Straight off the bat, I'm going to put a trigger warning for discussions of sexual assault and domestic abuse, including mention of reporting to police, victim blaming, and abuse against children.

Inevitably, whenever there are public discussions involving allegations of a sexual nature, there is a lot of discourse, the internet does what it was designed to and creates the perfect juxtaposition of fertile ground for discussion, and flammable material ready to ignite in the flames of controversy and polarising opinion.

I want to talk more generally about the way we handle, discuss and treat people who come forward with allegations, and the reasons they might choose not to do so.

"Why didn't they come forward sooner?" is a question on the minds, lips and screens of many whenever any allegation of abuse is mentioned.

Our society is hyper-critical of survivors: their choices to report and in what way, their decision to stay silent, or even to speak to the press.

According to Rape Crisis Scotland, in 2020/21, 2298 rapes were reported in Scotland. Of those cases, 78 resulted in a conviction. Not 78 percent, but 78 in total, which is 3.4%.

Expecting or demanding that survivors run the gauntlet of the court system, to risk re-traumatisation, for such a slim chance at justice is not only unrealistic, but cruel.

Most survivors know that they will never see justice for crimes committed against them. They know this because they look at the stories of their peers, friends, family and they see those stories extrapolated in the statistics.

As allegations and accusations make their way from the news to social media, there have been calls from some for "false accusations" (which they would consider cases resulting in a not guilty or not proven verdict to be), to come with a penalty as severe as a rape charge.

If this kind of punitive system were put in place, in which survivors who were unable to have their cases proven by police and the prosecution were subject to criminal charges purely on that basis, I have no doubt the number of rape reports would decrease dramatically. Not because survivors are lying, but because as the statistics sadly show, there is very little chance a conviction for rape can be assured, making the majority of survivors liable.

When it comes to reporting a crime, often the first step involves telling people in your life, but how do you tell someone about abuse, sexual assault, these kinds of acts that are not only criminal, but inhuman? How do you speak about the unspeakable?

Considering that Rape Crisis estimates that in 2021/2022 out of 15,049 sexual crimes, at least 37% of them were perpetrated against someone under the age of 18, survivors may not feel comfortable sharing their experiences with family for fear of repercussions.

One of the most common responses I see in public discussions of sexual assault or abuse allegations, particularly from parents, is to say something along the lines of "if someone did that to my child I'd kill them, I'd hurt them, I'd make them suffer ''.

I don't think many stop to consider that although this is a natural, completely understandable response, that it can have the opposite effect and put additional barriers in place that might preclude friends and family from being safe people to tell about these kinds of experiences.

Saying you're going to kill/maim/hurt someone's abuser might give you a sense of control and agency in the situation, but consider the impact hearing this will have on someone. The best support is sometimes quiet and gentle: not a closed fist, but an open shoulder.

It's also important to consider that a survivor may not want the responsibility of violence in their name, compounding feelings of misplaced guilt and shame which are typical after surviving a crime, they may still be in contact with the person, or people known to them, and worry they will react badly to finding out the survivor has told someone else.

Rape Crisis reports that in the case of of female survivors that six in every seven rapes are carried out by people known to the survivor, and half of all rapes are perpetrated by a partner or spouse.

Even in cases where the attacker is not known to those being told, fear of negative reactions or repercussions, such as being forced to report it to police, can make the process of communication even more difficult.

Many of these crimes represent a loss of control for the survivor, and if they believe that telling you will result in the situation escalating, or being taken further out of their hands, they may choose to shoulder the burden alone.

If they think you will be angry with them, or blame them, they may not feel comfortable sharing, and if they believe you will harm the perpetrator, it may seem counterintuitive but they often will choose not to divulge their experience at all.

Don't react with anger, wherever you should wish to direct it. Try your absolute hardest to temper your own emotions and responses carefully, it may be extremely difficult but prioritising the feelings of the survivor will help them to trust you and to be open about what has happened to them.

Offer support, emotional, physical and practical, and don't be offended if this is not immediately accepted. It can be extremely hard to trust people in the aftermath of a violent experience, particularly in a physical sense, so ask before initiating physical contact and try not to show upset if hugs or other gestures are not welcomed.

Having the ability to choose how and when to be touched can help to create a more calm and safe situation within which a survivor might feel a bit more comfortable.

Seemingly random things, words, actions, or sensory experiences may cause intense reactions from a survivor of abuse or assault. These are called triggers, or stressors, and do not always make immediate sense, even to the person adversely affected by them.

For example, if someone has had a violent experience in which the perpetrator wore a red scarf, the sight of a random person in similar clothing may evoke strong emotions or even flashbacks.

Understanding triggers can help both avoid them if possible, and put coping mechanisms in place when feeling their effects. Do not get angry or blame a survivor for coping mechanisms which are potentially dangerous or unsafe, such as excessive consumption of alcohol or drugs, disordered eating, or self harm. These are extremely common symptoms of a reaction to trauma, and it is necessary to show compassion, not condemnation.

I want to end with a message directly to survivors of abuse, sexual assault, and violence. What happened to you was not your fault, and the blame lies solely with the person who hurt you. You are under no obligation to tell anyone what happened or to report it, but there is help and support available should you wish to do so. Take care of yourself, prioritise your mental health, and do what is right for you and your healing.

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