Revellers urged to stay safe at Christmas

POLICE chiefs are reminding revellers to stay safe whilst enjoying a night out this festive season - calling on them to drink responsibly to ensure you don't put yourself at risk of becoming a victim of crime, including rape and serious sexual assault.

Alcohol can play a big part in this type of offence, and one person who knows this very well is Sarah - a young woman who lives in a Suffolk town. Two years ago she had too much to drink at a party and was raped. This is Sarah's story.

'I was a party animal – I went out each weekend and some weeknights too,' she said. I would be walking round drunk anywhere in town. I would just get drunk and have a good time, I didn't think about anything else or any consequences.

'I went to a house party and got hammered. I went outside to get some air – this lad came outside, grabbed me by my hand and I couldn't get him off because I was too drunk. Eventually he went, and my friends came out and got me and the police were called. All I remember is going outside, and then waking up and he was on top of me. I'd had so much to drink that I couldn't say how much I'd had. My mind went black – I don't recall going out.

'Afterwards my mate took me to hospital to get checked out. You have swabs taken at the police's victim care centre. They interview you, you have to go through what happened and it all gets on top of you. You then think you can start moving on, but then the officers return and have to ask more questions. It's a long process from reporting it to going to court.

'The situation got too much for my friends to hear anything about it and deal with it afterwards so I don't see them now. Loads of people found out what had happened, and I got loads of grief because people didn't believe me. It's affected me more than I thought it might.

'Other people don't understand what it's like – I wouldn't drink that much ever again. I wish I'd gone outside with my mates, but it was at a friend's house and I felt comfortable. The police officers have helped a lot - they came over, spoke to me, and kept me updated, they were really helpful.

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'I'm still trying to forget about it, trying to forget it happened. It's changed the way we all were, changed the way we drink after seeing what I went through.'

Sadly Sarah's story is not a new one for detective constables Samantha Jenkins and Deborah Watson. They are dedicated rape investigators, part of Suffolk Constabulary's Gemini team which was set up specifically to deal with reports of rape and serious sexual offences. The police also have additional officers who are specially trained to deal with all victims of sexual crime.

'Girls need to drink in moderation and know their limits,' said DC Watson. 'They must stick together with friends and not go off with other people. Arrange a way home, whether it is by licensed taxi or a designated driver. If you drink too much you make yourself vulnerable, and you could find yourself in the same situation that Sarah did.'

DC Jenkins adds that men also must take responsibility for their actions.

'You must be clear that the girl is consenting; if she is drunk she may not be able to reasonably do this,' she said. 'Would she be up for it if she were sober? Don't take the risk.

'Once you are arrested for rape, the stigma sticks, even if the investigation concludes that the girl did consent. And if you're in a notifiable occupation which carries special trust or responsibility, such as a teacher, a healthcare worker or armed forces personnel, we will be required to make your arrest known to your organisation.'

Detective Chief Inspector David Cutler is Suffolk Constabulary's lead officer for the investigation of sexual offences. He said, 'When most people hear the word rape they tend to think of a stranger waiting in bushes and attacking women as they walk home late at night. The reality is far from this though, and most of the rapes reported to us involve people who are known to each other.

'Rape is a short word that carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. If a person does not consent or they are not able to give an informed consent then it is rape.'

Anyone who comes to the police reporting they have been raped or sexually assaulted will be taken seriously and given help and support. All reports of rape and sexual assault are taken seriously. Whether you are male or female, young or old, we are here to help you.

The police understand that rape and sexual assault are sensitive and difficult crimes to report for all victims. Male victims can find it particularly difficult. Don't be afraid to report it.

Following the opening of the county's first Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) in Ipswich, men and women now do not need to report anything to the police. The Ferns is a multi-agency, 24-hour, one-stop location for all victims of rape and sexual assault, including children. The facility provides victims with the opportunity to access a forensic examination, pathways into health care, counselling and support without an obligation to report the incident to the police.

The facility operates alongside the new Suffolk Rape Crisis service which provides specialist support services to meet the specific needs of women and girls affected by sexual violence and is co-located with The Ferns.

No matter who you are, how long ago the assault happened, or how it took place, the police are committed to listening, understanding and helping you through this difficult time whilst ALWAYS listening to and respecting your wishes.

There are a number of practical steps you can take to reduce the risk of rape/sexual assault when going out this Christmas. These include:

• Plan your journey or night out.

• Make sure that someone knows where you are going and what time you will be home.

• Arrange your journey to and from home.

• When going to a pub, club or party avoid going alone. Friends can watch out for each other.

• Appoint a nominated drinks-watcher.

• Remember, alcohol does affect your actions and your reactions as well as your ability to be alert.

• Stay aware of what is going on around you and away from situations that you do not feel comfortable with.

• Never accept a drink from anyone you do not completely trust.

• Do not share or exchange drinks.

• Don't leave your drink unattended, even when going to the toilet.

• Consider very carefully whether you should leave the pub, club or party with someone you have just met.

• If you begin to feel really drunk after only a drink or two seek help from a trusted friend or a member of the club or pub management. It is important to get to a place of safety as soon as possible.

• You must be sure you have absolute trust in the person you seek help from no matter how long you have known them.

Sarah's message to those who want to go out this Christmas and New Year, and have a few drinks and a safe night out, is this:

'Make sure you stick by your friends if they're drunk. If one of you wants to go out for air, you all go out, and make sure you have a way home. Don't drink too much because you never know what might happen.'

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