Eleven years ago, Jenny Aitchison was sexually assaulted.
Ever since that harrowing experience, the Maitland MP has never spoken about it publicly.
She’s wrestled with the shame, guilt, sadness, fear and trauma that inevitably tortures victims of sex crimes.
Ms Aitchison has been the shadow minister for the prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault for more than a year.
She feels it’s time to speak out. In doing so, she aims to raise awareness about the issue and call for a community campaign similar to the one for domestic violence.
She wants to urge victims of sexual assault to report incidents to police and never blame themselves.
There were no circumstances in which sexual assault was acceptable, she said.
Ms Aitchison was a tour operator in her mid-30s when the crime that changed her life happened.
She was on a houseboat in Zambia in Africa.
“We’d all been having a few drinks. I’d gone to bed. A guy came into my room and started trying to assault me.
“I was asleep and woke up to it happening.”
“It was like having a dream where you try and scream but you’ve got no voice, and try and run but can’t,” she said.
“I was crying and I couldn’t move. I was trying to say ‘no, no, no’,” she said.
“He [the offender] even said to me the next day, ‘oh you should have told me and lucky I worked it out’.
“It was like he was trying to blame me so I wouldn't report him, but even worse so he could absolve himself of any guilt.”
She left the country the next day, as scheduled.
“He [the offender] was driving us to the airport. I was thinking ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me’.”
She felt guilty for freezing during the attack, but experts have since assured her that this was a natural reaction.
It was part of the human body’s “fight, freeze or flight” stress response.
“When you’re in that frozen state, it’s a fear thing,” Ms Aitchison said.
But after the incident, she couldn’t stop thinking “why didn’t I fight, why didn’t I slap him or kick him off”.
“I was so terrified, I didn’t know what he was going to do to me,” she said.
“It was horrific. It was the worst and most terrifying experience of my life.”
When she returned home, she was horrified and too embarrassed to see her normal doctor.
“I didn’t want it on my medical record,” she said.
When the attack happened, Ms Aitchison had been married for seven years.
“I was lucky. When I spoke to my husband he was really supportive,” she said.
She spoke to a friend, who was also supportive.
“I can remember saying to my friend, who helped me find another doctor, and to my husband, ‘oh my god, what If I was too flirty or something like that’.
“I still took on that cultural thing of ‘maybe I had too much to drink or said something that could have been misinterpreted’.
“My friend and husband both said ‘Jenny, no’.”
They tried to assure her that she was not to blame, but it was difficult to fully release those feelings.
“It’s only since I’ve taken on the role [as shadow minister] that I’ve really understood that it was not my fault,” she said.
“I knew cognitively I didn’t do anything wrong, but I still always wondered ‘why me?’ Now I wonder ‘why him?’”.
She now sees sexual assault purely as “a tool of violence”.
“Sexual assault is not a romantic encounter gone wrong,” she said.
“The perpetrator has a mistaken belief that you are not equal to them and they have the right to do whatever they want with your body.”
Ms Aitchison has travelled around the state, hearing the stories of victims of sexual assault.
“I've heard and read a lot of horrific stories in the last 14 months from people of all ages, sexes, cultures and abilities,” she said.
“It's difficult to think of them all together because it's just overwhelming, but each one has taught me something – some aspect, some gap in the system.”
It was always distressing and shocking to hear stories of violence, particularly sexual assault, she said.
“When people describe their shame, fear, guilt and sadness, it is such a deeply personal and private moment,” she said.
“Yet often the trauma makes them tell their story in such a factual manner, it is hard to reconcile the horror with their emotional tone – that's why trauma-informed counselling is so important.”
One Aboriginal woman told her in “such a matter-of-fact way” of family members repeatedly raping her over many years.
Another woman spoke calmly and eloquently with total control about the effects of years of abuse, while keeping her sunglasses on the entire time.
“I always respect people's choices and refer them to counsellors wherever possible, although it is often hard to get them appropriate assistance,” Ms Aitchison said.
“These wounds go deep.”
She felt annoyed about the myth that sexual assault happens only to young women and girls.
“I was only 36 when it happened to me, which now feels relatively young – but at the time there were plenty of prettier, younger and slimmer women on that boat.”
Older women and those with disabilities were also victims of rape.
Ms Aitchison does talk to family and think about the issue more than before.
"That helps,” she said.
“I did a graduate diploma in counselling and, while I never practiced, it did teach me some good listening skills, but also how to perhaps protect myself a little.
“On a practical level, I find it useful to focus on the positive steps we can take in the community and government to make it easier for victims and survivors to report and recover, to prosecute and rehabilitate perpetrators and prevent sexual assault and violence in the first place.”
Often when she hears other victims tell their stories, it helps her understand her own story and her own responses a little better.
“That is a gift for me.”
The NSW Rape Crisis line is 1800 424 017 (1800 RESPECT), Lifeline is on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline is on 1800 551 800 and MensLine Australia is on 1300 789 978.