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Stacey Maloney On the Importance Of Having Sexual Assault Survivors Feel Heard

The detective superintendent and head of NSW Police Child Abuse and Sex Crimes Squad is fighting to have women seen and heard by the justice system

When Detective Superintendent Stacey Maloney stepped into her new role heading up the Child Abuse and Sex Crimes Squad for the NSW Police in February, she never could have anticipated what would happen next. In her first three weeks on the job, both Brittany Higgins and Chanel Contos spoke publicly on matters of sexual assault, sparking Australia’s second #MeToo wave. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride,” reflects Maloney. “But it’s been a fantastic opportunity to promote conversations about consent and sexual misconduct – like we’ve never been able to before.”

For Maloney, that meant calling for changes to her state’s sexual consent laws. “Previously in NSW, consent didn’t need to be positively or actively communicated,” she explains. “I wanted to see a ‘reasonable steps’ model, which means the person who is initiating sexual activity has to be able to demonstrate the steps [they undertook] to gain consent.”

In late May, the NSW government responded, announcing a sweeping overhaul of consent legislation. The new affirmative model is based on the premise of “yes means yes” rather than “no means no” and, as per Maloney’s recommendation, accused rapists will be able to prove sex was consensual only if they took active steps to obtain consent.

Maloney also joined forces with Contos to address NSW’s consistently low levels of sexual assault reporting. “I found the schoolgirls’ stories in Chanel’s petition really heartbreaking,” she says. “I’d done a bit of media about my views on consent, and Dr Joy Townsend reached out to me – she’s a doctor of sociology and a proponent of consent education – and she suggested I link up with Chanel. We talked through the issues and got on really well, and that’s how Operation Vest came about.”

The initiative makes use of the NSW Police’s pre-existing but under-utilised online reporting tool, Sexual Assault Reporting Option (SARO), which allows individuals to report incidents of assault without launching a criminal investigation. It’s informal and can be anonymous, but may provide victims with closure, and also gives police important information about potential offenders in the community.

Notably, informal reporting of sexual assault in NSW has risen by 43 per cent since Operation Vest launched in mid-March. Sexual assault reporting more generally has been up by 54 per cent across the state since February. Maloney is heartened by the statistics, but wants to be careful that all new initiatives centre on the victim-survivor and offer therapeutic support. She’d also like to start a conversation about restorative justice, a model that sees victim and offender brought together to discuss what happened to find a resolution and way of healing.

Next up, Maloney is turning her attention to dating apps – according to 2019 police research, 20 per cent of sexual assaults around Sydney nightspots occurred after meetings organised online or through a dating app. Maloney can’t divulge details at this point, though police have proposed they gain direct access to a portal of sexual assaults reported on Tinder.

As Maloney keeps on with her work, a role she admits requires “resilience”, she has a message for those considering coming forward: “We are here for you. We’re here to listen to your stories – it can be therapeutic to come forward and share. We’ll be supportive of whatever a victim wants in the process.

“I’m so incredibly proud of the articulate young women who are speaking up and saying enough is enough,” she continues. “It’s important to note I’m seeing some great young men in the community who are speaking out about this too. I’m looking forward to seeing what this generation brings – I’ll be there front and centre with them, helping in whatever way I can.”

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