South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

Those who don't believe what is said

For Family & Friends, Female Survivors, Male Survivors

Tags: Child Sexual Abuse, Survivor's Stories

by Maureen Egan Mitchell

When adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse speak out about their experiences, the healing and recovery process begins. They learn that they are not alone in what they have endured. Speaking out helps them to take back that power. 1

Behind the four walls of the endless number of houses that fill our suburbs of the big cities and country towns of our states of our nation, domestic violence happens all too often.

Economic, physical, emotional, and sexual assault of people's bodies occurs frequently in our communities. Alongside domestic violence, sexual assault is probably the most under reported crime of the century. For example, the FBI has claimed that in the U.S.A. alone, only one in ten sexual assaults is reported to the police (Shapcott, 1988). Studies undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that there is an even higher incidence of non reporting in Australia Klimkiewicz et al., 1984).

In Victoria during a six month period in 1986, 1097 victims of sexual assault reported to the police (Australian Institute of Criminology, 1986). Considering the estimates of non reporting, it is predicted that the actual incidence of sexual assault in Victoria was nearer 11,000 cases.

The following statistics, which are based on international and Australian research, do provide some insight into the extent posed by the problem of sexual assault.

  • Approximately one out of ten sexual assault victims reports the assault to the police (Kilmkiewicz et al., 1984; Haines, 1985).
  • One out of ten women will be raped in her life times (Offir, 1975; Haines, 1985).
  • Thirty eight percent of girls and nine percent of boys will be sexually assaulted in some way by the time they are 18 years of age (Finkelhor, 1979; Russell, 1983; Goldman, 1986)
  • In one out of ten homes incest takes place (National Coalition Against Sexual Assault Conference Papers, 1987).
  • Rape occurs within approximately seven percent of all marriages (Finkelhor and Yllo, 1985; Russel, 1982).
  • Seventy six percent of female and seventy percent of male sexual assault victims know the offender (Finkelhor, 1979).
  • In the overwhelming majority of instances of child sexual offence the perpetrator is the father, stepfather, mother's de facto partner, brother, uncle or grandfather of the victim (Finkelhor, 1979).

The sad state of affairs shows that it takes a lot of work and disclosing to break the cycle of violence between the generations.

According to Margaret Cooper, A Counsellor at the Sexual Assault Clinic in Horsham, Victoria, it is much better when children receive assistance after the abuse, as they recover much more quickly.

When adults who are in their 40's, 50's, and 60's have lived with the memories of abuse from childhood, they have the worst time for recovery. They are especially devasted if they told when they were children and were accused of lying, and to top it off, punished because they told.

The sad fact is instead of it being a far healthier situation to "open up" the abuse within a family, according to Cooper when one member of the family unit reports abuse, he or she can be ostracized by the other members. They don't want to know the truth; they feel shame and they would rather support the status quo.

It is quite amazing, given all the education on violence in our society, and hopefully trying to make more people aware of when they are being abused, that when individuals do report to their General Practitioner or other welfare agencies they are not always believed.

Sometimes even disliking the victim prevents the professional from believing the victim's account.

The Sexual Assault Clinic in Horsham has the policy that all clients that come to their offices to disclose abuse are believed. When the older generations who experienced child abuse within their family units, there was virtually no one for them to report to. It was not good speaking out at school, as the education system back in the 30's and 40's was handing out punishment indiscriminately.

Cooper estimates that 60 percent of victims who reveal episodes of assault are not believed by their families. The reason is one of loyalty to the particular tribe. For example a mother may believe a daughter when she discloses that the father has been sexually assaulting her, but the mother chooses to stay within the relationship.

Also from the perspective of the children, they are much more influenced by their parents, unless they are very threatened or volatile, then they would go to the parents or a good family friend. This is the scenario according to the Rural Youth Worker in St. Arnaud. Added to this Cooper indicated that if children tell parents of the abuse and they aren't believed, they won't say anything again.

From a book Speaking the Unspeakable by Marg D'Arcy, 1999, the Real Rape Law Coalition (Victoria)   No Real Justice conducted a phone in in 1991 to campaign for reforms to the Criminal Laws as they affect adult victims of sexual assault in their pursuit of justice. One of the findings was that   "two in three adult victims who didn't report to the police (67%) thought that they would not have been believed by the police were they to do so."

Also from the above mentioned book, participants were asked if they reported the assault to the police. If they did not report, they were asked why not? Amongst the reasons were:

  • fear of not been believed (9%).
  • because the perpetrator is a senior constable in the small rural community in which I live. I am too scared.
  • The police refused to take the report.

Further to this, from Sexual Assault The Law, Your Rights by Jude McCulloch and Chris Momot, 1999, p.11, "the majority of sexual assaults are not reported to police. Many women decide not to report because they:

  • think they won't be believed by police."

From p. 12 under the heading, Reporting to Police:

"The police play a role for women who decide they want the perpetrator to be dealt with by the courts. Some police are supportive. Others are not. Women have sometimes been actively discouraged from proceeding with reports."

The police may fail to enquire after the victim/survivor's welfare or comfort. The victim/survivor may feel she is being treated as just another place of evidence. Some police continue to treat victim/ survivors with disbelief.

Blaming the victim is a common way of dealing with situations about which people feel uncomfortable. A. research study of community attitudes to Child Sexual Assault commissioned by the Department of Human Services (then known as Community Services, Victoria) in 1991 showed one in four people believe the child should take the blame for sexual abuse in some cases.

Nearly four in ten men believe the child victim is to blame for the abuse.

One of the strongest messages from the survivors' experiences is how effectively this attitude of blame can silence victims and allow the assaults to continue. As one survivor points out: "You feel it's your fault. I would get the blame. People would say What did you do to cause this? I was the youngest and the lowest on the ladder. It was always going to be turned around to be my fault. I didn't have a Counsellor or anyone at school to tell."

Children who have spoken up haven't been believed. It's okay to say tell, but people have to be educated to believe them.

Margaret Cooper of the Sexual Assault Centre in Horsham states: "Why aren't they believed? Disclosure divides families. Often family members do not want to know the truth. There is an element of shame and not only the abuser, but the whole family unit is ostracized by the community they live in."


  1. It Happened To Us: Women Talk About Child Sexual Abuse by Human Services, 3rd. Edition, June 2000.
  2. A Guide to Supporting Victims /Survivors of Sexual Assault, CASA House, Desley Scott, Lyn Walker and Kate Gilmour, Published 1990.
  3. It Happened To Us: Women Talk About Child Sexual Abuse by Human Services, 3rd. Edition, June 2000.
  4. Educating Adults, p. 16 & 17, from It Happened To Us: Women Talk About Child Sexual Abuse by Human Services, 3rd. Edition, June 2000.


Sexual Assault The Law, Your Rights. First published in Australia in 1998 by Brimbank Community Centre, 822 Ballarat Road, Deer Park, @ Victoria Legal Aid.

Speaking the Unspeakable, Nature, Incidence and Prevalence of Sexual Assault in Victoria. First published in Australia In 1999 by CASA House. Centre Against Sexual Assault, Royal Women' s Hospital, Women and Children's Health Care Network, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

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