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Sexual Offending: Barriers for Survivors Seeking Justice

In March 2022, the Crime Survey delivered a chilling statistic: 1.1 million adults aged 16 years and over experienced sexual assault, equating to a prevalence of 2.3% adults. Unwanted touching is the most common of this sexual assault (1.7%), compared with rape (0.3%), or assault by penetration (0.4%) (Sexual Offences Prevalence and Trends, England and Wales- Office for National Statistics, n.d.). However, despite the gravity of these numbers, sexual assault remains the most underreported crime to the police (Conroy & Cotter, 2017) and 80% of cases are never prosecuted (Rotenburg, 2017).

These cases come under the Sexual Offences Act (2003) which gave a significant change to the legal definition of sex offending in the UK with it now largely relying on the victim being able to give consent with the freedom and capacity to give consent. This does not include being asleep, unconscious drugged, or threatened, and the law permits that force does not have to be used for rape to occur (Khan, 2004). With a clear definition of the boundaries of sex offending yet a high level of underreporting, what barriers stand in the way of survivors seeking justice?

Victim-Offender Relationship

Sex offence prevalence is higher when the victim is known within the victim-offender relationship (Bijleveld, 2007), with a 98% prevalence of women who reported sexual abuse by a perpetrator known to them in adult and adolescence victims (Vanzile-Tamsen et al., 2005). Although, women often wrongly believe that they are less likely to be sexually assaulted by their peers (Gidycz et al., 2006) and so consequently, it may be difficult for a woman to identify herself as being raped when it involves a breach of trust, thus leaving it unreported (Soothill & Walby, 2023). This also reflects the belief that victims will be less likely to be believed when a sex offence is committed by somebody they know or that the chances of successful prosecution would be low (Myhill & Allen, 2002).

The incorrect image of ‘real rape’ reflects this belief as it is described as a rape perpetrated by a stranger in an outdoors setting involving the use of force, met with resistance by the victim and visible injuries, although, these cases are in fact atypical (Hohl & Stanko, 2015). This is far from the case. These “real rape” stereotypes contribute secondary victimisation and a tendency to blame the victim and exonerate the perpetrators case (Krahé, 2016), further resulting in case attrition (Du Mont et al., 2003) and selective “justice” (Tasca et al., 2012).

Reporting Barriers for Children

Within children, a report by Snyder (2000) revealed that almost 50% of perpetrators of sexual abuse against children under the age of 6 and 42% of that of children aged 6 to 11 were family members. Although, those sexual offences reported to the police are more likely among younger complainants and prosecuted cases involving children are more likely to involve in conviction than those in adults (Kelly, Lovett & Regan, 2005). The reasons for attrition rates that do exist within children differ to those of adults as the decision is made by the parents, which may include; parents wanting to protect their children; evidence not being strong enough; the child being too young; the offender threatening the family; distress of the child; the perpetrator being a family member (Parkinson, Shrimpton & Swanston, 2002). Unlike in adult cases, children rely on the caregiver’s level of belief in the victim when disclosing the abuse before further protective action is taken place and this protection is less likely when the perpetrator is in a relationship with the other, and trust in the jury is further implicated due to the unreliability of child witness’ evidence (Christensen, Sharman & Powell, 2015).

The Decision-Making Framework

The decision-making framework used during rape cases may also result in care attrition itself as the absence of physical injury, complaints of rape committed by an intimate partner or acquittances, and where a victim’s behaviour before the incident was seen as provocative, are at risk of exclusion by the criminal legal system (Pattavina, Morabito & Williams, 2021). If an offence is linked to investigations of sexual assault against a different victim, this significantly increases the chance of conviction for all victims and those aged 16 or over, although only 7% of crimed offences were linked to an offence against a different individual (Feist et al., 2007). This reduces the fear of not being believed within survivors, which is common in barriers of reporting rape and sexual assault (Sable et al., 2006), and knowing that there are others who have experienced similar trauma can provide a sense of solidarity between survivors and mitigate the fear of judgment (Campbell et al., 2001)

Further Recommendations

However, the act of social support within sexual assault survivors is complex as they may not perceive social reactions in the same way. For example, some find that friends sharing their own experiences and being listened to are perceived positively by some (Ullman & Filipas, 2001), although others may find distraction and taking control beneficial (Campbell et al., 2001). Because of this, it is important that responses should be tailored to each survivor’s personal needs at the time although the most recommended coping strategy from support providers was to give the survivor the opportunity to talk in a comfortable and safe environment free of distractions (Kirkner, Lorenz & Ullman, 2021). In terms of victim services, Monroe et al., (2005) found that 89% of participants had recommendations for improving services such as making services available for sexual assault survivors, education and training for professionals, engaging with survivors, having avenue for peer support so survivors could interact with each other, making changes to the criminal justice system, and taking sexual assaults more seriously. Gagnon, Wright & Srinivas, (2018) also included recommendations for urging service providers to believe and not blame survivors, as well as having a female officer to be available which underscores the desire to interact with someone who is understanding, sensitive, and believes women


Sexual offending remains a highly prevalent, whilst high unreported issue. Despite legislative advancements like the Sexual Offences Act (2003), survivors are still hindered from seeking justice and support through attrition, with the most significant factor for this depending on the victim-offender relationship. Despite a high prevalence of abuse occurring within known relationships, these remain the most underreported cases, whilst corresponding with the misconception of “real rape” which sustains harmful stereotypes towards victims. With children, the offender is also usually one known to the child however children face some challenges which are unique to sex offence cases as they rely upon their caregiver for belief in the victim and protection. Moreover, the decision-making framework within the legal system also contributes to attrition due to a case of “victim blaming” and failing to address nuanced experiences of survivors. However, addressing these barriers is possible through recommendations from survivors themselves and requires a multifaceted approach in which responses to survivors are suited to them personally and most importantly allows for them to talk about their experiences comfortably and freely. Ultimately, encouraging a supportive environment of validation, listening and empowerment is essential in promoting justice and working towards a future where survivors receive the support they deserve.


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Writer: Chloe Draper


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