Spike in sexual assault reports the ‘legacy’ of Parliament culture reckoning

The conversation, sparked by Brittany Higgins, was credited with the spike in reporting of sexual assaults in Australia.

The conversation, sparked by Brittany Higgins, was credited with the spike in reporting of sexual assaults in Australia. Photo: AAP

A major increase in sexual assault reports to police may be the enduring “legacy” of a major cultural reckoning in Parliament sparked by brave women like Brittany Higgins, politicians say, praising those who have reported crimes to authorities.

“This is the power of what happens when people break their silence, and bravely come forward and are willing to tell their story,” Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said.

The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research noted a 65 per cent increase in sexual assaults reported to NSW Police in March, compared to the same month last year.

Between February and March 2021 alone, the number rose 46 per cent.

“The sharp increase most likely reflects a temporary increase in victim willingness to report sexual assault due to heightened public attention on sexual assault and consent (rather than an increase in prevalence),” the bureau said.

“The spike aligns with saturated media coverage of a number of high-profile sexual assault allegations which came to light in late February and March 2021.”

The bureau said two-thirds of the increase was from victims aged 13 to 20, and the “vast majority involved female victims”. Many were “historical offences”.

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman also attributed the huge increase in reports to “long-overdue public discussion of sexual violence”, rather than an uptick in crimes.

Sexual assault and harassment is vastly under-reported and often remains hidden, advocates say, but the recent attention on the scourge – sparked by Ms Higgins and numerous other women on the national stage – was credited with the booming reporting numbers.

“I commend the extraordinary courage of all of the victim-survivors who’ve recently contacted police to report sexual assaults,” Mr Speakman said.

Sarah Hanson-Young said this may be the “legacy” of recent months. Photo: AAP

“It also demonstrates what we already knew, that these crimes are significantly underreported each day.”

NSW Police Minister David Elliott said it was “encouraging that there is an increased willingness to report sexual assault”, while NSW State Crime Commander Stuart Smith praised the “incredible courage” of survivors.

Senator Hanson-Young has been a leading voice in federal Parliament for reform in this area, and has spoken at length about her hopes for change.

She said she was pleased to see the national conversation around sexual misconduct translating into real-world results in higher reporting of assault, but said more had to be done.

“I’m not surprised at those statistics. We know sexual assault and harassment is so under-reported, so I’m actually heartened to hear people are coming forward and reporting in much higher numbers,” she told The New Daily.

“That’s what we need. It’s been so hidden, which has allowed politicians, community leaders and bureaucrats, to not prioritise dealing with this.

“The more we get a better picture of what a scourge sexual assault and harassment is, the better we’ll be at coming up with solutions.”

Chanel Contos, the Sydney student who sparked an online campaign to speak out about sexual assault, told the ABC she was conflicted but pleased to see the NSW data.

“I’m obviously so sad that this has happened to so many people, but I’m also so happy that it’s been reported people are feeling empowered to tell their story to authorities,” she said.

  • For confidential support and services around sexual assault, contact 1800 RESPECT online or by phone on 1800 737 732. If you or someone you know needs help, contact Life Line on 13 11 14
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