‘I would like to report a sexual assault’: how my university failed me when I needed it most

(c) Rebekah Paredes-Larson

When I began organising a campaign to raise awareness about sexual assault, I wanted to detach my work from my own experience. It felt easier to research sexual violence and plan events as a concerned student rather than trying to process my familiarity with the issue. I wanted to be an efficient campaigner but I no longer feel that I can advocate for this cause in the abstract. It’s not my intention to attack the LSE and cast judgements about the EDI team. University welfare departments are struggling across the country to cope with the huge increase in reporting of sexual violence. I hope that this account will contribute to that dialogue, highlighting how things can improve and the urgency of change.

In my first year of university, I was sexually assaulted by a hooded stranger on the way to a party. It happened suddenly, and violently, and the perpetrator ran away as soon as it was over.

If this account seems lacking in detail or feeling, it conveys my approach to what happened at the time. I didn’t get particularly emotional for a long time, I just wanted to concentrate on reporting the attack and then continuing with my life.

The morning after the attack, I went to LSE counselling’s drop-in service and was asked to fill in a form explaining why I was there. Writing ‘I would like to report a sexual assault’ felt very strange, especially in a box. The box was below a checklist of statements about whether I felt anxious or depressed – I still hadn’t processed what had happened and how I felt about it. After a short wait, I was called in to see a friendly, female counsellor. I briefly described the events of the night before and concluded: “so I just want to report this, as soon as possible.”

A pause.

The counsellor looked at me with shock. I was surprised to see that she seemed more upset than I was.

“I’ve… I’ve never heard of something like that happening, how awful.”

“Right…” I didn’t know how to respond to that. Was I about to explain rape culture to a mental health professional?

After restating that I just wanted to know how to report this to the police, she told me to call 101 (the police non-emergency line in the UK) and said someone from the counselling team could be present when I made the call. When I inquired about what would happen after I made the report she wasn’t able to give me any more information. I lodged the call that afternoon and made an appointment at the local police station the next day.

The experience of filing a police report could not have been more different. A woman from behind a glass window asked me a set of detailed questions about time, place, circumstance and didn’t linger on the details of the assault. Her directness soothed me, as I could talk to someone detached, who didn’t interject during my account with noises of sympathy or distress.

Everything proceeded smoothly until she asked: “And what were you wearing?” I sat in shocked silence. At last, I stammered, “How exactly is that relevant?” She explained that to look through CCTV footage they needed to be able to identify me as well as the perpetrator. With relief, I described my clothes, inwardly wincing at how little I had been wearing (the same feeling as when I described how drunk I was).

I expected this to be an empowering process to take control of my situation, but I hadn’t anticipated feeling ashamed and embarrassed. The policewoman was in no way reproachful, but she wasn’t offering me any sympathy either. I was coming to realise that a pragmatic approach to the situation wasn’t going to make me less confused. I thought of going back to the counsellor I had seen, but couldn’t face the idea of upsetting her again.

The next few weeks aren’t hard to imagine and unpleasant to dwell on. London had never been entirely safe for me but it had never felt this dangerous before. The routines and habits I’d cultivated within a month had to be re-learnt and it took a long time before I could walk alone at night. I often puzzled over the attack, trying to remember more facts or details for when the police station would call me back. I also spent time trying to reconcile the statistics I read about how you’re much more likely to be assaulted by someone that you knew, that the stranger who pounces on you in the dark alley is much rarer, a plot point in a bad film.

I do not lay any blame on the counsellor who saw me for the difficulties I experienced following the assault. But there were things I needed: I needed information about how to report a crime, which I did not receive in full; I needed a description of what that process would entail; I needed someone to forewarn me about what kind of information I would have to provide and how that might make me feel.

Most of all, I needed some kind of preparation. I wish I had been warned that after everything I had done to make a report, I would most likely receive this email:

Dear Miss Holmes

I am emailing to update you on the investigation. A full investigation was carried out with no suspects identified. The report will now be closed pending any new information coming to light.

If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me and I will be happy to explain.

I am sorry that you are a victim of crime.

Kind regards.

‘Hands Off LSE’ is a campaign to raise awareness about sexual violence within universities and lobby for increased support services for survivors at LSE. For more information about their upcoming events, see their Facebook page: Hands Off LSE.

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