Sexual assault survivors are gaining confidence to demand justice, but will governments deliver?

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

There was a 65% increase in the number of sexual assaults reported to New South Wales police in March compared to last year. Analysts are not attributing the rise in reports to a rise in the crime itself. It’s due to “heightened public attention on sexual assault and consent”, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, who supplied the figures.

Does this local rise in reports of the world’s most underreported crime mean a new hope for justice for rape survivors?

Related: Barriers to justice: 'We are still governed by the idea that women lie about sexual assault'

The bureau states there was a 46% rise in reports between February and March alone. This was, of course, when the allegations about the assault of Brittany Higgins in Parliament House were first made public. It was in the wake of survivor Grace Tame’s recognition as Australian of the Year. It’s after four years of #MeToo campaigning and increased public willingness of survivors to speak out about their experiences.

It’s estimated that in Australia close to 90% of women survivors of sexual assault do not go to the police. The underreporting is for many reasons.

Sexual assault is traumatic, cruel, intimate, violating, personal, painful. Ancient, poisonous stigmas around female “purity” have traditionally encouraged attitudes of victim blaming and shaming that discourage women from disclosing what has happened to them.

Added to this, long and difficult court processes and the demands of proof are onerous and retraumatising. Myths that wildly exaggerate a statistically tiny prevalence of false accusations are used to swamp and cower women, in particular, from thinking their claims will be believed.

Even now, only 2% of reported sexual assaults result in successful convictions

Even when claims are believed – even when processes are followed, even when evidence is supplied – it’s well-known justice remains elusive for victims.

Yet it’s the courage of Saxon Mullins, and Grace Tame, celebrities and others who’ve spoken out that has demanded a change in public attitudes, and has placed growing pressure on our social systems for greater protection and accountability.

Writing on this subject for Guardian Australia over the course of years, I’ve watched attitudes change from trivialising victims back in 2013, through the worldwide consciousness-raising of #MeToo in 2017, to watershed events like the Hepburn conviction in 2019. When the #March4Jusice movement exploded in Australia in response to the Higgins allegations earlier this year, it didn’t just feel timely. It felt inevitable. It felt deserved.

According to the NSW bureau, “two-thirds of the increase (in reporting of assaults) was from victims aged 13 to 20”. It strikes as a generational manifestation of the changed public opinion that’s unshackled victims of sexual assault from the old social standards of shame.

The complainants are also, overwhelmingly, young women. Is it too hopeful to read into the specific demographics a growing, shared affirmation of gender equality? Is it possible that emerging generations are no longer encouraged to believe that rape is a judgment against an inherent female character, or a disfiguring defilement that forever mutilates an individual womanhood? Are we finally, deservedly, recognising the right of women to assert their inviolability, and deciding to properly punish those who’d dare threaten it?

It inspires hope. It also inspires something like envy. Those near 90% of women who never reported the crimes against them variously treated trauma with drugs, or alcohol, or self-harm – or with the most insidious forms self-harm, which are self-blame or self-abnegation, as desperate attempts at regaining post-traumatic control.

For previous generations, the risk calculations of provoking disbelief, or – even worse – disinterest, were just too great than to trust disclosure to a public hearing. Survivors endured in silence, maybe telling a friend, or a therapist, or a family member and only years after the event. The stigma was so thick you would demur to tell a partner, for fear you might transform in their eyes from something desired and precious to something dirtied and ruined.

It is a creeping feminist triumph that enough social support has grown amid family and friends, health workers, communities and police for young women to be confident legal redress of assault is owed to them.

Those among older, institutionally-burned generations of survivors may yet fear an increase in reports will not yet see justice expanded. Women’s Safety NSW recently expressed concern there was not a “comprehensive response to sexual assault” from government in the state, despite a planned overhaul of laws to an “affirmative consent model”.

Related: Changing affirmative consent laws felt like the fight of a lifetime. So what now? | Saxon Mullins

As recently as March this year, criminologists were reminding the media that, even now, only 2% of reported sexual assaults result in successful convictions.

Women’s organisations around the country identify a pressing need for intersectional institutional reform that addresses not only law reform, but specialised training within the legal system, from police to juries, and work with education systems and cultural modelling. Last month in NSW, advocates warned: “We have to ensure our criminal justice system is capable of actually delivering justice if we want to hold sex abusers to account and prevent them from reoffending.”

With the massive increase in sexual assault reports and the cultural shift they represent, there’s a temptation to believe in a new reality of police raids on perpetrators, and specialised investigators, and targeted response teams, and the sheer vindication of seeing governments act.

But while sexual assault survivors gain the confidence to demand justice, the ongoing challenge is whether governments choose to prioritise delivering it.

• Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist

• In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support for rape and sexual abuse on 0808 802 9999. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html

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