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Sexual assault is a crime that is so impactful, yet it is not getting the attention it deserves. The legal definition of sexual assault as stated in The Crimes Act 1900 s.61 (NSW) is that:
Any person who has sexual intercourse with another person without the consent of the other person and who knows that the other person does not consent to the sexual intercourse is liable to imprisonment for 14 years.
There are many literature reports on the underreporting of sexual assault incidences by victims and survivors in Australia. This is a problem as the impact is so long lasting and extensive where it not only affects one’s physical health but also their mental health. With the unreliable statistics, it also limits society’s knowledge on this crime and does not show how severe and impactful this crime is. The under-reporting of sexual assaults is affected by many factors such as, methodologies used to collect data, the societal and structural barriers stopping victims from reporting and the distrust and abuse of power by authorities.
There are many unreported incidences of sexual assault that obtaining the true incidence rates of this crime was rather difficult. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), National Crime Victimisation Survey (2017), claims that “12 months prior to the interview, 0.4% (77,400) Australian ages 18 years and over experienced sexual assault,” (ABS 2018) and less than 30% of all persons who experienced sexual assault had their most recent incident reported to the police (ABS 2018). This is concerning as many victims are not reporting and the reason could be because victims have a lack of confidence with the police and criminal justice system (Taylor and Gassner 2010). In 2009 there were 86 victims per 100,000 population and in 2018 there were 105 victims per 100,000 population (ABS 2019). This is a 23% increase in victimisation rate. Furthermore, in 2018, the number of victims recorded for sexual assault increased for the seventh consecutive year to 26,312 victims nationwide. This is concerning as only the reported incidence are rising and this brings light onto the true incidence rate of sexual assault and does not represent the actual incidences of the crime.
According to the United Nations, Australia has one of the highest rates of reported sexual assaults, with 92 people in 100,000 population. The data in Australia is collected by state and in 2013, NSW reported 3,951 separate sexual offences with a conviction rate of 52% (Anderson 2015). By 2018, there were 176 female victims and 33 male victims of sexual assault per 100,000 people. The ABS 2016/17 Personal Safety Survey (PSS) states that since the age of 15, 18% (1.7 million women) and 4.7% (429,000) men have experienced sexual violence since 15. During 2018 and 2019, over 78,300 Australians (18 and over) experienced sexual assault with only 28% reporting their most recent incident to the police. Women compared to men were eight times more likely (480,200 women to 53,000 men) to experience sexual violence by a partner. The survey also found that in most recent incidents of sexual assault, 87% or 553,700 women were likely to experience sexual assault by a male they knew (ABS 2017). It is evident that the prevalence of sexual assault is ominously high with just the reported cases with 9 out 10 women not reporting their most recent incident to the police.
Sexual assault in Australia has been on a rise with 2018 being the 7th consecutive year the number of victims recorded has increased. Between 1993 and 2001 the victims recorded by the police for sexual assault increased by 37% going from 69 to 86 victims per 100,000 persons. In 2005 1.6% of women experienced sexual violence in the last 12 months compared to 2016 where 1.8% of women experience sexual violence with a 0.6% increase from 2012 to 2016. There was a similarity in victimisation rate in 2008-09 (0.3%) and 2018-19 (0.4%) for 18 years and over. In 2009 there were 18,800 victims recorded by the police with 84% of the victims being female. By 2018, this has increased to 26,000 victims. According to ABS there was an ‘8% increase in victims of sexual assault across Australia from 2016 making 2017 reach an eight-year high with 23,040 victims to 24,957 victims’. Therefore, the severity of sexual assault in Australia is high as the number of victims recorded continue to rise.
Statistics are either recorded by the police or collected through surveys such as the ‘Crime Victimisation Survey,’ or ‘Personal Safety Survey’. However, there are limitations with the statistics as crime statistics are not a mirror of the crime actually happening, they are shaped by a chain of decisions made by victims, police, lawyers and courts. Due to lack of reporting generally, under-reporting due to methodologies and definitions employed in various surveys or data sources, information about the prevalence of sexual assault is limited. Victims are often faced with barriers that restrict their ability to report the crime such as the victim’s perception of the seriousness of the incident, fear of retaliation, fear they will not be believed and the relationship with the offender. Reports to police are often decreased when the victim is known to the offender (Gartner and Macmillan 1995). Many literature reports and statistics put female and children on higher regard as men are sampled at less than half the rate of women. Therefore, it is harder to identify at-risk male populations and trends since further analysis of different male population groups become less reliable. Additionally, women in minority groups such as Non-English-speaking Backgrounds (NESB) and Aboriginal women are faced with racism and sexism. It is clear that there are many limitations in relation to sexual assault happenings due to high extents of underreporting for victims in Australia.
The prevalence of sexual assault is high and yet underreporting occurs too often. Methodologies such as surveys have limitations as ‘it cannot provide a reliable estimate of the extent of sexual assault and abuse in the Australian community.’
Tarczon and Quadara continues to argue that although national surveys such as the Women’s Safety Survey, Australia (ABS 1996) and the Personal Safety Survey (ABS 2006) ‘do provide the most reliable information about the prevalence and extent of sexual assault in Australia,’ the experiences of vulnerable members or hard-to-reach groups in the community are excluded even though they have a greater risk of experiencing sexual assault. This information only represents the selected range of offences recorded by the police. Due to the ‘counting methodology’ employed, the statistics do not represent the total number of victims or total number of individual offences that come to the attention of the police.
The unreported sexual assault cases represent the hidden figure as the reported cases only represent a small portion of all sexual assaults that occur. The prevalence and extent of sexual assault is unreliable because of the hidden figure. In the Australia Women’s Safety Survey 1996, only women aged 18 and over and living in a private residence were recorded (Neame and Heenan 2003). The National Crime and Safety Survey in Australia had written questionnaires that were restricted to people in private residences, English-speaking and 15 years and over (ABS 2002). Also, non-English speaking individuals were interviewed by phone only. Therefore, statistics are limited since the methodologies used to obtain data are unreliable and records from police are not always accurate due many incidences being unreported involving men, NESB victims and under 18-year olds.
Another factor that contributes to underreporting are the victim’s fears and barriers that restrict them from reporting. Many literature reports explain the unreliability of this factor as it is these restrictions that ‘make this a particularly hidden type of violence,’ (Tarczon and Quadara 2012). With both personal barriers and barriers related to the criminal justice system, reported sexual assaults are unreliable.
Neame and Heenan states the fear of disbelief has inhibited survivors from relating their stories which has further entrenched the mythology regarding sexual assault- the women and children are prone to lie about sexual abuse, with four in ten Australians thinking sexual accusations are a way of getting back at men. Another literature review had similar views saying “victimised children and adolescents were considered culpable for their own abuse. They were portrayed as secretly colluding with their mothers; being seductive initiators of the abuse; deriving pleasure from the abuse and hence, suffering little if any harm from the abuse”. Other factors include, fear of repercussions in the community, fear of retaliation, concerns for privacy or stigma and mistrust of police.
The lack of faith with police responses restrict most victims from reporting their incidence. With victims perceiving a lack of commitment from the police to prosecute offenders. With victims not reporting to the police, this meant ‘conventional criminal justice system, with its single option of investigation by police and prosecution through the courts is failing to provide an adequate response to the majority of victim of sexual assault’.
Myths revolved around the idea that men cannot be raped, and this was seen in Tasmania until 1987 where men could only be the offenders of rape and not the victims. With ‘stereotypical assumptions surrounding the concept of masculinity,’ it creates confusion within male victims leading to concerns with homosexuality and associated feelings of guilts and shame such as being seen as a liar. Therefore, the ideology that surrounds this assumption inhibits male victims from disclosing their sexual abuse.
Therefore, to relieve the fear of reporting, more attention towards this crime is needed to make sure victims feel supported, comfortable and know they have a right to report no matter the gender, age, culture or ethnicity.
Another factor for underreporting is because of the lack of trust in authorities who sometimes even act as the offenders. In most cases, the perpetrators were highly respected and or authoritative members of their communities.
As Dr Denise Lievore states, NESB often lack trust in police and other authorities. It is reported that over 80% of Sydney’s refugee community has experienced sexual torture. As many women were traumatised and tortured by police and other authority figures in their country of origin, they do not see Australian police as supportive of the victims. An example of this could be seen where are girl who was 15 years old was held down and sexually abused by a male student, but after reporting the assault, the principal deemed it as a ‘petty thing’ as they ‘did not have time for such petty things.’ This just shows the lack of support by those in authority.
The central focus of young people has been sexual abuse by those in positions of authority (Quadara 2008). Those employed by schools to either teach or care for students have power over the students as these perpetrators sometimes use ‘institutions or organisations within which they work to target and abuse children’ (Sullivan and Beech, 2002). Children usually find it difficult to resist the authority of an adult hence why perpetrators often use their authority to sexually exploit children. As stated by Cashmore and Shackel, ‘children do not tell anyone about the abuse at the time, during their childhood or adolescence, or until many years later in adulthood, with some never telling anyone.
Furthermore, the rise in underreporting as discussed by an Australian literature where church-based institutions, sporting and other recreational settings sexually abuse boys. In these settings, victims are more likely to be boys than girls in clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse. Because of the authoritative figure of church clergy, victims usually do not report the sexual assault with males taking significantly longer than females to report their abuse, with some waiting till their 30s or 40s (25 years) to report compared to females who usually only take 18 years.
Therefore, the extent of underreporting is present which is why more attention is needed to try and change this problem in helping victims come forward earlier.
The underreporting of sexual assault in Australia is an issue worthy of more attention. This crime is prevalent and continuing to rise which leads to unreliability in statistics and does not show the community the actual extent to which the crime is happening. The constant rise of sexual assaults in Australia reported cases should be of greater concern as the hidden figure of sexual assault is the concealed number of victims that have been sexually assaulted but is not accounted for due to underreporting. Criminologist literatures and statistics shows that males are less likely to be sexually assaulted compared to females and children. The literatures also explain the problem of underreporting and the unreliability of statistics due to the hidden figure of sexual assault. There are common themes across the literature reports consisting myths like males cannot be raped, the idea of guilt surrounding being sexually assaulted, and it is not rape if the victim is in a relationship with the perpetrator which leads to fear of reporting. Literature reviews go through barriers that contribute to underreporting of sexual assault. This includes methodologies used to obtain statistics such as the Women’s safety survey where only women aged 18 and over are surveyed and focused on and some only allowed English speaking individuals to partake. Another reason is the fear/barriers stopping victims from coming forward as they are afraid of being shamed. The last reason is the lack of trust and support by authorities and the abuse of power of authorities lead to victims not having the courage or encouragement needed to report hence leading to the high extent of underreporting in Australia. Many literature reports and figures suggest females have a higher rate of being sexually assaulted than males and this questions if males are less plausible to be sexually assaulted or if males’ victims are just not reporting their experiences.
To try and minimise underreporting, some problems needs to be eliminated such as removing those barriers and fears stopping victims from reporting and allow victims to report without feeling guilty or feel like they are disbelieved. Also, methodologies should change and provide more aid for the NESB victims, so they feel more comfortable in coming forward. The underreporting of sexual assault in Australia should be focussed on as only the reported cases are rising and this is not even the accurate number of incidences which is concerning. With Australia’s guidelines and laws in place already trying to prevent sexual assault from occurring, further steps should be taken to allow the hidden figure’s individuals to come forward.
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