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Monday, June 24, 2024
Whiteboard with notes for sexual assault survivors at UHS's April 2024 Connect & Reflect Discovery Building exhibit.

UW-Madison organizations advocate for support, uplifting of student sexual assault survivors

University Health Services partners with student organizations to support student survivors beyond Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Content warning: This story contains information about sexual assault.

Sexual violence on college campuses is a nationwide epidemic. 

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 26.4% of all undergraduate women and 6.8% of undergraduate men experienced campus sexual assault in 2020.

These numbers hold true at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where one in four female UW-Madison students reported experiencing sexual assault, according to a 2019 American Association of Universities survey. In response, the university has looked to provide more support for student survivors and raise awareness of the history of sexual assault activism at UW-Madison.

University Health Services’ (UHS) Connect & Reflect Art and History Gallery uplifted the voices of survivors and activists this April through posters with historical information in the Discovery Building. All year, UHS Survivor Services provide confidential, no-cost mental, medical and advocacy services for student victims of sexual assault and harrassment.

Support for student survivors

Molly Caradonna, director of UHS Survivor Services, views programming such as Connect & Reflect as crucial not only to raising awareness about campus sexual health resources but for reducing stigma around survivorship.

“There's the trauma of the initial sexual violence, but then there's the secondary trauma of losing community or feeling alone in [their] experiences,” Cardonna told The Daily Cardinal. “We wanted to move a step beyond awareness and sharing statistics towards creating opportunities for survivors to have control over how they tell stories.”

Caradonna also acknowledged the importance of spotlighting student organizations by and for survivors, such as peer sexual health resource group Sex Out Loud, PAVE and the Rape Crisis Center. Sex Out Loud offers accessible sexuality education to student organizations including Greek Life and safe spaces for victims of sexual violence.

“I'm hoping that folks who are feeling isolated come in to talk to us,” said Sex Out Loud Director Mia Warren. “That’s the really wonderful thing about peer-to-peer counseling: we’re trained by the Rape Crisis Center, and we have survivors on staff who are really open to sharing their experiences and meeting folks where they are at.”

Caradonna and her collaborators seek to fund a dedicated survivor center outside of UHS. They also have plans to bring on more victim advocates and institute emergency housing plans for student survivors.

“It’s okay if you don’t know where to start — that’s exactly why we exist,” Caradonna said. “We want to empower students with their rights and resources and then support them in making informed choices around their healing journey.”

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Art gallery

Art submissions from student survivors were the main focus of the UHS Connect & Reflect exhibit.

Notable pieces included ribbons from more than 160 community members tied to a tree branch and a visual video narrative of Iranian graduate student Baran Ataei submerging herself in red ink that she is never able to wash off.

“The scars of trauma stay with you as much as you try to forget it,” Ataei told the Cardinal. “I had no freedom to talk about sexual assault in Iran, but coming here and doing this has been my opportunity to heal.”

Exhibition organizer and UHS graphic designer Annika Carter echoed Ataei’s sentiments in their inspiration for art-focused Sexual Assault Awareness Month programming. 

“Art is an integral part of our lives and how we express ourselves and share our emotions with other people,” Carter said. “Being able to create something that’s a visual space like this, where people can come and see themselves [...] you’re creating that sense of safety and belonging here.”

Timeline from history gallery

The exhibit also highlighted historical turning points in services and resources for sexual assault survivors on college campuses.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law as part of the Education Amendment Act. Title IX made sex-based discrimination illegal in educational institutions that receive federal funding, setting a foundation for campus sexual assault protections in the future. 

During the 1980s, dozens of court cases expanded the bounds of Title IX protections to sexual assault and harassment cases. One key case, Alexander v. Yale, affirmed that Title IX can apply to cases of sexual harassment against female students by professors.

After Lehigh University student Jeanne Clery was raped and murdered in her dormitory, Congress passed the Clery Act in 1990, requiring universities to keep up-to-date logs of crimes on campus property. In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled that monetary damages for sexual abuse are available under Title IX.

Congress also passed the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act in 2014, mandating transparency about university sexual assault statistics and increasing accommodations for survivors. UW-Madison alum and survivor Laura Dunn, who was among the first students to file Title IX cases against large public universities, served on the rule-making committee.

UHS is developing a Sexual Assault Prevention and Community Equity (SPACE) Toolkit task force to investigate how UW-Madison power structures — such as Greek Life and athletics organizations — contribute to or mitigate sexual violence culture, according to the exhibit. The goal of the audit is to make concrete policy changes in these spaces to reduce sexual assault rates.

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