Dao says that after launching the petition, a large number of students contacted her with similar experiences. In contrast with Dao, these students often don’t report what happened to them for fear of people’s responses and (judgemental) questions. While the Sexual Assault Center (CSG) regularly hears stories like this from EUR students, it is unable to discuss specific cases in consideration of the victims’ privacy. Verberg does say that victims shouldn’t hesitate to contact CSG. “You’d be short-changing yourself if you didn’t,” she says. Vice detective Lincy Lansbergen of the Rotterdam police force and case manager Verberg (CSG) explain what to expect when you report a sexual assault incident.

Sexual assaults are more common than many people realise, say both experts. While the number of incidents isn’t published, Rotterdam’s police force employs no fewer than a hundred vice detectives. In late May, CSG’s Rotterdam location received 11 visitors over the course of two days. Victims can visit the centre for a forensic medical examination (FME), but can also turn to CSG for medical and mental care. Verberg is one of the case managers who support the victims. A recurring theme in many incidents is victim’s feelings of guilt and shame, which discourage them from filing an official report.

The police have exactly the same experience, says Lansbergen: “In cases like that of the student who was assaulted near De Esch – where she didn’t know the perpetrator – the victim usually contacts us fairly quickly. But when the victims are already acquainted with the assailant, they tend to be more reluctant to call us. We see and hear this very often. And in the vast majority of cases, the perpetrator is someone known to the victim.”

'Tremendous pity'

The fact that the threshold is so high is a ‘tremendous pity and completely unnecessary’, according to Lansbergen, because victims can actually benefit from contacting the police. There’s no need to file an official report straight away, she emphasises. You can also phone to simply notify the police of the incident, or to request information. “But whether or not to call us is entirely up to the victim.” Those who want to file a report can do so, but this isn’t compulsory if the victim doesn’t want to.

You can phone the police immediately after the assault, but you’re also welcome to call if something happened years ago. “For forensic purposes, it’s important to get in touch within one week,” explains Lansbergen. Physical evidence on the victim’s body can be retrieved up to seven days after the incident. After this, the police needs to confer with the forensic doctors to see what can still be done. Sometimes, evidence can still be collected in a home, outdoors or from clothing items. “We take our time to explain these and other matters over the telephone.” If you subsequently decide to go to the police with your case, the first step is always an informative interview. “This is held at the police station, and a lot of people imagine it takes place in an interrogation room. But it’s not like that at all – although we do make a sound recording.” The police have a special living room-like setting for these interviews. “We give victims of sexual assault the chance to regain control and take the initiative. If they don’t feel like following up on the conversation, this is by no means a problem.”

In this interview, the police officers not only listen to your account, but also offer all sorts of relevant information. “This is definitely in the victim’s interest. We explain what kind of things you can expect if you file a report. After that, it’s up to the victim to decide whether he or she will be reporting the offence. A while back, someone came back after six months saying ‘Now I’m really ready for it’. And that’s important.”

If you tell the police what happened to you, you could actually prevent new victims. Even if you don’t actually file a report. “In some cases, we start an investigation anyway – particularly if other people are also at risk. In that event we’re obliged to do something with the provided information.”

After the informative talk, the police can decide to conduct a forensic medical investigation to preserve physical evidence of the assault. “We work to establish what factually happened,” says Lansbergen, when asked about the difference between CSG and the police. “We determine whether the acts in question are a punishable offence. CSG isn’t interested in that aspect. They are there to provide care; to support the victim. Victims can also turn straight to CSG if they don’t want to go to the police. They can get help there too.”

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Sexual Assault Center

The Rotterdam branch of the Sexual Assault Center (CSG) is set up in the building of the Municipal Health Service (GGD) at Schiedamsedijk 95. After the victim has talked with the police, the detectives will accompany him or her to the centre. “It’s generally more comforting for victims if the detectives with whom they had the informative discussion are also nearby during the medical examination,” says case manager Léontine Verberg. She emphasises that here too, the victim of the assault remains in full control of the proceedings: “If victims want to stop at a certain point in the examination, this wish is always respected.” The centre has a wide range of facilities for victims. The changing room has a heat lamp for victims with hypothermia, for example. And Verberg always makes sure that there’s a set of clean, new clothing nearby for them to pull on.

Visitors are monitored for some six months after the incident to ensure that serious psychological issues are flagged in time. While CSG does not have an in-house social worker or psychologist, the centre does make sure that people are provided with the required care. Clients are always given the direct number of the responsible case manager to schedule a follow-up appointment or if they would like further help or support. 1 “Recently, I got a text message after a year or so from a young man telling me he had passed his driving test. He had moved on with his life. That touched me.”

“We call the victim again the day after the incident. We explain which stress-related complaints he or she can run into. Trouble sleeping, flashbacks, preferring to stay inside, etc. We explain what may help and that these complaints tend to become less severe over time. It’s a normal response to an abnormal situation.” During the same phone call, CSG also inquires after the victim’s experience of the interviews and the examinations.

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Image credit: Rachel Sender

Humiliating questions

In their efforts to establish the facts, the police are required to ask a lot of questions, a huge amount. Humiliating questions, according to some people. “Our objective is to determine what actually happened. This means we need to know everything. And these questions can be experienced as unpleasant – although this isn’t our intention,” says Lansbergen. “When someone files a report, we want to know the full story. It isn’t enough for a victim to say ‘and then it happened’. We have a stronger focus on specific details. And the police ask questions like: What were you wearing? Did you have anything to drink?” According to the vice detective, these questions shouldn’t be seen as judgemental.

“Victims often feel guilty about what happened. I always say: Even if you walked along Coolsingel bare naked, nobody’s allowed to touch you without your consent.” Incidentally, walking around naked on the street is prohibited by law, the detective hastens to add. Still, the police ask these kinds of questions too. “Imagine you were wearing a pink skirt,” Lansbergen explains. “And if we’re talking with the suspect later on, and he keeps referring to a woman in red pants, this could be an indication that there may be other victims. In addition, we want to know all these details in connection with the investigation and a possible prosecution. It’s very important, for example, to know what someone looked like when you’re checking CCTV footage.”

The police say they take every case seriously – although Verberg can name several examples where this wasn’t the experience of victims in Rotterdam. “Sometimes, victims tell us they don’t feel they were taken seriously. In certain cases, we may phone the policy to confer about the matter in question.”

False reports aren’t very common, according to Lansbergen. What she does see more often are cases that are also referred to as ‘mental rape’: people feel as if they’ve been raped, but in strictly legal terms this isn’t the case. CSG also supports these victims. Verberg: “Sometimes, things happen so quickly that the individual feels overwhelmed, or freezes up altogether. At that point, the other person may not even be aware that what is going on is against the victim’s will. Victims, both men and women, can have a genital response during a non-consensual incident. This can be very confusing for a victim.”

This stress reaction often contributes to feeling of guilt experienced by many victims. “They start thinking: So maybe I did want it? Maybe I did like it? We can explain that it doesn’t work this way. And we keep telling them: Nobody has the right to touch you if you don’t want it,” repeats Verberg.

Is there anything else Lansbergen and Verberg would like to say to the victims?

 

Vice detective Lansbergen: “Feel free to call us any time. The barriers aren’t as big as you may think. People are often weary about calling the emergency number 1-1-2. But you can call it to report any current offence – even when you see someone vandalising a bus stop, for instance. But this includes any kind of sexual assault. The police will come straight away. We can be reached 24/7. If it doesn’t involve an emergency, but you have a question, for example, you can also call 0900-8844 (from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.). They can put you through to the vice squad.”

Verberg of the Sexual Assault Center: “You’d be short-changing yourself if you didn’t come by. We often have people coming in who suddenly get ‘stuck’ years later – at which point they decide to seek help. Our care here is free of charge. Another tip is not to wait with telling your manager or lecturer that something very bad has happened to you. You don’t have to be specific, but in many cases, people can be very understanding if you tell them you’re dealing with something.” You can call CSG on 0800-0188. You can also phone the centre for information.

  1. Victims of a sexual assault can contact CSG 24 hours a day via the telephone number 0800-0188. ↩︎