12:27, July 31 60 0 theguardian.com

2017-07-31 12:27:03
‘I fell between the cracks’: author Winnie M Li on how rape survivors are failed by the system

There is an image etched into my mind long after I finish reading Winnie M Li’s debut novel Dark Chapter, inspired by her rape nine years ago while hiking in a Belfast country park. It is not the violence of her central character’s assault by a teenage boy, which is extreme, or even her terror during it when she thought she might be killed. What lingers is the vision of the woman three days later, huddled in a London flat, traumatised and alone, desperately ringing around sexual health clinics across the capital to try to source anti-HIV medication – with the clock ticking, because post-exposure-prophylaxis (PEP) is only effective for 72 hours after unprotected intercourse.

Much of the novel is drawn from Li’s own experience. The Belfast doctor who expertly and compassionately carried out her forensic examination two hours after the attack, didn’t have PEP to give her. Nor was Li offered it by the hospital where police took her straight after, where the medic who gave her a cursory once-over knew she had been raped, but made no acknowledgement of it before sending her away with ibuprofen and a note to say she should get the PEP when back home.

The south London sexual assault clinic she rang up to get hold of this vital treatment didn’t even phone her back in time, a fact that begins to demonstrate just how poorly some rape victims are served by a reporting and healthcare system that remains patchy, disjointed and poorly tailored to the needs of people in deep shock.

Li is on a book tour around the country when we meet in Bristol. An American who has been based in the UK since her early 20s, her self-possession is immediately obvious – and in stark contrast to how she describes herself after the attack. “It’s like you’ve been gutted like a fish – it was like somebody had gouged the Winnie out of me,” she says calmly. There has been progress in the treatment and attitudes encountered by rape victims seeking help, Li acknowledges, but no one is pretending that the quality of the service you get doesn’t depend on where in the country you live, and which professionals happen to be on duty at the time.

“I fell between the cracks, partly because my rape happened in Northern Ireland and I lived in London,” she said. She finally did get the PEP tablets, but only after 72 hours had passed, exacerbating her already heightened state of anxiety. It is hardly uncommon, she points out, for someone to be assaulted in a different part of the country to where they live, and the psychological effects of trauma – forgetfulness, anxiety, agoraphobia – mean that rape victims are typically in no position to chase and hassle for support.

Other examples of the poor aftercare she experienced abound. When it became clear early on that her attacker would face trial, Li contacted the independent charity Victim Support in Belfast for help with understanding the criminal justice process. She was immediately referred to the London office because she didn’t live in Northern Ireland, whereupon she was told London couldn’t help because her rape had happened elsewhere. Counselling offered by a London sexual assault clinic was “mediocre” and unhelpful, and although she describes NHS cognitive behavioural therapy as “great”, it took nine months for her to reach the top of the queue. Although debilitated, panicky and unable to leave her home for long periods, Li survived the wait. She points out that “other victims could become suicidal because there’s such a gap between the trauma and the care they get”.

Meanwhile, demand is soaring. With reports of sexual assault to police in England and Wales more than doubling in four years – from more than 16,000 adult and child rapes reported in 2011-12 to 35,798 in 2015-2016 – standards set by the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women suggest there should be three times more than the 45 specialist counsellors that currently operate in England and Wales. Cumbria, for example, doesn’t have a single Rape Crisis branch. At the end of March this year, the national Rape Crisis waiting list had reached 5,000.

The injustice this postcode lottery imposes on victims’ ability to recover is part of what drives Li to campaign for better awareness of how disastrously sexual violence affects people’s lives. Because of the psychological effects of the assault, Li was unable to continue her career as a film producer; she also, for a time, lost her sense of self.

“All the things that had brought me joy before, like hanging out with friends, seeing movies or exploring the world, I didn’t have any of that any more,” she explains matter-of-factly. “The sadness was not knowing if I would be ever able to regain that. It felt like the rest of my life was going to be this unending monotony of loneliness and anxiety.” Wealthier rape victims have the option to pay for timely trauma therapy. Poorer ones simply cannot. “If you’re a mother of five, you still have to look after your kids,” Li points out. “People from worse-off backgrounds are assaulted and they have to go straight back and do shift work, so how are they going to be able to recover? There’s not a strong enough public support system to enable victims to rebuild their lives.”

If a rape victim pursues a complaint to trial, as Li did, their chance of getting justice seems to be declining, too. The conviction rate for reported rapes in 2015-16 was 7.5% – half the 15% it was four years before. Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) records show that 58% of cases that reached court last year resulted in a conviction, which sounds better. However, the disparity between the two figures seems to highlight the immense difficulty perceived by the CPS in finding evidence strong enough for prosecutors to believe that a jury could convict.

Li is clear that society’s assumptions about the kind of people who experience rape must be challenged. “One of my best friends was scared that if I testified, because I come across as quite articulate and in control, that wouldn’t match what people think of the poor rape victim,” she says. “And, of course, that’s ridiculous because all sorts of people are raped; everyone has different reactions to their rape and there isn’t any one way that you should be affected by it.”

Li has nothing but praise for the support she received from the Police Service of Northern Ireland as the case came to court, but laughs drily as she recalls prosecuting counsel’s pragmatic advice on giving evidence. “My barrister said it would reflect better on me as a victim if I did it in full view of the court. So, essentially, I was going to be put through the most horrible of experiences to have the best chance of winning the case.” Before going to court, Li tried to imagine how a defence barrister might attempt to turn a violent assault by a 15-year-old boy on a 29-year-old woman in a forest into a consensual scenario – a typical defence strategy in a rape case. “It would have been so insulting if I’d had to sit and listen to that,” she says.

Li’s rapist waited to see if she would turn up to testify – a case can collapse if a complainant finds themselves too overcome to attend court – and then pleaded guilty to a reduced number of counts. So Li got a conviction, but she has watched other rape trials with the opposite result. While shadowing a barrister, she was not impressed by some of the attitudes she observed. “It was interesting the offhand comments that were made by clerks and others,” she remembers. “Some said: ‘Well, I don’t think she’s telling the truth,’ and I wondered why. People said: ‘Well, she’s not acting the way I’d expect a rape victim to act.’ I just thought: well, what is the expected way?”

Such attitudes are inevitably shared by some jury members, and Li is determined that this must change. “Those value judgements can have a massive impact on the victim if they don’t get to see justice,” she says. “Better educating of the public is necessary, which is one reason I do all the work I do.” Two years ago, Li co-founded and crowdfunded the Clear Lines festival, which, its website says, aims “to replace the shame and silence usually associated with this issue, with insight, understanding and community”. Her hope is to encourage creativity – Clear Lines invites artists, writers, musicians and comedians to openly reflect on sexual violence and its consequences – both as a therapeutic response to sexual assault and as a way to prompt societal change. Her novel’s most powerful creation, the character of a young serial rapist, is testament to Li’s determination to find a way of, if not understanding, then at least finding a way to imagine and inhabit the life of a person who could so casually disrespect the physical and psychological integrity of another human being.

“It’s terrifying to think that it could be you walking into a park and you get raped by a stranger,” she says. “It’s terrifying to think you could go to a party, speak to the wrong person, get your drink spiked and then you could be a rape victim. But that happens. I think people don’t want to acknowledge how prevalent and how random it can be, so there’s often a desire to make sense of it by blaming the victim and saying: ‘Oh, she must have done something that led to that rape.’

“In my scenario, I was on a hike, wearing long-sleeved clothes and I was showing zero interest in this person, so it’s very difficult to make that argument that I must have been asking for it. I think that’s what is scary for some people, but that’s why I think it’s important to confront them with the truth and not try and hide this.”

Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li (£14.99, Legend Press) is out now. To order a copy for £12.74, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call the Guardian Bookshop on 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.