Tthere has been a 65% increase in the number of sexual assaults reported to NSW Police in March compared to last year. Analysts do not attribute the increase in reports to an increase in crime itself. This is due to “increased public attention on sexual assault and consent,” according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, who provided the figures.
Is this local increase in the reports on most underreported crime does new hope for justice mean for rape victims?
The office says there was a 46% increase in reports between February and March alone. That was, of course, when the allegations regarding Brittany Higgins’ assault in Parliament first came to the public. It was in the wake of recognition of survivor Grace Tame as Australian of the Year. This is after four years of the #MeToo campaign and increased public willingness from survivors to speak out about their experiences.
It is estimated that in Australia almost 90% of female survivors of sexual assault do not turn to the police. There are many reasons for underreporting.
Sexual assault is traumatic, cruel, intimate, violent, personal, painful. The ancient and poisonous stigmas surrounding female “purity” have traditionally encouraged attitudes of victim blame and shame that discourage women from revealing what has happened to them.
In addition, long and difficult legal proceedings and evidentiary requirements are cumbersome and traumatic. Myths that wildly exaggerate a statistically tiny the prevalence of false accusations is used to overwhelm and make women tremble, in particular, to think that their allegations will be believed.
Even when allegations are founded – even when processes are followed, even when evidence is provided – it is well known that justice remains elusive for victims.
Yet it was the courage of Saxon Mullins and Grace Tame, celebrities and others who spoke out that demanded a change in public attitudes and put increasing pressure on our social systems for greater protection. and accountability.
Writing on this topic for Guardian Australia over the years, I have seen attitudes change, from the trivialization of victims in 2013, to global awareness of #MeToo in 2017, to landmark events like Hepburn’s conviction in 2019. When the # March4Jusice movement exploded in Australia in response to Higgins’ allegations earlier this year, it just didn’t seem right. It seemed inevitable. It was deserved.
According to the NSW office, “two-thirds of the increase (in assault reports) came from victims aged 13 to 20.” It appears to be a generational manifestation of the changed public opinion that is unhindered victims of sexual assault by old social norms of shame.
The vast majority of the complainants are also young women. Is it too optimistic to read in specific demographics a growing and shared affirmation of gender equality? Is it possible that the emerging generations are no longer encouraged to believe that rape is a judgment against an inherent feminine character, or a disfiguring taint that forever mutilates an individual femininity? Do we finally recognize, and rightly so, the right of women to claim their inviolability, and do we decide to properly punish those who dare to threaten it?
It inspires hope. It also inspires something like envy. Almost 90% of women who never reported the crimes they experienced dealt with the trauma in various ways with drugs, alcohol or self-harm – or with the most insidious forms of self-harm , which are self-accusation or self-abnegation, like desperate attempts. to regain post-traumatic control.
For previous generations, the risk calculations of causing disbelief, or – worse yet – disinterest, were just too great than to leave disclosure to a public hearing. The survivors endured in silence, possibly telling a friend, therapist or family member and only years after the event. The stigma was so thick that you would hesitate to tell a partner, lest you turn something wanted and precious in their eyes into something dirty and ruined.
It is a creeping feminist triumph that sufficient social support has developed among family and friends, health workers, communities and the police so that young women have confidence in legal redress for assault. is owed to them.
Those among the older, burnt-out generations of survivors in institutions may still fear an increase in reports will not yet see justice spread. Women’s Safety NSW recently expressed concern that there has been no “comprehensive response to sexual assault” from the state government, despite a planned overhaul of the laws for a “affirmative consent model”.
As recently as March of this year, criminologists reminded media that, even now, only 2% of reported sexual assaults result in convictions.
Women’s organizations across the country identify a pressing need for intersectional institutional reform which addresses not only law reform, but also specialist training within the legal system, from police to juries, and works with educational systems and cultural modeling. Last month in NSW, defenders warned: “We need to make sure that our criminal justice system is capable of delivering real justice if we are to hold sexual abusers to account and prevent them from reoffending. “
With the massive increase in reports of sexual assault and the cultural change they represent, there is a temptation to believe in a new reality of police raids on perpetrators, specialized investigators and response teams. targeted, and the pure justification for governments to act.
But as survivors of sexual assault gain the confidence to seek justice, the ongoing challenge is whether governments choose to prioritize justice.
Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist