She was excited to celebrate with friends. But a teenager who was allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted last New Year wants other partygoers to watch out for predators this holiday season. JODY O’CALLAGHAN reports.
It was Ruby’s* first New Year trip away with friends, and she hoped for a fun time. Maybe even a countdown kiss.
Sipping on premix canned vodkas, the 16-year-old girls “got all dressed up and pretty” for the night ahead in Wānaka.
Ruby drank five cans, and felt sober. Then she took an open glass of vodka and cranberry juice next door to a party hosted by first XV rugby players from a boys’ school in another city.
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“After that drink, that’s when things began to get very fuzzy,” she says. “The last moments I clearly remember … all the boys were starting to hassle me, asking me for a kiss.”
About four boys were playing “pass the parcel with me because I was so f….d”.
They cornered her in a bathroom and asked her to perform a sex act with them. When she said “no”, they blocked her exit until she showed them her breasts.
“So I did, then I just ran.”
Her memory of the following four hours is largely blacked out, but with snippets filled in by friends.
At one point, she woke up lying face-down in a swampy creek missing a shoe, an earring, and fingernails.
She later recalls being jolted out of a blackout by a young man she barely knew having sex with her on a golf course.
“The only thought in my head was, ‘I need to get home’.”
Ruby is curled up hugging her cat as she describes her social isolation and mistrust in people since that “trip of hell” nearly a year ago.
“I don’t know how many times I was sexually assaulted that night. I have recollection of two.”
Despite being bruised, in pain and covered in scratches, it was made clear to her days later when she reported her experience to police that charges were unlikely due to a lack of evidence.
Ruby and her mother Kate* were shocked to learn that none of what she experienced met the legal threshold for laying rape or sexual assault charges, even after her family pushed to have her hair sample tested later, and traces of the pain relief drug Tramadol were found.
Like two-thirds of all sexual assault complaints to police, Ruby’s did not end in prosecution.
Proof, mainly around consent, is harder to gather when alcohol is involved.
Prosecution was never Ruby and Kate’s priority anyway. They wanted the young men from that night taught about consent. They were told they were spoken to, but Ruby suspects the boys learned nothing.
More sexual assaults than nice sex
Ruby feels sexual health education should be compulsory from an early age – Year 5 – until the end of secondary school.
For many schools, it is not compulsory after Year 10.
“The whole sex culture just needs to change completely,” she says. “We do need to be taught how to protect ourselves, but we shouldn’t have to feel like we’re always on guard.”
She wants to tell the boys who took advantage of her that “someone’s clothes or behaviour does not mean ‘yes’ and does not mean consent”.
Boys need to be taught early how to ask, “Are you OK, do you want this?”
She blames a “chain of neglect from schools, government, and parents”.
“Sex is normal. Safe sex is becoming less and less normal.”
There are terrible people who rape, she says, but there are also young men who don’t even know what they do is wrong.
“I know more people who have been sexually assaulted than have had nice sex.”
Kate believes there is a culture that allows it, and “girls pretty much expect it to happen”.
Leading into this year’s holiday season, the pair want to send a warning about the “perfect storm” that comes from combining young people with alcohol and drug-fuelled holiday adventures.
“New Year is a huge time for predators,” Kate says.
Ruby did feel safe in the beginning. There were parents at the party, there was barbecue food, and the girls she “thought were my best mates” had a plan to stick together.
But once alcohol was flowing and the fun kicked off, she found herself alone and vulnerable.
She still has mental trauma from that night.
“I don’t remember it, but my body remembers it. I have no sexual desire any more. I feel nothing.”
Before last New Year, Ruby was “carefree, kind, trusting, bubbly, feminine and unique”.
“Most of those words I would not still apply to myself at all.”
Everything about her has changed, she feels.
“I don’t wear the same things I used to wear. Things that used to make me feel pretty and like a woman. I now dress like a grungy old man.”
Warning to predators
Detective Inspector David Kirby, the national manager of the police’s sexual violence and child protection unit, has a message for potential predators this holidays.
“If your intention is to give drugs or alcohol to other people with the intent of sexual assault, then don’t do it.”
Without a “clear ‘yes’, then don’t do it. It’s a ‘no’.”
There are currently 2800 people across the country facing sexual assault charges.
“Don’t be the next one,” Kirby says.
Without wanting to “scaremonger”, some people go out of their way to ply young women with drink or use date-rape drugs to facilitate sexual assaults, he says.
It’s not uncommon at New Year hot spots like Mount Maunganui, Taupo, and Wānaka, where under-age drinkers often flock. But even with an increased police presence, sexual assaults cannot be investigated without them being reported.
There is a well-known connection between consumption of alcohol and sexual assault.
Intoxicated people cannot give consent to sex, but legally it becomes challenging.
At what stage is someone too intoxicated to give consent, and what if both people are?
“It is hard to police something of that nature, and not many people report it.”
Then, only a third of sexual assaults that are reported are prosecuted.
“We do our best, but often when alcohol is involved, which is normally the case at New Years, and both parties have consumed alcohol, it becomes quite challenging to prove to the point of prosecution.
“Things get blurred.”
Kate’s daughter was undamaged when she dropped her off in Wānaka, but she said she did not pick up the same young woman after the trip. And yet the burden of proof is so high that it becomes retraumatising for victims to fight for justice.
Ruby feels some anger about the justice system’s treatment of sexual assault victims.
“I was completely unvalidated, and that was how I feel my whole journey of this has been.”
The pair queried the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) about whether Ruby’s case was substantially investigated. It found it “had not identified any misconduct or neglect of duty on the part of police”.
According to Detective Senior Sergeant Malcolm Inglis, police conducted a comprehensive investigation over a number of months, but it did not meet the evidential test needed to take it further.
They also weighed up the potential for further trauma for the complainant embarking on a prosecution without a reasonable prospect of conviction.
While it was a “distressing situation” for the complainant and her family, “we are unable to prosecute when the prosecution guidelines are not met”.
Tips to stay safe
Kirby is quick to point out that sexual assault is never a victim’s fault.
They should not have to change their behaviour – men need to do better, he says – but there are some safeguards people can take.
If planning on drinking, then eat before, drink water, and look after your friends. Have a place to meet if you get separated from each other, don’t leave drinks unattended, and keep phones charged.
“Don’t be afraid to challenge inappropriate comments or behaviours you see,” he says, and urges that someone sober is looking after others.
Ruby agrees with Kirby’s safety advice, but knows she would not have listened had she been told it before her trip.
In hindsight, her friend’s parent in charge of the girls was ill-equipped to deal with what goes on among young people socialising – trusting them to go off partying while they went to sleep.
“Just be present,” Ruby says. “I was completely on my own and that was really frightening.”
If Kate could go back in time, she would have stayed to supervise herself, realising now that parents can put too much trust in their own children’s behaviour while they drink and celebrate themselves.
“I just know Ruby’s not alone, and she won’t be the last one.”
Leaving the nest
Ruby’s experience is fuelling her plans for the future. She will be studying law at university next year, with a particular interest in how the legal system treats sexual assault.
With the newfound freedom of leaving home and moving to another city to study, Ruby is already nervous.
But she hopes one day she can finally learn to trust again, and to get the respectful and consented connection she deserves.
“I would like to experience that. I would like to experience love.”
*Names have been changed