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Shame, guilt and self-blame: Why sex assault victims don’t come forward

Sex crimes in Singapore continue to be under-reported, despite increasing awareness. CNA gets an exclusive look at the reasons why and how the authorities are making the reporting process less daunting for survivors.

Shame, guilt and self-blame: Why sex assault victims don’t come forward

Even if time has lapsed since a sexual assault has happened, the rape report is still assessed with the same rigour and scrutiny by the Attorney-General’s Chambers. (Posed photo: iStock/Tinnakorn Jorruang)

It took 36-year-old Elizabeth Teo nearly 15 years to come to terms with an abusive relationship she was coerced into when she was just 19. The man was 20 years older than her she saw him as a spiritual mentor, and they met frequently to pray together then.

“One day during one of these meetings, he grabbed my hand and said, ‘You caused me to fall in love with you. Now you cannot get out of the relationship’,” recalled Teo.

With that, her three-and-a-half year nightmare began. Teo alleged that between 2004 and 2007, the man would take advantage of her almost daily when they met in his car.

“He would pry my lips open and teeth open … with his tongue and then explore my oral cavities and kiss me heavily,” she said. She claimed that the incidents escalated on a few occasions.

“He digitally penetrated me maybe three or four times … When it happened, I would look at the religious symbol hanging on his rearview mirror, and I would just pray to God, please take my soul away so whatever he was doing, he was doing to my body,” Teo said.

Teo said the relationship eventually ended when “his conscience got the better of him”.

But she never spoke up against her alleged assailant. “I was really ashamed because he was married … I blamed myself for the sexual abuse, that I didn’t push him away hard enough, I didn't run away hard enough. I didn't say no loud enough,” Teo said.

Her turning point came in 2018, when a therapist helped her see she was not at fault for what happened. She filed a police report in July that year.

“I knew there might be a chance that nothing is going to happen … But I don't know whether he has done it to any other girls, and it's about protecting other people too... And I wished he knew the pain he put me through,” she said.

After one-and-a-half years of investigations, the authorities decided not to take further action in Teo’s case. While that conclusion was hard to accept, she said she did not regret making the police report.

“At least he knows that I wanted to pursue the case, hopefully that made him scared for a while,” she added.

“NOT UNCOMMON” FOR VICTIMS TO LODGE REPORTS LATER: AGC

Teo’s experience with self-blame and guilt is not a unique one. Director of the sex crimes cluster at Attorney-General’s Chambers and Deputy Public Prosecutor Ng Yiwen said that in his experience, it is “not uncommon” for victims of sex crimes to come forward “months or years later” after an incident due to such reasons.

Regardless of the time the victim took to come forward and report, AGC will still treat the case as per any other case that comes before us, and we will assess it with the same amount of rigour and scrutiny.

Ng acknowledged that the time lapse makes it more difficult to prosecute such a case as forensic evidence would have been lost due to the passage of time, and witnesses’ memories – including the victim’s and accused’s – may also be impaired.

Despite the challenges, he emphasised that a late report is “not absolutely fatal to a successful prosecution”.

“Regardless of the time the victim took to come forward and report, AGC will still treat the case as per any other case that comes before us, and we will assess it with the same amount of rigour and scrutiny. If we are satisfied that the case meets the evidential threshold, and there are no countervailing considerations, we can still prosecute the case,” said Ng.

Ng said that as many sex crimes are often committed in private or isolated settings with no eyewitnesses, very often, the only evidence is the recollection of the victim – which would have to be “unusually convincing”.

While there is no hard and fast rule on what meets that threshold, Ng said the court will look at a few factors – like the victim’s demeanour when testifying on the stand, whether his or her evidence is consistent with other pieces of evidence like psychiatric or gynaecologist reports.

“To give you a perhaps more direct example, if a victim says he or she was at a certain place at a particular time during the incident, and there’s some evidence to suggest that to prove and corroborate this point, that is something the court will look at as well,” said Ng.

“I EVENTUALLY SAW MORE LIGHT THAN DARKNESS”

To ensure that cases can withstand scrutiny in court, authorities have to make sure investigations are thorough – a process which can be exhausting for victims as they are often asked to recount their intrusive experiences in detail.  

Reporting a sexual assault is exhausting as victims are often asked to recount details of the incident, but the police have measures in place to make it less daunting for survivors. (Posed photo: iStock/Tinnakorn Jorruang)

Twenty two-year-old “Amelia” stuck through the process to see justice served on her perpetrator.

He was sentenced to 24 years’ jail after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting her for six years, beginning when she was eight years old. He would sneak into her room two to three nights a week to violate her, and her ordeal only ended in 2014 after the man was arrested and jailed for drug offences.

“Amelia” had chosen to keep mum about the assaults, but things came to light in 2018 when she suffered a mental breakdown. The then-18-year-old teen revealed the abuse to the Institute of Mental Health, and they referred the case to the police.

“Amelia” recalled that she broke down during her first interview with the police.

“It was very pressurising ... I remember them showing me (a picture) of his face, just to confirm he was the guy. It caught me off guard because I haven’t seen him for a long time. The investigation officer also asked me things very explicitly – did he kiss you? Did he touch you? Where did he touch you?,” she said.

For the next two years, “Amelia” was also required to meet the police frequently to assist with investigations.

“The more I told them, the more they questioned me. They even asked me how my house looked like. I remember having to draw a bird’s eye view of my room, and where the bed and door was,” she added.

But looking back, she did not regret speaking up.

“At the beginning of the process I was very tired and I wanted to give up. In the middle, things were starting to look up, because a lot of people were encouraging. I saw more light than darkness,” she said.

WHY QUESTIONS ON A VICTIM’S ATTIRE ARE NECESSARY: POLICE

About 9,200 police reports on sex crimes were made between 2017 and 2020, according to statistics from the Singapore Police Force. These include reports of rape, sexual assault by penetration, outrage of modesty, and sexual offences involving children and vulnerable victims.

Cases involving possible non-consensual penile-vagina, penile-anal, or penile-oral penetration will be referred to the Serious Sexual Crime Branch (SSCB).

The department dealt with 348 rape cases last year, compared to 281 cases in 2019. Most of the rape cases involved perpetrators known to the victims – like acquaintances, family members, relatives or friends.

According to Singapore Police Force statistics, there were 348 rape cases in 2020, an increase from 281 cases reported in 2019. (Photo: iStock/ brazzo)

The Singapore Police Force spoke exclusively to CNA to shed light on why some intrusive questions have to be asked.

Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Vivien Lim, deputy head of the Serious Sexual Crime Branch, acknowledged that some of the questions asked appear victim-blaming, but she seeks the victims’ understanding, as they are necessary for investigations

“(Questions on) the victim's attire as well as the perpetrator's attire … are being asked for the purposes of identification and for CCTV footage as well as other circumstantial evidence.

“We also include questions on the victim’s sexual history, to allow our officers to have a better understanding when it comes to the interpretation of the results that we obtain from the forensic medical examinations,” said DSP Lim.

Our questions do not impute any responsibility to the victims for the sexual crimes that have been committed against them.

The police could also probe into the relationship between the alleged perpetrator and the victim to have a better understanding of the circumstances leading to the sexual assault incident. DSP Lim says this is to help police establish further leads into the case and gather more evidence.

But on the police’s part, DSP Lim said that officers receive specialised training to ensure that due care and empathy are shown to the victim during the course of the interview so they don’t get re-traumatised. Victims can also clarify with their officers on why some questions are asked.

“Our questions do not impute any responsibility to the victims for the sexual crimes that have been committed against them,” emphasised DSP Lim.

GATHERING OF FORENSIC EVIDENCE

Efforts have also been put in place in recent years to make the reporting process less daunting for victims. One example is the setting up of the One-Stop Abuse Forensic Examination (OneSAFE) Centre at Police Cantonment Complex.

It allows victims to undergo forensic and medical examinations in a private space, instead of being taken to a public hospital. Doctors from the Singapore General Hospital, National University Hospital, and KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital will be activated to attend to victims of sexual crimes at the OneSAFE Centre.

As of July, it has been used 180 times since it was set up in 2017.

The Police also showed CNA the contents of the Sexual Assault Examination Kit – more commonly known as a rape kit – which is used to collect physical evidence from victims whose assaults had happened in the last 72 hours prior to reporting.

The Sexual Assault Examination Kit is used to collect physical evidence from victims whose assaults happened in the last 72 hours. (Photo: Lee Li Ying)

During the forensic examination, the victim will be asked to stand on a piece of paper to collect trace evidence as they remove their clothing. This type of evidence could include a perpetrator’s pubic hair, which could be found on a victim’s genital area.

“It depends on where the sexual assault has happened. So if it happened in a forested area, or on the ground where there’s the presence of soil, sometimes soil may fall,” said DSP Lim.

There are also various brown bags to collect a victim’s clothing for further analysis. DSP Lim says the SSCB has extra clothing including disposable undergarments for victims to change into.

The victim’s clothing is collected for further analysis and they are also given extra clothing to change into. (Photo: Lee Li Ying)

The kit also consists of 12 swabs for areas like the vagina, anus and mouth – which are administered depending on the type of assault that has occurred. Urine and blood could also be collected from the victim to test for blood alcohol levels or drugs, as some victims may have been intoxicated during the assault, added DSP Lim.

The Sexual Assault Examination Kit contains 12 swabs for areas like the vagina, anus and mouth for forensic examination. (Photo: Lee Li Ying)

The samples are then sent to the Health Sciences Authority for analysis. “It still takes some time because… they will look for the DNA of the victim as well as the perpetrator,” said DSP Lim.

Even though the rape kit can only be administered within 72 hours of an attack, DSP Lim said there is still value in victims coming forward to lodge a report even if time has lapsed or if the victim is of the view that they may not have sufficient evidence to prove their case.

“At the end of the day it's the duty of the police to establish the required evidence and to try find out the truth,” said DSP Lim.

CNA Women is a new section on CNA Lifestyle that seeks to inform, empower and inspire the modern woman. If you have women-related news, issues and ideas to share with us, email CNAWomen [at] mediacorp.com.sg.

Source: CNA/pc

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