Sexual assaults going unreported as victims fear they will be blamed

TRIGGER WARNING - This story contains details of sexual assault

By Jonty Dine for RNZ 

After being raped by a close family member as a child, the last thing Sarah* wanted to do was be dragged through the courts to re-live her nightmare.

She never got justice and she is not alone.

Jessie* says she was sexually assaulted by a high-profile musician and believing no justice would come from the courts, has stayed silent.

And while sleeping over at a friend's house, Kate* says she was raped by a man whose social status prevented her from reporting it.

The women's stories are tragically not unique, with a variety of factors preventing victims from coming forward.

Of every 100 sexual assaults in Aotearoa, just 10 are reported to police and of those, only one will result in a conviction.

"That's a lot of people missing out on any form of justice," says Fiona Landon, a senior restorative justice practitioner.

The victims

Kate knew her rapist and ended up staying at his house after drinks.

"I woke up to him ejaculating inside me, it was terrifying."

She says the man immediately downplayed his actions.

"He tried to make out that they thought I wanted it even though I was fully asleep."

She says she later confronted him over what he had done.

"He didn't think what he had done was rape. He gave me all the excuses under the sun and never took accountability."

When word spread in the small town of what had happened, victim-blaming ensued.

"The very small number of people who did know defended him and it became more about 'what had you done, what were you wearing, why were you there?' Rather than his actions."

Kate says the community's reaction solidified her decision not to go to the police.

While in counselling to cope with the assault, Kate was also encouraged not to report the crime.

Her psychologist was all too aware of the low rate of convictions and essentially told Kate she would be wasting her time.

Kate says she feared how people would respond had she gone public.

"Having my name run through the mud when I wasn't the one who did anything wrong. Also if my name got out maybe it would impact my career which is stupid considering it had nothing to do with my behaviour."

Sarah is another woman who missed out on justice because feared she would not be believed if she spoke out.

She recalls that her abuse at the hands of her grandfather started at around the age of six or seven.

"Because I was so young it was difficult to understand what was happening. He kept telling me not to tell anyone but I knew it was wrong."

Fearing no-one would believe her, Sarah did not tell anyone and instead made more excuses not to visit him.

"I tried to hint to my dad something was wrong, but I was reluctant to cause any trouble and I found it extremely awkward. I was scared I would say something wrong so it was easy to keep quiet."

Sarah's grandfather eventually died of cancer when she was 14 at which time she and her sister, who was also abused by him, revealed to their mother what had happened.

The abuse had a profound affect on her whānau.

"They were devastated, especially my dad, it was his father."

Sarah says the courts were never an option.

"There was no f****** way I was going to stand up in a court room and talk about what happened. I would've found the courts to be traumatic. The idea of standing up and publicly going through the details sounded horrendous and just as I was hitting my teenage years, I don't know how well I would've handled it."

She says it also seemed pointless.

"I don't really know what good it would have done, I already felt let down that no one intervened. I felt like people would treat me differently, I just wanted to pretend like it never happened."

Sarah is still reluctant to share with even her closest friends what happened to her.

"Half the trauma was that fear of being looked at as less of a person. If people knew, I worry they would want to stay away from me. I felt like I was tainted or spoiled goods, the whole incest factor made me feel very yuck and like a freak."

She is still unexpectedly triggered by men's behaviour.

A workplace harassment incident left her re-traumatised after a co-worker made numerous unwanted advances and would not accept when they were not reciprocated.

The fear of not being believed flooded back.

"It was that real sense of suffering [in] silence."

The fear of being called a liar was also a key reason Jessie did not report her attack.

She was staying at a private boarding school when she sneaked into the boys' dorm to see her boyfriend.

After another boy found her, he led her to what he said was her boyfriend's room.

He then locked the door behind him and grabbed Jessie.

"He pushed me onto a desk and spread my legs open, he knew I couldn't cry out because I was out late and would get in trouble."

The boy tried to restrain Jessie by her wrists but she eventually fought him off and escaped.

"I was really shaken up and I just remember thinking how scared I was but that I was going to get in more trouble for breaking a rule than he would for sexually assaulting me."

Jessie says she is burdened by what he allegedly went on to do to other women she knew.

"That could have been prevented if I spoke out about it."

As her attacker is a well-known public figure, Jessie and her friends are constantly reminded of her attack through his music.

"These girls and myself have always struggled seeing someone so high-profile still in our sphere."

The courts

Lawyer Teddy Livingston says the process women go through during a sexual assault case is brutal.

She cites the Sophie Elliott and Grace Millane cases as examples of character assassination.

"In the past they have analysed as if to try and taint the credibility of a woman and go through her history to vilify the victim."

Livingston says she's worked with some incredible defence counsel but overall guidance around ethics and sensitivity for defence is needed in regards to exposing around a young person's sexual history.

"There needs to be more oversight of defence lawyers and how that's dealt with in the court."

The sentencing of teenage rapist Jayden Meyer sparked outrage across the country.

Meyer received nine months' home detention for the rape and sexual violation of five 15-year-old girls.

Livingston says she is shocked to see the sentence stand on appeal due to a technicality.

"It is sending the view that if you go through this very tumultuous process of trying to get justice and that not occurring then that person might as well not go in at all."

Livingston says due to the high rates of crime in the country, many sexual assault cases are being dealt with outside of the courts.

"Even though it falls under the Crimes Act, police often cut a plea deal, so rather than every one going to the court, they are going though a machine gun approach of charging under the summary offences act."

She says this carries far lesser penalties, such as community work.

"There needs to be more discussion with victims about how they would feel about it."

Alternative justice

There is another path to justice for victims.

Project Restore is New Zealand's national provider of restorative justice for harmful sexual behaviour and sexual violence.

Facilitator Fiona Landon says we need to address how ineffective the justice system is at meeting the needs of victims of sexual violence.

She says concerns about being believed, being blamed, and having their honesty on the line - rather than the person who caused the harm - is incredibly distressing for survivors.

"Once they enter the criminal justice system, most times the person who has caused the harm will not plead guilty because it's very easy for them to avoid a conviction."

She says the harrowing process survivors go through means a lot of victims don't want to engage at all.

"They have heard the stories, they've talked with people and know it's going to be really tough and probably cause more harm than the sex violence itself."

Landon says there are also serious issues in how society responds to sexual assault allegations.

"We need to look at how this offending is treated and the way society makes judgements about why these things happen."

Landon says most survivors who do report being assaulted do so because they are worried about others being harmed by that person.

"They feel a responsibility to do something, if there was another way to address that or meet that need they will take it."

She says attention needs to be given to how survivors' needs can be met.

A recent Royal Commission inquiry looking at sexual violence found restorative justice as alternative resolution.

"In court, it is very easy for someone to hide behind their lawyer but when you are in front of the person you have harmed, it is way more challenging and likely to create a shift."

Landon says in her experience victims feel far more satisfied with the restorative system.

"For survivors, it's like having a voice and it gives them that power back that was taken away when they were offended against."

She says while we have seen some legislation changes, it is simply tinkering with a system that is not going to work.

"Reoffending rates are high. We need to look at why offenders commit these crimes and provide victims with options."

She says victims need the chance to confront their attacker, hold them accountable and let them know it's not ok to treat people like that.

"If people don't wish to report to police there are ways to address the harm caused that are safe."

The injustice

For Kate, Jessie, and Sarah, sentences such as Meyer's reiterate to them that justice would not have been guaranteed had they come forward.

Sarah says it is a revolting result.

"It sends a disturbing message that you can do these horrible things, be completely unapologetic and get a really lax sentence."

Kate says her assault still traumatises her today.

"No matter how much time has passed, it will always be there. It affects everything, particularly my relationships, not just romantic but I just find it hard to trust people, it's really hard."

Jessie says her experience continues to affect her sense of trust with men.

She says the perception that all rapists hide in the bushes with balaclavas is damaging as most are perpetrated by people the victim knows.

"I end up feeling as if even the nicest guy can harbour this ability to behave in a way that puts their own wants and needs at the forefront without recognising how women feel about sexual contact."

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Where to get help:

If you have been sexually assaulted, remember it's not your fault. If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone, contact Safe to Talk confidentially, any time 24/7:

  • Call 0800 044 334
  • Text 4334
  • Email
  • For more info or to web chat visit
  • Alternatively contact your local police station - click here for a list.