The reality is that this is a common response to sexual attacks – even though the myth is that you would fight tooth and claw. Anna Moore investigates how damaging attitudes to rape are stopping women from reporting life-shattering assaults
The first time Abbi Lawther was sexually assaulted, she was sitting on the kerb outside a nightclub, surrounded by friends.
Though she had never met her attacker Simon Cash before that evening in December 2018, they had been invited to the same birthday celebration and he had shadowed her constantly. ‘Anywhere I was, he seemed to appear,’ says Abbi, a beauty therapist, now 22. ‘He was big, scruffy, quite quiet – but he just gave off a weird vibe. One person that night had told me she’d known him all her life and wouldn’t walk on the same side of the road as that guy. You don’t want to hurt anyone, but it had got to the point where I was actively trying to avoid him.’
As the group waited for a taxi to take them back to her friend’s house, Abbi felt someone sit beside her on the pavement and knew straight away that it was Cash. ‘He started rubbing my back, and I thought, “What the hell is he doing?” Then he put his hand on my leg and gradually moved under my dress, further and further up.
‘I did freeze,’ continues Abbi. ‘I was sitting there, thinking, “Why am I not doing anything?” It was the scariest thing, like an out-of-body experience that I can’t even explain. Even if I’d opened my mouth, no words would have come out.’ The assault was over quickly – the taxi arrived and Abbi bolted inside. ‘My legs were like jelly, I couldn’t speak. If you’d seen me, you’d have thought I was drunk but I was completely sober. I’d been at work all day and felt really tired so had hardly drunk anything.’ The taxi had three rows of seats for the four passengers and everyone spread themselves on different rows – except for Cash, who sat right beside Abbi in the darkness. ‘I crossed my legs and thought surely he’s not going to do anything here, but again, he forced my legs apart. Later, he took his hand around my hand and used it to do things to himself.’
It was a karaoke taxi – the others were singing, partying, distracted. The assault continued for the 20-minute ride. ‘I had no control over my body. I was completely paralysed. I don’t want to say “I let him do it” but that was why I hated myself afterwards,’ says Abbi. ‘You grow up thinking that if anything like this ever happens to you, you’d fight and scream and stop it. So why couldn’t I move?’ In fact, this ‘freeze’ reaction is the most common response to rape and sexual assault – although it doesn’t fit with the popular perception of how a ‘real victim’ would react.
An alarming new study – the largest ever in the UK – attempted to look behind the scenes of a typical jury deliberation after a rape trial and found that myths and misunderstandings are all-pervading. For this research, published in the Journal of Law and Society, hundreds of people were gathered to form mock juries. After watching a simulated rape trial, they were recorded as they discussed the case to reach a verdict.
The transcripts revealed fixed ideas of what a ‘genuine reaction’ would look like. First, a victim would fight. (In the words of one juror, ‘You would scratch, you would scream, you would try and do anything possible to get him off.’) Then the victim would call 999. (‘Why would you phone your sister and not the police?’ asked one juror.) Next, a victim would wash. (‘You would go straight to the shower.’) There were also narrow views about what constitutes a ‘real rapist’ – described by one juror as ‘a big bad guy out on the streets roaming about wanting to rape a woman’. Someone known to the victim – a partner, former partner or friend – does not fit that profile.
It’s hardly surprising then, that of 32 mock juries, only four reached a guilty verdict, four were hung (undecided) and 24 acquitted the defendant.
These attitudes begin to explain the recent Home Office figures which showed that fewer than one in 60 rape cases reported to police result in a charge. Katie Russell, spokesperson for the campaigning and support charity Rape Crisis, believes rape myths are ‘incredibly pervasive. You see them in the media, throughout society and the criminal justice system,’ she says.
According to Russell, one of the most common is around a victim’s ‘typical reaction’. ‘We’ve all heard of the “fight or flight” response to trauma but “freeze”, “flop” or “friend” are well documented and much more likely,’ she says.
‘When you’re in imminent danger, the body’s response can be to freeze, disassociate or go completely limp. Though none of this is conscious, it’s an attempt to prevent any escalation, to minimise further harm.’ (To understand how this evolved as a survival mechanism, look to the animal kingdom. Freezing often makes prey invisible to predators who are looking for movement, while ‘playing dead’ can prompt predators to release their prey.)
‘Another response is to attempt to appease the aggressor, to talk and connect in some way, or to bargain,’ says Russell. ‘Again, it’s a survival tactic when your life is in danger, but this is often used against the victim in court as evidence of consent.’
The idea that a victim would call 999 within minutes is also unrealistic, says Detective Superintendent Melissa Laremore from the Metropolitan Police rape and sexual offences unit. ‘Someone is more likely to tell a friend or a family member first,’ she says.
‘The victim is often in a state of disbelief, shock, denial – they literally cannot believe what has happened to them, they’re trying to process it.’
Reactions are highly complex – and to an outsider ‘nonsensical’. ‘When the suspect is known to them, they may text them afterwards, they could ask to meet them,’ says Laremore. Demi Lovato risked public condemnation when it was revealed that the singer had been raped twice and, both times, met the men again to have sex with them. (In the midst of trauma, this can be an attempt to ‘reframe’ an assault, to convince yourself that you’re in control, that you weren’t a ‘victim’.)
‘In almost any case, you would probably want to tell someone you trust and get to a place of safety before calling the police,’ says Laremore.
This was certainly true for Abbi. When the taxi arrived at her friend’s house, she shut herself in a bedroom and texted her friend. ‘I was so cold, shaking constantly – I almost couldn’t believe Simon was in the house.’ Her friend phoned Abbi’s elder sister who immediately called Abbi. ‘When I took the call, I burst into tears, the kind of crying you can’t stop,’ she says. ‘My sister said, “Either you phone the police or I’m doing it.”’
Ellie Clarkson was 17 when she was raped on a night out. She was celebrating the completion of her AS-levels with a group of friends, but when she arrived at the pub in Bexleyheath, there was one much older man – he was 59 – with them. Ellie asked who he was and was told he was a pub regular. At the end of the evening, this man invited everyone back to his house to party and Ellie soon felt extremely unwell. Her friends found her an empty room, put her on a sofa tucked under a blanket and left her. Shortly afterwards, the older man crept in, barricaded the door shut with a chair and proceeded to rape her. Like Abbi, Ellie didn’t ‘fight back’.
‘He was a big man, I was a small woman,’ says Ellie, now 23. ‘If someone had the audacity to do this to me when there were six people in the next room, what more might he do? I remember just wanting my friends to come – and finally they did.
‘Suddenly loads of people were in the room. I remember someone holding my face and saying my name, then walking me to the door.’ In this case, Ellie told her friend what had happened, who told her mum, who told Ellie’s dad. Within hours, the police had been informed – but to this day, Ellie isn’t sure who actually called them.
Perhaps the biggest ‘rape myth’ of all, says Katie Russell, involves the rapist himself. ‘Many of us still understand rape as something done by a stranger in an alley, but 90 per cent of rapes, sexual assaults and sexual abuse are committed by someone known to the victim – a boyfriend, a spouse, a friend, a colleague.’ This certainly doesn’t make it less traumatic. ‘Why would being abused at the hands of a stranger feel worse than being abused by someone you trust, someone you love?’ However, it can certainly make it harder for even the victim to identify what has happened.
Natasha Saunders, now 32, was raped repeatedly during her marriage to a violent, controlling man. She had met John Chesher when she was 17 – she was working at a stables and he came to buy a horse. Chesher was 31, charming, funny; he had a house, a job, a car and swept Natasha off her feet. ‘To an impressionable teenager, he seemed so grown-up,’ she says. Within three months, she had quit her job and moved 30 miles away to live with him. In a slow creep, Natasha became isolated and dependent on Chesher. He claimed he loved her so much, he couldn’t share her. He couldn’t understand why Natasha needed to see her friends – wasn’t he enough? He also claimed they’d made passes at him. When she tried to see her family, he caused a scene. He liked her to dress in a certain way. He had to know where she was at all times.
‘Over the years, he took everything,’ says Natasha. ‘He took my personality, my friends, my family, how I dress, how I talk… everything – then he took my body. So many times, I would wake up and he’d already be having sex with me. Or I’d tell him I was tired or ill, and he’d have sex with me anyway. There would be pestering, coercing – there were times I went along with it so it was over quicker.’
One incident that stands out is the night Natasha gave birth to their son. She had delivered him in hospital with only a midwife by her side, Chesher texting all the way through telling her that there was no way she was staying in hospital overnight as he needed her home immediately. He collected her just after midnight and when Natasha finally climbed into bed, told her, ‘You’re having sex tonight.’
‘I said, “Get off me, I hurt, leave me alone, no” but he proceeded to rape me and ripped my stitches. I remember going to the bathroom crying, thinking, “Oh my god, what has he done?”’
Still, though, Natasha didn’t recognise this as rape. ‘You’re not told that the rapist can be the person sitting across from you at breakfast,’ she says. ‘You look at him next morning and he says, “What? What have you got that face on for?” You doubt everything. You don’t want to admit that someone you loved and trusted could betray you like that so you blame yourself. If I was a better wife, if I loved him more, if I wasn’t so frigid – that was his favourite word – then maybe he wouldn’t do this. In the end it happens so many times, it just becomes your life. It’s so hard to understand if you haven’t been through it.’
All three women won some kind of justice. Chesher is now serving 12 years for rape and sexual assault. Simon Cash – who was a student nurse – was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment for sexual assault. Ellie Clarkson’s rapist received a ten-year sentence.
However, all three women are painfully aware that the outcome could have been very different. In court, Chesher claimed he was a good husband, a good provider and these accusations had been planted in Natasha’s head by others. Ellie’s rapist also pleaded not guilty and claimed that she ‘fancied’ him, that what happened was consensual.
Simon Cash had pleaded not guilty in his pre-trial hearings – though he changed his plea to guilty just before the trial. ‘The lead-up to the trial took me to rock bottom, the lowest point in my life,’ says Abbi Lawther. ‘I only kept going because he was a nursing student – he wanted to be a midwife and I just felt that someone like him should not be in a job like that. Someone had to stop him, but for months, the fear of going to court and being asked, “Why didn’t you say anything? Why didn’t you just stop it?” terrified me. I was blaming myself. I felt dirty 24/7 – like I was the guilty one. Since then, I’ve learnt that my reaction during the assault was very common. I really believe everyone should know that. When it comes to rape and sexual assault, there really is no “normal”.’
It’s something that the Government is beginning to take on board. In June this year, ministers including Home Secretary Priti Patel and Justice Secretary Robert Buckland admitted they feel ‘deeply ashamed’ following the review that found just 1,439 rapists out of an estimated 128,000 rapes and attempted rapes committed in the past year were convicted, and that 57 per cent of rape victims withdraw from their cases because they feel judged or disbelieved, fear for their mental health and cannot face the trauma of a trial. In a plan that aims to return the numbers of rape suspects charged back to 2016 levels (the point at which they started to fall), detectives will be told to focus rape investigations on offenders’ behaviour rather than on the victims’ ‘credibility’.
The Law Commission has also been asked to review tougher restrictions on courts’ cross-examination of victims’ previous sexual relationships and measures to combat rape myths among juries, lawyers and judges. ‘If you’re a victim of a burglary, you don’t expect a huge focus upon every aspect of your private life, just because you’ve been the victim of that type of crime,’ said Buckland.
Rape myths versus reality
‘Victims always fight back’
This isn’t true – one study of US police reports found only 22 per cent resisted rape by fighting and screaming, while 56 per cent tried begging, pleading and reasoning with their attacker. A European study of women who’d visited an emergency rape clinic found that 70 per cent reported tonic immobility (body paralysis) during the assault.
‘Victims call the police immediately’
According to Home Office data, less than half – 46 per cent – of recorded rapes were reported on the day they took place, while 14 per cent took more than six months to report. Most victims never report at all – it’s estimated that only one in five men and one in six women who have been raped or sexually assaulted come forward.
‘Rapists are strangers in dark alleys’
Most rapes are carried out by someone known to the victim. The 2020 Crime Survey for England and Wales found that 44 per cent of people who had experienced sexual assault by rape or penetration had done so at the hands of a partner or ex-partner. Another 37 per cent had been at the hands of someone known to them, such as a friend or date. Only 15 per cent reported being assaulted by a stranger. More than one third of attacks (37 per cent) happened in the victim’s own home.