Why knowing sexual history and what victim wore could help police in rape investigations

Asking what the victim wore should not be construed as judging or placing blame on the victim, said defence lawyers and a police investigating officer. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - It might be a deeply personal issue for some, and others might even be offended when asked.

But knowing about a rape victim's sexual history is important in rape investigations, said the police and criminal lawyers.

Not only does it help in analysing forensic medical examinations, but it also helps investigating officers pose questions about the assault to victims in a way they would be comfortable with, said Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Kimberly Ang.

DSP Ang, an officer-in-charge of a team at the Serious Sexual Crime Branch (SSCB) in the Criminal Investigation Department, told The Sunday Times: "We need to know so we can calibrate how we ask questions because some people may not understand the words we use."

She added that if the victim is a child or someone who may be new to sexual acts, the person might be more comfortable communicating through dolls, drawings or writing.

This is where the training and assessment on victim management for SSCB officers come in.

DSP Ang, who has been with the SSCB for two years, added: "The challenge is building the trust (and) a rapport from the start. When we are able to do that from the beginning, the rest actually flows quite naturally."

Defence lawyers said that relevance is key, in court, if they wish to bring up the sexual history of an alleged victim. Since 2018, the accused or his counsel has been required to get the court's permission before they can adduce evidence or ask the victim questions about physical appearance or sexual behaviour which does not relate to the charge.

Mr Sunil Sudheesan, president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore, said: "When we talk about sexual history with other persons, to me, it is not relevant when discussing whether consent with a new perpetrator was given or not."

However, Mr Cory Wong from Invictus Law Corporation suggested that one instance in which a victim's sexual history could be relevant is if there is reasonable doubt as to whether vaginal tears found during the medical examination are linked to a separate instance of consensual sex instead of the alleged rape.

Ultimately, Ms Gloria James of Gloria James-Civetta & Co stressed, the questioning of sexual history in police investigations should not get misconstrued and no one should draw their own conclusions on a victim or the incident as whole. She said: "This act of 'victim-blaming' is archaic and has no place in our current society."

Why what victim wore could matter

For reasons as simple as locating the victim on closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage, or retrieving items for forensic analysis, what the victim wore during the assault is important to uncover the facts.

It should not be construed as judging or placing blame on the victim, said defence lawyers and a police investigating officer.

Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Kimberly Ang, an officer-in-charge of a team at the Serious Sexual Crime Branch in the Criminal Investigation Department, said that she understood why a layman would think that officers asking a victim what she wore could sound like they were imposing responsibility on the victim.

DSP Ang explained that the line of questioning is part of the fact-finding process. For example, when investigators are going through CCTV footage, they need to know what the victim was wearing to be able to find her.

She added: "Understandably for victims, when you're asking them intrusive or sensitive questions before they are willing to share, they're not going to just tell a total stranger. And they will be worried what (the investigating officer) thinks of them."

Officers reassure the victims not to worry about the officers' opinion about them, because they are concerned only with finding out the facts to help the victims, said DSP Ang.

Defence lawyers also emphasised the objective need to ask questions about clothing.

Ms Gloria James from Gloria James-Civetta & Co said: "While we understand the concerns that arise from such questions, questions on clothing may be useful in identifying victims from video footage which the authorities may have. This could be useful to trace an unknown perpetrator, or for them to retain the clothing for forensic analysis."

Aside from helping to identify the people involved, Ms Joyce Khoo from Quahe Woo & Palmer noted that dress choices could be relevant in establishing whether force was used to remove articles of clothing.

She added: "Issues surrounding promiscuity are irrelevant to consent and do little to help any defence."

This article has been edited for clarity.

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