real life

"I started to doubt myself." If Sophie is ever the victim of sexual assault again, she won't be reporting it.

This post deals with rape and might be triggering for some readers.

“What if I just peed and then fell asleep?”

“What if I was just lazy and didn’t pull up my pants?”

“What if I am just wasting everyone’s time?”

“What if it never happened?”

These are some of the things that ran through Sophie’s* mind as she prepared to tell the New South Wales police for a fourth time what happened before she woke up alone in the dark with her pants pulled down, after attending a Rugby League Gala Day with friends.

Four months ago, 19-year-old Sophie was raped.

But instead of feeling safe and supported and like she was believed, the then 18-year-old felt so uncomfortable reporting her rape to the authorities that she started to doubt her own story.

Unfortunately this scenario isn’t isolated.

Here’s the trailer to Unbelievable. Post continues after video.

Video by Netflix

The new Netflix mini series Unbelievable is currently making waves, retelling the true story of an American 18-year-old who reported her rape to police, only to be so overwhelmed and mistreated by the system that she ended up (under police pressure) falsely telling the male policemen interviewing her that she “made the story up”.

She hadn’t.

Marie Adler was raped by a serial offender who broke into her house in the middle of the night and subjected her to a terrifying ordeal. In episode one, the viewer is forced to watch Marie undergo a series of tests and interviews that leave her defeated and even more emotionally wounded.

In Australia, it is estimated that fewer than one in five sexual assaults are reported to police. Having gone through the reporting process herself, Sophie admits that if she’s ever sexually assaulted again – she’ll be keeping it to herself.

“I probably wouldn’t report it because I wouldn’t want to go through it again. For anyone to feel safe, they need to feel like someone believes them and not like they are wasting anyone’s time or like they’re an idiot because they drank too much or like they were in the wrong situation.

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“It’s really important that they feel like someone can hear them and that they understand and that they believe that they are telling the truth,” she told Mamamia.

UNBELIEVABLE
Marie repeated her story so many times she started to doubt it, and ended up falsely telling police she made it up so that she didn't have to be in the system anymore. Image: Netflix.

In May 2019, Sophie was spending her Saturday watching rugby league and drinking champagne in the sun with friends.

"It was a fun day, nothing weird happened but then it was like suddenly I just woke up. I woke up across the road [from the rugby field] in the bush lying against a tree."

It was 5:30pm when she roused, and Sophie couldn't remember past about 11am. Within the hour she was at the police station reporting her rape to the front desk, with her sister by her side.

It would be 2am before Sophie got home that night where she collapsed, feeling exhausted and dehydrated, after more than seven hours of non-stop crying.

Not only did the traumatised young woman have to repeat her story three times that night to different groups of people, she visited the hospital for multiple tests where she also underwent her first ever pap smear - before having to revisit the scene of the crime and walk police through her actions from the day.

"I think in hindsight, there were a lot of things they made me do and go through that could have waited," she told Mamamia.

Speaking to Mamamia, Sophie was quick to point out that while she knew police had a job to do, and that they were only putting her through the hours and hours of testing and questioning to help her - it didn't really feel like that at the time.

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"There wasn't much sympathy. It was just 'what happened, where were you, let's take you away'. I understand that needs to happen, but at the time I think I needed more nurturing. I was still really in shock," she explained.

"The first couple of times I told the story it became like a bit of routine, it became like a script. I said it completely to a tee the same. I was honestly a little bit angry that they kept asking me. They already knew," she added.

Sophie thinks a lot of the lack of empathy she felt and her unease with the experience came from having mainly male police officers. After just being raped by a man, she felt like she couldn't trust men in general.

"I understood they were trying to help, but there was no way any of them could've known what it was like. I think that's why I felt more comfortable with the [female] nurses. When I was telling them what happened all three of them nodded... they got it.

"When I was saying it to the [male] police officers, they would write it down like it was a grocery list. There was no sign they had any idea what they were talking about."

After the marathon session with police and nurses the night of her attack, Sophie went home and spent all Sunday alone with her thoughts. By the time she arrived back at the station at 9am on Monday ready for her official statement (and fourth retelling), she was starting to wonder if it had even happened.

"When I got to the station I said that to them," she admitted.

*Sophie speaks to The Quicky about her story. Post continues after audio. 

Looking back, the line of questioning and constant interrogation from the evening had left Sophie completely doubting her experience.

"The amount of times I was asked [during the evening] how many drinks I'd had was ridiculous. It really made me doubt things because I didn't have a set number and they knew that because I'd said so many times I didn't have a complete answer. They said they understood but then they'd just keep asking. It made me feel guilty. It felt like I was that young girl who'd gotten drunk [and that they were looking at me and thinking] 'maybe if she hadn't had so much to drink then we wouldn't all have to deal with this'."

She'd also started questioning the fact she couldn't feel anything. When she woke up she didn't have any physical pain to tell her she'd had sex. “What if I just peed and then fell asleep and forgot to pull up my pants?” she hypothesised.

The entire time Sophie was in the system she remembers feeling guilty. "I felt like I was wasting a lot of people's time," she said. "I felt like I was making them stay back at work, and think about it [the crime]."

But when she arrived back at the station on the Monday, the officer (another new face) told her the hospital tests had detected "residue that wasn't hers" confirming that she was raped. The perpetrator had left semen inside her body.

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"When he said that, I completely broke down. It made it real... it made it certain," she said.

With Sophie's experience in mind, it makes Marie's experience in Unbelievable even more scary. Police questioning during her case also made her start to doubt herself, but her rapist had left no semen or tangible evidence - nothing to placate the new found "doubts" that arose for her.

unbelievable true story
Police detectives interrogate Marie in Unbelievable, to the point where she just wants to get out of the system. Image: Netflix.

After spending three hours in the station on that Monday giving her official statement, Sophie walked into the police lobby ready to finally go home and was confronted with a scene she wasn't really prepared for.

During the interview, she'd had to message friends on Facebook that were with her at the rugby league, asking them to call police and set up a time to give their own statements. By the time she walked out, 5 or 6 people she knew were sitting there waiting.

"A lot of them [that were waiting there] were guys and I was really confronted because in my head I didn't think they were capable but it was possible that it could have been one of them," she told Mamamia.

It took a week and a half to find Sophie's rapist. During that time, everyone at the gala day was questioned, with one boy (who turned out to be innocent) subjected to hours of interviews and tests only to cleared. Sophie was mortified.

"I haven't seen him since and I don't know if I ever will," she told Mamamia, once again describing how guilty the whole process made her feel. "I have never felt like such a pain in the arse."

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Sophie's rapist was a man she'd never met before, but after finding out his identity, she told police she didn't want to press charges. The thought of having to go to court and repeat her story again and again and again was all too much.

"It was a protection of myself, I could not have handled going to court. I couldn't have handled it if I went through all of that and he wasn't found guilty. I don't think I could survive it," she said.

A now 19-year-old Sophie is glad she reported her rape to police because not knowing her rapist's face would have eaten her up.

"I know I would have had anxiety being out in public if I had no idea who it was. I am glad we found out what happened and I was given answers," she told Mamamia.

But Sophie's adamant if it happens again, she's not telling authorities.

If police can learn anything from Sophie telling her story, she wants them to understand that genuine empathy is something she craved while feeling so fragile - and retelling something so harrowing was almost too hard to bear, especially in those initial hours where she feels the process could have been streamlined.

"I understand answers need to be found, but every time you go over it, especially to so many different people, you break a little bit more," she told Mamamia.

A NSW Police spokesperson wrote in a statement to Mamamia, "the welfare of victims is always our number one priority. All NSW Police officers receive training in handling reports of sexual assault and working with victims of crime".

The statement reiterated that, "sex without consent is a crime, no matter the circumstances".

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that last year more than 26,000 people were victims of sexual assault. An overwhelming 84 per cent were female.

Only one in five actually go as far as to report their assault with even fewer prosecuting.

"Unfortunately we know that sexually based offences are under-reported for various reasons, but we want to change that," said NSW Police.

unbelievable-courtroom
Marie during her court case in Unbelievable. In Australia, less than 1% of sexual assault cases end in conviction. Image: Netflix.
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As far as Sophie is concerned, she needed to feel safe and heard. Instead she left the system determined to never see the inside of a police station interview room again.

Karen Willis from Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia says Sophie's opinion isn't uncommon, but she has a few tips victims can follow to help mitigate the trauma that comes with the initial police process.

"Certainly ring a rape crisis centre [like us] and we can provide support. In terms of police, it could be about ringing the station and asking to speak to the crime manager to make a complaint about sexual assault. The manager will determine a specific detective instead of you having to go up to the big blue desk. They could even meet you in your home. You could even just talk to a detective about what making a report involves."

Karen says if the incident was recent, you can alternatively head straight to a major public hospital. "All have sexual assault units with counsellors available. You can do all of the testing required and then make the decision from there to go to police," she explained to Mamamia.

"I can't say it won't be traumatic, of course it will be. But it's about having the support systems in place and making the connections with really good police - and always ask 'why do you want to know that?,' 'what's happening next?'" Karen said.

Ultimately, Karen believes the major issue facing sexual assault victims is actually gender equality. "That's the big issue and underneath there are small drivers," she explained.

"There's a one per cent conviction rate and we aren't jumping up and down about that... about 70 per cent of decision making [in this space] is made by men.

"When we get to gender equality, violence against women will dramatically reduce."

*name changed.

Sophie is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. The feature image used is a stock photo.

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.

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