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Why women don't report: The reality facing sexual assault victims in Australia.

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

There are 60 counsellors on a 24/7 roster. They are hunched over phones and answering calls from women all around the country. There is no script to follow and no time restrictions to meet.

The phones don’t stop ringing and the counsellors never, ever tell the woman on the end of the phone what to do. They are providing support and guidance in a crisis.

It’s the hub of 1800 RESPECT and the NSW Rape Crisis and Sexual Assault hotline. The service will receive more than 60,000 calls this year.

“We know that almost every time we pick up the phone we’re talking to a victim of sexual assault,” Executive Officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, the organisation running the counselling services, Karen Willis told Mamamia.  “If the primary reason for her call isn’t sexual assault, it’s domestic violence. And, in cases of domestic violence, it’s likely she has been been forced into sex by her partner in the past.”

The 60,000 calls come from 28,000 individuals around the country.

“Many women call more than once,” Willis said.

But 28,000 is only a portion of the 100,000 women who are sexually assaulted in Australia every year.

Why are these women picking up the phone?

Victims are calling for help, but not from police.

“Around 20 per cent of the callers are ringing within the first seven days of being raped,” Willis said.

“These women are dealing with the direct impact of assault. They’re worried about pregnancy, STIs and they’re usually feeling out of control. They are trying to make sense of something that will never make sense. They are having trouble sleeping and eating and their life has been turned upside down.”

For 50 per cent of callers, it’s been between eight days and six months since they have been assaulted, Willis continued.

“These are the women who’ve decided to put it behind them. They’re not going to think about it and they’re trying to get on with things, but memories of violence keep flooding into their brain. They’re angry, jumpy, living in fear. A lot of women find they can’t concentrate as easily and they become frustrated with people for no reason.”

The remainder of women are calling after at least six months has passed.

“Something’s occurred that’s brought the whole thing back. Maybe it’s the anniversary of the assault; it could be a court appearance is approaching; it might be that her daughter is going on a first date and it’s bringing back bad memories,” Willis said.

Women who've been raped are fearful of the criminal justice system. Image via iStock.
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These women are calling the counselling service, but they're not calling the police.

The Government's most recent Personal Safety Report from 2012 found 102,400 women had been sexually assaulted in the 12 months leading up to the survey. The survey was conducted anonymously and completed by men and women in the privacy of their own home.

In the same year, police in New South Wales (the state accounts for 33 per cent of the national population) received only 4,059 reports of sexual assault.

Read that again: 4,059 reports in New South Wales out of 102,400 women around Australia. It's not an issue of geography. It's an issue of reporting.

"We always talk to people about their criminal justice options," Willis said. "Thirty years ago, you'd mention police and the response would be 'forget it'. Now, more women are talking about it, more women want to know more about the process. There are still some women who will never consider it."

Imagine if it were any other crime.

Would the owner of a clothing store be reluctant to call the police if they found windows smashed and all the money stolen from the safe?

Would a victim of home invasion, who had bruises and a broken nose and a swollen face and all their possessions gone, fail to consider reporting the incident to police?

Why is sexual assault different? Because an allegation of sexual assault can tear a community apart.

"Communities often protect a perpetrator and it can make it very difficult to speak out if you fear that there will be a community backlash or the media will forensically analyse your life and pursue you," Chief Executive Officer of Domestic Violence NSW Moo Baulch told Mamamia.

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In most cases, the perpetrator has an existing relationship with the victim. Maybe they're family, maybe they work together. When the complainant decides to report, the world is split into those who believe and those who do not.

"Most of the articles we read, or the stories we hear, are about 'stranger danger' and this is a myth," Willis said. "We know that 90 per cent of sexual assault is perpetrated by someone known to the victim."

"Our culture is not kind to victims of sexual assault... When people hear of someone being raped it's almost like 20 questions before they decide to believe them or not - how much were you drinking? Did you kiss him? What were you wearing? What shoes did you have on?  Did you even say 'no'?" Willlis said.

"As if any sex offender would take notice of the word 'no'."

The reports that don't encourage victims to report.

These questions aren't just asked in communities, or whispered behind closed doors. We hear and see and watch these messages in news headlines every day.

Last month an Italian judge threw a rape case out of court because he said the victim didn't yell 'no' loud enough.

Last year American university student Brock Turner received three months in jail after raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster - the newspapers covered the court proceedings, but they also ran his record swimming times.

This month, another university student in the US is being sentenced for filming the gang rape of his unconscious girlfriend. His lawyers told the court he was introduced to drinking and the "party culture" by his football teammates.

A filmed gang rape of an unconscious woman, excused as party culture? This, too, was reported in the news.

"The women who call us, the victims, they're asking themselves the same questions. They are saying 'but I was drinking, I did kiss him on the dance floor, he was my boyfriend'," Willis said.

"But all these things are normal aspects of human behaviour. What isn't normal is raping or sexually assaulting someone. It's time everyone understood sexual assault is absolutely the responsibility of the offender."

According to the Baulch, education is essential in changing this culture.

"Our attitudes to sexual violence are changing but we still don't have a nuanced mainstream narrative about consent," Baulch told Mamamia.

"Better education in schools and beyond on what consent is; how drugs and alcohol affect someone's ability to consent; and more honest conversations about getting clear consent every time are really important."

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

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'Retraumatisation' in reporting sexual assault.

As well as victim blaming, there is the process.

The reality that is sitting in a cold stark police room and trying to recount the most traumatic experience of your life. Where he put his hands. What you said. How you were positioned. The exact words you used. Did he do this before or after this ocurred?

"Retraumatisation is probably the biggest challenge," Baulch said. "And although we've put things in place to ameliorate some of the most painful parts of the process (video statements etc) it is unavoidably difficult to have to remember and recount details of a sexual assault during the court process." 

Willis agrees the justice system can be intimidating to victims of sexual assault.

"There is definitely a fear of the criminal justice setting. People get in there and the level of detail and questioning can be traumatic," she said. "The police are less and less the problem - they are working harder than ever to support victims of sexual assault - but I'm not suggesting the process is easy. It's not. And there is no guarantee of conviction."

Yes, all of this, with no guarantee of a conviction.

Back to 2012: Of the 4,059 sex offence incidents involving victims aged 16 years or older reported to New South Wales Police, 724 victims pressed on with criminal proceedings and 717 offenders were charged.

Of the 717 offenders charged, only 334 were found guilty of at least one count of sexual assault.

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

Why is the conviction rate so low?

It's not because the victims are lying - though it most certainly reinforces this myth. It's more to do with the way sexual assault is difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt, particularly if time has passed since the event.

Having acted as the 'point of first disclosure', Willis has been called as a witness in sexual assault cases.

"In the legal system there is no understanding of the impact of trauma, which does things to the brain that are used against the victim in court," Willis said.

In her experience during court proceedings, "if the complainant doesn't report to the police until a week after the assault occurred, this [can often be] used against her by the defence," Willis said.

"The idea is they've spent the time making it up. In reality, not reporting for a week is evidence for trauma, not against it. The victim is suffering shock and numbness in that period."

As well as this, testimonials from victims of sexual assault often change because of trauma.

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"The complainant might say 'I don't know why I didn't remember that at the time', or 'I don't know why I said that happened'," Willis said.

"This is not perfect in the eyes of the law. But, outside a courtroom, we know trauma impacts the brain and its ability to understand and piece together the chronological order of events."

teenage sexual assault
In one year, more than 100,000 women were sexually assaulted. The same year, only 143 offenders went to jail. Image via iStock.

Finally, there is penalty.

Of the 334 offenders found guilty of sexual assault in 2012 in NSW, 143 of these convicted criminals received a jail sentence and 187 received a non-custodial penalty, in most cases a bond payment.

That's 143 offenders in jail, out of more than 4,000 official reports of sexual assault, out of more than 100,000 accounts of sexual assault, all in the same year.

How do these numbers affect the confidence of a woman contemplating coming forward?

She will live through a community divided; whispers about her choice of clothing; news articles about his athleticism; retraumatisation inside the court... And then, a 143-in-4,059 chance of her rapist serving jail time.

The way forward.

Surely, there is a better way.

Willis believes there should be a safeguard sentencing system in place, for those offenders who haven't been found guilty beyond reasonable doubt of sexual assault but who, according to probability and common sense, likely did commit the crime.

These offenders should not receive a criminal record, but behaviour therapy should be mandatory. They should be followed-up and held accountable in receiving counselling. This would do two things: help prevent future offences and show their victim we are doing something and we take this seriously, Willis believes.

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The way media reports cases of sexual assault needs to change. More care and awareness is required in reporting statements that blame the victim or excuse the perpetrator.

When future victims of sexual assault are reading about a woman not saying 'no' or the redeeming traits of the offender, their confidence in reporting their own assault is diminished.

Trauma needs to be recognised better throughout the legal system.

Communities need to be kinder to victims of sexual assault. Local media outlets play a role in this.

Education around consent needs to be more prevalent in schools and universities. It's time the conversation around consent is evolved to become more nuanced.

Sexual assault is a crime of power, in which one person has it all. As it currently stands, this power stays with the offender right through the process. From the number of victims who report; to the trauma of reporting; and, finally, to the number of offenders found guilty.

It's time to change this.

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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