I’m a sexual assault counsellor. Here’s why it’s so hard for survivors to come forward, and what happens when they do

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Illustration photo by Getty Images
Illustration photo by Getty Images
  • As a senior sexual assault counsellor working with Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, I often sit across from people on the worst day of their life.
  • The trauma of being sexually assaulted is an experience filled with violence. It transforms a person’s sense of safety, their worldview and their relationships with others.
  • When survivors come forward to disclose a sexual assault, they are frequently met with more questions than support in our communities. As a result, silence can be a form of survival.

Victim-blaming is one reason for this. Victim-blaming is a part of rape culture which reinforces the idea a woman is solely responsible for her own safety. One in eight Australians believe if a woman is raped while she is affected by alcohol or other drugs, she is at least partly responsible.

Empathy for the perpetrator contributes to victim-blaming. Victim-blaming can also occur when we try to distance ourselves from the horrific nature of the crime. We can’t imagine this happening to us, therefore it must have happened to someone who is inherently different to us. It can be hard to accept these violations take place in our very own backyard.

READ MORE | 'I was scared of being slutshamed' - Fear of victim blaming stopped this woman from reporting her rape 

Last month, former Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins publicly disclosed she was sexually assaulted, allegedly by a male colleague at Parliament House.

Higgins’s brave disclosure is in spite of the social factors that exist to silence survivors.

It’s impossible to be ‘the model victim’

In Australian society, we often expect sexual assault survivors to show just enough emotion for us to believe them, but not so much they seem hysterical or attention-seeking.

The timing of the disclosure should be just right or we question why they didn’t come forward soon enough. They should be “model citizens” or we question their credibility. If they were intoxicated at the time of the assault, we question their memory. And if sober, we question their choices.

The Goldilocks dilemma of being the perfect victim or survivor is extraordinarily difficult to navigate. It’s little wonder many victims wait decades to come forward, or decide not to report a sexual assault at all.

With public attention focused on recent allegations of sexual assault, it’s the right time to be asking why survivors don’t always come forward straight away.

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