With a 300% increase in demand for their services in the past year, Sheffield Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre are helping more and more men and women overcome the after-effects of sexual violence. Matthew Hartill takes a closer look.

The work that Sheffield Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre (SRASAC) does is extremely important. Established at the beginning of the 1980s, the charity started life as a telephone helpline offering counselling and support, thanks to a small group of women working out of a tiny room in the City Centre. The manner in which it has developed over the years is an ongoing testament to the work that employees and volunteers past and present have dedicated themselves to.

The Centre offers a range of services to victims of rape and sexual abuse, including counselling to those aged 13 and above, as well as a new Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) team for clients aged 18 and above, and a Children and Young Person’s ISVA. SRASAC also runs a confidential helpline and offers advice on giving support to others who have been raped or sexually abused.

Since April of last year, the charity has also offered its services to men and boys aged 13 and above, as well as women. A service which, as Chris Scarlett, Chair of SRASAC, explained in the annual report for 2016-17, the organisation are “pleased to be able to provide.” However she did state that it makes up only a “very small part” of the charity’s total provision and at the time she does not “anticipate seeing any sudden increase in demand” for the service.

Today, the charity is part of the South Yorkshire Sexual Violence Partnership which works across the region to support victims and also stands as part of the national movement, Rape Crisis England and Wales. According to Michelle Webster, Office Manager at SRASAC, “they are ambitious” and are “always working to grow and develop”.  However, Webster says this is driven by a worrying increase in demand for their services, which saw a 300% increase in just the last twelve months.

Rape crisis centres across the country respond to 4,000 calls per week.

This figure is in line with an official bulletin released jointly by the Ministry of Justice, Office for National Statistics and Home Office in January 2013, which reported that approximately 85,000 women and around 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales every year – roughly 11 rapes an hour. Nearly 500,000 adults were also sexually assaulted over the same time frame. One in five women aged 16-59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since turning 16, and yet only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report it to the police.

Nationally, Rape Crisis Centres responded to their highest ever number of helpline calls during 2016-2017 (202,666 in total, or almost 4,000 a week), while the number of people accessing help in general rose by 16% from a year earlier.

Webster says that there has been an increase year on year for some time. She  believes this dates back to the Jimmy Savile scandal, in which the TV personality had committed widespread sexual abuse over many years. Savile’s death, and the subsequent investigations, brought deeply uncomfortable questions that had previously been largely ignored by society to the forefront of the national discourse. The subject of rape and sexual abuse has once again come to international attention, as more and more allegations about powerful mogul Harvey Weinstein come to light.

Webster, perhaps as a direct result of her work, is more inclined to see the positive side of the recent scandal. She maintains that the prevalence of the issue in mainstream media means that victims yet to disclose their experiences of rape and sexual abuse will be encouraged to come forward. Charity workers, she said, are often the first that many people tell.

For many, this is the first step to taking back some control over their lives, something Webster says is extremely important: “99% of our clients self-refer – be it through filling out a form on our website, or talking to trained volunteers on our helplines.”

She adds that clients “will then be referred to our counselling services, and then the process of matching them up with a counsellor begins. Our clients undergo a 90-minute pre-counselling assessment, at which a mutual decision is reached about whether they are ready to undergo counselling. This is always the client’s decision, and as a service we never try to persuade or cajole them into accessing our help if they don’t feel ready.

“Once matched up with a counsellor, we then discuss how many sessions each client would like. Recently, we have changed our policy on this; we used to give all clients 20 sessions, though now we try and tailor each programme of treatment to the specific person. Each client will then get an hour of face to face counselling each week with a fully qualified counsellor. Crucially for us here at SRASAC, we always try to ensure that once counselling is over, our clients leave us with higher self-esteem, and generally feel more empowered.”

1 in 5 women aged 16-59 have experienced some form of sexual violence.

This theme of empowerment runs through all of the work at SRASAC and indeed their whole ethos is geared around the idea that they allow their clients to live their lives how they wish, helping victims claim back some control.

However, the increase in demand for their work means that funding is becoming increasingly important as time goes by. The Centre has a contract with Sheffield City Council which provides funding for some of their counselling, they also receive national funding from the Ministry of Justice’s Rape Support Fund. Along with this, the charity is also supported by the National Lottery and Lloyds Bank. However, Webster stresses although they do not receive statutory funding, as central government cuts the funds it does give out, this has a knock-on effect for SRASAC themselves.

“For example, the government has cut funding to Sheffield IAPT [an NHS mental health organisation] which means they are referring more and more people to SRASAC, which puts further strain on us.”

The charity operates a five-year funding plan, but the overall time from sending off the application to receiving the money, particularly when in larger amounts, can be up to a year.

“It is a massive balancing act all of the time – we are having to perform a professional service in a difficult sphere, with increasingly limited funds.”

If you pick up any paper from the last month or so, it would appear that rape and sexual assault is a problem that is becoming more and more widespread throughout society. Indeed, if anyone on this planet could be excused for putting their heads in their hands in despair at this, it is the employees and volunteers of charities like SRASAC, who are surrounded every day by difficult, harrowing stories of the very worst of the human condition – and are just lately being confronted with it every day on the news, too.

This is not, however, what happens, according to Webster. She started working for SRASAC just over two years ago, and calls her job “an honour”. She does admit, however, that it “angers” her that rape and sexual assault has continued  in the way it has well into the 21st century.

11 rapes per hour occur across England and Wales.

“However, I actually take hope and encouragement from cases like Harvey Weinstein’s. It feels like finally people are saying ‘no more’. I definitely feel like there is a momentum, where we are no longer accepting sexual abuse or rape as a society. Here at SRASAC we believe strongly that perpetrators choose to do what they do – people choose to rape. As such, we also believe that they can be prevented from making this choice. We must, however, make sure we educate young people in what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. It finally feels, though, that as a society we are saying ‘enough’.”

When, and Webster does believe that it’s a case of when not if, that time comes, you feel sure that the work of SRASAC and charities like them will have played a crucial part in this much brighter future.



A statement from an anonymous student

The help I received from Sheffield Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre at a desperate time in my life has been invaluable – their amazing counsellors were there for me when I needed them most, and they have helped me make steps toward managing my life and moving on from my past.

I’m a Sheffield student who happened to be sexually abused as a child, something that can and does have a deeply profound effect on your development.

I was absolutely terrified, as many are, that I may be judged or disbelieved.

People who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of abuse are in desperate need of specialist help with the common symptoms that come alongside the disorder, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders as well as frequent flashbacks, insomnia, nightmares and dissociation.

Despite the fact that up to one in four children are sexually abused, and most will grow into adults with PTSD, the NHS currently has no specialist mental health services in place to help adult survivors of child sexual abuse. At best, we are offered a short course of cognitive behavioural therapy designed to help with generalised anxiety which, while it may provide some with everyday coping skills, does nothing to help patients deal with traumatic past experiences. This means that if an adult survivor wants to work towards healing from traumatic experience, their only options are private therapy – usually costing upwards of £40 per session – or seeking help from charities and organisations like SRASAC.

I am extremely lucky that I live in Sheffield, and therefore had access to a charity that provides specialist counselling free of charge to people like me. People who struggle with PTSD need specialist help in order to overcome the unique difficulties that they face, and so organisations that offer specialised services, as well as those providing help with mental health generally, are essential.

On my way to the initial assessment, I was absolutely terrified, as many are, that I may be judged or disbelieved. I almost didn’t go; the overwhelming fear of being called a liar, a very common concern among victims of child sexual abuse, had prevented me from disclosing to more than a couple of people up until this point. Even now, I insist that my friends and counsellors might not really believe me, or that they may secretly think the abuse was my fault. I hope to one day let go of this feeling.

None of my fears about the assessment were realised, however. The assessor was sympathetic, but not pitying. She listened carefully and asked me only the necessary questions, never pressuring me to disclose more than I was comfortable with. It was clear to me from the offset that the staff at SRASAC were highly trained when it came to dealing with delicate situations like these.

It is absolutely vital that services like SRASAC continue to receive funding, as they provide a service that truly cannot be accessed anywhere else.

Within a few weeks of my assessment, I was assigned a counsellor. I had no idea what to expect, considering I had never before been offered trauma-based therapy. I could never have predicted how wonderful the service I received would be. My counsellor was well-informed, well-trained and non-judgemental. As one might predict, it isn’t easy to walk into a room and open straight away about childhood trauma, but my counsellor’s extensive specialist training meant that she was able to guide me at the right pace. She was able to recognise the difficulties I was facing, and identify where these might have come from. Before I started seeing her, I did not think I would ever be able to talk about what happened, 

I assumed it would always be too painful to truly open up about. Over time, however, she made me feel so comfortable that I was finally able to share some of my experiences, something that set me firmly on a path to healing.  

Though the past is never going to go away, my counsellor at SRASAC taught me that it is possible to share my experiences with people who can help and that my symptoms can be manageable. I had  doubts about the idea that survivors of child sexual abuse can really ever live a normal life, but since attending counselling session at SRASAC these doubts are beginning to subside. I cannot stress enough how helpful the sessions have been, and how much I have grown since having them.

It is absolutely vital that services like SRASAC continue to receive funding, as they provide a service that truly cannot be accessed anywhere else. Until the NHS begins employing highly trained specialist staff – likely very far down the line – these organisations will remain the only option for people who have suffered sexual abuse. And there are many, many people like me, far more than you would think. Rape and sexual abuse are not pleasant to talk about, especially when they involve children, and the most well-meaning political activists are often guilty of tactically avoiding the nauseating statistics that show how pressing the need for Rape Crisis services really is. But underneath the societal taboos and horrifying numbers, there is an element of hope. The wonderful people who work and volunteer at Rape Crisis services are changing real lives for the better – and this is something we should always fight for.

Image credit: Senior Airman Clayton Lenhardt, United States Air Force

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