Working with victims of sexual crime

Being subjected to sexual crime causes the victim to experience total vulnerability. The experience may deeply affect the way in which the victim sees himself or herself, others and the world. The reactions of others and the first contacts have a deciding impact on the victim's recovery and ability to seek help.

Factors influencing the consequences of sexual crime

The age and phase of development of the victim strongly affects the impact of the sexual crime. The younger the victim, the more serious the consequences. Falling victim to a sex crime during one's puberty may have particularly serious consequences. Other deciding factors include the relationship between the culprit and the victim, the victim's situation in life, whether the victim has told anyone about the crime, and how others have reacted.

Alleviating factors for the victim

It will be easier for the victim if he or she has someone to talk to and tell a complete story. Getting proper treatment, having correct knowledge, and reporting the crime to the police can also be of great psychological relief.

Aggravating factors for the victim

Experiencing fear of death when the sexual crime takes place, hiding the experience from other, and encountering lack of concern among those that are supposed to be of assistance afterwards all make it more difficult for the victim. A high level of violence or humiliation also makes the experience a heavier psychological burden.

Why does the victim not resist the culprit or simply run away?

In particularly dangerous situations, the nervous system acts on its own in order to find a fast solution. Some victims struggle, others escape, but in some cases the body gets paralysed, making the victim unable to resist or flee. This reaction is not caused by any conscious decision.

But why not seek help or report the crime when the dangerous situation is already over?

It may be difficult for a traumatized victim to realize that the dangerous situation is over. The mind and the body are still acting as if it were ongoing. The fact that the memory does not function as usual in traumatic situations also makes it more difficult to tell others about what has happened.

Why are the victim's memories of the traumatic situation so different from normal memories?

Things related to immediate survival are recorded in the traumatic situation, and things needed for reconstruction of the event afterwards receive less attention than usual. Traumatic memories are to be treated as raw material which may be difficult to grasp and explain with words.

Why does the victim think he or she is to blame for the crime?

Blaming oneself is a way of suppressing the frightening feeling of total helplessness.

Why is it possible that the same person becomes a victim more than once?

If the victim’s nervous system has reacted by paralysing the body in a dangerous situation, the same reaction may be repeated the next time a similar event occurs, making the victim, once again, unable to resist. Moreover, the victim may not be good at recognizing danger before it is too late.

Hannaleena Kuukari, psychotherapist, Tukinainen Rape Crisis Centre

Heli Heinjoki, crisis- and traumapsychotherapist (et), M.Soc.Sc., crisis work development manager, Tukinainen Rape Crisis Centre

Concerning victims of violence in general, please read the guidelines in the "Working with traumatized victims" section 

Tips for the police

1. Explain clearly what will happen during each stage of the legal process. This information is particularly important for victims of sexual crime.

2. Be aware of the fact that many victims of sexual crime do not possess the vocabulary to describe exactly what has happened, which makes it more difficult to tell the story.

3. Find out whether the victim has been threatened with violence, whether he or she was paralysed or otherwise forced into a state of uncontrollable fear. In the end, sexual crimes can be committed without actually using physical violence!

4. Writing down details may make it easier for the victim to remember what has happened. If needed, please encourage the victim to write down the story. With the story on paper and the victim's memories formulated, the interrogation can continue another day.

5. Give the victim a chance to give a final statement at the end of the preliminary investigation. This gives him or her an opportunity to clarify points that may have legal significance.

In court

1. The victim has a right to conceal his or her identity and limit public access to the trial. Inform the victim about this in writing as described in the 6th and 15th paragraphs of the Law on the publicity of trials.

2. Make practical arrangements that allow the victim to come to the trial without having to face the suspect.

3. Pay particular attention to how you formulate any questions to the victim.

4. Consider carefully which facts related to the victim's background have legal significance for the handling of the sexual crime in court. For example, the victim's sex life prior to the event is not necessarily related to the crime.

5. If the victim is not able to tell the story fluently with assistance only from the prosecutor, consider letting the victim's counsel help.