Research will review support offered to sexual assault victims

The University will make recommendations based on the research outcomes.

The University of Birmingham is to take part in a new four-year research project aimed at assessing how the support given to sexual assault victims affects their long-term health and well-being.

Over a thousand victims of sexual assault will be interviewed as part of the research, which is being led by Coventry University in partnership with the University of Birmingham, University of Bristol, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, Juniper Lodge Sexual Assault Referral Centre, Coventry Rape and Sexual Assault Centre, the Rape and Sexual Violence Project, and Survivors in Transition.

The £1.3 million study, which will start in September and is being funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), will evaluate the work of sexual assault referral centres (SARCs) in England.

The centres offer a first point of call for victims of rape or sexual assault, and do not require a person to report abuse to the police. They aim to provide an immediate, supportive response, as well as the option of forensic medical examination, assessment of sexual health needs and spaces for interviews.

The study will be the largest of its kind in the UK, exploring a wide range of aspects about how these centres work, the interventions and support they offer, their workforce, the technologies they use, and the wider sexual assault services context.

The researchers say there is currently no national evidence on the effectiveness of these centres and also that there are big variations in the services SARCs provide. Interviews with sexual assault survivors will aim to find out about their experiences of accessing support at the centres and investigate whether interventions and services offered by centres help reduce the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and other health problems in the long-run.

Co-investigator Dr Louise Jackson, of the Institute of Applied Health Research, said: “This is an important research project which aims to understand the impacts of SARCs and will lead to recommendations about how services can best provide help to survivors of sexual violence.” 

Principal investigator Dr Lorna O’Doherty, from Coventry University’s Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science, said: “We know that sexual violence has devastating effects on adult and child victims, their families, and communities.

“But what we need is more evidence to show the impacts that exposure to sexual violence has on people’s physical, sexual and mental health over time, including how people respond to different support and interventions.

“SARCs have potential to bring wider benefits to the community by raising awareness of sexual violence and increasing visibility of sexual assault support services, reducing stigma, and giving a voice to survivors. Our research will thoroughly explore how these centres work and their impact on victims so we can make recommendations about what they should do in the future to help people even more.”

Professor Gene Feder, from the University of Bristol’s Centre for Academic Primary Care, said: “Sexual abuse by a husband or partner is a part of domestic violence that is often hidden and even more difficult to disclose to health care professionals than other types of abuse.

“Women experiencing sexual violence in a relationship often do not know where to get help, generally not using sexual assault services. In this programme of research we will gather evidence for how best to support survivors of sexual violence and how services can respond to the needs of women experiencing this violence within a relationship.”

The study will investigate what can be done to enable hard-to-reach groups to access more support as they are among the least likely people to visit SARCs. These groups include men, those from lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans-sexual (LGBT) communities, black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, people with mental health conditions or disability, and those in long-term abusive relationships.

They will make recommendations based on their findings on the best ways for the centres to care for people and what support should be offered to victims, with the aim of improving services and long-term benefits for the people who use the centres.

One in five women and one in 25 men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16, equivalent to an estimated 3.4 million female victims and 631,000 male victims, according to latest figures from the Crime Survey for England and Wales.

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