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J R Soc Med. 2007 November; 100(11): 529–530.
PMCID: PMC2099416

A crime against mental health?

Twenty-one years ago I was practising as a rural GP in the village where my family had lived and worked as doctors for over 60 years. In those days we visited our patients 24 hours, each doctor in the practice covering every fourth night.

Late one August night I returned to the surgery to collect some drugs for a very sick patient I was visiting. I was mugged and raped in the surgery by a young man who happened to be in the area as I arrived. His accomplice, who had stolen the motorbike that they were using, broke into my car and kept watch outside.

As a direct result of that experience my life was changed irrevocably. I managed to carry on, terrified by the night duty, until inevitably after a couple of years my mental health broke down. I didn't work again as a doctor for 15 years.

Rape is not simply a physical crime.

Rape is a crime that affects the mind to such an extent that it could be called a crime against mental health; and the professionals who deal with the consequences of rape know this.

And rape is widespread

How do I know this? I know this because I read about it, but I understand this because it happened to me; and because it happened to me I joined a group of people who admit their experiences to each other, experiences that otherwise are never spoken about. Women and men who had been raped and abused, and who had never told anyone about it, felt able to tell me.

People who have been raped learn very rapidly how common it is, because other people feel able to say to them, yes, that happened to me, to my daughter, to my wife, to my girlfriend, to my mother.

I learned that people don't go to the police for many reasons. Often they are protecting the social position of themselves and their families. Who wants to be defined as ‘that person who was raped’? They don't go to the police because they knew, were related to, or were married to their assailant, because they are ashamed, because they were drunk, because they are afraid. They are ashamed of being seen as a victim, they are afraid of their assailant, they are afraid of the police, they are afraid of the courts and they are afraid of the media.

If so many women and men do not feel able to name the person who raped them, then it might be supposed that the ones who do ask for help from the police feel strongly motivated to do so. In my case, the police caught my assailants within days, but as I look at the figures I ask myself why, of those who are taken to court, are only 5-6% convicted?

These cases, which are a small proportion of alleged rapes, are the cases that the police feel have enough merit to warrant an attempt at prosecution. So are 95% of people alleging rape mistaken in some way? And if they are not mistaken, why are we not taking them seriously? If we are taking them seriously by taking these cases to courts why are so few alleged assailants convicted?

Rape is an easy crime to defend in court. Any barrister worth their salt can demolish a rape victim in a witness box. A person who has been raped is, by definition, traumatized. Many have lost their self esteem, and the humiliation of reliving the experience in a witness box is said to be as bad as that of the initial attack. This is common knowledge and must deter people from coming forward.

In my case I felt a range of emotions at the prospect of a trial. Humiliation, rage and fear, for myself and for my family, predominated. I was lucky: my attacker pleaded guilty. What if he hadn't? I would still have gone through with it, but the anxiety I felt between the attack and the potential court case was extreme. In my head I rehearsed various court-room scenarios obsessively. It was exhausting. So again, I feel that I can understand that only the strongly motivated will attempt a prosecution.

We should also ask where the male rape cases are. Does the fact that prosecution is rare mean that no men are raped? Clearly that is a ridiculous assumption. It is probably safe to assume that the taboo against men reporting rape is extremely powerful.

Rape is a violation of the self. Rape destroys children, women and men, it destroys them as victims and it destroys the perpetrators. I saw this damage as a GP and I have seen this damage in the work that I now do in vocational rehabilitation, encouraging people with long-term mental health problems back into employment.

The figures speak for themselves. Until we take a crime that has such long-term consequences more seriously, with national provision of proper sexual assault referral centres for men and women, correct training for officers, and the right legal support for victims, we will continue to reap the consequences in damage to the long-term mental health of considerable numbers of people.

Finally, spare a thought for the young man who raped me, who I later discovered had spent time in children's homes. What had happened to him? He might be an exceptional case, but I think we have to ask ourselves what happens to men in our society to brutalize them so much that they are prepared to rape someone just because they happen to be there.


Competing interests None declared.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press