Empowering survivors of sexual assault
14 December 2022 at 8:31 pm
The director of With You We Can describes the trauma of reporting sexual assault and how her own experience led her to set up the new organisation.
I’m sitting at reception in Kings Cross Police Station clutching my copy of Chanel Miller’s Know My Name. I’m not even reading it; my stomach is churning too much for my eyes to focus. Dad is next to me playing solitaire on his phone. We’ve been here for two hours, but I was determined to follow through with reporting, this time…
You see, I’d already been to two police stations before I was directed to the Cross. In December of 2019, the first officer from Paddington I spoke to over the phone told me to try Bondi instead. “They have a victim liaison officer there, someone who’s more familiar with… um… you know.” “Sexual assault?” I asked. Hesitant about working up the courage to try again, I thanked the officer for his time and went to hang up. He must have sensed me withdrawing because he wasted no time telling me that making a false allegation was serious business. Later that week I called Bondi – they’d never heard of a “victim liaison officer,” but said I could book an appointment to come in. It’d have to be next week, though.
Mum drove us to the Bondi police station, and we were promptly directed into a windowless room with walls the colour of what I imagine a jail cell to have. There was a wheelie chair, which I was thankful for, spinning side to side would give me something to do while I spoke about the most heinous thing to have ever happened to me.
I remember rambling. Rambling and spinning and not making eye contact. Mum put her foot on my wheels as the detective explained I would have to tell them what happened. I told her about my auto-immune disease, how I’d been feeling sick. I told her that my skin felt electric so I didn’t want to be touched, and he must have taken it personally. I told her he’d raped me as punishment, I thought. It was the first time my mum had heard any of it. I felt ashamed and dirty. But I also felt relieved. Until the detective said I’d need to go to Kings Cross Police Station to report. I thought I was reporting.
It turns out that police require you to give an initial report before asking if you want to make a statement. You can decide which station to report to, but the station closest to where your assault took place is usually given carriage over your investigation after your statement has been given. The Bondi detective didn’t want to take my statement and forward it to Kings Cross, she wanted me to go straight there. Maybe she thought it’d be easier for me, but I’d just spent hours weeping (and spinning) in front of her, I couldn’t bear to start all over again in front of someone else. It would take me three months to do just that.
It’s April of 2020 now, and the Kings Cross Station smells strongly of urine. It’s dark and stuffy inside, I remember feeling sorry for the officers who worked there. I release my grip on Know My Name and look at Dad, who has made himself as comfortable as one can on the plastic black chairs. He’s not allowed to come in with me because he might need to give a statement himself, but no one told us that. I feel guilty having made him wait all this time.
Alone with the detective, I ready myself to dive into the thick of it. No rambling this time… “So, how’d you meet him?”
The question caught me off guard. She probably wanted some context.
“Bumble” I answered sheepishly. I ready myself again…
“So, you messaged him? Bumble’s the one where the girl messages the boy, yeah?”
“What did you say?” I didn’t answer, I was a bit stunned. “What did you say in your message to him?”
It became clear that today was not the day I would tell my story. Three police stations, three months and close to three hours waiting, and no one told me that I wasn’t even close to getting the assault down on paper. Not once had I ever been told what was happening, or what would happen next.
Making a statement took 24 hours over three months. It’s 26 pages. Each session was an hour or so wait at reception (despite making an appointment) (sometimes for the session to be cancelled anyway), before three or so hours talking about what I had for breakfast the morning of my fourth date with the perpetrator, and so on. And each time I thought it would be the time to disclose the assault. The final session was four hours long, and I was joined by my boyfriend, who was determined that all typos be corrected. By then I was on my third detective. And that was just at Kings Cross.
No one told me what was expected of me. No one told me why some context was relevant and other details not. No one could estimate how long the process would take. No one prepared me for the rotation of officers in and out of my case. No one even told me that a support person could accompany me, so long as they weren’t a witness. The kinds of heads up I thought were common decency must obviously be details only a victim would find important. It certainly wasn’t information accessible on the NSW police website.
I am a white, straight, cis and able-bodied girl living in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, with family and friends to drive me to the Station, with a boss kind enough to understand, with easy and safe access to the police. And I was exhausted. What must the process be like for the majority of victims in this country?
Empowering the victim
The police process can be entirely re-traumatising, not just because it involves recounting assault in detail, but because it takes away a victim’s agency, just like it was taken during their assault, just as they have chosen to reclaim it. Victims feel in the dark, out of control and alone as a witness in the state’s case against the perpetrator.
This is why I created With You We Can. Informed by sector leaders and people with lived experience, it is a victim-led network demystifying the process, so victims who choose and feel safe to report can feel empowered when they make do.
Among other resources, the knowledge hub debunks myths that discredit victims and exonerate perpetrators, breaks down key legal terms by jurisdiction, and outlines the step-by-step processes for victims from police reporting to criminal proceedings.
The resource launched last week with a private screening of Suzie Miller’s award-winning Prima Facie, followed by an introduction from Wendy McCarthy AO and a Q&A led by Professor Andrea Durbach.