Facing the flood

Nina Funnell on the trauma of staring down sexual assault

University campuses around Australia are finally being properly scrutinised about their policies surrounding sexual assault, and the sexual misconduct that has become embedded within college culture. Nina Funnell, Walkley Award-winning journalist and author of The Red Zone Report, has been at the forefront of reporting on and advocating for the prevention of sexual violence and misconduct.

In 2007, Nina was studying Media and Communications at the University of Sydney when she was assaulted.

“While travelling home, I was grabbed from behind by a man I hadn’t seen before. I had a boxcutter blade held to my throat and was dragged into a park where I was told I would be killed. He then indecently sexually assaulted me before I managed to fight him off, and I fled.”

Because of the spotlight placed on Nina following this horrific and traumatic assault, other university students began to confide in her about their experiences.

“In the weeks and months that followed, there was quite intense media interest in my story, and I waived my right to anonymity. When you speak out publicly as a survivor of sexual assault, what tends to happen is you become a lightning rod for disclosure because people tend to identify you as someone who has gone through something similar and will likely have empathy as well as belief for other survivors.”

This disclosure from students continued when Nina transitioned into a staff member role at Sydney University.

When you speak out publicly as a survivor of sexual assault, what tends to happen is you become a lightning rod for disclosure because people tend to identify you as someone who has gone through something similar

“As a staff member of the university I started receiving a lot of disclosure from students and that’s what really flagged for me what a huge issue sexual assault is, not just in the broader community where my sexual assault had taken place but also specifically on campus and in particular, within the college residences.”

These experiences led Nina to publish The Red Zone Report, which details incidents of abuse at universities around Australia, particularly within colleges. Since this report was released on February 28 this year, Nina has had over 100 victims of sexual misconduct come forward to her.

While this work is crucial, dealing with trauma takes its toll.

“Vicarious trauma is where somebody who has been exposed to repeated traumatic content ends up taking on some of the symptoms of the individuals who are primarily affected. In my case, because what I am hearing is stories about sexual assault day in day out, over time some of those traumatic impacts begin to affect me and my own functioning. Vicarious trauma can result in intrusive thoughts, nightmares, feelings of numbness, avoiding work, sleeplessness, shifts in mood and shifts in diet and exercise.”

“People end up getting compassion fatigue, which means that they are not as sensitive to or not able to remain in that really empathetic space you need to be in order to be a journalist or a counselor, and psychologically, it can have a devastating impact on the person’s wellbeing to the point where they often drop out of the workforce.”

For Nina, it’s important to talk about the effects of dealing with this trauma. “There’s no question that I have and still do suffer from vicarious trauma, so I don’t shy away from talking about that. In university, even though journalists have some of the highest rates of vicarious trauma, nobody talked to us about it. So, I make a point of speaking about it to reduce stigma.”

Last year Nina was facing the potential risk of jail time after refusing to comply with a subpoena for all of her sources, which included sexual assault victims.

“The cumulative impact of processing your own trauma, while hearing the traumatic stories of others, while then also being constantly sued for defamation and also dealing with trolls who viciously attack you anonymously and relentlessly – those factors combined can make it an incredibly distressing line of work to be in.”

This makes having coping mechanisms and skills and opportunities to de-brief crucial. “I regularly debrief with counselors over the sort of content that I’m being exposed to, that’s the number one thing that allows me to leave what I’m being exposed to at work. I also have mentors that I will talk to and confide in about this stuff, as well as good friends who work in similar spaces, and we will often decompress about what we’re working on.

I am constantly in awe of the student activists around the country particularly with the women’s officers

“More recently, I’ve had to learn a lot more about the importance of maintaining routine particularly with things like eating at the same time every day. In terms of self-care, being in nature really chills me out and so does walking my dog. There’s also a lot of grounding exercises that you can do when stressing out that can be quite useful.”

While Nina acknowledges that her work can be incredibly re-traumatising and distressing, she also sees it as a great privilege.

“Usually, somebody is telling me their story because they’re motivated by altruistic reasons, they want change and they want their story to be told to break down the stigma of sexual assault, or they might be pushing for a particular outcome like consent training on campus.”

It would be easy to become completely disheartened in this line of work, yet Nina remains optimistic.

“After 10 years of reporting on these issues I am absolutely appalled and disgusted by the institutional responses to sexual assault within university communities and I am horrified by the level of callous bureaucracy and institutional betrayal of victim survivors. My trust in them is at an all-time low,” Nina states.

“However, where I do have trust and where there is huge optimism is around students. I am constantly in awe of the student activists around the country particularly with the women’s officers, including the women’s officers at Macquarie University and their intelligence, commitment, compassion and dedication to advocating for all students to be able to access education free of sexual harassment and sexual violence.”

“This work isn’t easy, but one of the things that has sustained me is the level of energy, enthusiasm and drive from the younger women and men who I see advocating in this space.”

This piece originally appeared in Grapeshot, a student publication of Macquarie University. You can check out Grapeshot’s website here. Republished with permission from the author.

More from Activism