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Scoop Column - Sexual Offending Is Not Going Away

This week the Police announced an 18% reduction in recorded sexual offences. Rape Crisis' immediate response was to debunk it. Why are we unable to celebrate a decrease in rape and sexual assaults?

The reality is that Rape Crisis is seeing proportionately as many women as we were five years ago. Our statistics have also declined - but we have less collectives available throughout the country than we did in 1994 due to lack of funding. We can only estimate the scale of sexual assaults when we combine our statistics with those of Police and consider the evidence of surveys. The Otago Women's Health Survey in 1993 found that 1 in 3 women reported having one or more unwanted sexual experiences before they were 16.

On average it takes a woman over 13 years before she approaches us. If she is an incest survivor it is likely to be 17 years before she reports. It takes women such a long time to come forward because over half of them were sexually assaulted as children, and 90% have been sexually assaulted by someone known to them, usually a blood relative, friends or acquaintances, or other family members.

Survivors fear being disbelieved. It is very difficult after sexual assault to have the confidence to tell someone what has happened. Often an attacker has threatened them or their family if they tell, or has convinced them that they won't be believed. When a survivor has been attacked by someone known to her, it can shatter her trust and confidence in the people around her. Before she can disclose the abuse to another person she has to be able to trust them. If she knows them it is likely they will already have their own relationship with the attacker. Incest survivors risk splitting their families or losing them altogether if they tell anyone. Usually the attacker knows this is able to maintain a conspiracy of silence, often abusing many children within a family.

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Only a third of our clients ever go to the Police. They fear being disbelieved and accused of making a false complaint. Many find police processes to be as humiliating and traumatic as the actual assault. Even for those survivors who do approach the police, many cases never reach a court due to lack of corroborative evidence. The resolution rate for sexual offences at just over 50% is one of the lowest for Police.

Sexual assault is one of the most difficult crimes to prove in court. There are usually no witnesses. The testimony of the survivor may seem shaky, due to the effects of the trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder and memory loss, whereas the story of the accused may seem quite clear. If all else fails the accused can claim the survivor consented. Juries are less likely to believe a survivor if she knows the accused, particularly if she has had a sexual relationship with him. Judges and prominent barristers have stated that the court is so traumatic they wouldn't allow their family members to go through it. Survivors are also aware of this and choose not to enter the justice system by not going to the police.

What can be done to stop sexual assaults? Inevitably, attitudes in our community towards women and children must change. Marital rape has only been illegal in this country for 13 years. Sentences for unlawful sexual connection remain on average over 20 months less than for rape - thus sexual assaults of boys or men are likely to have shorter sentences. Imposing minimum sentences, introducing hard labour will have no impact if survivors do not report crimes. Polly Toynbee of The Guardian commented today that what does make a difference is catching criminals - they assess their risk of being caught, not the sentence they will get. While the resolution rate for investigations overall has increased, the Police only have a resolution rate of 50.4% for sexual offences.

Our justice system is based on the premise of innocent until proven guilty and it discourages offenders from taking responsibility and being accountable for their actions. What survivors of sexual assault often want most is for their attacker to acknowledge the crime and its effects, and to never do it again. The most effective preventative programmes for sex offenders work when the offender does take responsibility. Restorative justice and marae justice are systems that consider the relationship of the survivor and the offender and work towards resolution while ensuring the safety of survivors. The second part of the Otago Women's Health Survey in 1993 found that survivors of sexual assault were likely to prefer prevention over punishment. It's time to let survivors speak about what they need and what they believe will prevent sexual offending.


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