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I was a victim of sexual assault. My experience was better than most, and it was shattering

A first-person account of one woman’s attempt to win justice after a sexual assault.

As told to Alex Casey 

Content warning: This feature contains descriptions of sexual assault, which may be triggering to survivors.

It was supposed to be the best day of my life. May 2017, my last semester at university, and I was celebrating being admitted to the bar. With only eight weeks left of my law degree, I couldn’t wait for all of it to be over. The environment at law school had been competitive and stressful, and I was completely exhausted from trying to keep up good grades.

What had kept me going through the pressure of exams and dealing with my competitive classmates was the life that was waiting for me around the corner. After graduation I was going to move to Amsterdam with my best friends and start the rest of our lives together. I couldn’t wait to see the world and figure out what I really wanted to do with my life.

I had two months to go. Then everything changed.

Our celebrations began with lunch and champagne at a restaurant in downtown Auckland, with my parents and close friends – including my best friend of five years Lisa*, and her boyfriend, Tim*. Typical of many graduate celebrations, the festivities rolled into night and we ended up at a cheap italian BYO restaurant, before going to my old flat for drinks.

There were about 15 of us there and I knew everyone. We played drinking games, blasted loud music, did shots – so far, so student life. After a huge day of excitement, emotion and a lot of alcohol, I found myself way too drunk and was put to bed by my friends to sleep it off at 9.30pm. I was nestled up in my old bedroom, surrounded by people I trusted. I felt totally safe.

A few hours later, I woke up to a man’s voice in my ear. It was my friend’s boyfriend, Tim. He was turning the light on and off and pestering me to get up and go back to his and Lisa’s house. He told me that she had gone home, but still wanted to see me. I remember not being able to move or speak properly, but still trying to call out to my friends in the other room for help.

It was after midnight now, and the party had gone quiet. Worn down by Tim’s persistence and still quite intoxicated, I gave in and texted my mum to tell her I’d be staying at Tim and Lisa’s house. He bundled me into an Uber and we headed back to their apartment where Lisa was already asleep in her bed. If she was desperate to see me, she hadn’t waited up.

Of course, in my haze, I wasn’t thinking about that. All I remember at the time was the feeling of comfort in seeing my best friend in her bed, and snuggling up next to her before falling asleep.

An hour or so later, I woke up to find Tim undressing me. Later in my police interview, I described those first waking moments. “The covers are off me, and he was taking my pants off and I’m confused… and then he’s saying ‘you can’t sleep in your clothes’.” I initially believed that he was just doing me a favour. All I wanted to do was to go back to sleep.

I pulled the covers back on top of me and dozed off again as Tim pottered around the studio apartment. Lisa remained fast asleep next to me. The next time I woke up, it was because I felt a huge jolt next to me in the bed. Tim was lying behind me now, and was groping at my body. In a state of shock, I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep, hoping he would soon stop.

I felt completely paralysed as his hands moved my underwear and he forced his fingers inside me. When you are in fight or flight mode, you do the safest thing to survive. At that moment, I was too scared to move or even say anything. I just waited, completely frozen. He kept whispering in my ear that he loved me.

I remember the tears filling my eyes as I stared at my best friend who was snoring in the dark next to us.

I lay still, terrified, for several more minutes before he took his hands off me and his breathing became steady. I felt trapped. Quietly sliding out of bed, I could barely gather my thoughts. I was wearing a singlet top and g-string and I couldn’t find my handbag or clothes in the dark. It wasn’t like I could just run out onto the street screaming.

In the dark, I fumbled around the apartment floor, picking up various items of clothing. Every time Tim stirred, I froze. The thought of being so exposed around him made me feel sick. I eventually found my pants discarded on the floor and my handbag and shoes which had been neatly stacked by the door. I ordered an Uber, threw all my clothes on and ran out the door.

Seeing the headlights appear minutes later on the street was like seeing an angel. Once inside the car, I began to message my friends. They immediately replied with frantic calls and texts, but I was completely overwhelmed and couldn’t form a proper response to anyone. I didn’t want to make anyone feel burdened. It was 4.30am when I finally got home.

I lay awake in my own bed until the sun came up.

When I eventually opened my eyes, my phone was filled with texts from my attacker and his girlfriend. Messages like “hey where did you go” and “hope you are OK” immediately felt like they were testing the waters with me, to see if I remembered what had happened. His girlfriend rang me and tried to explain that he just took my clothes off because he thought I “looked cute”.

I started crying as she told me not to go to the cops, and that meditation would be better to work it all out. Less than 12 hours ago, she had been my best friend. I told her to never contact me again.

It wasn’t until Sunday night that I told my parents what had happened – I really thought I could bottle it up and handle it on my own. Eventually, I broke down. My dad contacted the police, who said I should make a complaint immediately. I was scared, but I wanted to get something on the record in case he had done something before – or would do it again.

Dad drove me to Auckland Central Police Station, where I had to sit in the communal waiting area for 15 minutes. I couldn’t stop crying as people came and went from the front desk, so I turned and faced the wall. I sobbed silently until my name was called. A woman led me down a hallway of flimsy, makeshift walls. Through them, I could hear what everyone was saying.

The question came almost immediately: why had I waited two days to report the assault? The woman took a few notes down before telling me, very frankly, that as a law student I should already know where these cases often go – nowhere. A medical examination would be planned, she said, and that someone would be in touch about doing a more detailed video interview.

For the week that followed, I couldn’t leave the house. I still had to complete all of my coursework for my five final papers and I had never felt so stressed. All I remember is a blur of uni work and crying. The police got in touch the following Friday, nearly a week after the assault, to say that the next available video interview slot would be in a month’s time.

How was I supposed to keep this horrific thing fresh in my mind, for weeks? I asked to be added to a waitlist in case anyone else cancelled. My doctor prescribed me antidepressants, sleeping pills and Lorazopam to help manage my anxiety.

The call came on a Tuesday afternoon, two weeks after the assault. Someone had cancelled their interview for 9am the next morning, and the police wanted to know if I could make it in. I drove myself in on Wednesday, and headed into a three hour interview.

I remember a small, stark room. There was a detective in the room with me, and a camera in the wall right in front us. Next door sat another detective who was listening in and taking notes. The woman who interviewed me was incredibly patient and warm and made me feel comfortable, despite it being an awful experience.

We went right back to the beginning of the day of the assault, and recounted every minute that followed. I had to draw the layout of the restaurant, the party, the flat, where our bodies were in the bed and even how I had positioned my limbs when I fell asleep.

Experiencing the process from the inside, after having spent so long studying it from the outside as a law student, was completely surreal and exhausting. It was a horrible feeling, over the course of the interview, as I saw myself becoming one of those stories. I’ve never been that tired in my life. My eyes were swollen with tears when I finally finished and was able to take a break.

The detectives commended the strength of my testimony at the end of the interview. They even seemed to hint that I had a very good chance of getting a conviction. I felt empowered that I had done a good job – they said they hadn’t ever spoken to someone who could recall everything so thoroughly before, and told me they could play the video in court.

It was a long wait before a detective was assigned to my case. As the weeks turned into months, my confidence began to waver. When they don’t follow up, you start to feel like they don’t believe you, like you aren’t a priority. I found it hard to leave my bedroom, and even within the safety of four walls I still couldn’t sleep.

Around this time, Lisa, who had not long ago been my closest friend, started turning up outside my house and demanding to talk to me. Other times, she would just wait outside in her car. She was still with my attacker. This, compounded with the knowledge he had hired two top defence barristers, brought on frequent panic attacks. The trial was set for May 2018.

The defence had a screenshot of a three-year-old Facebook message where I talked about being on antidepressants. In preparation for the trial, they emailed my family doctor twice to try and obtain my confidential medical records without success.

Later I would find out why – they were planning to argue that I was on medication which, when mixed with alcohol, made me hallucinate the whole attack.

The second area they were probing was my sexual history. Again, through my Facebook chats they tried to conjure some sort of saucy lesbian love affair situation with Lisa. Lawyers are allowed to seek approval to discuss your sexual history, which is in the power of the judge to grant. I was so stressed that this case could blow up into them interrogating my whole life.

Both requests from the defence – to obtain my medical records and to discuss my sexual history – were placed at the last minute and required their own review hearings. That meant the trial would be further delayed.

Neither of the applications by the defence was accepted. They appealed. The Court of Appeal decided to hear the appeal as it was “highly relevant” to the defence, despite them being, as I knew, completely false. I found out on May 24, three days before the trial was supposed to start, that the case had been adjourned and no new court date given.

It started to feel like every time I got close to something happening, it was moved out of reach again. A new trial date was set for August, but the defence pushed for it to be moved to November so Tim’s studies wouldn’t be affected. The judge didn’t allow it, but the Court of Appeal decided that discussion around my “sexual history” with Lisa would be permitted.

I was only needed in court for two days, but I took the entire week of the trial off work. I was advised to dress in professional, conservative clothes – hair back, no red lipstick, no push-up bra, that kind of thing. On arrival to the Henderson courtroom, I had to go through the security section at the entrance to the courthouse, with everyone entering through the same two doors.

I hadn’t seen Tim since the night of the attack. That was the scariest part for me, the idea of somehow ending up standing in the security line next to him. Why do they only have one door in and out? It makes absolutely no sense. What’s the point in having this special victim support room inside if we all still have to use the same door?

I remember entering the courtroom and seeing the jury for the first time. This group of strangers had been over the case, they’d watched my long video interview, they knew everything. So having to walk through the door and sit in front of them all staring at me was very overwhelming and very awkward. Thankfully, I had requested a screen so I didn’t have to look at Tim.

The chairs were uncomfortable, the room was cold and the microphone was slightly too high for me to reach when I took the stand. It was very intimidating, I remember having to stand up super straight to reach it and the judge kept telling me off for not being close enough.

The defence brought up my Facebook messages from four years earlier. The worst they were able to produce was a message in which I told Lisa I had left my dress at her house. They put it to me like it was damning evidence that I had taken my dress off trying to seduce her, and that when she didn’t accept my advances that I had somehow left in a huff.

It was so absurd I actually cracked up laughing on the stand. I was furious, but I knew I had to hold it together. I had to maintain my integrity the whole time while they were basically conjuring up a fiction about me being desperate to be in this lesbian relationship with my friend.

The truth was that I had taken off my dress that night – a silk wraparound – to eat a kebab.

The defence questioned me on what I was wearing without the dress on. I had to stop myself rolling my eyes as I told them I was still wearing the slip under it.

At lunchtime, I was escorted down to the windowless victim room. I sat in the corner for the entirety of the break, terrified to leave to get lunch in case I saw him outside. It felt like I had to keep my game face on. I couldn’t risk seeing him and having a breakdown. Mum had to go and get my lunch for me before the judge eventually called us back in to continue the trial.

I stayed up all night reviewing my own Facebook messages. I felt like the defence had used them out of context, making it look like I was saying something that I wasn’t. Of course, I had no opportunity to check my phone in the moment. It took me hours to scroll back and take screenshots of the unedited conversations to present to the judge.

The trial lasted 11 days, most of it without me. The defence’s closing address went for something like three hours on the Friday afternoon, which meant proceedings were halted until Monday morning. I didn’t sleep all weekend. I always had some level of understanding that as a victim you were always likely to be treated badly, and the defence had the scope to argue any manner of false things, but I was not prepared for the delays, the allowances, the lack of common sense.

Quite honestly, it felt like I was in a huge game of chess, and that I had been naive to think I might be respected as a victim. On Monday morning, we heard the verdict over the speakerphone at my lawyers’ office. The accused was found guilty of sexual assault but not guilty of unlawful sexual connection.

The sentencing took place in April 2019, after another delay. It was now two years since the attack. As the interim months yawned by, the MeToo movement exploded in the media. I struggled with the volume of traumatic stories. I still had to write my victim impact statement to read out at the sentencing, a chance to state the impact that the assault had on my life.

On the one hand, hearing the testimonies from survivors like Chanel Miller was empowering and made it easier for me to make sense of my own reality. But the MeToo deluge was also triggering. Before long I couldn’t go online, I couldn’t go on my phone. It was so excruciating to know we are all suffering the same bullshit. I found it hard to think happy thoughts.

The sentencing itself took place in West Auckland. The detective had called me in advance to let me know that the accused was bringing a lot of support with him into the courtroom, and there was a chance things could get “out of hand”. I met the detective at the police station, and we headed into the courtroom early to get a spot at the front of the room.

At that point, I was deeply stressed about the logistics of even getting into the room. We actually got to the courtroom too early so the doors were locked so we had to wait in a nook. I sat in the corner and my parents kept a watch down the hallway to see who was coming – he was going to arrive at any moment. When the door clicked open, we literally ran into the room.

I sat behind the lawyers and my parents sat next to me, and then my girlfriends and the detectives in front. A few minutes later, Tim entered the room and sat directly behind me. In the glass screen in front of the seats, I could see his reflection hovering over my shoulder. I stared straight ahead, and didn’t turn around once.

The defence delved straight back into arguing about the extent that the accused had touched my genitals. I was so embarrassed sitting there with my family – I didn’t think they’d be sharing sensitive details because he had already been convicted and that part was supposed to be all over for me. It felt like they used the phrase “the victim’s vagina lips” about a hundred times.

I sat in my chair, fists clenched, as the defence continued. They talked about my mental health history. They talked about how Tim was an aspiring doctor, and how the charges would impact his entry into med school. If that doesn’t highlight how privilege and resource can help you to game the system, then I don’t know what does.

The way it was portrayed was as if I was crazy and he was just this poor guy who might not get into med school with a bad thing by his name. It all made me so angry, like his privilege was some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card. Despite being promised that the sentencing would only take 20 minutes, it lasted an hour.

The judge ran out of time to hand down a sentence, and it was pushed to a later date. I was so angry. This was supposed to be my time for justice and it was still all pandering to him. I had to take more time off work. I felt like I had been hit by a bus, it was so emotionally draining to sit through it and then process it all after – and it still wasn’t over.

Less than two months later, we were in the courtroom in Henderson again. This time the defence was arguing that his sentence should be reduced because the process had been so long and drawn out for the defendant. It felt to me as though they had chosen to draw it out for their own benefit and now they were trying to have it both ways.

The accused was sentenced to four months’ community detention, which meant house arrest between 7pm and 7am for 12 weeks. To me, it felt like he was just being grounded. When you consider the way the system is stacked against complainants, I know I’m lucky that we even got a conviction, but at the end of the day that really just looks like a slap on the wrist.

What gave me slight validation was that the judge agreed that there had been no consent, let alone any desire, and that the incident had been a huge breach of trust. I was hugely relieved he wasn’t discharged, but when you find out he just has to chill at home in the evenings for the next 12 weeks, that doesn’t sound like much of a punishment or a deterrent to me.

It has now been over three years since the assault. Tim’s lawyers applied for an appeal hearing to have him discharged without conviction, which was pushed back for months because of Covid-19. I found out over email last month that he hasn’t been granted appeal, which was a huge weight off my shoulders because I was living in fear of going through all of this again.

So why am I speaking out now? It’s because I still feel completely broken by my interactions with the justice system. The whole experience has fucked up my life. I carry a lot of stress all the time, it’s impacted my relationships with people. I don’t trust anyone. It’s such a breach of trust to have a friend do that to you and then have a whole system make you feel so alone.

I am now living in a new city with a new job, but this experience still hangs over me. I’m trying to use my legal background to start a resource for women going through the court system. I want women to know what they should be prepared for, that they should refresh their memory with anything that they can. Because at the end of the day, nobody else will have your back but you.

There is hope in the proposed changes to the Sexual Violence Legislation Bill, which passed its first reading in November last year. The changes would include limiting questioning around a complainant’s sex life, providing alternate methods to give evidence through video recording, and empowering judges to step in during inappropriate lines of questioning.

I believe that if the law changes, then society will. But there’s still a long way to go when people still hold such ignorant views like “well why did you get drunk?”. I should be able to be a vulnerable human and trust that nobody will hurt me. Whether or not I’ve been drinking should never give anyone the right to my body.

The photos from the day I was admitted to the bar are still displayed proudly at my parents’ house. I can’t look at them. Remembering what happened to me was really difficult, but the process is such an emotional tax on the victim. You just feel helpless, like a tiny fish in a big ocean with nobody around to help you.

People have no understanding of how difficult and complex it actually is to come forward when they say things like “why didn’t she go to the police”, particularly when you are up against someone with a lot of money and power. Someone needs to draw a line, and then we need to hold that line. Because the current process is failing. It’s failing and it’s hurting people.

If the events depicted in this story have been triggering in any way, please consider contacting any of the following organisations:
Safe to Talk
ACC’s Find Support
HELP
Women’s Refuge
Rape Crisis
Lifeline



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