‘The most empowering thing I ever did was politicise my own assault’

Nina Dillon Britton and Nina Funnell talk sexual violence, the media and why USyd is still failing survivors

I’m torn. I don’t want to start this piece writing about Nina Funnell’s assault. She has written about her attack in detail, in her own words, in her own pieces. Reducing her to it plays into the way in which we reduce all survivors of gendered violence to their experience of trauma.

At the same time though, I can’t not mention it. It’s key to understanding Funnell. Not because assault is an innate part of a survivor’s identity, but because this experience informs her unflinching advocacy for survivors of sexual assault. It speaks to her steely strength, which isn’t worn on her sleeve, but concealed behind a remarkable charm.

“In my very first counselling session with a sexual assault counsellor following the assault, she started by saying ‘now you know you’re not to blame don’t you?’ I was shocked and somewhat appalled that she even suggested it.”

“The counsellor smiled and explained that the overwhelming majority of women who enter her office blame themselves for what’s happened to them.”

“I scoffed and said ‘well that’s not my problem. My problem’s going to be anger management. I just want to kill the fucker who did this to me.”

Nina tells me, “The very nature of sexual assault is that it robs a person of power and control. While I was not raped, I was strangled, bashed, and indecently assaulted, and speaking out about that was pivotal in regaining a sense of ownership over what happened that night.”

“The most empowering thing I ever did was politicise my own assault.”

Nina Funnell is one of Australia’s most outspoken advocates for survivors of sexual assault. She’s been involved with grassroots movements like Reclaim the Night, The Pillow Talk Project, End Rape on Campus and Slut Walk, which aim to deconstruct victim blaming attitudes that entrap women as complicit in their own assault. Her work is deeply respected, and she has been trusted with a place on the Premier’s Council in Preventing Violence Against Women and the board of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.

When I ask her why she’s continued this work for so long she tells me: “I honestly don’t know. I care, I guess. I care that this is happening. I care that I see the same issues replay over and over. I’ve spoken to students all around Australia and it’s the same story. It feels like groundhog day.”

Going public with her story has made Funnell the subject of backlash. “One guy wrote ‘what a conceited bitch for thinking she’s even worthy of being raped. The guy just probably wanted to give her a good bashing in which case job well done.’ Another guy wrote that he wanted to ‘hate fuck’ me. Another guy wrote that I probably ‘made the whole thing up’, including male DNA and the police reports.”

But Funnell stands by her decision.

“I received an outpouring of support. A lot of people reached out because they wanted to share their own stories too. I think it empowers other survivors to come forward and own their own experiences. It’s ‘permission giving’ in a way.”

Funnell’s activism continued after she became a Media and Communications tutor at USyd. Survivors would come to her to disclose their own experiences of sexual assault and harassment.

“To my knowledge not one of those cases [reported to me personally] resulted in any kind of disciplinary action from the University and I doubt that any of those reported rapes would even be reflected in formal figures kept by the University.”

“I felt so angry that this was happening, and so sickened by both the actions of the perpetrators and the inaction of the university. Most of all though, I felt desperately sad. Sad that this was happening, sad that members of the administration were either denying it or minimising it and sad that I could not do more to help.”

Funnell says that disclosures of assault to staff aren’t necessarily recorded and that unless the victim files a formal report the disclosure won’t be reflected in the University’s figures.

Looked at from a tutor’s perspective, they also receive no training or counselling in dealing with student disclosures.

Given her experiences as a tutor, Funnell’s view of the institutional response to sexual assault is justifiably cynical. All the university has to and does do, Funnell tells me, is wait for the victim to graduate, or, in many cases, drop-out.

“The university then doesn’t have to deal with the problem and can wash their hands of it.”

Despite a growing awareness of the threat endemic sexual assault poses to university students, particularly in light of the University’s recently published report on sexual assault and continuing college scandals, Funnell says the pace of change is slow.

“There is real resistance. A few years ago RPA sexual assault service offered to provide sessions with the colleges on consent and sexual assault. To my knowledge, not one of them took up the offer.”

Perhaps then, it is naïve for me to ask her if she believes there’s been change made since her time at the University.

“No. Well, not from the University,” she answers bluntly.

“What I think has changed are two things: the students and social media. As someone who now works in the media, it’s incredible to watch what the next generation are doing. We weren’t half that savvy in my era.”