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Asking dangerous questions: How can we carry out sexual violence research responsibly and safely?

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

Woman seeking support and solace
Image by Drazen Zigic on Freepik

This time we feature a guest blog from Psychology PhD student Madi Ingham who works on developing police best-practice for carrying out identification line-ups in cases of sexual violence. Madi recently developed a bespoke training course on Sexual Violence Awareness for Researchers with LimeCulture CIC, the UK's leading national sexual violence and safeguarding organisation through an IGI Gender Equality funded project with additional funding from a Tanglin Trust International School Alumni Career Development Grant. Here she reflects on the process and the training itself. The University of Birmingham has a broad base of expertise and experience in sexual and gender-based violence and abuse research, including other best practice projects like Protect the Protectors. If you'd like further information on this training or other resources, get in touch.

The effects of ill practice when working alongside victim/survivors of sexual violence are far reaching. For the victim/survivors, there is the risk of re-traumatisation through re-counting their trauma in an environment not equipped to offer appropriate support (Ellis, 2002; Grubb & Turner, 2012; Maddox et al., 2011; Moor, 2007). Systematic failures within organisations, such as inappropriate responses to disclosure and prejudicial views (e.g., rape myth acceptance) often result in further traumatisation and re-victimisation (Dalton et al., 2022; Mason et al., 2009). Those working alongside victim/survivors (e.g., frontline staff) are also at risk of secondary traumatisation, vicarious trauma, and burnout through prolonged and repeated exposure to victim/survivor’s experiences of a sexual offense, and from their role in supporting victim/survivors (Dalton et al., 2022). Such risks can be mitigated through use of trauma informed practice recognises the effect of trauma on an individual, and how this trauma effects their current situation. Trauma informed practice involves the recognition of how the trauma has impacted an individual, and how it may continue to impact them. It involves the implementation of 5 principles: 1. safety; 2. trustworthiness; 3. choice; 4. collaboration; and 5. empowerment (Fallot & Harris, 2009). Integrating these principles into practice and procedures ensures the wellbeing of both victim/survivors and the individuals working alongside them (Knight, 2015).

Our team at the Applied Memory Lab at the University of Birmingham are developing a collaborative project with St. Mary’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC). The project will involve interviewing victim/survivors to better understand their experience being interviewed after rape, with the aim to improve victim/survivor’s engagement with the medicolegal pathway. In preparation for this project, we began seeking out a training programme that would ensure we are adequately prepared to work alongside rape victim/survivors. However, we found no specific training or comprehensive guidance for researchers and academics on how to apply a trauma informed practice in a research setting.

We were seeking a programme that would equip researchers with the appropriate knowledge and skills to engage appropriately and effectively with victim/survivors in a research capacity, and that highlighted risks that may be unique in a research setting, such as disclosure in an interview. In line with these goals, we collaborated with trainers at LimeCulture – a specialist sexual violence training and development organisation that works with frontline professionals – to design a bespoke one-day training course to cover 4 main aspects:

  1. Language and terminology;

  2. The impact of sexual violence;

  3. Mitigating risk; and

  4. Self-care as a researcher.

The training was led by specialist trainers, and we chose a small number of attendees to maximise discussion and to allow space for everyone to share their thoughts.

Language and terminology

Sexual violence is often used as an umbrella term for various offences (e.g., rape, sexual assault, etc). The trainers introduced a succinct definition of sexual violence as ‘something of a sexual nature that was not consented to’, noting that this definition emphasises the non-consent by avoiding any language that assumes active participation of a victim/survivor. As a group, we discussed the implications of discrepancies in definitions of sexual violence, and how lack of clarity in the literature can impact research on sexual violence. The term being used interchangeably in research to refer to various offenses makes finding statistics on specific offenses hard to obtain, as they are often conflated with other offences. As such, a sound understanding of the scope of the research project, and how sexual violence is being defined in a project is key in setting researchers up for success. Exploring the groups research aims also highlighted the importance of appropriate language and terminology in gaining access to, and building and maintaining rapport with both gate keepers (e.g., organisations working with victim/survivors) and victim/survivors throughout the research timeline. Traumatised individuals will have had their control removed during the traumatic event. In line with the choice and empowerment principles of trauma informed practice, giving control to participants in how they choose to identify (e.g., survivor, victim) is integral in gaining and maintaining cognitive access (i.e., trust in the researcher). Maintaining rapport through sensitivity to language usage when disseminating results will also reduce potential harm and ensures the wellbeing of those victim/survivors involved in the research, and victim/survivors in the audience.

Impact of sexual violence

The training covered the brain’s response to trauma – an important foundational aspect when understanding how trauma can affect an individual in the long-term. The Immediate automatic response (i.e., immediate reaction to danger) to a sexual offence are highly subjective, and these automatic responses may inform an individual’s long-term physical and emotional responses to stressors and triggers. Biased assumptions of what distress looks like may hinder an appropriate response to protect the participants' welfare. The training discussed how trauma effects the limbic system, and how subsequent exposure to stress can manifest in different ways depending on an individual’s stress response system. In line with the principle of trauma informed practice, an awareness of the different signs of distress will aid in the implementation of appropriate responses during the research process (e.g., terminating an interview, sign posting to relevant support).

Mitigating risk

We were introduced to the risk management model and prompted to think about potential risk scenarios that could occur across our research timeline. The trainers highlighted the importance of addressing expectations, setting boundaries, and designing protocols when thinking about risk mitigation. In line with the collaboration principle, the communication and discussion of expectations and boundaries involves the victim/survivor and mediates the experiment-participant hierarchy. The safety principle is also addressed, in that these measures are put in place to protect the wellbeing of both experimenter and participants. Sharing information beyond what is required, such as details of the offence, puts the participant at greater risk of re-traumatisation and the experimenter at risk of secondary traumatisation. Researchers should therefore recognise and communicate the purpose and the scope of the research and set boundaries in line with this. Expectations of participating should be discussed to ensure the victim/survivor’s expectations match those of the experimenters. Risks must be identified, and appropriate protocols put in place. For example, sharing details that go beyond the requirement of the research put both the victim/survivor and experimenter at risk of re-traumatisation and secondary traumatisation. Shutting down a survivor’s narrative is known to be harmful to recovery, and so appropriate measures should be put in place to ensure disclosures are responded to in a way that does not invalidate the victim/survivor, whilst also maintaining the boundaries of the research. Protocols and measures should be implemented with transparency and communicated effectively, so that victim/survivors are aware of the limits of confidentiality in the context of a disclosure that may pose a safeguarding or legal risk (e.g., contamination of evidence).

Self-care as a researcher

Finally, the importance of wellbeing and self-care as a researcher was discussed. Vicarious trauma is often inevitable in the context of sexual violence research, and so researchers should have an awareness of the signs of vicarious trauma and put necessary measures place to protect against it. The trainers introduced self-care an activity or practice that promotes wellbeing. We thought about what self-care looks like for each of us, and how practicing self-care activities alongside maintaining boundaries, utilising support from others, and accepting personal limits are important steps in protecting against vicarious trauma. Having the capacity to maintain trauma informed practice by ensuring wellbeing as a researcher further supports the wellbeing of the victim/survivors and promotes trustworthiness.

The training closed with an open discussion about the content covered. As a group, we were enormously satisfied with the comprehension of the training. On an individual level, the training covered both elements requested in the training proposal, and elements I had not considered. This further highlighted the effectiveness of the training, and the need for specialist input and knowledge in identifying overlooked elements. Training opportunities tailored for researchers working with victim/survivors should be sought out before embarking on a project to avoid detriment to wellbeing for both researcher and participant.


Dalton, C.T., Barrett, S., Horvath, M.A.H. et al. A Systematic Literature Review of Specialist Policing of Rape and Serious Sexual Offences. Int Criminol 2, 230–252 (2022).

Ellis, C. D. (2002) Male Rape – The Silent Victims. Collegian, 9(4), 34-39.

Fallot, R. D., & Harris, M. (2009). Creating cultures of trauma-informed care (CCTIC): A self-assessment and planning protocol. Washington, DC: Community Connections.

Grubb, A., & Turner, E. (2012). Attribution of blame in rape cases: A review of the impact of rape myth acceptance, gender role conformity and substance use on victim blaming. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 17, 443–452.

Maddox, L., Lee, D., & Barker, C. (2011). Police empathy and victim PTSD as potential factors in rape case attrition. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 26, 112–117. to ref 2011 in article

Mason, G., Ullman, S., Long, S., Long, G., & Starzynski, L. (2009). Social support and risk of sexual assault revictimization. Journal of Community Psychology, 37(1), 58–72. doi:10.1002/jcop.20270

Moor, A. (2007). When recounting the traumatic memories is not enough: Treating persistent self-devaluation associated with rape and victim-blaming rape myths. Women & Therapy, 30, 19–33.

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