World-first research reveals alternative reporting options can help survivors of sexual assault

World-first research reveals alternative reporting options can help survivors of sexual assault

Study finds well-designed alternative reporting options improves survivors’ access to support and justice

It’s no secret that sexual assault is a crime persistently under-reported. It’s estimated only one in eight sexual assaults are reported to police and just one in two survivors seek help from a counselling or specialist support service. However, in the first international study of its kind, researchers from the University of Wollongong (UOW) and RMIT have found well-designed alternative reporting options can improve these outcomes.

Criminologist and report co-author Dr Rachel Loney-Howes said alternative reporting refers to self-administered forms that provide confidential avenues for victim-survivors to informally report sexual assault without having to speak directly to authorities. In Australia current alternative reporting options sit directly with police.

“Five jurisdictions in Australia offer alternative reporting options for survivors of sexual assault – New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, Victoria and ACT – however many of these platforms aren’t considered best-practice and many victim-survivors distrust the police,” Dr Loney-Howes, from UOW’s School of Health and Society, said.

“We’ve known for a long time that there is vast under-reporting of sexual assault to police and the criminal justice system, with the latest statistics suggesting only 13 per cent of sexual assaults are ever reported.

“And sadly, this figure is likely to be much lower for certain communities who face significant barriers to reporting their experiences such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, LGBTQIA+ people and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.”

The new research was the first of its kind to examine alternative sexual assault reporting options that are run by law enforcement and victim support services.

“We found that alternative reporting options are seen as an ‘in-between’ pathway for victim-survivors who are unsure about making a formal report to police or do not wish to engage with police at all,” Dr Loney-Howes said.

“There is also some evidence showing victim-survivors who use alternative reporting options do go on to make formal reports. However, this is not their main reason for using these pathways.”

The researchers also found alternative reporting options enable victim-survivors to tell their story in their own words in ways that are meaningful to them and allow them autonomy and control. Alternative reporting options also assist police with intelligence gathering in unique ways.

However, the research also revealed that the structure and design of some existing alternative reporting forms can undermine the integrity of their narrative and impact the quality of information victim-survivors provide to police. Completing forms can also be triggering or traumatic for victim-survivors.

“Despite the findings we do believe we can improve this problem in Australia and we can address critical gaps,” Dr Loney-Howes said.

“Our study found that even when a reporting option is appropriately trauma-informed, it will be more effective if it’s not embedded within a law enforcement environment.

“An effective system enables a victim-survivor to tell their story and connect with therapeutic support services. It would also allow the collection of data about a wide range of harmful experiences and it can be sent to police to better inform their operations and allocation of resources.

“Above all it gives victim-survivors options and agency.”

The researchers would like to see alternative reporting options that are trauma-informed, culturally safe and underpinned by best-practice interviewing principles. Dr Loney-Howes said data security is paramount and users need to be given clear information about the form, how it’s used, who will have access to it and where it will be stored.

Police and governments have been under pressure to provide alternative reporting options for victim-survivors with critical gaps highlighted in the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, Chanel Contos’ Teach Us Consent campaign and in the responses to the new National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children.

“Something needs to change and if our recommendations are taken on board, we can give survivors a gold-standard reporting experience and substantially improve their access to support and justice.”

More information

Alternative reporting options for sexual assault: Perspectives of victim-survivors is published by the Australian Institute of Criminology.

The authors of this report are Professor Georgina Heydon (RMIT), Professor Nicola Henry (RMIT), Dr Rachel Loney-Howes and Sophie Hindes (University of Melbourne).

To find out more about the research team’s work, visit

The research team are currently recruiting survivors to complete a survey about their perspectives on alternative reporting tools for a project funded by the Attorney General’s department. Please consider sharing the link with your networks: