Article written by Zoe Lodrick MSc BA Hons (1st) Dip (Psych) Dip (couns) UKCP

Zoe provides regular training to the Counsellors at JAAR and last visited the Island in March 2020

Most people if contemplating what they would do if someone tried to rape them, would contend that they would scream, struggle, fight or run; with a significant number proclaiming that they would have to be dead before they would permit such a violation!

The discrepancy between what people believe they would do under such threat situation and the corresponding reality, creates many challenges for the investigation and prosecution of rape.  Victim-guilt is one such challenge.

The post-trauma guilt that victims of serious sexual offences experience is likely to concern a conscious or non-conscious choice made by the victim that they now regret and wish they could erase, eg if only I hadn’t: had so much to drink, accepted a lift, gone for a walk etc.  Guilt is different to shame in that feelings of guilt attack what the victim did or did not do,whereas shame attacks who the victim is.  Victim guilt has inevitable implications for disclosure to the police, not least of which is that guilt is likely to silence many victims and prevent them from making a compliant.

Victims who do report will need to find a way to “manage” the guilt.  A significant number simply express their guilt within the disclosure.  A rape victim might say “I froze, I just let them do it.  I can’t believe I did that.  I should have fought them off!”

It is important to note that gaps, inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the account of a victim of rape or serious sexual assault will frequently result from the trauma itself, more specifically the way the brain processes information under such a threat situation.  However, for the purpose of this article, I will distinguish trauma-induced memory issues from omissions and untruths intended to conceal and alleviate feelings of guilt.

In order to address the potential issue of victim guilt resulting in deliberate omissions and/or untruths, I suggest that consideration is given to the way in which the interview is structured.  Currently many such interviews encourage the victim to talk about the whole day.  This means that the victim will be expected to disclose the aspect of their experience that they are most likely to feel guilt and responsibility for at the outset of the interview.

I suggest a different interview structure whereby the incident itself is the initial focus of the interview.

The witness is encouraged to give a free narrative account.  The benefit of this with regard to post-trauma guilt is twofold.  Firstly, the victim hears themselves speaking out loud what has happened to them, positively impacting on post trauma issues such as denial and avoidance and thus reinforcing that they have been wronged/violated/raped/assaulted. 

Secondly, the rapport is maximised before the victim is required to talk about the aspect of their experience that generates feelings of guilt and as a result, is most difficult to disclose.  It is expected that this structure will reduce the likelihood of the victim deliberately omitting from, or falsifying their account of the pre-incident phase.

My recommendation, with regard to interview structure, is consistent with recently distributed ACPO guidance which provdes advice on visually recorded interview structure:  the ACPO advice will be reflected in the anticipated revision to Achieving Best Evidence (ABE) (Office for Criminal Justice Reform, 2007).

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