Australian Institute of Criminology

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No longer silent: a study of women's help-seeking decisions and service responses to sexual assault

Denise Lievore
ISBN 1 920851 97 6
June 2005

A report prepared by the Australian Institute of Criminology for the Australian Government's Office for Women.

Abstract

In 2004 the Australian Government Office for Women commissioned the Australian Institute of Criminology to conduct a qualitative study of victim/survivor decision-making and coordinated responses to adult sexual assault. The research addresses gaps in knowledge about the social and personal contingencies that influence victim/survivors' help-seeking behaviour and their decisions in respect of the criminal justice system and on the efficacy of coordinated service responses to sexual assault. One of the primary aims of the study is to provide information for service providers so that they can offer suitable support to help victim/survivors make informed decisions about whether to pursue legal redress. The study had two components. The first part was based on interviews with 36 female victim/survivors of adult sexual assault who were recruited through sexual assault services across Australia, and examined social and personal factors that impact on victim/survivors' decisions to seek help from various sources, including whether to pursue legal redress; which support services were perceived as helpful or unhelpful; and recommendations on ways of improving criminal justice responses. To complement the women's narratives, 65 sexual assault counsellors were asked to give their views on factors that influence women's decisions to report sexual assault to police and to continue through or withdraw from the criminal justice process. The second component of the study collected qualitative information on sexual assault workers' perceptions of the efficacy of coordinated service provision and their recommendations for improving service delivery. Fifty-five staff at fourteen sexual assault services across Australia were consulted about their experiences of collaborating with criminal justice and forensic medical personnel. The study finds, overall, that women's decisions about where to seek help and the responses of the recipients of their disclosures are patterned by a spectrum of social and personal factors that, for the most part, perpetuate the silencing of survivors. While the response of the criminal justice system has improved, all too often it continues to be implicated in secondary victimisation and in maintaining the secrecy around sexual assault. Many research participants were disillusioned with the criminal justice system, but their participation in the study was motivated by the belief that system change is possible. Recommendations put forward in the report largely focus on improving social responses to sexual assault and promoting organisational change.