Misconceptions about sexual assault perpetuate injustice

17 March 2021
The myths and misconceptions of sexual abuse
Sydney Law School's Professor Rita Shackel talks about her research on the misunderstandings surrounding sexual assault, and justice for victims and survivors.

Sexual assault, and the reporting and investigation of sexual assault, have been at the forefront of public discussion and media attention in Australia in recent weeks.

Professor Rita Shackel, Sydney Law School

As thousands of people marched to demand an end to sexual violence, we spoke with Professor Rita Shackel, Professor of Law and Ethics at the Sydney Law School, to discuss her research on the misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding sexual assault.

Professor Shackel has been researching the dynamics and nature of sexual and related violence for more than 20 years. Her work draws on and analyses the findings of an ever-growing body of interdisciplinary and international research to help build greater understanding of the lived experience of victims and survivors of child sexual abuse and sexual violence.

This includes in her work as an expert witness in criminal trials, where Professor Shackel presents counterintuitive and educative expert evidence.

Your work explores and exposes some of the myths and misconceptions that may be held in the community, or in institutions, about sexual abuse and child sexual abuse. Can you share with us some of the main misunderstandings you have discovered through your research?

Research suggests that the community at large, and even some professionals, continue to misunderstand some key dimensions of the nature of sexual violence and victim responses.

Sexual violence occurs across all segments of society. The impacts of sexual violence are profound. Biases and stereotypes, however, continue to be perpetuated in relation to many aspects of sexual violence.

Among these is a continued lack of understanding of the challenges and barriers that victims face in disclosing and talking about their experiences of sexual violence. Sexual violence is an intimately personal violation and it commonly involves a significant breach of trust within a close or familiar relationship.

The context of sexual violence, and the abuse of power that is often involved, means that victims and survivors of such violence often experience multiple barriers in the disclosure and reporting of abuse. The complex trauma that is also often associated with sexual violence may further inhibit a victim’s capacity to disclose their victimisation and seek assistance and justice.

Unfortunately, research suggests that victim blaming is not uncommon in society. Sexual violence involves individuals, and every context and account of sexual violence is distinct. It is important that society does not homogenise victim reactions and responses to this violence.

For example, many victims of sexual violence will not resist their perpetrator or fight back, but then some will. Many victims of sexual violence will maintain contact with their perpetrator for a range of reasons, though others may not. Some victims of sexual violence will make a complaint soon after the event, many however, will wait months, years or decades, and some will never tell or disclose their abuse. 

Why is it so important to dispel these types of misunderstandings?

It is important to understand that sexual violence occurs in a very wide range of circumstances; every situation of sexual violence is unique. We must recognise that every victim will respond in a unique way, influenced by a complex interaction of intrinsic and external factors.

Preconceived ideas, stereotypes and expectations about victim responses, or how a ‘real’ victim should respond to sexual violence, are hurtful to victims, have a silencing effect and perpetuate ongoing injustices. Improperly interpreting and judging a victim’s account or response can unfairly influence decision-making, including the decisions made by police, prosecutors or juries.

We often hear how difficult the criminal justice system can be to navigate for survivors of sexual abuse. Is there a way to be transparent about the difficulties without discouraging survivors from reporting to police?

Justice means different things to different victims and survivors. To deliver better justice outcomes to victims, we need more research that seeks to understand the varied justice needs of victims and informs the development of new and appropriate victim-centric mechanisms and fora.

It is important that complainants of sexual violence are well supported in any justice process and that they are provided with as much information as possible about how processes work and what those processes can be expected to achieve and deliver. Clear, consistent, accessible and victim-centred communication is essential.

Victims of sexual violence should be treated with greater respect in all justice processes. Justice processes need to assure victims and survivors a safe space. There needs to be understanding and recognition, by all actors involved, of the complex trauma often associated with sexual violence. This needs to be reflected in how justice processes support and empower victims.

Fundamentally, we must acknowledge that the law and criminal justice processes in their treatment of victims of sexual violence are, in many ways, inhumane. This need not be so, and it must change. 

You have been working in this very difficult area of criminal law for many years. What sustains you in your work and gives you hope?

This area of criminal law has been, and continues to be, a priority area for law reform and policy development. Sexual and related violence impacts all Australians and poses a heavy human and economic burden on Australia.

My hope for positive change in the delivery of justice in this area is drawn from the profound courage of so many victims and survivors who have come forward and shared their lived experience.

I also draw hope from the fact that there is a growing willingness across our community to listen, learn, better understand and support survivors of sexual violence. 

Support and assistance:

  • National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line: 1800 737 732.
  • Crisis support can be found at Lifeline: 13 11 14 and
  • Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467 and
  • Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 and


Banner image: Julia Robertson, Sydney Law School

Loren Smith

Assistant Media and Public Relations Adviser (Humanities and Science)

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