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The silence around sexual assault
The Canberra Rape Crisis Centre marked its 40th Anniversary last year, with its former Patron, Dame Quentin Bryce, calling for a bigger, bolder, more honest discussion around sexual assault and domestic violence. The CRCC has seen an extraordinary increase in demand over its many years of service - particularly from young women and teens. Only a decade ago the hotline received 4,500 annual calls. Now the service responds to over 20,000 a year, and attends police call outs every day. And yet for every single call that is made to the Crisis Line, how many are never made? How many never reach out for help, or like our blogger 'Jill', whose personal story is published on BroadAgenda today, keep silent until many years after a rape? We may never know. But to accompany Jill's powerful and somewhat distressing blog, we asked the CEO of the highly respected Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, Chrystina Stanford, to help unpack some of the mystery around how best to respond to victims in need of support.
Sexual assault is a crime that is now out of the shadows. But unfortunately, as a society which is rightly shocked by these crimes, we still tend to respond to our horror and disgust by resorting to victim blaming when a perpetrator’s actions become public. Ultimately, we all feel repulsed and betrayed. How could they? Why would they? They couldn’t have could they? She must be exaggerating? After 20 years working in sexual assault services, speaking to those who have been assaulted - as well as those who have committed these heinous crimes - my head understands the answer to those emotionally charged questions, but my heart does not.
Our client group has changed over the years. Adult women are no longer the biggest group of people seeking help. Instead, we are experiencing a much higher rate of young women coming to us for help and support, in response to a range of different sexual assault traumas.
Interestingly, technology plays a central part in the increasing rate of sexual crimes. It is used by offenders, as well as a tool for survivors to seek validation, care and even some level of comfort. We know social media is used by some people as a weapon to taunt and even terrorize, and we are yet to see adequate law reform in order to prevent this. Meanwhile, the impacts of trauma remain ever present.
Many of us are understandably challenged by some of the 'help seeking actions' we see being played out on social media, such as victims speaking with raw frankness about sexual assault. It's natural to recoil in the face of such an intimate revelation of personal pain. Our challenge is to acknowledge that although sexual violence is common - impacting 1 in three girls, and one in 6 boys before the age of 18; and one in 4 women across an adult lifetime - the impacts of trauma are as individual as we are different. So we all have a responsibility to guide each other through the many phases and stages of ‘trauma recovery’, while trying to always make it safe for others, as well as ourselves. It is a survivor's right to become safe again and speak the unspeakable.
Whilst sexual assault is common, it is not normal. We do not refer to it as an ‘experience’, because a holiday is an experience. Sexual assault is a trauma. And trauma is universally understood. We all live through deaths and grief, accidents and loss of relationships, so we all know the powerful impact trauma can have and how it can often change us forever. Somewhere along the journey we get better at integrating the sad and bad things into who we are. The path isn’t linear and for some it can end their lives early, or make every day a struggle. Whatever the trigger, we cannot underestimate the impact of trauma on our lives.
At the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre we see all stages of the aftermath and impact of trauma. When people come to us days, or sometimes years after an assault, it is usually not because they want to discuss the detail of the event. Often they are seeking support because they feel a deep sense of betrayal. Some feel betrayal from the perpetrator - who in many cases is someone they know. Others feel betrayed by the negative response they may have had when they shared their story with trusted confidants, and yet weren't believed. Some victims may feel a need to confront the perpetrator, or those who disbelieved them, and express a forgiveness . Over many years of working closely with victims of sexual assault and rape, I have come to understand that there are many and varied responses to the powerful impact of this very intimate crime. Many victims feel that not only have they been violated, but something deep inside them has been stolen, or destroyed. Our role is to assist people reclaim their dignity and sense of self, as they continue on their path
People often ask us about the importance of forgiveness and suggest this is an important goal in order to 'move on'. Whilst common and certainly understandable, for some victims an expression of forgiveness may be linked to a belief that this is what others expect of them - to demonstrate that they are no longer dwelling on the past. But the deeply felt impact of sexual assault and rape is not easily compartmentalized. Nor concluded. Ultimately, the path forward is different for each individual.
At CRCC our goal is to help people find a way forward in which they are no longer controlled by a sense of betrayal and trauma. We always acknowledge the enormous courage it takes to speak about sexual assault. Sometimes, breaking the cycle of silence is a powerful way to take back a sense of freedom and autonomy.
If you or someone you know needs our help, please call us on 0262472525 and a CRCC Counsellor can help.