[Warning. May be triggering for survivors of sexual assault]
Last week I commented on the case of a 12-year-old girl pimped then raped by 120 men over a six week period. The media reporting said the men had “had sex with” the girl. I questioned this language, believing it minimised what had actually been done to this child. Jackie posted a comment about her own experience, in which she also felt her abuse was minimised by the language used to describe it. I asked her to elaborate, and give us an insight into the experience of a young woman who has survived not only “a violent, soul-destroying act” but a demoralising court process as well. Thanks Jackie for your bravery. Can you relate to Jackie’s story? I’d like to hear from you.
As a teenager, I was raped repeatedly over a period of two months, by a trusted family member. I was 16-years-old at the time. My abuser was 50. When the police took my statement and later when I started work with a sexual assault counsellor, they both agreed that it was a “textbook case”. The police officer handling my case said there was no doubt in her mind that my abuser had done this before. Both she and my counsellor talked to me about the grooming process. “He groomed you. He knew exactly what he was doing. I have no doubt that he’s done this before.”
I didn’t even realise what was happening at first. I remembered waking up the next morning after the first night of abuse. He went about his day as if nothing had happened and I wondered if I might have dreamt the whole thing – after all, he would never do something like that to me, right? But when he came into my bed again that night, I knew that it was not a dream – it was a nightmare.
Every time he would touch me, every time he would kiss me, every time one of these obscene acts occurred, I would say no. I would tell him that I didn’t want to. I would flinch. I would pull away. But he didn’t stop. Some people might say I didn’t do enough to stop it. That’s certainly what they told me in court. But anyone who says that doesn’t understand the grooming process. Eventually you give up somehow. You just learn to tune out. You have to.
He made me believe that if I told anyone, our family would be ruined, ripped apart, destroyed. And after having just fled a violent home with my mother and two younger siblings, and with my beloved grandmother dying from cancer, I could not take the thought of having my family be destroyed, let alone have me be the cause of such destruction. He knew I was in an incredibly vulnerable situation and he groomed me to believe that he was there to help me through it.
He took advantage of my innocence and vulnerability for his own selfish reasons. My first sexual experiences were with this man. I didn’t get to choose who to share them with. I didn’t get to choose when. There were a million and one tricks that he used to manipulate me into staying quiet. I wonder sometimes, how much of this he might have learnt during his previous work as a police officer.
While I should have been preparing to sit my HSC exams, I was instead preparing to testify in a 10 day criminal trial.
Multiple charges were put forth against the perpetrator, including ‘Indecent assault’ and ‘Sexual intercourse without consent’.'Sexual intercourse without consent’ – it sounds fairly mild doesn’t it? It doesn’t sound like a violent, soul-destroying act. But that is exactly what it was.
It was rape.
I was raped.
He raped me of my self-worth and very nearly raped me of my life.
‘Sexual intercourse without consent’ does not come anywhere close to describing my experience.
My experiences with the legal system began with an investigation into my abuse and a subsequent course case which took place in 2002 and 2003.
Many people are aware of the ineffective handling of these crimes by our legal system. Most people think of this in terms of conviction rates and sentences (which are, of course appalling). What most people don’t think of is the court experience itself -the way the victim is often interrogated more intensely that the perpetrator, the way the legal jargon minimises the victim’s experience, the way you are only allowed to answer questions with short answers before being cut off with a “that is all” or “no further questions” and not permitted to elaborate. This is just another way to silence victims.
When I testified, I was 17. Because of my age I was not allowed to have a partition between myself and my abuser. I had to sit there in court, with a full jury directly opposite, while I was brutally cross-examined. My abuser stood to my left, his eyes burning holes in my skin.
One concession that I was granted during the trial, was a closed court. But that was the only concession. Years after the court trial (which I now believe was worse than my abuse itself), when I first started counselling for the trauma, my sexual assault counsellor was horrified to hear that the only form of court preparation I had been given was a brief tour of the court room, where I was told “the judge will sit there, you will sit here, the jury will be over there….”. I was also not offered any specific sexual assault counselling – I was left to organise it for myself years later.
To go through all of that, just to hear “Not Guilty” over and over and over again. It was horrendous.
My abuser was charged with just six offences. Although there were many, many more instances of abuse, this was all the DPP felt we would be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt. This was not due to their disbelief of anything I disclosed to them, but rather due to the overwhelming amount of evidence that is needed to prove these sorts of things, especially when “the age of consent” comes into play. Five of those charges were for ‘Sexual intercourse without consent’, the other a charge for ‘Indecent assault’. Had I been 15 at the time of my abuse, I would have been classed as a minor and these charges and their penalties would have been very different. In fact, with the evidence we had at hand, my abuser would most likely been convicted of all charges.
Instead, his defence was not to deny any of these acts had taken place, in fact he even went so far as to suggest that many more sexual acts had occurred between us. He painted a picture of a sweet and loving relationship. He told the jury we were in love. I was not in the room when he testified. I was not allowed to be present, in case it influenced my testimony. It seems a little unfair then, doesn’t it, that he got to listen to mine, along with everyone else’s before he made his statements.
Years later I came across the court transcript and read his testimony for the first time. It was the most vile, most repulsive thing I have ever read. It literally made me gag. Not only did I have to read over the things he actually did do to me, but I also had to read over his sick and perverted fantasies – those made up stories about what else was supposed to have occurred between us during our “affair”. I felt disgusted thinking about the people in the court room that day. What must they have thought of me?
So the story was that I was over the age of consent and despite the fact that I said no, despite the fact that I told him I didn’t want it to continue, despite the fact that he was the adult (34 years older than me at the time and in a position of family authority), because I didn’t kick & scream, because I didn’t yell from the rooftop that he was forcing me into unwanted sexual acts, I must have consented. That was it. That was why he got off. He convinced the jury that I consented. He was found ‘Not Guilty’ on the five charges of ‘Sexual intercourse without consent’ and the jury was hung on the ‘Indecent assault’ charge. I could pursue it if I wanted to, but it hardly seemed worth it.
I struggled for many years with severe PTSD to the point where I actually have whole years that I simply don’t remember due to my level of dissociation.
I was terrified of everyone, even my own family. After all, if I couldn’t trust a family member, who I had known and loved since I was three-years-old, who could I trust? I didn’t feel safe anywhere.
If I was home alone and someone rang the doorbell, I would run and hide under the kitchen table, or behind the lounge. I wouldn’t answer the phone and I still don’t unless I know exactly who is on the other end of the line.
I slept in my mum’s bed with her on and off for years – I didn’t feel safe alone in my own room. I had horrendous flashbacks & nightmares. I would see men on the street and swear it was him. I would run off, terrified and not return until hours later.
A month after the court trial, I was very lucky to survive a suicide attempt -directly related to my experiences in court- which I should not have made it through alive, let alone with my full capacities still intact.
I am doing much better now. After years in and out of psychiatric hospitals (where I became known as a “frequent flyer”) and after multiple suicide attempts and a battle with constant and severe self harm, I was finally given the help I needed to arrange specialist sexual assault counselling. Everyone at the hospital knew that my symptoms were related to my abuse, (my worst symptoms always occurred on the anniversaries of the abuse), but still no-one asked me about what had happened. No-one offered me a chance to talk.
Working with my sexual assault counsellor was extremely helpful. She gave me the space and the time to talk about what had happened to me and she helped me explore my thoughts and feelings. Most of all, she helped me to understand the grooming process and to realise that no matter I did, he was still the adult and he had the power. HE had the power.
I think people just avoid the topic and it is understandable – they worry about saying “the wrong thing”, about making it worse, but they also worry about not making it better. They feel uncomfortable and awkward. But most of the time, what we need is not for somebody to say the right thing. In fact we don’t really need for people to say anything at all. What we need is for someone to listen. Because when we had our innocence stolen from us, when we had our bodies stolen, we had our voices stolen too.
When I read stories like this, about the 12-year-old girl, it just breaks my heart. It pains me so much to imagine the horror she has been through, although none of us could really imagine it at all. This girl, this beautiful, innocent child, was raped. Those men did not have ‘sexual intercourse without consent’ with this girl. They raped her.
She is the victim of a tragic and violent, soul-destroying act, so why should we not call it such? Why does society insist on minimising our experiences? When society does this to victims, we are raping them all over. We are telling them that what happened to them didn’t matter, that is wasn’t “big”, that it wasn’t important. We are telling them that it really wasn’t “that bad”.
If you are a victim of sexual assault you can find help here.