Image Credit: Annie Watson
Kelly Balmer and Imogen Horrocks, Co founders of the Last Taboo:
After launching The Last Taboo back in November 2020, we had a lot of people who had experienced sexual violence reach out to recognise and appreciate the work we are doing. We started The Last Taboo after increased concerns surrounding the University’s handling of sexual violence and harassment, as well as concerns over the handling of the Joesph McKeown case. Something we didn’t expect was Laura, the victim from the case, to reach out to us.
Since the case, Laura has seen the long-lasting impact that the McKeown case has made at York, displayed in the scale of concerns raised by students. She contacted us wanting to share her experience since, up until this article, the public narrative has been detached from the facts.
Laura wanted to share her story to ensure that the whole narrative was in the public domain, her experience of reporting was highlighted, and how the response from the University was received. A few months ago, we interviewed Laura, and here is how it went.
All responses were given freely by Laura, and checked before their publication. We have her full consent to publish this in partnership with Nouse and share it across our social media platforms.
How did you meet Joseph McKeown?
“Joe and I moved into the first floor of [............] block of [............] College on Freshers' Week of 2015. You know how it goes, you move in, organise your room, feel nervous inside but try not to externalise it, and then force yourself to be social with complete strangers in order to make friends. Well, that’s what happened with Joe. I just remember introducing myself to him and other people on my floor and we shared pizza together that first evening in the common room. A night or two later was the first time Joe and I hung out together in a smaller group. We were quite different as people so I did not think we would get on. He seemed quite closed off and cold, extremely academic with little room for emotional expression, and he was into rock music and guitar. Nevertheless, Joe, some other flatmates and I went to V-Bar and got drunk, as one does in Freshers Week, and that’s when Joe started to be more relaxed and expressive. He’d talk about all sorts really, his life, his friends, and just be a silly drunk like we all were, having fun, innocent, that sort of thing. We talked about our significant others, as we both were in relationships at that time."
What was the nature of your relationships with Joseph McKeown?
“So after hanging out quite a bit in Freshers Week, going to college dinner everyday and the fayres and what not, we grew closer. Whilst we had differences as a group, we became friends, and despite the fact most of our friendship group was doing a science degree and I was studying German and Spanish, we had a lot to talk about. Late at night I’d often hear Joe singing and playing his guitar, either sitting in the corridor, or in his room, and often we’d join him for singing and drinking and board games late into the night.
Sometimes when the others were busy, I’d hang out with Joe on my own, and it became a running joke how we would get up to the naughty when we were alone, which we responded by laughing and rolling our eyes. When Joe and I were alone he allowed me to see his more vulnerable side. He spoke of his past such as mental and physical illness and confided in me, and I did the same with him. This was the start of a strong bond between us, built on supporting each other in our mental struggles. He would often try to resist my listening ear, either because his girlfriend was controlling and he didn’t want to cause problems with her or because of his ego.
Either way he eventually would succumb to needing my help and I was happy to, for he supported me in the same way. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship at the time, and Joe supported me through it all. At some point through all of this, we became friends with benefits, but that stopped at Christmas 2015 as I met someone new.”
At the end of the first year, in Summer 2015, I decided to leave the University of York, for many reasons, including -------- not enjoying my course and being too far from home. Joe and I lost touch for roughly six months to a year, and then he texted me out of the blue. It was a pleasant surprise, and we resumed our friendship despite the time apart. We’d check in on each other every so often, reminiscing about that year at York together. For the next few years whilst I was down in London and he remained in York we stayed in touch, but never planned to meet up.
In November 2017 I was going through a break up, and shortly after we arranged for me to come up to stay with him as a distraction from my heartbreak and to have something to look forward to. I drove up to York in the snow on 30th November, and we reunited for the first time in two and a half years. We had some dinner and drinks in his room, in a [............].Vanbrugh block, and watched a film while we caught up on all those years gone-by. He seemed exactly the same, a little shy at first perhaps but once we got chatting I can tell it subsided. We went to bed and had consensual sex before falling asleep. I was woken up to being touched at roughly 8am on 1st December 2017. This was to be when I was raped. [............] I expressed ‘no’ multiple times. I pushed his hand and his penis away from me, but still he continued, despite my protest [............]. He went to clean up whilst I lay there, in shock.
Looking back at this now, it was so obviously rape, but the trauma of the event meant I was unsure, and I grabbed my phone to ask my friends what rape was, I told them what had happened and asked if that was rape. They said yes and frantically asked if I was ok, if I was safe, and that I should go to the police. I got dressed in private and Joe stood about looking uncomfortable as I asked him why he did that. Unsatisfied with his answers, I then left and he followed me to beg me not to go to the police, but I ignored him, got in my car and drove straight to Fulford Road Police Station.”
Please note we have redacted the description of the rape due to its graphic nature. Although Laura had consented to engage in sexual acts the night before, consent was not present when she was awoken the next day by being touched.
Why did you decide to report to the police?
“My friends encouraged me to, saying it’s the right thing to do, and looking back on that I agree. I also reported it because I kind of wanted to double check it was rape as I was still in denial. But I reported it mostly unemotionally at this point as it had literally happened 20 minutes prior.”
How was your experience reporting to the police? How could it be improved?
“My experience was mixed. I was firstly interviewed by two Detective Constables and I just told them everything. After that, I waited for a while and did a second interview with one DC in which I was asked for more detailed information. This specific DC would be the one to manage my case and be my port of call from there on out. Then, I followed them both in my car to Bridge House SARC, or Sexual Assault Referral Centre. It’s a place where swabs of my mouth and my private areas were taken for forensic evidence, all with my consent of course. I also had a shower there and did my third interview with the DC which would be recorded so it was thorough and detailed.
Post-aftercare at the SARC, I went back to the police station with the DC and arranged to give them downloads from my phone of the WhatsApp conversation with Joe after the event and with my friends. There are many ways in which the reporting could be improved. Firstly, I was denied a drink or food for the entire day until I was ‘allowed’ to leave at roughly 7pm. There was a Sainsbury’s Local across the road and I asked if I could go to get a sandwich and something to drink but they didn’t let me.
Treating the victim as if they are a criminal despite doing the right thing in reporting is traumatising and hurtful. If the victim is not permitted to leave the station, then food and drink should be provided on site as it is not right that I had to go all day long without anything.
Secondly, I think the police should work on how they collect information. The first interview was tense and felt like an interrogation, but when I was questioned at the SARC I was offered plenty of support and reassurance. There’s no need to be so harsh and blunt with brave victims like myself who have volunteered this information.”
Did you access any specialist support services? If so, how did you find them?
“As I am not from the York area, I did not stay in touch with the SARC, although that would be common-place as they can put the individual in contact with mental health support services too. Down in Essex, I found my local equivalent, called SERICC (South Essex Rape and Incest Crisis Centre), and got in touch for both counselling and to acquire an ISVA (Independent Sexual Violence Advisor), to help me through the legal process as this was all new to me. I was quickly put in contact with one, and she was the most amazing ISVA I could ever have asked for. She let me rant to her about the court systems, about how long everything took, about how scared and stressed and upset I was. She never judged me and to this day I know that a large part of my bravery came from her support. I did also start counselling but soon after cancelled it as it was just too soon (less than a month later).”
What did the University do in regards to what you experienced? Do you think they could have done more?
“The University did nothing, nor did I expect them to. Being a professional institution, I did not think they would reach out to me individually, especially as I’m sure I’m not the first person to be raped on campus. And that was correct. I never heard anything from the University afterwards. I think it would have been nice to have received some kind of letter to at least acknowledge what had happened and perhaps an apology for keeping him employed despite him pleading guilty to rape and sexual assault.
Other than that, I do not think in my case there was much more they could do; it was Joe’s choice to do this, not the University, and serious prevention and reprimanding in future is the only way in which they can learn from what happened to me.”
Do you think the University has responded to your case in the best way? How do you think they should have responded?
“There were quite a few months that passed before they actually addressed it, and it seemed like the typical ‘brushing under the rug’ approach was going to be the norm. Then they released their statement and started to make changes to make reporting easier. This is a fantastic step in future prevention and taking the issue seriously.”
Is there anything you wish you had known before going through the reporting process?
“I wish I would have known how much I would have been treated like the assailant, and not the victim. Often times throughout the few years of the legal proceedings I do not believe I was treated fairly, and instead interrogated.
Furthermore, I wish I would have known how poor the different departments communicate with each other and how much chasing up I would have to do myself. For example, I gave downloads of my phone data to Essex Police who said they would give it to North Yorkshire Police, and months later they had not done anything.
Also, when the Victim Support service representatives were supposed to give me updates on certain days, such as on changing of plea, very often they did not, leaving me feeling extremely anxious and uncertain.
A lot of the stress of the legal proceedings were down to poor communication from the police, Victim Support Unit and CPS, with often not receiving a response for months from my DC.”
How did it feel when he changed his plea to guilty, did you expect him to be given a 5 year sentence? Do you feel that the 5 year sentence is enough?
“Probably the biggest relief I’d felt throughout the entire process was when he changed his plea to guilty. I remember the letter came through on a weekend, and I was at home with my Mum and my boyfriend and I recognised the envelope and opened it in front of them and cried. We all cheered and were so happy, as the thought of going to court and testifying and the unknown out of that made me feel sick with fear, but with him changing his plea to guilty, I knew that he would just need to be sentenced, and I wouldn’t have to attend trial.
I was quite unsure as to what his sentence was going to be, but as far as I was concerned, a custodial sentence of three-or-more years would have been satisfactory. I was anxious that he would be given a suspended sentence or a community service order, because that would have massively invalidated my worth and my experience to me. I went up to York with my mum and my boyfriend to attend sentencing because I didn’t trust the Victim Support Unit to update me on what his sentence was in a timely manner. I was happy with the sentence he received, although from people’s response on social media, I should be upset it wasn’t longer, but I’m not. I’m happy that he will be on the sex offender’s register for life and in prison for years.”
Why are you deciding to tell your story now?
“I’ve had quite a lot of time to process what happened and whilst it still impacts me to this day, I wanted to be open about what happened. I’m ready to tell my story and want the people at the Uni who never heard my side of the story to hear it.”
We are grateful to Laura for trusting us to share her story. Whilst we are not a support service we felt that this case in particular was a fundamental reason as to why we started The LastTaboo.
Nouse reached out to North Yorkshire Police and Essex Police to offer them the chance to comment but received no statement for this article.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article.
Kelly and Imogen
Co-Founders of The Last Taboo
If you have been affected by the contents of this article or another incident of sexual violence, please reach out for support.
See the below links:
University of York SVLOs —https://www.york.ac.uk/students/health/advice/sexual-violence/svlo/
Report and Support Tool —https://www.york.ac.uk/students/health/advice/sexual-violence/
Open Door (University of Yorkon-campus mental health support)—https://www.york.ac.uk/students/health/help/open-door/