(Image: AAP/James Ross)

Victoria’s new sexual assault laws have gone backwards, gagging survivors from speaking out against their convicted abusers.

The timing is bizarre: for the last few years, campaigners have successfully advocated law reform that allows sexual assault victims to publicly reveal their identities — most recently in the NT and Tasmania.

Survivors say the right to tell their stories gives them autonomy previously taken away by their attackers.

They say it can promote healing, reduce feelings of shame and create an environment which empowers and inspires more survivors to come forward.

Experts, advocates and survivors say the new laws show how quickly incompetence, ignorance and misinformation around sexual assault can undo the progress made in the wake of the Me Too movement.

What are the new laws?

The new legislation was supposed to make it easier for survivors to remove court orders protecting their identity, as recommended in a review of the court system.

Instead, they’ve had the opposite effect. To publicly reveal their identities, victims of sexual or family violence now have to go back to the courts to apply for an order, which activists say could cost more than $10,000 in legal costs.

A court order isn’t needed if an alleged abuser is acquitted, or if charges aren’t laid.

But if an abuser is convicted, and their victim does speak out under their real identity, they face up to four months in jail or fines of thousands of dollars.

Victoria is now the only jurisdiction in Australia place with such gag laws in place.

How did this happen?

The law, enacted in February, prompted widespread outrage yesterday following media coverage.

Journalist and survivor advocate Nina Funnell, who spearheaded the #LetHerSpeak and #LetUsSpeak campaigns, wrote to Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy in her capacity as a journalist questioning the change.

Hennessy denied survivors were silenced, writing: “The changes that took effect in February this year did not have the effect of prohibiting media outlets from identifying survivors — they have reduced barriers for victims to tell their stories.”

“The fact [the laws] got through both houses of parliament with no one apparently reading the act — I read this as a spectacular case study as to how lawmakers can do their jobs poorly,” Funnell said. “We shouldn’t attribute to malice what may be explained by incompetence.”

Advocacy group End Rape on Campus Australia (EROC) wrote a seven-page letter to Hennessy outlining how survivors had been impacted by the changes, followed up with letters from the National Union of Students and Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy (RASARA).

RASARA chair Dr Rachael Burgin said that while survivor advocates were consulted when the legislative changes were being discussed, there was no indication the legislation would gag survivors.

“The laws were almost silently introduced — it was really under the radar,” she said. “It just shows the ignorance of the issues and that there’s been little to no care in drafting the legislation.”

RASARA didn’t receive a response from Hennessey’s office.

Following the social media storm, Hennessey told Inq her office was seeking urgent advice around the changes.

“I am aware of the concerns raised by victims and advocacy groups regarding the effect of these reforms and have asked the Department of Justice and Community Safety to urgently look at whether further changes are needed to ensure they are effective,” she said.

Survivors in legislative limbo

Sisters Dassi Erlich, Nicole Myer and Eli Sapper have bravely told their own stories of institutional childhood abuse to give hope to other survivors. The new laws mean Inq can’t publish details about their high-profile alleged abuser.

“We’re enraged,” Erlich told Inq. “It’s absolutely ridiculous. To be silenced — again — after we’ve spent our childhood in silence … has been triggering, and has placed shame back on us.” 

Each of the women has their own children and spoke out about their experiences to create a safer world for the next generation. 

“Coming out was to inspire others,” Myer said. “It’s empowering, it’s healing … To take that away from us takes away everything.” 

Sapper said they wanted the legislation to be swiftly reversed, and an apology issued. “It feels like we’ve taken 200 steps backwards,” she said.

Georgie Burg was one of many who survived the abuse of a prolific pedophile priest John Aitchison in the ACT. She told Inq she was worried others wouldn’t come forward following the changes.

“For three years and eight months, I was nothing but number 577,” Burg said.

“The Victorian government has made survivors go back to being just numbers or initials in a court transcript.” 

Burg said every survivor deserved the right to go public if they wanted to. She, like Erlich, Myer and Sapper, went public to help other survivors. 

“I was named so other survivors can understand that there is another option than keeping a secret for my whole life and feeling mired by shame,” she said. 

“By giving survivors a chance to use their name if they chose to do it, you give them a hope of survival, that there’s something else on the other side of being raped and victimised. Surely that’s what we all want.”

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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