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Sexual assault support organisations and mental health workers say they are seeing more Australian women coming forward to tell their own stories of abuse, after weeks of public reporting on the issue.

Key points:

  • Mental health workers say the media coverage of sexual assault allegations is distressing to many survivors
  • But they say they have seen women telling their stories, or seeking help for the first time
  • Advocates are calling for Australians to support victims who do tell their own story for the first time

Last month Brittany Higgins publicly raised allegations she was raped in the parliamentary office of Australia’s Defence Minister Linda Reynolds in 2019.

She was a staff member in Ms Reynolds’s office at the time and alleged she was raped by another staff member.

Family and domestic violence support services:

That was followed by reporting on an allegation made by a woman who is no longer alive, against the Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter.

Before her death, she alleged Mr Porter raped her when they were teenagers.

Mr Porter strenuously denied the allegation at a press conference earlier this week, saying “it just didn’t happen”. 

And in Sydney, thousands of allegations of sexual harassment and abuse have been made against students from predominantly all-male schools.

‘Opportunity’ for women to tell their own stories

Clinical social worker Keely Walsh has spent nearly a decade helping women who have experienced sexual assault or abuse as a child.

She said when there are high-profile cases of sexual violence in the media, many women do open up to friends or family about their own abuse for the first time.

“When these high-profile media cases come to light that presents women with an opportunity to speak out about their lived experiences,” she said.

She said it was important when victims did tell their story to those around them, that they were treated with “empathy, compassion and understanding” and they were listened to.

Ms Walsh had this advice for anyone who is confided in.

“Simply listen to the person’s story and narrative and offer them choices with how they access help, whether that be going through the legal process, accessing counselling … or even starting with a simple conversation with loved ones,” she said.

Ms Walsh said the media coverage of high profile cases was triggering for some survivors of assault.

“A lot of women do really resonate with the stories being told and it does cause them quite a lot of emotional distress,” she said.

“And normally a lot of people, particular women with sexual violence [history] do present in crisis because a lot of them haven’t received the justice they deserve for their lived experiences.”

She said it was particularly difficult for sexual assault survivors when public allegations were seen to be dismissed or not taken seriously.

Thousands of calls made to crisis line each week

1800Respect is a national domestic violence and sexual assault counselling and support service.

Since December last year it has received more than 5,000 calls a week to its hotline.

It’s national governance manager Melonie Sheehan said the organisation often sees a rise in calls when sexual violence is reported in the media.

“The voices of those impacted by assault and harassment matter,” she said.

“Sharing their lived experiences helps generate awareness and encourage societal change.”

But she said this coverage can also be a “very real reminder of what a person has or is experiencing.”

She said 1800Respect has been fielding calls from people contacting the service for the first time, as well as family and friends of victims.

Ms Sheehan said it was important that the Australian community understands that there is support available, no matter where a person lives.

Hopes this could be a ‘watershed’ moment for Australia

Professor JaneMaree Maher works at Monash University’s Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Research.

She said she had “her fingers and toes crossed” that the last two weeks could prompt significant change for women in Australia.

“In every generation and in so many spaces, there is I think a real determination and I would say a great deal of anger about the current situation, about what young women face,” she said.

“It may be that this is a tipping point, and I would really hope so.”

But she said Australians had “seen these moments before and we have been horrified before”.
Professor Maher said she believed the stories of sexual assault and how they had been addressed was linked to gender inequality in Australia.
“We see these types of sexual assaults and systematic failures to respond partly because our gender equality settings are not right,” she said.

Source: Support services see a rise in women talking for the first time about sexual assaults, but news is distressing to many abuse survivors – ABC News