When Sarah* tried to report her sexual assault at university, she says the response she got was “extremely poor”.
“They basically said ‘Oh we can walk you to your car’ and ‘If you feel unsafe just come back when he graduates’,” she says.
Sarah laughs in disbelief as she recalls the insensitive handling of her harrowing incident.
But she isn’t alone. After sharing her story online, Sarah was contacted by other women who had encountered similar experiences.
“There were women who had gone to universities across WA who were saying ‘Oh this happened to me’,” she says.
“And there are still women today saying this happened to them at university.
“It’s just awful that these people are still recounting what happened to them 30 years ago and nothing has changed within these structures.
“There is definitely a responsibility that needs to be taken.”
Sarah began researching her options as to how she could report the assault.
“I went through the court system myself and it was only a few weeks after I got the, you know, not so great verdict.
“I thought there needed to be an alternative reporting option.
“It’s very re-triggering for survivors to go find their closure through police and the system of the courts,” she says.
An alternative reporting system
Sarah discovered the Operation Vest initiative, which was introduced in NSW earlier this year by sexual assault activist, Chanel Contos. With Operation Vest comes SARO, the Sexual Assault Reporting Option, an alternative online reporting system.
Survivors can anonymously report their assault to a database, with as much or as little information as they want.
“If more than one person has the same offender, that information can be compiled and taken to court if a person decides to do so,” Sarah explains.
SARO is being introduced in Victoria but yet to be included in WA.
Sarah saw an opportunity to have the SARO reporting option expanded nation-wide and put forward a petition to Parliament.
“I found a state one but then thought screw it, let’s just do the whole country.
“The whole country needs this,” she says.
Sarah’s petition to introduce Operation Vest Australia wide was accepted by the House of Representatives and signed by more than 3000 people.
“Not only can it bring an amazing amount of closure, but survivors get to tell their story.
“It’s essentially just a database, it’s nothing too crazy.
“If it’s implemented in one (state) I see no reason why it can’t be implemented in them all,” she says.
Universities under the spotlight
Sexologist and Gender studies Researcher Giselle Woodley says there is “big room for improvement” when it comes to universities implementing sexual assault and harassment training. She explains there is a lack of consistency between the education offered and that some universities don’t offer any training.
“ECU didn’t until about a month ago,” she says.
“Before that it was ‘you can put these posters up and here’s a link to some policy’.”
ECU’s sexual harassment policy can be found on the student intranet. The policy encourages survivors to remain anonymous, contact security and fill out an online form. The university extends their support to the survivor if they choose to report to WA police. The Be a Better Human campaign at ECU encourages students to reflect on campus culture and display consent, respect and empathy.
Giselle believes education is the biggest preventative to sexual violence, which ultimately comes down to a lack of empathy and respect.
“The fact we are now implementing programs as modules in universities is a great step forward for anyone that didn’t get it in school, which is most of us,” she says.
She says sexual relationship education and harassment isn’t limited to the “surface level aspects” such as “biology or sexually transmitted infections”.
“It would include empathy training, communication skills, maintaining and respecting boundaries,” she explains.
“Breaking down gender roles, not objectifying people.
“And also breaking down the stereotypes and perceptions that pornography reinforces as well.”
Giselle believes reporting is crucial in order for change to occur. But says police can be “quite dismissive” which turns off survivors from coming forward.
“That can be harrowing and diminishing towards someone’s experience and in terms of an actual healing process can be very detrimental,” she says.
“It’s not necessarily the best avenue to take for your own healing, which is awful.”
Giselle explains harsher penalties don’t reduce incidences of a sexual assault from occurring.
“People advocate for harsher penalties, but the research shows and we know statistically that quite often these crimes are opportunistic and therefore harsher sentences don’t deter them.
“Perpetrators don’t think about the repercussions when the crime is occurring,” she explains.
‘A breeding ground for rape culture’
The Australian Human Rights Commission’s national survey found one in five students were sexually harassed at a university setting in 2016 and 87 per cent of students who were sexually assaulted chose not to report.
Sarah believes university is a “breeding ground for rape culture” and questions why sexual assault isn’t addressed in the same way academic penalties are.
“There’s more alcohol, drugs, parties and there’s that lack of structure.
“No one is looking out for you.
“Yeah, we are older but it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone’s doing the right thing.
“When you compare it to the extreme amount of information we’re fed through universities about the consequences of cheating it’s blown out of proportion compared to things like consent and sexual assault,” Sarah says.
Sarah explains it’s important to know not all survivors want to send their perpetrator to jail.
“It’s more about accountability and letting someone know what they have done,” she says.
Co-founder of Young Women Against Sexual Violence Micaela Rafel believes societal attitudes put an expectation on survivors to report.
“It’s not really a trauma informed idea, it’s not how people want to deal with their experience,” Micaela says.
“If they were they’d be doing that.”
She believes it’s important for survivors to “hold the power themselves” when dealing with their assault.
“When you experience an assault you lose control over your whole body,” she says.
“Being in control is vital to the process of what you’ve been through.”
Finding a safe space to share
Young Women Against Sexual Violence encourages women with a lived experience of sexual assault to have their voice heard through a range of community events. Survivors are welcome to attend monthly events at different bars, art galleries and music venues across Perth.
“For a lot of people it’s the first time they’ve been provided with a safe space to share what they’ve been through,” Micaela says.
“We try to do it in public places so that we can engage the public in the conversation.
“People don’t really understand what consent is.”
Micaela says the misconception that sexual assault is perpetrated by a “stranger in an alleyway” is “completely false”.
“It’s normal people, it’s people we are friends with.
“It’s our sons and our brothers who are doing this,” she says.
“It can be very easy to call someone a perpetrator and demonise them and believe they are an abnormal psychopath.
“But it’s normal people who are doing this.”
She believes sexual violence occurs as a “result of coercion” and that it’s not always physical.
“It’s not listening to a no.
“It’s pushing with people your friends with or in a relationship with, it’s not necessarily done in a physically violent way.
“People don’t actually realise what they are doing is forceful and non-consensual,” Micaela says.
Giselle believes most people aren’t aware of their actions.
“It becomes really convoluted, not a lot of people think they are a perpetrator,” Giselle says.
“If someone is intoxicated or drunk, they can’t consent to sex.
“For it to be an assault, the words ‘no’ technically don’t have to come out either, you might be unable to say those words.
“It’s a really, really fine line we haven’t quite worked out yet.”
Micaela says despite recommendations being put forward by different institutions, action is still not taking place.
“Earlier this year we saw so much in the media and that’s died down now,” Micaela explains.
“Activism is something that is incredibly emotionally taxing and people do it because it’s important to them.
“Whether they’ve experienced an assault themselves, there is an emotional heaviness to that and it’s difficult to sustain.”
She believes there isn’t enough cohesive support for survivors of sexual violence and that major “improvements” are needed.
“It’s not easy to know where to go to for support, when you look at universities, people don’t know where to go to there either,” Micaela says.
“They don’t know who to report to or how to report in a way that feels safe to them.
“Universities, schools, workplaces and the government need to be listening and asking survivors what we need instead of imposing procedures on us.”
When Sarah went to report at university, she had trouble navigating the sexual assault policy.
“It was extremely vague and made no sense at all.
“There was nothing about what would be done exactly it was very cryptic,” Sarah says.
Giselle says in an “absolute ideal world” we would have a “one stop shop” for survivors of sexual assault.
“When someone encounters a situation they need to go to at least three different avenues to then deal with it,” Giselle says.
“Psychological support, medical support, they need to obtain legal or police support and a lot of these areas aren’t trained in these cases.
“Our police force would be experienced in social work and versed in sexual harassment instead of just upholding the law and doing it without a shred of empathy.”
“People in positions of power aren’t able to administer that level of empathy or support.”
Although whether you’re versed in disclosure training or not, we can all support survivors of sexual assault.
“If someone is willing to share their experience or parts of it, making sure there is no judgement and that you believe them before directing them to the appropriate support they need,” Giselle explains.
“It’s not a linear process, healing never is.
“Discussions and the way it’s handled can be re traumatising so you don’t want to venture in that space if you’re not versed or trained,” Giselle says.
“It’s not just like any trauma, it’s not something you quite ever get over either.
“It’s not about closure perse, it’s about integration into your everyday life.
“It’s a trauma that’s very difficult to share.
“Being able to want to go out again and face the rest of the world.”
Sexual Assault Resource Centre (SARC) 6458 1828 or 1800 199 888 for emergency counselling and medical services in Perth.
Lifeline 13 11 14