true crime

“I was viciously attacked by a man in broad daylight.”

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, please seek help with a qualified counsellor or by calling 1800 RESPECT.

It was a Tuesday. Just before 4pm.

The day was as ordinary as they come. If it weren’t for what happened, the day would have been entirely lost to memory.

My twin sister and I had done some grocery shopping and were walking home together.

As we talked, I made eye contact with a fairly normal looking young man heading towards us. I gave him a nod of acknowledgment. It’s strange how we do that – almost as a primal instinct to assess our environment for potential danger.

Even in retrospect, I know that this man did not make me feel uneasy. I didn’t flinch or consider crossing the road. In my mind, I existed in a bubble – even though I was occupying a public space, my body remained private.

And then it popped.

Sun lit suburban front yard
“In my mind, I existed in a bubble.” Image via iStock.

The moment of approach was, to this date, the most terrifying of my life. I do not recall what he was wearing, his height, or what he looked like, but I will never ever forget how that moment felt.

As we went to cross paths, as we must do with strangers hundreds of times each day, he darted. It was animalistic how quickly his direction changed. He went from walking so normally, like just a young man on his way to the bus stop, to violently imposing himself onto me.

He charged at me and grabbed me by both arms. My sister screamed at the top of her lungs. I thought “he must want my wallet” and I remember saying “take it, take it” as I desperately tried to hand him my bag.

I then remember realising that he wasn’t at all interested in my wallet.

The look in his eyes was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It was almost as though he wasn’t human.

Mia Freedman, Monique Bowley and Jessie Stephens discuss the practice of ‘casual sexual assault’ on Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues below. 

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He pushed me into a driveway off the view of the street and put his hands down my jumper, inside my bra. My overwhelming instinct was to push him away with as much force as I could muster. I felt like a mouse defending itself from a bear.

I realised later that this was the first time in my life, and hopefully the last, I’d physically fought. I didn’t know what your arms were meant to do. Or how hard I was capable of hitting.

My sister continued to scream, louder than I knew she could.

It’s funny how vividly I remember my thought pattern, whilst feeling somewhat disconnected from the event itself. My mind told me that this man was going to hurt me. He was going to kill me. I could feel something against my right leg, which I was convinced was a knife.

man
“I then remember realising that he wasn’t at all interested in my wallet.” Image via iStock.

My sister yelled that she was calling the police. He started laughing, stood up, pulled his pants down and started masturbating, centimetres from my face. He looked from me to her, madly laughing.

I took this moment to run, and he ran in the opposite direction.

This is not, however, where the story ends.

If only.

A new page of the story is written every time I walk out my front door. Every time I am surrounded by people in a public space. Every time a man shuffles past me as I walk down the street.

When we went to the police station, the constable told us that we were, “lucky this was the first time something like this had happened.” He also explained that some men don’t have women in their lives, and as a result, “act out”.

Indecent and sexual assault have little to do with sex and everything to do with violence. In that moment, I felt the violence. This was an act of aggression and an expression of power that had absolutely nothing to do with sexual desire. This man did not ‘want’ me – he hated me.

Mia Freedman, Monique Bowley and Jessie Stephens discuss what’s wrong with a ‘harmless’ grope. Post continues below. 

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A new page of the story is written every time I dream that I am screaming and no sound is coming out.

My sister had not yelled to an empty street. There were bystanders, several of them. They were all women and no one came to help us. When the police arrived, a neighbour said that she thought the screams were “kids playing” – but I knew that the woman who watched the whole thing from her letterbox would be hard pressed to draw on a similar excuse.

I do not blame these women. We are often told that when situations like this occur we have either a fight or flight response. But sometimes we freeze. And these women, understandably, froze. They didn’t have a manual for how to react – they were as shocked as we were that in broad daylight, on an average Tuesday afternoon, a man was attacking a woman on their street.

A new page of the story is written every time I hear a similar attack in the news, and wonder if the man who attacked them is the same man who attacked me.

There is extensive psychological research on the brain’s inability to recall basic details after a traumatic event. After a bank robbery, a room of ten people might describe the perpetrator in ten different ways. I could not remember anything about this man.

Jessie and Clare Stephens. Image supplied.

He could have been 20 or 40. I cannot remember the colour of his skin, and if he walked past me tomorrow I very much doubt I would recognise him. This meant that my statement was as good as useless.

I care less about the man receiving justice, than I do about how a potential attack on another woman might permanently imprint itself on her. What happened to me extended so far beyond five minutes of fear. He might not have wanted my wallet, but he did rob me that day. He robbed me of my sense of safety.

I wasn’t ignorant. I knew that indecent assault, sexual assault and even rape, were all too common female experiences.

They just weren’t things that would ever happen to me.

In the weeks following, I spoke to women around me about what had happened and I was overwhelmed by how many of them had had a similar experience. 20 or 30 years later, they remembered it as though it was yesterday.

An event like this becomes part of who you are. As interwoven as your handwriting, or your mannerisms. It forever alters the way you see the world.

I’d love to write that in spite of this experience, I am now able to walk down the street with the same level of entitlement as the man who assaulted me. That I refuse to let this experience continue to oppress me and infringe on my daily sense of freedom.

Perhaps that will be the next chapter.

Mamamia’s Survivors of Sexual Assault Week is about providing support for the one in five women Australian women who will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. To read more from Survivors of Sexual Assault Week, click here. If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, don't suffer in silence, contact 1800 RESPECT or visit www.1800respect.org.au

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