news

FEATURE: 14 years on, Emily has moved on from being raped. But what happened after haunts her.

The last thing Emily* remembers about the night she was assaulted is standing near the bar at a Gold Coast pub and looking down at the ice cubes clinking in the bottom of her glass of water. 

The rest she had to piece together. She'd been out with colleagues for a birthday celebration. (They later told her she went to the bathroom and never returned.) Blackness. Then she'd woken up somewhere she didn't recognise.

It was the bedroom of a Gold Coast apartment, sparsely furnished, with just a computer and a bare mattress. A man was asleep beside her; average build, a similar height to hers, with thin, downy hair, almost as if it was regrowing. 

With the gap in her memory and the pain deep within her wounded genitals, Emily knew she had been drugged and raped.

That was nearly 14 years ago now, and Emily says she has largely healed from that stranger's violation. 

But the trauma of how police handled her report lives with her still.

Watch: Sexual assault is on the minds of many Australian women. But what about men?


Video via Mamamia


Speaking to Mamamia, Emily said that she attended a police station in the Gold Coast region the day after waking up in the stranger's apartment.

By then, she'd been to the hospital where she had been supported by a social worker, given IV antibiotics and had undergone an STD screening.

She hoped reporting to police would leave her feeling understood and empowered, and that it would mean she could begin the process of bringing a predator to justice. Instead, she said the officer dealing with her allegations suggested she had invented them, pressured her not to pursue criminal charges and made her feel like she'd brought the attack on herself.

ADVERTISEMENT

"Rather than trying to listen to me and understand my story, she was trying to convince me that I had slept with someone and was crying rape because my boyfriend might find out," Emily said.

"There are two things she said to me, in particular, that I've never forgotten. The first was 'We all make choices,' and then 'You could be sending an innocent man to jail.'

"Those two things have stuck with me for the last 14 years."

What happened in that police station is what so many victim-survivors fear about reporting an assault: not being believed. And when that fear is confirmed, it can have devastating consequences for the individual's mental health and recovery process.

"It can re-traumatise them."

Dr Neeraja Sanmuhanathan, a sexual assault counsellor at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, told Mamamia that the first disclosure a victim-survivor makes is usually the most vulnerable one.

"It sets the tone for who else they might want to talk to about it. And if that first response is not supportive, if it's victim-blaming and unhelpful, it can re-traumatise them," she said.

The consequences of re-traumatisation vary from person to person, but Dr Sanmuhanathan said people may become withdrawn, revert to self-blame, or look for ways to numb their pain.

"They can even experience a reduced capacity to trust in other relationships, to be open and vulnerable with people that they love, to take steps forward in their careers or in life," she said.

That was true for Emily.

Her relationship crumbled in the wake of the assault and her experience at the police station.

"I couldn't bring myself to tell [my partner] because I was just so ashamed at the time. I started acting out. I wasn't a very good partner; I was dismissive, and I really don't want to admit it, but I started seeing someone else," she said.

"If a police officer thinks you're this promiscuous person who asks for it, then why would you argue? It's like I was fulfilling their expectation. I regret that. I never wanted to hurt him, I just didn't know how to cope."

It didn't stop there. When Emily entered a subsequent relationship, she started having vivid nightmares that her partner had raped her. Though he'd done nothing wrong, her traumatised body responded to his touch by clamming up and generating powerful feelings of repulsion. 

ADVERTISEMENT

She ended up leaving the relationship and seeking the help of a sexual assault support service in her area. 

She's now married with three daughters but still struggles to trust people and to accept that when bad things happen she hasn't brought them on herself.

"I've moved on from the rape. But to be considered such a second-class citizen for having the audacity to report it is so traumatic. It just diminishes your experience. It diminishes you as a person," she said through tears. "It changed me."

How the reporting process can fail victim-survivors.

Though roughly one in six Australian women and one in 23 men have been sexually assaulted since the age of 15, most never even walk into the police station or pick up the phone to report what happened.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics' 2016 Personal Safety Survey, for example, nine in ten women victim-survivors did not contact police about their most recent incident of sexual assault.

Research points to three main reasons why: 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), and it's anything but an obvious solution.

Sadly, there's also evidence that some police don't always treat sexual assault allegations with the fairness and rigour they deserve.

A decade after Emily's experience, Gold Coast District police were singled out in a damning report by the Queensland Audit Office. The report found that, between 2010 and 2016, officers in the district employed methods aimed at having victims withdraw their complaints in order to reduce their number of unsolved crimes.

Stigma and biases can come into play, too. 

According to Emily's account, the officer handling her disclosure appeared to show a belief in several 'rape myths': that Emily had been careless and put herself in the situation, that she was promiscuous, and that she was trying to trap an innocent man.

These are persistent ideas.

Listen: What men need to hear, and what men need to understand about what they can and should be doing to make every space a safe one for all women and girls. (Article continues below.)


The 2017 National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey found that one in eight Australians believe that if a woman is raped while she is drunk or affected by drugs, she is at least partly responsible. Two in five agreed that "it was common for sexual assault accusations to be used as a way of getting back at men".

ADVERTISEMENT

That's despite the fact that studies have concluded that just five per cent of sexual assault claims are found to be false. And even in that context, 'false' doesn't necessarily mean maliciously invented; it can also include claims in which there wasn't sufficient evidence to prove the allegation, or a report was made on behalf of a victim who chose not to pursue the case.

Rita Shackel, Professor of Law and Ethics at Sydney University and the co-director of the Sydney Institute of Criminology, notes that there's a lot of discretion exercised by individuals in the justice process.

"That has a big impact on victims in terms of their wellbeing and recovery. But it also has a very big impact on what ultimately may or may not occur in a case, and that's just fundamentally wrong. It should never come down to differences between individuals," she said.

"In these systems, there needs to be a higher degree of accountability and transparency and consistency in the way these processes unfold, for all complainants. It shouldn't be potluck in terms of who you end up seeing when you first make a report and who your particular prosecutor is."

"It was so big for me to talk to anyone."

A negative reporting experience doesn't just have consequences for the victim's recovery, it can influence their willingness to make future disclosures. 

As Dr Sanmuhanathan said, "Going to police or health services with certain expectations of what they can offer and then to have a negative experience, it absolutely shatters assumptions around what we consider to be safe people and safe environments.”

That was certainly the case for Jas Rawlinson. 

The author, speaker and book coach chose not to approach police for a decade after being sexually assaulted due in large part to her experience disclosing to a hospital sexual assault counsellor.

Jas, who was 20 at the time, said the counsellor failed to take any notes about her case and repeated the same questions when she returned for a second appointment, apparently having no record or recollection of who Jas was or what she'd been through.

Even before walking in that day, Jas was already doubting the seriousness of what had been done to her. She said the man who attacked her had taken her out to breakfast after the assault and showered her with compliments like nothing was wrong. On top of that, a friend had suggested Jas couldn't call the incident rape because she had a close relationship with the perpetrator.

ADVERTISEMENT

Having grown up amid domestic violence (her father was emotionally and verbally abusive), self-doubt and self-blame were familiar. But she hoped disclosing the assault would help her address the confusion she was feeling.

"It was so big for me to talk to anyone, and then to not feel heard, to not have any of what I said recorded, it was traumatic. It just reaffirmed that there was no point in talking to anyone about it," she said.

Jas believed that for years, until she started engaging in domestic violence advocacy work. It opened her eyes to the toxic elements of her relationship with her attacker and helped her to confront her past traumas. Part of that process involved going to the police.

Though a decade had passed since the attack, she said officers supported her and laid out her options for proceeding with an investigation.

"I just felt relief wash over me because I'd finally broken that silence and police now had a record and they knew. For me, I think that was the biggest thing," Jas said. "It made me feel that they took me seriously, and that they were on my side."

She ultimately chose not to take the case any further.

"I made a decision that, for me, justice wasn't seeing that person behind bars. I needed to break through my own bars, and I needed to live free of that prison that I'd been living in. Unless I did that, having that person behind bars wasn't going to really change anything," she said.

"It definitely wasn't too long after that that I was able to work through the PTSD symptoms that I was having. It was a very big part of my healing journey, to take that burden off myself."

Ways forward: the power of choice.

When considering ways to improve the reporting process for victim-survivors, both Prof Shackel and Dr Sanmuhanathan stress the importance of agency.

"Different victims and survivors need different things to obtain justice and also to recover from the trauma of their experience," Prof Shackel said. "I think that's the piece of the picture that is often missing.

"Victims, or complainants, are pushed through processes without any understanding or recognition or thought given to what that individual needs."

ADVERTISEMENT

Informal reporting options, like Jas chose, are a positive step.

They are also among the many reasons the number of sexual assault victims recorded by police has increased to record levels in recent years.

Between 2014 and 2020, it jumped by 33 per cent to 27,505 victims. In 2020, the majority (84 per cent) were women and girls.

Informal sexual assault reporting options.

For those unsure about going through the formal police reporting process, there are alternative ways to be heard

Most states and territories have a reporting option that allows victim-survivors to submit the details of their assault to the police without proceeding with a prosecution. 

Taking this route can be therapeutic for the victim-survivor and also provides police with valuable information that can assist in identifying repeat offenders and crime trends. It also means you can have the incident recorded to pursue at a later date.

New South Wales, for example, has SARO (Sexual Assault Reporting Option) — a questionnaire that can be filled out online and posted or emailed to the Child Abuse & Sex Crimes Squad. Victim-survivors can choose to provide their details or remain anonymous. 

Queensland has a similar system called ARO. And anonymous reports can be made via Crime Stoppers in all states.

Victim-survivors can also disclose to a public sexual assault service, a GP, or to a doctor or sexual assault worker at a public hospital.

Each can offer support and explain the various options available. They will not contact police on the victim-survivor's behalf unless the victim-survivor asks them to or unless the victim-survivor is under 16, which means they'd be bound to under mandatory reporting laws.

Experts believe public awareness about sexual assault has also likely played a role in encouraging people to speak up; in particular, the swell of victim-survivors who chose to share their stigma-busting stories via the #metoo movement.

Bit by bit, our culture is changing, and institutions, law enforcement and healthcare are working hard to keep pace.

But there is a long way to go to ensure all victim-survivors can feel empowered and supported throughout the process.

For some, that can hinge on something as simple as a few validating words.

For Sydney woman Natalie, who was sexually assaulted on a second date earlier this year, the support of investigating officers has been key to empowering her to pursue prosecution. She said from the moment she walked into the police station to make a report, she was treated with respect and care.

While Natalie is eager to highlight the role that privilege likely played in how seriously her report was taken (it was a small station in a wealthy urban area, and she came armed with advice from her counsellor), she doesn't downplay the importance of the individual officers' understanding of the issue, of the trauma-informed way they treated her.

There's one statement made by the lead detective on her case that still brings her to tears months later. The good, cathartic kind of tears.

"Unprompted, he said, 'You didn't do anything to deserve what happened to you. And I hope you know that.'"

As a survivor of child sexual abuse — crimes which loved ones dismissed when she spoke up — those words meant everything.

They helped quell the narrative playing out in her mind after the assault, the voice she called "Richard" ("because he was a dick"). The voice perpetuating those stubborn rape myths; telling her she had done something to deserve it, that she should have been more careful screening her date and being out with him after dark, that she should have fought him off, that no one would take her seriously.

ADVERTISEMENT

"I was quite heavily in denial about how bad it actually was, despite having sought medical treatment for a pelvic infection, despite having bruises and not being really able to move my neck," she said.

(She later learned her neck pain was due to whiplash.)

But with the guidance of her counsellor and the words of that police officer, Natalie has felt able to forge on, to endure the six hours it took to give her formal statement, to make the return visit to the scene of the assault to guide evidence gathering, and to face the next 18 months, or more, wading through the justice system.

"The process has its imperfections, and it's not the kindest," she said. "But to have someone who was part of that process say, 'This is not your fault and I hope you know that,' and 'We believe you', it shut Richard up. It shut the voice in my head up."

That is the difference one person can make.

* Names have been changed.


If you have experienced sexual assault and need to speak to someone, support is available via 1800 RESPECT. Call 1800 737 732 to speak to a trained counsellor.

If you are experiencing a personal crisis, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.


Feature image: Getty

Want a cheeky $50? Tell us what you think
MMSurvey