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Friday, January 28, 2022
Closer than you think


Closer than you think

Of the sexual assaults reported last year at UW-Madison, more than 60 percent of the victims were attacked by someone they knew.

This data comes from the Offices of the Dean of Students, collected from both the federal Clery Report, based on The Clery Act, and UW System reports. These two reports are collected once a year and the Offices of the Dean of Students puts the two reports on their website for students to download.

With April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the issue of acquaintance sexual assault has become increasingly important, especially on college campuses.

Yet the seriousness of the topic can lead some to avoid discussing rape and other forms of sexual violenc.

""These topics are kind of special and sensitive and that is why it is hard to find them on the media,"" Sapir Sasson, media advocate of Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment (PAVE) said.

PAVE is a nonprofit student organization on campus dedicated to preventing sexual and dating violence.

Tonya Schmidt, assistant dean of the Offices of the Dean of Students, agreed with Sasson.

""Unfortunately we are up against the media who likes to put stranger assaults as front-page news,"" Schmidt said.

This misconception then leads to underreporting of sexual assaults because being acquaintances often creates barriers toward coming forward, according to Schmidt.

""If a person is in the circle of friends and that's their main social support network, it's harder for them to tell someone that that happened because maybe that person is someone everyone likes a lot, and they may think they aren't going to be believed, and they blame themselves,"" Schmidt said.

Tera Meerkins, chair of PAVE, explained sexual assault can even occur among people who are dating. ""[People] are kissing and touching, but that doesn't mean [they] get permission to go ahead and move on with that person. So consent is really something that the person has to be continuely asking for.""

This frequent lack of communication and not asking for permission is generally why acquaintance sexual assault is so underreported and yet so common.

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""People are not clear what happened, what they expected and what's their responsibility..."" Meerkins said.

Moreover, alcohol can further blur what is consensual and what is unwanted sexual contact.

""Alcohol actully is the greatest date-rape drug in college. And with using alcohol the perpetrators may feel less responsible in their actions. So it can be an excuse for prepetrators to act in that sort of way and also diminishes the victims' ability to say ‘no.'""

Advocacy and Education Efforts

It is because of this misconception, that the seriousness of sexual assault and its harmful effects on the victims and the university community need to be better addressed.

""Sexual assault has always been an important issue on UW-Madison campus. We need to let more students know that sexual assault, whether because of alcohol or not, is a crime,"" Schmidt said.

The Offices of the Dean of Students has multiple outlets of support for victims who report the incident to them or come to them for help.

""We let the student decide what they want,"" Schmidt said. ""We actually developed a checklist for each of these areas—sexual assaults, dating violence stalking—so that we make sure that all of these statistics cover all the options of the students the help that they need.""

Schmidt said usually the first thing to talk about the safety plans, such as SAFEwalk, SAFEride and SAFEroom.

According to Schmidt, SAFEroom is for victims who were assaulted in their own rooms. For victims who live in the dorms, university housing can provide a new room to help them get rid of the bad memories associated with the room where the assault took place. For the victims who live off campus, they can help negotiate with landlords to change rooms.

""We do referrals to both our campus counseling and consultation services and also Rape Crisis Center ... Students choose either of those for different reasons. Sometimes students going through the legal process don't want to have any sort of paper trail, so they would go to the Rape Crisis Center because they don't keep any notes,"" Schmidt said.

The Offices of the Dean of Students gives students medical advice about sexually transmitted diseases and a pregnancy test and provides financial assistance for victims, such as loans for medical bills and other fees.

""We offer academic assistance as well. An Offices of the Dean of Students memo would be sent to the professors of the victim asking for academic assistance; however, we would just provide some ambiguous information about the person to the professors without mentioning anything about the assault,"" Schmidt said.

Carmen Hotvedt, violence prevention specialist for the Campus and Community Partnerships, Prevention Services and University Health Services (UHS), works for the EVOC (End Violence on Campus) project. The project has 44 representatives in the Madison community, including the Rape Crisis Center.

She said the goal of EVOC is to educate college students, especially first-year students, and effectively coordinate with other related resources, such as the UWPD, Offices of the Dean of Students and the Athletic Department.

EVOC holds workshops with PAVE and offers a course called Social Work 672 that trains students to be volunteers and advocates against sexual assault.

In addition, Schmidt said the Offices of the Dean of Students educates professors and university staff as well. ""[Faculty] should know how to respond when a student comes to you,"" she said.

More Work is Needed

But because the reports that the university receives only represent a small fraction of the total number of sexual assaults on campus, the response needs improvement.

Hotvedt said women between 16 to 24 experience more dating violence and sexual assault than they do at any other points in their life, and that women on college campuses experience more sexual assault and dating violence than non-college women.

""Awareness is not enough,"" Hotvedt said. ""On our websites there are many links of online courses about prevention, such as how to help friends, how to judge an aggressive male, how to say no and escape.""

People need to start at the basics before sexual assault can see a decrease on college campuses. Hotvedt said it's important to simply define what is sexual assault and teach students what consent means.

""We want more and more people to know that alcohol is never an excuse; any sex behavior without the consent of one side is rape,"" Sasson said.

Yet these preventative steps are often trickier if the victim and perpetrator know each other. ""Especially if you think about first-year students and their living environment in the residence hall, their friends are all around in that hall and so, again, if you tell on someone who lives in the floor below you or you tell someone what happened to you, what are all those consequences?"" Schmidt said.

Schmidt added that victims sometimes don't even realize they were assaulted at first.

""Sometimes it takes for the PAVE workshop or for an education piece, like maybe the online students' success tool for them to know that was not Ok,"" she said.

She explained this is because people believe the person they are with is trustworthy, despite any warning signs that would be more obvious if they came from a stranger on the street.

""It's not a person jumping out of a bush and standing in the alleyway,"" Schmidt said. ""[It could be] a situation where you might be totally trusting with somebody, even the person that is in your circle friends that offers to walk you home from a party.""

According to advocates and victims, the best way for people to protect themselves and avoid dangerous situations is to continually stay updated and educated.

""Instead of giving women rape whistles and telling them to be aware of strangers, [the education workshops] give [students] the tools to recognize aggressive males, give them the tools to intervene, give them the tools to ... say no,"" Hotvedt said.

No matter the method, most importantly, students need to move from awareness to action.

""We need all students to really be thinking carefully about what their sexual boundaries are ... and how they respect other people,"" Hotvedt said.


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