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Campaign challenges sexual assault myths

Fight, flight and freeze are all normal responses to a sexual assault and survivors shouldn’t be judged for their reaction says a counsellor who is working with police, lawyers and the community to change perceptions.

Jessica Cave

Jessica Cave, counsellor

“There’s no right or wrong way to react during or after a sexual assault,” says Jessica Cave, a sexual assault counsellor with the Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District.

“Over 50 percent of assault survivors say they actually ‘just froze’ and were unable to fight back or scream for help.”

Ms Cave hopes the #ijustfroze campaign, which started in Scotland and is now being launched in the Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District, will help police, lawyers, court agencies and the community to understand why survivors of sexual assault sometimes just ‘freeze’.

“When frightened, part of our brains can actually shutdown and immobilise our bodies. It’s a perfectly normal reaction and out of our conscious control.”

“Unfortunately, survivors who froze during an assault sometimes think others, including their family, friends and the police, may judge them for not fighting back.

They can feel ashamed and decide to not to talk about or report the assault,” says Ms Cave.

A large number of survivors don’t tell anyone, for those that do it is often not a police officer or counsellor they tell first. It’s usually a friend.

“The way we respond to survivors of sexual assault when they do disclose can have a huge impact on their recovery and what happens next for example whether they seek counselling or talk to police.”

Ms Cave says it can be very confronting when a friend tells you they have been sexually assaulted, and many people feel uncertain of what to do or say.

“There are some key messages that are important for the survivor to hear. Let the person know you are sorry this has happened to them and that you believe them.

The language you use is very important it should make them feel that they can talk without being judged.”

Thoughtless or judgemental language when talking about sexual assault used by the community, professionals such as police and lawyers and the media can deepen a survivor’s sense of shame and contribute to their decision to not talk about the assault.

Ms Cave says research shows of the already very few survivors of sexual assault who talk about it to someone else, less than 15 percent of sexual assault survivors actually report the crime to police.

Five people a week seek assistance from, or are referred to, the NBMLHD Integrated Violence Prevention and Response Service (IVPRS) for support, counselling, court preparation and forensic medical examinations.

The Service covers the entire Local Health District including Lithgow, Blue Mountains, The Hawkesbury and Penrith.

“We hope the campaign will make more survivors feel comfortable and confident to seek out support and that when they do, that they will be met with supportive and helpful responses by those in the community.”

IVPRS can be contacted on 02 4734 2512 or for 24 hour assistance call NSW Rape Crisis 1 800 424 017.

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