WARNING: This article references indecent assault and suicide.
A Wellington man says his life has been destroyed by an indecent assault and what he sees as significant failings by the justice system. Mackenzie Skinner speaks to the Herald about the reality of being a male abuse survivor in Aotearoa. Katie Harris reports.
Mackenzie Skinner has lost friends, family, his job, and left the only town he's ever known. He says he has truly lost everything.
Before he was indecently assaulted, Skinner's life was on the up. He had a start-up business, a new job, and people he thought were his friends.
Now he spends most days sitting alone in his apartment and says he's lost count of the times he's considered whether life is worth living.
"How many times can someone ask for help before they give up?"
Two years ago Skinner was unconscious in the back of a car when he says a man filmed while a woman repeatedly tried to insert an object into his anus.
He says the video was later sent to him over Facebook Messenger by the man, whom he met professionally.
Skinner is still traumatised by the indecent assault but says his treatment from authorities afterwards has left similar irreversible damage. He's waived his right to name suppression to tell his story - and to help others.
"I don't believe I've been given a fair chance to rejoin society. And I believe I'm not the only one that's suffered through this."
At the time of the attack, he was just 21 and says he was mainly left in the dark about his case after he says his mother reported it on his behalf.
Other than a brief "tick box" chat to summarise what his mother had told police he claims he was never formally interviewed and is frustrated he didn't get thoroughly questioned.
Police did not answer Herald inquiries on whether there was a formal interview, however they said there was "regular contact" with the victim's nominated point of contact throughout the investigation and court process.
The Herald has seen screenshots, messages and videos that would appear to paint a much darker picture of what happened - one that Skinner believes was missed because he wasn't properly questioned.
Skinner still wonders whether the court case outcome would have been different if authorities had access to these back then.
In the initial Palmerston North District Court case Judge Jonathan Krebs, who described the offending as "simply unacceptable" convicted the woman of indecent assault and the man of inciting indecent assault.
Both pleaded guilty to those charges. Both applied for discharge without conviction, which was declined at the time. They were sentenced to four weeks community detention and ordered to pay emotional harm reparation of $1000 each to Skinner.
This year they appealed the District Court decision and the High Court's Justice Jillian Mallon granted them a discharge without conviction because she considered the District Court had assessed the gravity of the offending as too high. Justice Mallon also found the consequences of convictions for the pair were out of all proportion to the gravity of their offending which, after considering additional evidence from the pair, was assessed as being low in all the circumstances of the case.
"In making that decision I noted that none of this was intended to diminish the emotional harm experienced by MS," she said during the case's later name suppression ruling.
Skinner shakes when he thinks about what happened that night.
According to the summary of facts, as Skinner lay unconscious in the back seat of a car the then 27-year-old man began filming with his phone, and called out to check if the victim was awake.
When no response came, the woman, who was 20 at the time, leaned over from the front seat and tried to put the object into the victim's anus.
She continued trying to insert the item as the pair laughed and joked, before eventually removing it.
At one point Skinner awoke, but then he passed out again, it said.
Skinner says he can't remember much from that night, but what he can is enough to bring him to tears.
He told the Herald he recalls getting coins to play pool, then setting up the table before the man and woman returned with a drink for him.
He kept drinking, then remembers getting one more beverage and having cannabis in the car.
Before that point, Skinner says, he was not intoxicated, "not a chance".
Then things went dark.
Skinner says he had contact with police, but he claims there was no formal interview, no one asking what evidence he had, or how he really felt about the offending.
When the case was ongoing, he alleges, one of the defendants tried to contact him, their associates showed up at his new work and some even at his granddad's home.
Skinner reported the contact to police, but says nothing was done, or if it was he wasn't informed.
Police confirmed they had received a complaint from the victim relating to contact by people allegedly connected to the two people previously charged.
"There was insufficient evidence to take any further action on this occasion."
The Herald also asked why police did not offer Skinner a protection order but they did not respond.
Seeing how his case played out in the court through media reports incensed Skinner, with a judge and lawyers referencing a drunken night out with friends and a "prank".
But he says their actions proved they were not his friends.
"For them to go along and say that it's just a prank or having a laugh, it absolutely breaks my heart."
In court the male offender's lawyer, Sandy Baigent, claimed there were a "number of errors" that he was sentenced on, including an issue around whether or not he sent the video of the offending to the victim.
During the initial case the man had pleaded guilty to a summary of facts, which stated he sent the video. However, he now denies that aspect of the summary.
University of Waikato law lecturer Paulette Benton-Greig says she doesn't believe a discharge without conviction should be available for the charge of indecent assault, but she says there's a lot of debate about this.
Benton-Greig says there is evidence that getting a criminal conviction leads people to be more likely to commit crimes in the future.
"For victims, a sense of justice often comes from an experience of being seen and validated by society that they were offended against. A discharge without conviction cuts across that - which is why I don't think they are appropriate for sex crimes."
In the High Court, Mallon described the offending as "a moment of mindless stupidity by drunk and/or stoned friends, intended to be funny to all of them, without any malicious or hurtful intent".
The justice said as a matter of general experience, prospective employers of the female offender would likely reject her because she had a conviction without needing to know more.
"Having to disclose that the conviction was for an indecent assault would likely count against her all the more, even before she tried to explain that it was a silly, drunken prank."
The same related to the male, for whom, she said, the employment, emotional and travel implications were "out of proportion" for the "low gravity of offending".
Taking into account previous reporting and information provided by the Herald, Benton-Greig said the comments made by the High Court judge in overturning the District Court's decision seem to minimise the gravity of the offending.
"Together with the decision not to take a formal statement from the victim, I can see why a person would feel they have been ignored, dismissed and generally invalidated by the justice system through this process.
"Sadly this case demonstrates the gap between what victims usually want from the justice system and how the justice system typically operates. This is why so many people feel the system is the problem and advocate for change."
Interim name suppression for both offenders was set to expire last Friday after Justice Mallon ruled that she considered the arguments for extreme hardship as a result of future publication had not been made out.
In this she also referenced evidence from the female offender claiming she had become isolated, anxious and depressed, could not sleep properly, lost over 10kg and struggled to get out of bed most days.
However, Mallon wrote that it was clear through the survivor's social media posts that he continues to suffer emotional harm that he attributes to the offending and ensuing events.
But decision not to grant permanent name suppression has now been appealed, and the duo will keep their name's secret until this is decided.
After Skinner was critical that he wasn't involved in previous hearings, Justice Mallon invited him to address the court during the bid to have his automatic name suppression lifted. The judge granted Skinner's request and commended his courage in doing so.
The social impact
It wasn't just the offenders and their legal representatives that Skinner was up against.
In an email seen by the Herald, a direct family member tries to convince Skinner to participate in restorative justice.
"You will run the risk of retaliation (now or in the future), never knowing when this will arise (i.e. always watching your back).
"Both [the male] and [the female] will still have a level of power over you because you will always be scared of running into them, so you will always be looking behind you waiting for that day to arrive," the email outlined as being disadvantages.
Under the headline of "advantages", the email said his participation would "likely result in a less severe sentencing outcome" for the female offender.
All Skinner wanted was "to be loved" and supported by the family member.
Throughout this time, both he and his then partner were also receiving messages from the duo's friends, including one from a man who warned that he knew "everyone" and that Skinner was a "troubled" person.
"You're in way over your head if you thing [sic] you can spread your lies and bulls*** here. So do yourself a favour and wake the F*** up."
A screenshot of a message sent to his partner said he was a "closet homosexual looking for money and attention".
The trauma follows him like a shadow.
"As a male survivor, we are literally just pushed to the side, like we can just get over it and just deal with it. I can tell you right now that words can't describe the pain we're having to deal with."
It's been more than two years since the assault and he's still in almost constant therapy, but Skinner knows he's not the only one suffering.
"Survivors are out there, they're hurting. The suicide rate is huge, and the majority of them are men.
"If this was the other way round and I was a female, all hell would break loose."
Men's sexual assault charity Mosaic counsellor Rob McGregor says he hadn't heard of a case where a survivor had been ignored to such a degree.
He says sexual violence assistance in New Zealand is a "gendered process", and men including trans and gay victims, are often sidelined.
"This VIP programme has a ripple effect which is going into mainstream mental health services, where elements of the male dialogue and experience is pretty much routinely ignored."
In urban centres he says there are some great police officers in this sphere, but it is a small pool.
The way the assault was characterised as a prank or joke is jarring, and Skinner worries it may set a standard that this type of "joke" is allowed.
"It's just having a laugh is it? I don't see it as having a laugh at all, my life being destroyed is that a laugh?"
He could hide in his shell, but says as a human he just can't, he wants to show how dire the situation is for survivors like him.
"I have to do what's right and I will stand up for what's actually happened."
SEXUAL HARM - DO YOU NEED HELP?
If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone contact the Safe to Talk confidential crisis helpline on:
• Text 4334 and they will respond
• Email firstname.lastname@example.org
for an online chat
Alternatively contact your local police station - click
for a list.
If you have been abused, remember it's not your fault.
• Contact Mosaic
Looking for support? It's available
• Call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
• Call PlunketLine 24/7 on 0800 933 922
• Depression helpline: Freephone 0800 111 757
• Healthline: 0800 611 116 (available 24 hours, 7 days a week and free to callers throughout New Zealand, including from a mobile phone)
• Lifeline: 0800 543 35
• Samaritans: 0800 726 666