A British Police officer, PC Wayne Couzens, has been convicted of kidnapping and raping Sarah Everard, a 33 year old marketing executive this week. She went missing while walking home from a friend’s house at around 9pm near Clapham Common. A week later her body was recovered in a bag in woodland in Kent, following a massive Police search.
Unofficial vigils were held for Sarah across the UK and the Police were criticised for manhandling peaceful mourners, mainly women. Police were accused of arresting women and pinning them to the ground. Broadcast media suggested the Police used disproportionate force during peaceful vigils. An inquiry requested by the government said the Police had used considerable restraint.
Sarah Everard’s murder resonated with many women who believe they have every right to walk home unaccompanied at 9pm, we may call this freedom of movement. The grief and outrage was partly because a Police Officer attacked and raped Sarah which is a clear abuse of power. Women expect to be able to turn to the Police if they are in trouble.
PC Couzens was a highly trained and screened fire arms officer working in the Westminster-based Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command, which protects VIPs and guards national sites. Couzens was nicknamed “the rapist” while serving in Kent for the Civil Nuclear Constabulary. He was not on the sexual offenders register in spite of successive incidents of indecent exposure.
Couzens was not vetted again after these offences before he was armed with a gun and authorised to protect embassies in London and the Palace of Westminster for the Metropolitan Police. He was nicknamed “the rapist” but no one questioned whether he was a fit and proper person to carry out his job.
In court, Couzens pleaded guilty to kidnapping Ms Everard “unlawfully and by force or fraud” and raping her. In March he did not enter a plea for her killing but he has now accepted responsibility for her death.
At the heart of this investigation is how Police officers could think it is acceptable to call a colleague a rapist and continue to send him out onto the streets to protect women. This is not one rogue Police officer but a culture of misogyny at the heart of British policing.
According to the Guardian, 81 women in the UK have been killed since March and 109 this year, 2021. Before the pandemic in 2019 there was a 10% increase in women killed with the annual figure jumping from 220 to 241. According to the ONS three women are killed every fortnight by their partner or ex-partner. Seven months after Sarah Everard’s death, the body of schoolteacher Sabina Nessa was found in Cator Park, south-east London and a man from Eastbourne, East Sussex is facing charges.
Government response to sexual offences
In June 2021 an Observer analysis of thousands of convictions showed that between 2013 and 2020, almost one in three adults were given suspended or community sentences.
Government has been battling to withstand criticism following a sharp decline in convictions under her watch, including where the victims are under 13 years old. Police cuts driven by ten years of austerity and a loss of expertise go some way to explaining the fall in convictions. Government has promised the figures will be kept under six monthly review.
Prosecutions in 2016/17 fell 60% in four years to 2,102 in 2019/20, even as the number of reports to police increased, raising concerns about the decriminalisation of rape. These concerns make therapeutic relationships even more important.
According to the Guardian in 2018 victims were routinely required to give access to highly personal data including mobile phone messages and social media content to the Police. These can be retained for up to 100 years for a case to proceed which enhances the sense of personal violation already experienced by victims.
Sophie Wilkinson argued powerfully in Vogue in March that the Police fail because they are not looking for patterns of sexually inappropriate behaviour. They treat each case of rape, including Sarah Everard’s case, as an isolated incident.
Ms Wilkinson said the Police should have immediately investigated the indecent exposure by PC Couzens days earlier and while in Kent. They should be documenting the many signs of harassment, often in public, that precede rape and other sex attacks to identify the pattern of sexual offending early and prevent crime.
Sexualised trauma includes trauma caused by someone close to you like a partner and encompasses many aspects of domestic violence. Most of the time sexualised trauma is caused by people known to the victim. Often there are no convictions in these cases. Rape sentencing tends to assume the attackers are strangers in parks, like PC Wayne Couzens.
This is often not the case. Most sexualised trauma takes place within the home, most child abuse is carried out by someone known to the child.
According to the Crime Survey for England in the year ending March 2020 7.1% of women aged 16 to 74 had experienced sexual assault or rape by penetration (including attempts) and only 0.5% of men.
“For the years ending March 2017 and March 2020 combined, victims who experienced sexual assault by rape or penetration since the age of 16 years were most likely to be victimised by their partner or ex-partner (44%). This was closely followed by someone who was known to them other than a partner or family member (37%), which includes friends (12%) and dates (10%) (Appendix Table 1). More than one in seven women (15%) reported being assaulted by a stranger, whereas this was true for almost half of male victims (43%) (Figure 2).”
I have talked mainly about women throughout this article because sexualised trauma is different for men and women. Men are more often attacked by strangers. Transgender people often suffer a disproportionate amount of discrimination and harassment, including from feminists. Attacks on men and transgender attacks will be addressed separately elsewhere.
Rape is not the only form of sexualised trauma – there is a whole menu of being cat-called, stared at or wolf-whistled to touching, up skirting, groping and grooming as well as taking and circulating sexual photographs, forced viewing of pornography etc. Violence is not always part of the attack.
Harassment is necessarily subjective and occurs when the individual is made to feel unsafe, humiliated, or intimidated. Rape during sleep is common among partners. Harassment and rape among pupils in boarding schools has hit the headlines this summer.
#Metoo campaign went viral following allegations against Harvey Weinstein and called out celebrities for widespread harassment in the media and film industry in October 2017. It sparked a national conversation and an increase in reporting of sexual harassment in the UK and abroad.
It is clear that sexualised trauma is a widespread phenomenon that deserves much more attention from society as well as the Police.
Harassment is particularly prevalent among young women. Research published in March this year from the All Party Parliamentary Group on UN Women in the United Kingdom showed 97 percent of British women aged between 18 and 24 have experienced sexual harassment in public.
Sexual harassment online is booming due to the pandemic. According to the Revenge Porn Helpline, they found calls about explicit imagery being shared without consent rose by 87% between April and August 2020 versus the previous year.
When understanding if sexualised trauma has taken place, a therapist or teacher will have to consider issues of consent and be mindful of any misuse of power, particularly if a young person is involved. Sex can become a powerful weapon in the wrong hands.
The impact of sexualised trauma and how therapy can help
In 2010, the Equality Act defined sexualised trauma as: “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.”
Humiliation is a key aspect of identifying sexualised trauma. Victims commonly feel dirty, they may suffer guilt, shame or even self-blame. In the aftermath clients may be more stressed, more anxious, suffer from panic attacks and feel generally less safe, as well as avoid sexual intimacy or in some cases feel de-valued and become more promiscuous.
If not addressed quickly after an attack or at the end of an abusive relationship, memories of sexualised trauma can ripple under the surface causing negative effects for years to come.
Some of the reactions are physiological causing changes to the chemicals in the brain resulting in unconscious or unintended behaviours such as aggression, fight or flight, depression, anxiety, panic attacks etc.
Early therapy helps address the roots of the trauma before the neurological pathways change irreparably in negative ways. Anti-depressants may also help to stabilise a traumatised client in the short-term but should not be taken for more than six months and should be monitored by a GP.
To address the root cause of the trauma, therapy provides a confidential space that a client pays for which is safe and non-judgemental. It’s a place for clients to unpack the cocktail of emotions outlined above. Therapists may find that recent experiences of sexualised trauma trigger childhood trauma or deficits in client’s attachment too, although most therapy is now person-centred.
Clients can talk freely about their fears, shame, self-blame and any flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety and panic attacks. They will address the root causes by calmly and safely re-living the attack, accompanied, not alone, in a therapeutic setting.
The aim is to look at the facts of the attack and make them conscious to prevent the unconscious from anticipating threats that are not there and imagining false scenarios which hold the client captive in dark places.
A skilled therapist will conclude every session to make sure the client does not dwell on the attack after the session and to reduce the likelihood of unsupervised flashbacks.
Ultimately in every therapeutic relationship you want to reach the point, after months, often years of tears, transference and/or in the film aggression, summed up in Good Will Hunting: When the therapist, (Robin Williams) embraces Matt Damon (his client) and simply says: “It’s not your fault.”