A number of years ago my dad sat on the jury of a case involving the rape of a mentally disabled 13-year-old girl. The specifics of the case were sickening and it was many years before he could fully process the experience. But as traumatising as it is to hear a stranger recount their experience of rape, this pales in comparison to the experience of hearing someone in your own life disclose the details of a violent sexual assault.
In May last year, I sat my parents down and described to them how, on the previous night, I had been grabbed from behind by an unknown man and dragged into a park where I was bashed, choked, held at knife point and told that I would be killed if I did not co-operate with my attacker's attempts to rape me. I fought back and once the assailant realised that I was not going to passively submit, he climbed off me and fled.
I was indecently sexually assaulted, beaten, bleeding and bruised - but not raped.
In the moments following the assault I immediately dialled 000 and was soon met by two police officers. I was escorted to Gladesville police station where I gave a statement and a description of the perpetrator. Forensic experts then swabbed blood from my hands and took photographs of the strangulation marks around my neck and the swelling on my face.
I was asked if I wanted a support friend or family member present, but I declined, deciding that I would not be able to give an accurate, dispassionate account if I had to manage a family member's emotional reaction. So it wasn't until the following day that I informed my family. As anticipated, they were horrified by the disclosure and deeply distressed at the thought of me going through the reporting process alone.
Since then, I've noticed that when talking about trauma related to sexual assault, the media almost always focuses on the experience of the immediate victim - and in many cases, this is completely justified. But because individuals do not exist in social vacuums, the trauma incited by an assault is rarely confined to the victim alone. Family members, friends and professionals assisting the victim also experience what is known as “vicarious trauma”. This is trauma that results from the exposure to extreme suffering.
Jacqueline Burke of the New South Wales Rape Crisis Centre says that the psychological damage caused by vicarious trauma can be just as extreme as the psychological damage caused by direct trauma. It also manifests and expresses itself in similar ways and, if left untreated, it can result in serious long term damage. Aside from family and friends, counsellors, emergency workers and legal practitioners are also placed at high risk.
But individuals who suffer from vicarious trauma seldom know how to recognise the symptoms and so they rarely seek help. They also frequently downplay their distress and almost never feel entitled to view their suffering as legitimate. They also tend to measure their own pain against the perceived pain of the person they are supporting and they often conclude that their own suffering is insignificant and therefore irrelevant.
Because the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated against women, we often assume that it is only women who experience the resulting trauma. But for every woman who is assaulted (and who chooses to disclose and is actually believed) there will be a number of men in her life who are also deeply affected. For me, it was my dad, my brother and my then boyfriend who suffered most deeply.
Unfortunately however, many men continue to dismiss or minimise their own suffering, under the misconception that only women are fully entitled to feel angry and hurt by sexual abuse.
Men who support female victims often feel angry, frustrated and powerless. They are also likely to experience a sense of anxiety over the fact that they share their gender with those responsible. They frequently attempt to exact revenge and they often blame themselves for failing to protect the women they love. Of course women do not want to become victims of protectionism either. Men do not need to protect women from rape; they simply need to stop participating in a chauvinistic culture that allows for rape to occur.
In situations such as my own, where there is no recourse for justice (because the perpetrator has not been caught), the sense of helplessness is even greater.
As it stands, not all sexually assaulted victims in Australia will be able to access adequate counselling services as government funding is still woefully insufficient. Those suffering from vicarious trauma are offered even less support. Acknowledging vicarious trauma and providing adequate aftercare for both survivors of sexual assault and those who support them should be made a matter of priority at both a state and federal level.
For this to happen though, we must start by acknowledging that effects of sexual assault are not confined to the victims. Sexual assault is not an individual problem, a woman's problem, or a family problem. It is a societal problem and it ought to be dealt with as such.