost a year after moving because I did not think I could bear it. It would be two years before I would report my rape. It would be a year-and-a-half before I decided to stick with therapy.

In 2018, I entered therapy for the fourth time since my assault. I was living in Los Angeles while finishing my graduate dissertation remotely. I had spent the previous eight months running away from the UK and Ireland. I wanted to put as much geographical distance between myself and my rapist as possible. I was still refusing to speak to the police.

I was also on a severe mental decline; shedding weight, sleep and tears in a stubborn attempt to hold myself together on my own. I was fortunate to find a godsend of a therapist when I needed one most. I was notorious for dropping therapists for superfluous reasons up until that point; I did not like their voice, their tone, their gaze, relentless deflections from the poison mounting inside me.

In April 2018, I wrote an article that went viral documenting my reasoning for not reporting my rape. The response was overwhelming; two years later, I am still receiving emails from victims thanking me for speaking up. I was afraid of telling my story on the Internet, so notorious for its penchant for cruelty under the mask of anonymity. I was shocked to see an army rallying behind me, encouraging me to report.

So, in May 2018, with my therapist by my side, I finally reported my assault to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). I was told my case would be transferred to the Garda (Irish police force), but that since my assailant was British, it may be covered by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

Any apprehension I had once harboured towards the police and the justice system as a whole was briefly replaced by the monumental relief that had come from finally being able to speak candidly about the night of my assault. No one told me I had unwittingly put a stopper on access to the one resource that was keeping me afloat.

I returned to the UK a month after reporting to finish graduate school. I applied to continue counselling at a London-based rape crisis centre. I was told there was a 10-month waiting list. I never heard back from the centre. The second time I applied, a year later in June 2019, I was told there was an eight-month waiting list, and that group therapy had openings but that I was disqualified because I had reported my assault and had an open investigation pending.

By now, the healing bandages that my therapist and I had so carefully crafted were starting to lift. I applied for therapy a third time in September 2019. It was then that I was told that even if I was matched with a counsellor, I was only eligible for PTT since my case was still open. I could speak with a therapist but could not speak about my rape itself.

“I’m aware that the news about the restrictions on therapy may be new to you and is frustrating,” the email I received in early October 2019 read.

Rape is not a palatable subject. While I believe that it is a necessary dialogue – I would not be opening myself up like this if it were not – the precise details of my own rape were not something I wished to unload on my loved ones.

I did not want to burden my mother or my sisters. My best friend had shared a room with me – the room in which the assault took place – and had cleaned up the heaps of broken glass and bloodied condoms she found after I had left. My then-boyfriend had accompanied me to the hospital.

Our traumas were shared and, while they continue to be some of my strongest pillars, it is unfair and unconscionable to ask those people to bear the burden of my memories.

Those, rightfully, should be hashed out with a licensed professional. My healing had begun when I was shown a safe place and open arms to speak candidly about what I had experienced. It is not just frustrating to be silenced; it is maddening, and in cases like Andrade’s, it can be deadly.

Shortly after the UK locked down due to COVID-19, the lead detective on my case in Ireland called me, two months after I had written to him expressing growing concerns about my mental health. He told me that the police in the UK were not being cooperative and that he had filed motions to help push things along but he could not make any promises.

“These things are slow-moving,” he told me, a month shy of the two-year anniversary of reporting the rape. He asked me to consider if it was worth continuing with the investigation if it meant not being able to attend therapy.

There is no winning when you pursue justice, it seems; you are either barred from resources that can keep you alive or you recuse yourself and allow a man to be positively rewarded for his crimes just so you can be extended a lifeline.

Playing into an archaic system built on a foundation of rape apologist myths will not undo my rape.

As I write this, my case is still open. I am still barred from receiving full therapy.

I am living in a purgatory crafted from uncertainty. A part of me died four years ago in a tiny flatshare in Dublin when a man felt so entitled to a woman’s body that he decided his sexual gratification meant more than my autonomy, my consent, my future.

The necrosis that took root in my soul did not begin to be dealt with until I asked for (and was given) help.

As I wait for my case to reach one of two endings – being dropped for lack of evidence beyond all reasonable doubt or being progressed to trial – I wonder if I would still be here today if I had not been allowed access to full therapy.

As the CPS vows to review the guidelines set down for rape victims, I must ask the UK, the CPS and the world: How do you mourn the death of yourself when the law insists those best qualified to aid in your recovery turn a blind eye to the relentless battering that preceded it?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.