It can be very difficult to decide whether or not to report rape or sexual abuse and there may be many reasons why a survivor feels they do or do not want to do so. It is a very personal decision and there is no right or wrong thing to do.
If you have been raped, assaulted or abused you can report it any time to the police, though if you do it very soon after it happened there will be more forensic evidence. If you would like to talk through your choices with someone, we are happy to do that with you.
Our Independent Sexual Violence Advocate (ISVA) can provide impartial advice and support around reporting to the police. If you decide to report, she can provide ongoing support throughout the process. Go to our ISVA page for more information about contacting her or referring yourself/someone else.
What will happen if I go to the police?
Making the initial report
You can report by calling 101 (or 999 if it's an emergency) or going into a police station in person. An ISVA may also be able to facilitate the reporting process with you, if this would feel more comfortable. A police officer (who could be male or female) will take a first account of what happened. Based on this they will decide what will happen next, and they should explain the process you will go through. The next stage will vary slightly, depending how long ago the assault or abuse happened.
Reporting a very recent assault
If you decide to report within about a week of an assault, there may be forensic evidence that can be collected via a forensic medical exam. The police will usually take you to a Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) for this. In the Thames Valley area, these are in Slough and Bletchley (near Milton Keynes). The doctor carrying out any forensic medical exam will ask your consent before doing anything, and you will be free to stop or pause the exam at any time.
If you report a rape very soon after it happened, in order to preserve forensic evidence, the police advise against doing these things:
Using the toilet or discarding underwear or sanitary products
Washing, showering or bathing
Washing your hands
Removing, washing, discarding or destroying clothing worn at the time of the rape or afterwards
Drinking or eating anything, including non-essential medication
Cleaning your teeth
Disturbing the place where it happened, or allowing other people or animals to enter areas where the rape/abuse took place
If you do any or all of these things it doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t report a rape, but if you decide to report it, it can help to bear this list in mind.
Another thing the police might ask for at the beginning is whether you'd be willing to use an Early Evidence Kit to get some bits of forensic evidence before travelling to a SARC for a full exam. This usually involves a mouth swab/rinse and a urine sample that you take yourself. This means you may then be able to do things like eat, drink and smoke without worrying about losing evidence.
Reporting less recent sexual violence
You can report incidents of sexual violence at any time, even if it happened many years ago. The police should still take this seriously and undertake a full investigation based on what you tell them. If you report something that happened more than about a week ago, you will still give an initial account to the police but will usually not undergo a forensic medical examination or visit a SARC. You may still choose to visit a GP or GUM clinic if you're worried about illness or injury after the assault.
After the initial account and forensic exams
You are likely to be assigned a Specially Trained Officer (STO) who will be your main point of contact throughout the reporting process. STOs are trained in supporting people who have experienced sexual abuse or rape, and will also be able to provide you with information about other places of support.
The police (usually a STO) will ask you to provide a full account of what happened, either by taking a written statement or doing a visually recorded interview. They can advise on the pros and cons of these options, but you can decide which you'd prefer.
Once you've given a full statement, the police can begin investigating fully.
What if I'm not sure if I want to report?
You can also refer yourself to a Sexual Assault Referral Centre and have a medical examination without reporting to the police first. This means the results will be kept confidential and stored at the SARC in case you decide to report the rape or assault in future.
There is more information about this on the ‘Sexual Assault Referral Centre’ page.
It is possible to have somebody with you at each stage (although they may sometimes be required to wait outside a room) – a friend, family member, or special advocate can all be with you to support and listen to you.
What will happen next?
Once you have reported a rape or sexual assault, and the police have gathered evidence, which is likely to include interviewing or arresting the person suspected of carrying out the attack, they will pass the information to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). They will decide whether or not the suspect can be charged with an offense. Once the suspect is charged, the investigation comes to an end and court proceedings will begin.
It is not possible to say exactly what will happen in each case, but if they get to court, most rape and sexual assault cases are heard in a Crown Court in front of a jury.
The police can apply to the Crown Prosecution Service for special measures to be considered to enable the victim to give their best evidence. Each case will depend on the circumstances and individual need, but special measures could include:
Screens – shielding the victim from the view of the accused.
Live link – enables a live televised link from one room into the court room or from a separate building.
Evidence in private – removing all unnecessary personnel, public and press but allowing one nominated press representative to remain.
Visually-recorded evidence – this is the visually-recorded statement that the victim gives to the police which can then be played to the court as the victim's ‘evidence-in-chief’.
Removal of wigs and gowns – generally used for younger people.
Intermediaries – assisting victims with communication difficulties.
Why was my case not taken forward / why were they found not guilty?
Unfortunately, some rape/sexual assault cases do not reach the stage of going to court, even if this is what the survivor wants. Reports can be ‘no-crimed’ by the police. This is when a crime is reported but when the police believe there is ‘additional verifiable evidence’ that no crime has been committed. However, the police have been challenged for their reasons for ‘no-criming’, and as to whether they always follow this guideline. Reports which are ‘no-crimed’ will not be investigated further or passed to the CPS. It is also possible that the CPS will decide not to charge the alleged perpetrator if they believe the evidence does not meet the standard of proof required to secure a conviction in a court case.
Similarly, if the case does reach court, it is possible a not guilty verdict will be returned if the jury believes that the allegation has not been proved beyond all reasonable doubt.
Regardless of whether the police and the CPS decide to pursue your case, and regardless of the verdict, we will always believe what you tell us about what has happened to you. The standard of proof required for a guilty verdict in a court case is high, and the pervasiveness of rape myths [link] can contribute to making this difficult to achieve. Your case being dropped or a not guilty verdict does not make you a liar – the false allegation for rape is around just 4%, the same as any other crime.
Rights of Women [link] have produced handbooks explaining the police procedure and the criminal justice system in detail:
For adult survivors: www.rightsofwomen.org.uk/pdfs/Legal/report_to_court_for_web_may11.pdf
For survivors aged 13-17: www.rightsofwomen.org.uk/pdfs/Legal/YRFC_booklet_v8.pdf
Their website also contains lots of information on other topics, such as domestic violence and trafficking.