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I sat outside a courtroom, waiting to give evidence about the domestic and sexual violence I’d experienced. I was still a teenager.
I wasn’t even 18 when I left my abuser and started the long process of recovery and healing. When I first described what I had experienced to a counsellor, she told me I’d experienced domestic violence.
Location sharing and constant messaging has become the norm for many Australian teenagers. Credit: Istock
“I thought I had to be an adult or live with him to experience domestic violence,” I replied. “I didn’t have any children with him.”
I still lived at home with my parents and was in school. I thought I was too young to be a survivor.
Going through the court process, I had so much support – the police, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, a witness assistance service worker, my family and my friends. But I still felt so confused and isolated. I didn’t see myself and my experiences reflected in any of the services offering help.
Last week, new data from the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) revealed nearly a third of teenagers aged between 18 and 19 years old have experienced violence from a partner in the previous year.
This was revealed a week after Lilie James was murdered by her former partner. She was 21.
When you’re the survivor of sexual assault, you carry a shame forced onto you by those who have perpetrated crimes against you. That shame is reinforced and confirmed by society when police and prosecutors tell you not to discuss the details of your case with anybody – not even your family or closest friends – and when you see yourself constantly missing from the national conversation of what intimate partner violence looks like.
Most of the time, what you’ve experienced feels unexplainable anyway; like no one would understand. And so the shame grows into isolation.
Lilie James isn’t the first young woman to be murdered by a partner. And she won’t be the last. But young people are hardly ever considered when we talk about this. Teenage relationships are considered to be temporary, seen as learning opportunities or mistakes.
These were my experiences. My abuser was convicted of violence against me and against other young women. At the time, I didn’t yet have the language to express or understand it. I knew I didn’t feel safe, but I saw my friends having many of the same experiences that I was.
I saw girls having their location tracked, being sent thousands of messages a day, being on phone calls for hours, having what they wore, what they did and who they saw controlled. I saw people’s intimate images shared without consent. I heard stories of what were described as “uncomfortable” or “awkward” sexual encounters that we now recognise as not consensual. And I thought, maybe this is what it’s like to be a young person dating because all of these behaviours have somehow become normalised.
Lilie James’ family says she was “vibrant, outgoing and very much loved”.Credit: Facebook
When I looked at my parents’ relationship, I saw the way they loved each other and the respect they had for each other. I knew it was the kind of love I wanted for myself, but that it wasn’t what I had.
Thinking that way – that was a breakthrough.
If we continue to ignore how common intimate partner violence is for young people, we continue to ignore life-threatening risks. If we ignore the AIFS’ findings, these people could grow up to see their foundational, formative experiences of romance as synonymous with violence.
More survivors of sexual and domestic violence are reporting to police, and that’s a good thing. But the legal system still rarely brings justice. Knowing the low likelihood of conviction, why do we persist? We do it to be heard. We do it because we believe we have a responsibility to stop the perpetrator from hurting others. We do it because we deserve a chance at legally recognised justice.
When I was sitting outside the courtroom that day, another young woman approached me. She had already given evidence and was waiting as her trial continued. Her experience was different from mine, but she knew exactly how it felt to go through the reporting and court process, and how isolating and confusing it is.
Bek and I talked for hours – not about the details of what we had experienced – but about the aftermath. About the system. About how long the process is and how often it stops and starts. How much it hurts. About everything.
After the case, after the conviction, I was determined to do something for myself, something for Bek, something for all of us. Together with friends, we built The Survivor Hub, a place for survivors to talk, to feel support, to provide reliable information about a person’s options. A place to connect, to ask questions, and to vent.
At one of our MeetUps, a survivor told us they had waited 25 years for a space like this. Another survivor came with her mother. When she first arrived, she wasn’t able to say a word, but she eventually found her voice and the change in her was huge. Others have told us having the MeetUps and support from other survivors has saved their lives.
Affirmative consent laws are gradually changing across Australian states and territories. They are a long-overdue and welcome development. But the laws still need further reform. Strong laws, good policing with sensitive and well-trained police, court processes that minimise re-traumatisation, jury and judicial officer training, limiting the time it takes to report and get through court; all of these are necessary.
Each of these on their own is not enough.
There is so much to do for survivors. And we must keep going.
Anna Coutts-Trotter is the co-founder of The Survivor Hub, a not-for-profit organisation supporting people impacted by sexual assault.
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