Progress in the ACT courts for victims of sexual assault

Emma Bourke

sexual assault image from shutterstockIn case you missed it, the ACT courts made history last month, utilising a legal precedent that may alter the way the ACT courts and our community seek justice for victims of sexual assault.

A legal precedent, set in Victorian courts, allowed sexual health expert, Doctor Sarah Martin, to stand before an ACT court and explaining to the jury just how common it is for victims of rape to suffer from paralysis during an attack. The condition, referred to as ‘freeze fright’ in the ACT court room, is a well-documented condition that affects around 50 percent of rape victims.

According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma; Freeze fright (also known as tonic immobility or traumatic paralysis) is a condition sometimes experienced by victims of sexual assault which can cause a persons body to freeze up during an attack, preventing the victim from resisting their attacker or calling out for help.

This groundbreaking precedent, which shockingly, had never been used in the ACT courts before last month, allowed the jury to better understand the science behind what our bodies are capable of during incidents of sexual assault .

Chief Executive Officer at the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, Chrystina Stanford, has applauded the use of sexual health experts to assist the jury in better understanding the impacts of sexual assault and hopes the precedent will be used in future sexual assault cases in the ACT, she told Her Canberra,

“Sexual assault is a terrible trauma, we live in a society that can be consumed with victim blaming ideas, and where the victim can be left feeling they are on trial due to the fact that it is one persons word against another [or] victim against perpetrator. This dynamic can risk minimising the impact that this crime can have on a victim’s life. The impacts of sexual assault can impact across a whole lifetime”

Why is this ACT first so significant? As well as promoting greater awareness of our body’s reaction to sexual trauma, the inclusion of ‘freeze fright’ testimony could prevent misconceptions held by members of the community and potential jurors involved in future rape cases where dissent was not verbally communicated or when physical trauma is less evident on the victim.

For more information on this case, you can read a report by Fairfax court reporter Michael Inman as well as ACT Lawyer, Katrina Marson’s opinion piece, both published in the Canberra Times earlier this month.

If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault, you aren’t alone. For support or guidance, you can contact the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre on 6247 2525 or visit

Image of traumatised woman from


Emma Bourke

Emma Bourke is a freelance journalist hailing from the Nations Capital. Pop culture enthusiast and lover of mid-century antiques, when she isn’t attempting to watch an entire television series in one sitting, you can find Emma climbing mountains and scowling at boot camps who steal her spot on the oval. Follow her on twitter @EmmaBourke_ More about the Author

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