Survivors forced to suffer in silence

Sandra was raped at work. Now she’s gagged by the law. In March, she became the latest woman to join the #LetHerSpeak campaign, which was created by freelance journalist Nina Funnell.

The following story contains description of assault which may be confronting for some readers.

Sandra* wants to speak.

In 2017 she was raped by a stranger on an isolated rural property just outside of Darwin. She was at work at the time, performing as an adult entertainer at a buck’s party that was held in a farm shed.

“There were 13 or 14 of them and I was the only woman,” she says. “I always start by telling the men the rules. I told them no touching, no photography or filming. I always put down a mat and tell them to stay off the mat so they know the boundary. They all understood.”

But as Sandra began her routine the atmosphere in the shed palpably changed. A large man, “over six foot tall with a beer belly” approached Sandra.

“He stood over me and held me down with one hand on my belly,” says Sandra. “He then raped me with a beer bottle, as the other men all watched on.

“I just started bawling my eyes out. When he shoved that bottle in, my dignity, my self-worth, my control, my power was gone. I didn’t know what to do.”

Sandra was on her knees, naked on the hard ground, crying and fishing through her bag trying to find her phone to call for help.

Sandra was working when she was horrifically raped. Picture: Mariel Thomas.

It was at this moment that Sandra realised she had also been robbed by one of the attendees.

“That was when I really knew how vulnerable a situation I was in,” she says. “It suddenly dawned on me, ‘Oh my god, I’m in the middle of nowhere. I have no phone. They could do anything to me.’ I was surrounded.”

“Then one of the men yelled out, ‘Aren’t you going to finish the f***ing show?’ I just went into flight mode.”

Were it not for Sandra’s ride arriving at that moment, she does not know what would have happened. The friend, who had previously agreed to pick her up at that time, ushered her off the property and insisted she call the police to report the attack.

“All I could hear was myself apologising on the phone [to the police saying], ‘I’m sorry… I know you guys probably don’t care because I’m a stripper…’ I was saying things like that,” she says.

“I look back at it now and think, ‘Oh my god, I was making excuses for him even back then.’ That’s how much society drills it into your brain that you’re the one who’s dirty and did the wrong thing.”

The police, however, took the report seriously.

“To their credit, within an hour they had the shed cordoned off with police tape and were fingerprinting bottles,” she says.

Sandra reported the assault to police, who took it seriously and charged the offender. Picture: Mariel Thomas.

Kevin Willcocks was later arrested over the attack and in March 2019 a jury found him guilty of rape. He was sentenced to three and a half years jail, suspended after nine months.

According to Leanne Melling, co-ordinator of the Sex Worker Outreach Program NT, the case set an important precedent for sex worker rights across Australia.

“We know that many instances of sexual assault are still not reported,” Ms Melling says. “To reduce sexual assault we must ensure that people who commit these crimes are accountable for their actions.”

Yet despite the guilty finding, the media reporting and public commentary around the case also exposed just how far community attitudes still have to come.

The headlines called him a “larrikin” and a “family man”. Sandra was referred to as “the beer bottle stripper”.

“It wasn’t just him,” Sandra says. “People said I deserved it, that it was my fault. That I was a slut. I know it wasn’t my fault. But in court you have to relive it, every second of what happened, bit by bit and not through your eyes of what actually happened … You have to relive what happened through the eyes of the barrister who’s trying to discredit every word you say.

“You have to talk about your vagina to a room full of strangers and answer questions about how ‘tight’ you are, and have people suggest what happened wasn’t distressing for you.”

“I was raped and now I’m being gagged”

Sandra can’t tell her own story, thanks to an archaic law. Picture: Mariel Thomas.

Sandra, now 38 and a nursing student, wants to waive her right to anonymity and speak out in the hope of challenging victim-blaming attitudes and sex work stigma.

She wants to do so via a feature length documentary which examines how sexual assault survivors experience the criminal justice system.

Since 2018, a film crew from Jerboa Films have followed her as she navigated the criminal justice system. They were there when the first trial resulted in a hung jury. They were there shortly after Sandra attempted suicide. And they were there again when Willcocks was finally found guilty.

Yet in a devastating development, under the Northern Territory’s archaic sexual assault victim gag laws, it is a crime for any individual to publish Sandra’s name or face, meaning the full film may never see the light of day.

Any journalist who does name Sandra could face up to six months jail or heavy fines under section 6 of the NT’s Sexual Offences Evidence and Procedure Act.

Sandra herself could also face jail time were she to publish her own identity.

“I was raped and now I’m being gagged,” Sandra says.

“It’s important for victims of sexual assault to be able to tell their own story after an assault because it can help with the healing process. The ability to make that choice gives a little power back to someone who has had so much taken from them.

“By gagging victims against their will you’re robbing them of their own unique voice. For change to happen more voices need to be heard.”

Karen Willis, the executive officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, says that the law also creates a double standard.

“The offender can say whatever he likes to whomever he likes, any time he likes, and she is not allowed to respond,” she says.

Ms Willis said that when survivors can’t participate in public discussions — including discussions which directly affect them — it obscures the public’s understanding of the drivers of gender-based violence, such as gender inequality, sex role stereotyping, attitudes which minimise violence, and male peer relations disrespecting of women.

“It’s the defendant’s behaviour that is the problem and what we need to talk about. Not the victim,” Ms Willis says.

“I’d like to congratulate Sandra and the other brave women who are speaking out.

“These women are taking a great stand at incredible personal cost. Instead of ridiculing or questioning them we should be celebrating and cheering them on.”

Blue Lucine, director of the film about Sandra’s ordeal. Picture: supplied

Free the press: “We would be burying an untold story”

Jerboa director Blue Lucine says she was also shocked to discover the law.

“When I first found out that Sandra couldn’t be identified it felt like my heart hit the floor,” she says. “It was scary to realise that we could face jail time for telling Sandra’s story. We’re independent filmmakers without the legal knowledge or resources to deal with something like this.

“If the feature documentary does not see the light of day, we would be burying an untold story, a unique insight into a sexual assault case from the perspective of the victim.”

Sandra has now partnered with the #LetHerSpeak campaign and is agitating for the NT to reform the gag law. Marque Lawyers, who are legal partners on the campaign, are representing Sandra and are seeking a court order so that she may identify herself without risk of prosecution.

The Attorney-General, Natasha Fyles, agrees the situation is not acceptable for survivors who wish to speak out.

“The #LetHerSpeak campaign has been a powerful one both here in the NT and across Australia” Ms Fyles says.

“Off the back of the #LetHerSpeak campaign. the Territory Labor Government acknowledges that there may be victims who want to tell their stories and therefore waive the prohibition on publication.”

The NT has the highest rate of sexual assault per capita in the country. In 2018, there were 145 reports of sexual assault to the NT Police per 100,000 people. By comparison, Australia-wide there were 105 reports of sexual assault to police per 100,000 people.

The laws must change

Sandra is now supported by a growing team of sexual assault survivors and survivor advocates from across the country who are championing her story and her right to tell it.

Grace Tame, who was the first female sexual assault survivor in Tasmania to win her right to self identify as part of the Let Her Speak campaign, has given her unwavering support to Sandra, saying: “It fills my soul to the brim every time the campaign gains a new member. We empower one another.”

In response to the campaign, in March this year a bill was passed in Tasmania’s lower and upper houses, which will allow sexual assault survivors to speak out under their real names provided they are over the age of 18, consent to being named, provide that consent in writing, and have not been pressured or coerced into doing so. Survivors must also have the capacity to give consent to being named, and can only be identified if doing so does not compromise the privacy of another victim.

The law is expected to take effect later this year.

“I need women to know that no matter what you were doing, or the level of the sexual assault [you suffered], you need to have a voice,” Sandra says. “Everybody deserves that.”

* Sandra’s name had to be changed.

1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service — 1800respect.org.au

Nina Funnell is a freelance journalist and the creator of the #LetHerSpeak campaign in partnership with End Rape On Campus Australia, Marque Lawyers and News Corp. This article was first published for news.com.au.

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