real life

Reporting sexual assault is hard enough. Then there's another layer of complexity.

Navigating the difficult terrain of reporting sexual assault can be a lonely experience for victim-survivors.

There's stigma and often a lack of support. Plus, there are the logistical challenges of not knowing where to begin or where it ends. It's likely for these reasons why only 10 per cent of sexual assaults are typically reported. We've even seen this reflected in pop culture as well, take for example Netflix's Unbelieveable (as pictured in this article). 

But the system is slowly changing. Advocates and experts in the field are calling for reform - hoping to change the outcome for victim-survivors everywhere. 

For Sarah Rosenberg, it's personal. From her perspective and many others, the system and processes of communication need a complete overhaul. 

"Often there's a lack of capacity, stretched resources - particularly in regional or disadvantaged areas," she says. "But when someone works up the courage to say what happened to them, we need to listen."

Watch: Breaking the silence - reporting historical sexual assault. Story continues below.

Video via TEDX.

For Sarah herself, she knows what it's like to lodge a report to police and feel like just a number in the legal system.

"I remember I walked into the police station clutching my copy of Chanel Miller's book Know My Name. I personally felt if I didn't report I couldn't live with myself. It was hard.

"And I found no comfort in knowing my story wasn't unique. If anything, it made me feel sick. So I decided to try and do something about it."

As Sarah tells Mamamia, we know roughly one in 10 victim-survivors will report to the police. Then out of that, maybe two of the cases will go through to being investigated, and perhaps one will only proceed forward if the evidence is really, really strong.

"I want to take away the fear of not knowing and that lack of agency for victim-survivors. Because you shouldn't feel ashamed for reporting an alleged serious crime. And no one should feel in the dark."

NSW Police recently launched an online portal 'SARO' where people can report sexual assault. It's an alternative to making a formal police complaint, which makes a record of the report but does not trigger a police investigation.

The portal can be viewed in a dozen different languages and is designed to democratise reporting - giving people the opportunity to tell police as much as they want to, in their own words, in their own time, if they don't feel comfortable attending a station. 


But in-person reporting remains the preferred option, according to Child Abuse and Sex Crimes Squad Commander Detective Superintendent Jayne Doherty. 

"We always encourage victims to ring and speak to police or attend a station, because that gives us a couple of things. It gives you that actual human contact where we can talk through any individual concerns the victim might have - ensure they're connected with appropriate services for their physical/mental wellbeing," Detective Superintendent Doherty says to Mamamia.

"It also gives us an opportunity to look at any physical evidence we might be able to preserve, for example downloading the victim's phone if appropriate or looking at DNA opportunities."


"We know this is the most traumatic thing that's ever likely happened to them, and when in trauma, information doesn't always sink in. Giving them something tangible, like a pamphlet [which is now done throughout NSW police stations via investigators] can help. We are looking at the way police respond to sexual violence and changing that to be a victim-centric and trauma-informed response."

The next step some will face after reporting a sexual assault to police is liaising with the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). Sarah says that anecdotally speaking with victim-survivors, they find this part of the process the most challenging. 

"We hear more and more about reporting now, but as for experiences with the DPP - it's not discussed enough. There's this middle bit of the criminal justice system that no one really understands. So many feel like they're left alone, years in a queue, waiting for trial with no idea what is going on," Sarah notes.

The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions is an independent statutory organisation that is responsible for prosecuting people who have been charged with serious criminal offences.


When it comes to reports of sexual assault, not all end up being referred to the DPP to proceed to court or a trial. This is for a variety of reasons, which can include a lack of evidence or sometimes the desire of complainants not to proceed with a criminal prosecution.

As Sarah explains to Mamamia: "There's so much of a process that goes into police presenting a brief of evidence to the DPP - months and months of investigative work. That brief then goes to the DPP, and it's up to them to comb through that brief, far more rigorously. Then they decide if there's enough to prosecute with.

"If there's enough to go ahead to trial, then the victim-survivor is one of the lucky ones. Which is ironic, considering the emotional toll of a court case and the burden being on them to prove they are in fact a victim."

Jane Wolf is the Manager of the Witness Assistance Service (WAS) at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

She told Mamamia that WAS officers do understand that re-living events for a court case can be stressful for a victim-survivor. The aim now is to "reduce as much as possible re-traumatisation" by providing "practical and emotional support", and information about what to expect.

And although progress is slowly being made, Sarah hopes we continue to see a greater push for system-wide reform. 

"There needs to be more sensitivity shown towards victims - talking them through what happens next, what's expected of the victim-survivor. If we create more understanding around our justice system, not just for victims but for the public who might not otherwise engage with it, we can highlight its limitations and push for reform."


All in all, the entire process can take months or years to reach a verdict if the case goes to court.


This is why many victim-survivors experience burnout. 

Sarah recognises her privilege, saying her experience in the police system "can't have been as traumatising" as those experiencing discrimination.

"I am a young, white female from the eastern suburbs of Sydney with a strong support network around me. It was isolating, scary and frustrating, but people were nice to me. Everyone was trying. Imagine what it's like for marginalised people and groups."

As for the legal system though, Sarah "felt like cannon fodder".

Karen Iles is the Founder, Director and Principal Solicitor at Violet Co, a legal and consulting practice working with clients to strengthen social outcomes predominantly for women and Indigenous peoples. She is also a Dharug woman and survivor of sexual assault.

"The Australian community is demanding more from our justice systems; more from police and courts. While there have been some recent changes, the system is far from perfect," she says to Mamamia.

There are a number of barriers diverse and marginalised women face when reporting sexual assault too.

"We have to really look at why women don't report to police, as many within our community don't have good experiences with police. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities, migrant communities, people of colour, LGBTQIA+ communities, sex workers and victims of domestic and family violence, often raise issues about the discriminatory policing of their communities and the misidentification of victims as perpetrators. 


"A recent inquiry into Police Conduct in Queensland demonstrated the deeply ingrained misogyny and racism within police. Countless examples do not paint a picture that inspires confidence."

Interestingly, many victim-survivors are now choosing to engage their own private lawyers to help them make reports to police and navigate the justice system, Karen says. And it's increasingly seen as a suitable way to manage and minimise the potential of re-traumatisation.

"The police are the beginning of the justice system funnel. They are the gatekeepers to access justice. We must demand they do better in how they handle these serious crimes so that more victim-survivors feel confident in how police will respond to their reports of rape and sexual assault," she explains to Mamamia.

It's the reason Sarah Rosenberg founded With You We Can. It is a victim-led network and online resource bridging gaps between victims of sexual assault and the police/legal processes. And its goal is to demystify the process while advocates work to improve it. 

And Sarah isn't alone in pushing for reform, with Karen Iles also part of With You We Can's Advisory Committee. Karen will be a part of a campaign Sarah is launching in May to pilot independent legal representation for victims of sexual violence. They will be hosting a screening of Suzie Miller's Prima Facie to a room of lawyers to highlight flaws of the criminal justice system, and then following it with a Q&A with Sarah, Karen, Brittany Higgins and expert Mary Illiadis, among others.  


"I am lucky to have some incredible pioneers of change that have reached out to me, helping me with the resource and my advocacy agenda," Sarah told Mamamia. 

"I'm fortunate to stand on their shoulders. There are good people out there fighting the good fight."

And the response from the With You We Can resource going live recently has been overwhelming. 

"It's bittersweet to see the response the resource has had. The number of people in my DMs from across the country, and also overseas. Now for those in Australia, I can send them this resource - something tangible that can make a difference," Sarah says.

"I want people to know their options and be able to make an informed decision. It's about helping the next victim. Ultimately, the goal is reform. But I want to empower victims first and foremost."

To see more from With You We Can, visit their website here.

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.

Feature Image: Netflix.