Kōrero: Violent crime

Whārangi 9. Sexual assault

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Rape and sexual violation

Before 1985 most sexual assaults were divided into the major categories of rape (and attempted rape) and indecent assault. Rape carried a maximum of 14 years’ imprisonment; attempted rape carried 10 years and indecent assault seven years.

Someone you know

Sexual assault is often thought of as an attack by a stranger. However, interviews with 48 women who contacted police with a rape or sexual violation complaint between 1990 and 1994 found that 70% of the people responsible were known to the victims. Interviewer Jan Jordan commented that perpetrators included ‘spouses and ex-spouses, boyfriends, family members (including brothers-in-law, future fathers-in-law), neighbours, acquaintances (including friends of friends or of partners, co-residents, fellow party guests), and those with whom the woman may have had a professional relationship (such as a doctor, teacher, counsellor or masseuse)’.1

Rape became a significant public issue in the 1970s and politicians were lobbied by community groups like Rape Crisis to change the law and policing practices. Women's groups criticised the focus on the sexual history of complainants during rape trials, and police procedures that discouraged women from making rape complaints – including the stress of medical examinations by police surgeons. Feminists argued that rape victims often experienced a ‘double violation’ if they laid a complaint.2

In 1985 there was a major amendment to the Crimes Act 1961. Rape within marriage was now a crime, and the distinction between rape and other forms of sexual violence was reduced. The new law focused on ‘sexual violation’, which included rape, and ‘unlawful sexual connection’ (other forms of non-consensual sexual penetration or sexual–oral contact). Sexual violation carried a maximum sentence of 14 years, which was increased to 20 years in 1993. Issues relating to consent to sexual contact were also addressed in this legislation.

Comparison of sexual attack figures in the post-war era is complicated by legislative changes. Differences in recording methods following law changes in 1961 and 1985 also make long-term comparisons difficult.

Reported rape

The average number of rapes reported to the police each year has grown rapidly since the 1950s. Between 1950 and 1954 an average of 18 rapes were reported to the police each year. By the 1970s the average number of reported rapes was 253, and it was 330 before the 1985 law change took effect in 1986.

After this, police statistics are unreliable, but Statistics New Zealand figures show that reported rapes were stable between 1994 and 2004, averaging 475 a year. In the following 10 years they increased by around 30%, to an average of 620 a year. Reported rapes have grown steadily in the 21st century. In 2000 there were 457 reported rapes. From this point they increased almost every year, peaking at 775 in 2014 – the highest figure on record.

Auckland serial rapist

Malcolm Rewa had already spent four and a half years in prison for rape before embarking on over 20 sexual attacks on women between 1987 and 1996 – mainly late at night or just before dawn. Forensic evidence and a blood sample provided by Rewa’s father led police to suspect that Rewa was responsible for the rape and murder of Susan Burdett in Papatoetoe in March 1992 and the rape of a woman in Mt Eden in 1996. After a three-month trial for 24 rapes in 1998, Rewa was sentenced to preventive detention with a 22-year minimum parole period. In December 1998 he was found guilty of Burdett’s rape, but not of her murder. He received a 14-year concurrent sentence.

Sexual attacks

Rates of reported sexual attacks have also increased dramatically. There were 908 reported sexual attacks in 1978, increasing steeply to a peak of 3,222 in 1993. This data cannot be compared with data after 1997, as reported attacks which were identified after investigation as ‘no offence disclosed’ were removed from the record.

Between 1997 and 2009, the number of recorded sexual attacks was relatively stable, averaging over 2,500 a year. Rates of recorded sexual assault rose significantly in the second decade of the 21st century. There were 3,016 recorded sexual assaults in 2010, which steadily rose to 4,046 in 2014. This was the highest number of sexual attacks on record. Of all reported sexual assaults in 2014, only half were resolved. Statistics since 2014 are not comparable but police figures show that victimisations for sexual assault rose from 5,277 in 2015 to 5,508 in 2016.

Despite the rise in recorded sexual assaults, it is estimated that only about 10% of this type of assault are reported to the police. A review of 1,955 sexual violation offences involving adults reported to the police between 1 July 2005 and 31 December 2007 concluded that 31% of all reported complaints led to prosecutions and 42% of these prosecutions resulted in a conviction. Thirty-four per cent of the 1,955 complaints were classified as ‘no offence’ and of these, almost a quarter were defined as ‘false complaints’.3

Reasons for increases in sexual assault

Changes to the law in the 1980s made it easier to report sexual assault, and probably contributed to increased rates of reported offences in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There was also an increase in reports of sexual offences that had occurred some years before – nearly 60% all convictions for sexual offences recorded in 1997 were for incidents that occurred at least two years previously.

Sexual violence and the criminal justice system

While rates of reported sexual violence increased after changes in the law in the 1980s, rates of prosecution of rape and sexual assault continued to be relatively low. In the 2010s there was increasing attention to how the New Zealand criminal justice system responded to incidents of sexual violence reported to the police. Alternatives to the adversarial model used in trials for rape and sexual assault were presented. It was argued that the trauma of appearing in court and giving evidence discouraged women from reporting sexual violence. As a result a two-year pilot project using specially trained judges for sexual violence cases in selected district courts began in late 2016. If this experiment is successful, specialist sexual violence courts will be set up across New Zealand.

Impact of sexual assault

Rape and sexual assault can affect people in different ways, depending on the circumstances of the assault and the relationship to the perpetrator. The impact can include increased fear and anxiety, lack of trust in personal relationships, loss of confidence, depression and anger. The experience of rape and sexual assault can have an impact on victims’ employment and study and this can affect their financial circumstances. Shame and personal embarrassment are experienced. Girls and young women who have experienced sexual violence are more likely to engage in risky behaviours such as alcohol and drug abuse. The family and friends of victims can also be affected by their experiences of rape and sexual assault.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Jan Jordan, ‘Worlds apart? Women, rape and the police reporting process.’ British Journal of Criminology 41 (2001), p. 685. Back
  2. R. Barrington, ‘Rape law reform.’ Women's Studies International Forum 9 no. 1 (1986), p. 58. Back
  3. Triggs, S., Mosman, E, Jordan, J. and Kingi, F. (2009) Responding to Sexual Violence: Attrition in the New Zealand Criminal Justice System. Commissioned by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Crime and Justice Research Centre, Te Puni Rangahau, Taihara Ture,Victoria University of Wellington. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Greg Newbold, 'Violent crime - Sexual assault', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/violent-crime/page-9 (accessed 9 June 2023)

He kōrero nā Greg Newbold, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 18 Mar 2019