Written by Lily Holloway.
The recent results from the Christchurch Girls’ High School sexual harassment survey revealed that, of 725 students, over half had experienced sexual harassment and 20 reported being raped. This, in itself, was triggering, though not surprising. What I hadn’t expected to be as impactful was the police response to this news, but reading it left me with a renewed grieving and an acute sense of loss. It also made me angry.
The police approach to sexual assault, as described by Canterbury Police District Manager of criminal investigations, was so different from my experience it was almost laughable: “We know coming forward to report a sexual assault can be incredibly difficult, so we can provide absolute assurance that any report will be treated seriously, sensitively and thoroughly investigated. […] We put victims at the heart of our approach, and endeavour to keep them informed and supported as enquiries progress.”
I started the process because I felt it was my responsibility to change the statistics of unreported rapes, because I was afraid people would not believe me otherwise, and because I had a friend ask, “What if he does it to somebody else?”
It took me a while to report my assault to the police because it took me a while to realise what I had experienced was assault. It took me even longer to decide whether to report. I started the process because I felt it was my responsibility to change the statistics of unreported rapes, because I was afraid people would not believe me otherwise, and because I had a friend ask, “What if he does it to somebody else?” As a life-long goody-two-shoes, ‘doing the right thing’ has always held tremendous sway.
It was several months after the assault when I called the local police station to book an appointment. When the morning arrived, I was too anxious to leave my room so didn’t show up. Later that afternoon, unannounced, three uniformed officers knocked on the door of my parents’ house. My little sister opened the door and, to stop them from saying anything in front of her, I told them I would get into their car. They put me in a situation where I no longer had control. They came to my house, in front of my family, and waited in the hallway for me to get dressed. This was a violation. I told my sister I had witnessed a fight. I asked her to please not mention it to our parents.
I had to describe the event, over and over, in explicit detail. If details changed slightly (it is hard to remember traumatic events) this became the object of intense scrutiny.
A lot of this process, which took part over several weeks, is a blur. I think this is because it was intensely retraumatising. Officers would preemptively apologise and then ask me questions about my skirt length or whether the perpetrator and I, because we had been in a previous relationship, had engaged in certain sexual acts before. I had to describe the event, over and over, in explicit detail. If details changed slightly (it is hard to remember traumatic events) this became the object of intense scrutiny. The person in charge of my case changed without my knowledge.
Part-way through the process, I was informed the police had found a video of the assault on the perpetrator’s phone, in an app designed to look like the settings app. I would imagine the officers poring over it, a video of me at my most powerless, and deciding whether what they were witnessing was actually assault. The power difference between myself and those in charge of my case was most palpable after this moment. After my final session, I was given a list of helplines I could call and sent on my way.
My last interaction with the police ended with me apologising for wasting their time.
They called me to tell me the results of their investigation while I was out of town. While I had known there was no chance of prosecution, the confirmation of this was deeply upsetting. I lay in the back-seat of my family’s rented people-mover and sobbed. They had good news, though, they said. They had arranged with his lawyers to have the video deleted from his phone, something he wasn’t legally obligated to do. My last interaction with the police ended with me apologising for wasting their time.
While there may be others whose experience with reporting sexual assault to the police was empowering, I think it’s dangerous to assert this is going to be the case for everyone, especially if the processes are not in place to back it up. Apologies if I scoff at the idea that the reporting process has “victims at the heart” of it. From my experience, the police seem ill-equipped to deal with victims “sensitively” or even “seriously.” I don’t believe that ever could really change, either. Regardless of the result of my investigation, the process itself was inherently invalidating, victim-blaming and retraumatising.
When I tell people I am an abolitionist, I have had people (usually men) respond with the common rhetoric of “Well, who will you go to if you get raped?”
As a pākehā, I have grown up viewing the police as civil protectors and heroes. I had assumed that reporting would help me restore a sense of control. The justice system, which undeniably has been established to cater to and validate pākehā, failed me, and this was a shock. I know experiencing this shock is a privilege. These colonial systems were built to serve me and to oppress others, and I had taken this for granted.
When I tell people I am an abolitionist, I have had people (usually men) respond with the common rhetoric of “Well, who will you go to if you get raped?” But if the justice system isn’t rehabilitative and it does not serve victims, then who is it for? When sexual harassment and assault disproportionally affect people of colour, disabled, trans and queer people, how can we confidently point them in the way of a system that is consistently harmful to their communities?
This essay is not trying to argue that reporting assaults is not the right option for some people. Nobody knows what is best for every survivor and each survivor should be in charge of their own journey. I guess I am left feeling anxious for the people who go into the process desperately looking for justice and healing, especially when the police describe their process as a positive, victim-centred one. I just wish I could travel back in time, look myself in the eye and say: you don’t owe anybody anything.
About The Author
Lily Holloway (she/they) is a forever-queer poet, postgraduate English student and graduate teaching assistant living in Aotearoa, New Zealand. She has a tattoo of Laa-Laa and you can find more of her writing at lilyholloway.co.nz.