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Most survivors of sexual assault never report it. Here, 4 share the complicated reasons why.

Warning: the following contains descriptions of sexual assault and suicidal ideation.

When a person makes allegations of historic sexual harassment or assault through the media, the same questions follow. In comments sections. In social media threads. In households, and among friendship groups.

Why didn't she speak up at the time? Why now? Why did she tell the media and not the police?

We've heard these questions asked of survivors again and again, often with thinly veiled suspicion. Be it of the Hollywood stars who exposed the predation of producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017, or of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins who came forward this month with allegations she was raped by a parliamentary colleague.

Each time the answer has been different and, invariably, complicated. 

Watch: Violence and women, the overlooked numbers.


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Research points to three main reasons why women don't contact police: internalised shame, doubt about the seriousness of the incident, and a belief they could deal with it themselves.

Throw into that the tangle of other factors (such as their relationship to the perpetrator, the impact on their career and finances, lack of concrete evidence), and it's little wonder that only 50 per cent of women survivors seek advice or support of any kind. Of those, only one in six approach police.

Yet still, according to the National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey, 11 per cent of Australians believe a woman is "probably lying" if she didn't report her assault straight away. And 42 per cent agree that it is "common for sexual assault accusations to be used as a way of getting back at men".

Here, four survivors share the complicated reality of why they chose not to report their sexual assault — the intricacies, the roadblocks, and all.

Isabella*

Sexual assault is something that many of us imagine as a violent and aggressive act, an obvious act. But it can be perpetrated by people you love, and people who love you.

My perpetrator was a boyfriend.

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We had been dating for a few months. As I was a virgin, we talked about when I’d be ready to have sex and made plans to start birth control. I wanted to wait to be sure I was in love, safe from pregnancy, and that he was the right guy. Unfortunately, he didn’t think he needed to wait.

He had me pinned down by my arms so I couldn’t push him away, and I was unable to move with the weight of him on me. He kept going even when I was asking him to stop.

The trouble is that, around that time, we had started sleeping in the same bed at night and making out, so I thought people would think I deserved it. I knew that it was my word against his.

Also, when you’ve already established that you are in love with someone, you're made to feel it isn't right to be calling the police on them.

I thought that I could handle it myself.

At first, I tried to discuss it with him, to say it wasn't OK and that it could never happen again. He laughed it off and said, "Oh, but I just couldn't resist how sexy you were" and "I didn't think you meant 'no' for real."

It continued like this from time to time, and sometimes he called me "a prude" or "frigid" and set up a context that I was never 'allowed' to say no to him. He never accepted my point of view. Instead, he spoke with a loving tone of voice, or with mock laughter, to make out like it was all OK and that I'd imagined that what happened was negative.

That's gaslighting, as I've learned now.

Read more: What is 'gaslighting' in relationships? And how can you tell if it's happening to you?

The trouble was that this continued through the years. If he was ready for sex, he was unwilling to hold himself back — even if I wasn’t ready. We had an active consensual sex life at other times, but there were some days he just didn’t care about where I was at. He always pinned my arms down in a particular way, and I was disabled by it. I admit to giving in after initially fighting him or yelling at him to stop, as I just ended up getting hurt. Giving in made it go faster.

He had such self-confidence and certainty that he was in the right. I was quite uncertain about what was right and wrong, and so I just stayed quiet.

I eventually spoke with a psychologist to help me manage relationship issues and learned that she classified his actions as abuse. 

I got SUPER fit and strong, to the point I could do 50 one-armed push-ups! I used to think of myself as Demi Moore in G.I. Jane. I became quite masculine in general, which I now know was to protect myself when no other means worked. I could fight him off in the end. I successfully threw him off me one night and he fell off the bed onto the floor quite hard. He was so disgusted and yelled at me, saying I was "treating him like a f***ing rapist!" I said that was exactly what he was.

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That’s the first time I used that word with him so boldly. 

He never did it again. Well, he never had the chance. I left him shortly after that, as I realised it would never stop — he had no respect for my needs in any way.

Unfortunately, I don't think you ever truly escape a past of abuse; you just learn to make the most of it. 

I'm very wary of monogamous relationships and don't have any desire to feel trapped in the same house with another human again. I love my independence and have built a fantastic, empowered life now building a global business without anyone holding me back. I call the shots in my own way these days.

Stephanie

I was 17 years old when I was sexually assaulted by a high-profile media personality while on a work experience placement.

I told no one. Not a soul. I was too scared, and I was embarrassed. 

My mum's friend had scored me the work experience job, and I didn't want her to think I was ungrateful. 

Nothing was overtly said that my future career would be at risk. But I was just starting out, and I had read and seen enough stories in which women who had been raped or sexually assaulted were labelled as troublemakers and attention seekers. And I didn't want to be labelled that way. 

In the 80s, it was part of the culture. Women's bottoms were pinched, men brushed up against you, leered at you on the street, made sexual comments about your body at work, and a woman's job was to grin and bear it. Back then there was no consciousness about how to treat women.

Listen: The Quicky investigates the failings that led to the alleged assault on Brittany Higgins, and what you can do if you are harassed or violated in the workplace.


And being quiet was learned behaviour.

I watched my mother be abused by men most of my life, and she never did anything about it. 

And I was raped when I was 14 and a victim of attempted rape when I was 15. I told my next-door neighbour (she was 15 as well), and she told me to keep it a secret because people would think I was a slut. '

The 17-year-old boy who raped me when I was 14 told his mates and it got around the school. I was tormented and bullied for months by the other boys. The teachers did nothing. 

So it was really, 'why bother?'

Also, tied up in this was the guilt and shame from being sexually assaulted by my grandfather, between the ages of 12 and 15. I lived with him at the time, and when I told my mum and we left that weekend. But we never talked about it.

After the workplace assault, I was so glad when the week of work experience ended. I had spent most of my time avoiding the person so that I was never near them or alone with them again. 

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For years afterwards, I was self-destructive, trying to find ways to sabotage my life. I took drugs, I drank a lot, I rebelled, and I went into a long-term relationship with an abusive man and lived like that for five years.

By the time I was 25, I was a mess and spiralled into depression. 

With the help of a dear friend and a doctor, I cleaned myself up, moved to Brisbane, met my husband, and we have been married happily for 26 years.

But it stayed with me a long time, and it wasn't until last year that I told anyone what happened.

I turned 50, and I didn't want to carry any more baggage; I wanted to be free of emotional pain and shame. I decided to write a book about my first 25 years, my experiences and how I had dealt with it. Writing about it allowed me to see the story and to realise what a strong human I am and how much I had overcome.

Allison

Back in 1995, I was 31 and set up on a date with a friend of a friend. He was a lawyer and new to Melbourne.

Dinner was ordinary; in fact, he was boring. So, I ended the date and told him that I was going over the road to a bar to meet a friend who was taking me to the infamous Hellfire Club. I explained that I had never been and was going to just to see inside, but was very nervous. I know I tried to explain my outfit away (leather jeans, a black bra and a sheer black shirt), as it wasn't really 'me'. 

Anyway, my friend cancelled. The guys at the bar knew me and, for some inexplicable reason, watched me get mindlessly drunk that night. I have no recollection of speaking to the date at the bar, but apparently this 'good samaritan' said he would drive me home. 

The next thing I know, I woke up in my bed, completely naked, with the date trying his damndest to have intercourse with me.

I came to, screaming like a banshee, telling him to get out. He said he didn't understand what was wrong.

About a week later, after driving to work and considering driving into one of the pylons on the Tullamarine Freeway, I went and saw a counsellor. I completely blamed myself due to the way I was dressed and how much I drank. 

I know it wasn't right, but I still wear blame. And the fact that he was a lawyer stopped me from reporting to police. How can a pillar of the community compare to a girl dressed like a slut who got drunk?

I ended up selling my flat as I couldn't live there any longer.

I never told my family. They still don't know.

Susan

I was always told that the clothes that I wore wearing were asking for trouble. I ignored it, of course. At 19, I was invincible. 

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But when my attack happened, I was wearing loose-fitting long pants and a button-up shirt, and I still blamed myself.

It was 40 years ago, and I was on holiday in another state.

I was walking back to the accommodation one evening when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around. The punch to the face knocked me out completely, and it wasn't until I was being dragged into the back of a car that I came to.

After the attack, I felt so dirty and disgusted that I couldn't face anyone, let alone the police. I didn't even know where the station was, and I was due to go home in two days. 

I could hear my dad saying, "Well, what do you expect with some of the clothes she wears." He didn't understand, and that was how society saw it then. 

The other really big factor was that, in my home state, a lady had recently been dragged over the coals for accusing someone of rape. The whole affair was on the news, and people started questioning her like she was the perpetrator and the guy was the victim.

After an attack like I lived through and the way society likes to find fault, I had no intention of reporting it. In fact, I didn't talk to anyone in detail about it at all. 

I just wanted to pretend it never happened.

By the time I got back to my home state, Mum spoke to the police, and they said they couldn't do anything about it. We would have to travel back to where it happened to lay charges. I didn't want to have to justify why I walked home at 8.30 pm and what I'd done to 'deserve' such a violent and frightening pack rape.

My healing process was long and drawn out. A week after the attack, the doctor put me on antibiotics, and I would break down every time I took one. That was three times a day, and each time, I felt dirtier and more disgusting. It pushed me further back, and I refused to talk to anyone about it.

I tried to brush it away, and I succeeded for a while. But it always comes back to haunt you, in one way or another. 

I still wish I had the strength to have said something, to have reported it, because it may have stopped them doing it again. I still live with a little of that guilt, even though I don't know if they did. 

*Names have been changed.

If this post brings up 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. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. 

Feature image: Getty/Mamamia