Content warning: References to sexual violence, criminal violence and/or other possible traumatic experiences.
Editor’s note: In this article, individuals who have experienced sexual assault or sexual violence will be referred to as survivors, but it should be noted that not all people with these experiences identify with this term.
“Seeing your abuser on campus and seeing them live their life with no consequences.”
“Carrying an extra weight when already fatigued, and sometimes having people not understand why you aren’t keeping up with them.”
“It means being scared of being alone for too long, and not knowing if you are going to see them around campus.”
Sexual assault survivors at the University of Wisconsin candidly expressed how it feels to live on the UW campus after an unwanted sexual encounter. Feelings of isolation, exhaustion and frustration fueled the anonymous responses collected by Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment, a UW student organization focused on preventing sexual assault, dating violence and stalking.
These anonymous voices captured the state of survivors on campus, but they are far from alone in their advocacy for the unification and simplification of survivor resources on campus.
Collaboration among students, medical professionals and local experts has yielded positive steps forward, such as the creation of a campus-housed forensic nurse program, but some survivors continue to fall between the cracks. A reinvigorated movement to provide survivors the support they need has exposed UW’s shortcomings in resources and funding for sexual assault survivors — to the detriment of those who need care the most.
Unwavering campus culture
Jane Vander Meer, a nurse practitioner in gynecology at University Health Services, feels dispirited sometimes. It is difficult to face that after more than two decades at UHS, she has not seen a decrease in the number of students who are assaulted each year.
“It’s hard, especially when you feel like you’ve been working on this for a long time and those numbers don’t really change,” Vander Meer said.
Even with recent efforts to improve campus culture, the numbers Vander Meer fears have continued to grow. The rate of nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or the inability to consent increased from 2015 to 2019 for undergraduate women, graduate women and undergraduate men.
After allegedly assaulting a woman in 2018, UW football player Quintez Cephus did not face legal consequences, returned to the football team and went on to play in the National Football League. Even when rapists are convicted, many receive minimal sentencing. Alec Cook, a former UW student who sexually assaulted 11 women in 2018, was sentenced to just three years in prison. These events fostered deep disappointment across the campus community about the lack of legal and social accountability in sexual assault cases.
UW sophomore Mackenna Achter said though students have the resources to support them, the university’s response is nowhere near adequate. Achter wants to not only see bolstered prevention measures, but a sufficient response when UW receives reports of assault.
“Student rapists, in the cases I have seen, are often given the minimum punishment and are allowed to remain on campus, potentially leading to further assaults,” Achter said.
The 2019 AAU survey results reveal the shortcomings in UW’s response to sexual assault. The survey showed one in four women at UW have been sexually assaulted — an exceptionally concerning statistic that does not only plague UW. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 26.4% of undergraduate female students experience rape or sexual assault.
Such statistics have spurred increased activism around combatting rape culture — a culture where social beliefs, attitudes and morals normalize sexual violence and minimize the seriousness of sexual violence.
Chynna Lewis, a violence prevention specialist and advocacy coordinator at UHS, feels is it important to acknowledge that sexual violence happens across a spectrum and wants UHS to make clear that their services are not just for people who identify as women.
“Most of our survivors that we see are women,” Lewis said. “We want everybody to know that our office is for everybody, not just limited to straight women. I think we also need to do a better job of letting men know that they can come to us regarding different events that they might experience.”
While only 12% of college student survivors report the assault to police, even less report if they were incapacitated. According to the National Crime Victims Research & Treatment Center, only 7% of survivors who were under the influence report assaults to the police.
Part of the reason is that students may not know how to name their experience. Vander Meer said a big barrier on college campuses is that students are not certain what to report, particularly if alcohol or drugs are involved. UW’s Amnesty policies that grant safety to survivors — even if drugs or alcohol were involved — are often unknown or not communicated to students.
“Some students don’t identify their experience as a sexual assault, even though it would meet the criteria for that,” Vander Meer said. “I think sometimes students feel like if they don’t have a physical injury, it doesn’t count.”
Despite disappointing statistics, Vander Meer has hope in the recent developments in advocacy and other resources on campus.
“I think there’s certainly been an increased awareness amongst students of these issues,” Vander Meer said.
Chancellor Rebecca Blank has expressed disappointment in the “distressingly high” number of reported sexual assaults and committed to bettering UW’s approach through opting to join programs like the Culture of Respect Collective, a collective that enables universities to end sexual violence through expansive central change and holding forums on campus.
While these wide reaching efforts are beneficial to survivors, educators and other students, critics say the measures fall short of providing specific aid to survivors.
So when Kate Walsh saw an opportunity to streamline UW’s response to sexual assault, she took it. Walsh, an associate professor in the Gender and Women’s Studies and Psychology departments at UW, was awarded a $500,000 federal grant to expand sexual assault services on campus.
“If you’re a student and you experienced an assault, we have complex systems that are just difficult to navigate,” Walsh said. “Best care practices for anyone is to not have to repeat your story over and over again and not have to make a million calls to get all your different needs met.”
Walsh’s grant has two parts — medical forensic care and advocacy. The funding for medical forensic care allows for rape kits to be brought directly to students on campus instead of requiring students to go to Meriter Hospital.
Before Walsh’s program, Meriter Hospital was the only place in Dane County where UW students could go to get a rape kit – a set of tools and procedures that forensic nurse examiners use to collect evidence after someone experiences a sexual assault.
Vander Meer said the program appeals to students who were deterred from seeking care because they had to go to Meriter.
“Every single one of the students who elected to use the Forensic Nurse Examiner services said they would not have gone to Meriter,” Vander Meer said. “I think that’s a powerful statement that shows for a variety of reasons, they just don’t want to go. So having it be something that’s brought right to them with kind of a soft handoff from UHS providers has been a great thing.”
Walsh worked closely with the Dane County Multi-Agency Center, a nonprofit that came to Madison in 2021 and helps to aid survivors in their path to safety, to further streamline the new approach.
With the help of DaneMAC, UHS and student input, Walsh was able to eliminate other obstacles that complicated survivors’ medical experience such as long wait times. Some students experienced 12-hour wait times at Meriter, which prevented them from staying to get the exam.
Other students avoid a rape kit because they are afraid the process is “invasive” and “painful,” but they don’t have to be, Vander Meer said. Students have always had full control of their own exam process both at UHS and Meriter, though many students are unaware of this.
“Sometimes people want a pelvic exam for reassurance, other people would say, ‘Please don’t make me do a pelvic exam,’” Vander Meer said. “The student gets to decide. That can really be different for each person depending on injury, symptoms and their own preferences and what they want for reassurance or not.”
Since the start of the program, there has already been an increase in the number of students who sought survivor resources through UHS. Walsh said 33 people scheduled appointments for FNEs from July to November 2021 – double the amount during the same period in 2019.
“The exams don’t cost them anything, and I think a lot of students are concerned about parents finding out or having to use insurance,” Walsh said. “I wanted to think about all the reasons students might not be using the exams and the ways that we can address that.”
Walsh is excited about the student turnout since the program’s launch. She said feedback has been promising and extremely positive.
“I’ve spoken to a few students who have used the new survivor services, the advocacy in particular, and they’ve been really, really happy with the care that they’ve gotten,” Walsh said.
Recovery through advocacy
Achter knows more female students at UW who have been raped and sexually assaulted by fellow students than she can count on her fingers. For every finger Achter is forced to put down for another victim, she wants to see a comparable rise in emotion and concern from the university.
“They [UW] often place preventative measures in the hands of victims, which can be emotionally damaging to sexual assault survivors on campus,” Achter said. “They act without obvious concern and do not verbally address the problem.”
The second part of Walsh’s grant hopes to address this issue, too. Her program promotes advocacy to facilitate victim empowerment rather than victim blaming. At UW, students have a variety of advocacy services available to them including referrals to medical and mental health services, information about survivor rights, accommodations, accompaniments, consultations and assistance related to brief intervention.
“[Advocacy is] an amazing, comprehensive service where you can have a person who can meet with you multiple times during your recovery and figure out what you need emotionally, what you need physically and if we can help with aspects of your environment,” Walsh said.
Prior to the grant, UW offered medical and mental health services for survivors, but there were no full-time advocates. UHS workers like Violence Prevention Specialist Chynna Lewis provided advocacy in addition to their full-time positions, but it was mostly side work. Walsh hopes her program will respond to the need for a renewed approach to advocacy.
Currently, the grant funds only one full-time advocate at UW. Walsh and Lewis all emphasize the need for more full-time advocates to best serve over 43,000 students on campus. One full-time advocate plus two part-time employees from violence prevention is not enough for the UW campus, according to Walsh.
UHS keeps an advocate from the Rape Crisis Center on staff as well. In the spring semester, UHS hopes to offer students the choice of a UHS or RCC advocate to be present for their exam for the first time.
“We fully recognize that it’s really important to partner with other agencies in the community to make sure that all of our advocacy needs are met,” Walsh said. “I’d love to grow this program. I think it would be incredible to be able to hire a larger team.”
The three branches of survivor services at UHS – mental health, advocacy and medical – recognize that each person’s needs are different depending on their experience and what they want for reassurance.
Lewis said not all students want to utilize the mental health or medical services but still need support and “non-clinical validation,” so UHS added the advocacy branch in 2016.
“That’s just one thing that we’ve been considering– where’s the best space? What is the best way to serve students?” Lewis said. “We also have to have students that are willing to have conversations with us regarding what’s necessary for us to be utilized and beneficial for the student body overall.”
The branches, however, are separate entities that have previously not worked closely together. In the past, UW junior and PAVE Chair Jessica Melnik noted that people working in Survivor Services have been unwilling to break out of their designated roles in fear of encroaching upon another branch’s territory. Since the rollout of Walsh’s program, the services are now beginning to work in tandem.
“Campus is just so siloed, and survivors are suffering as a result,” Melnik said. “Thankfully, programs like Walsh’s are unifying the services at UW to create an integrated model that includes advocacy, mental health and medical care.”
Melnik feels that Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment, also known as PAVE, has served as the middleman in mitigating sexual assault and supporting survivors for too long. She said it is an unfair level of responsibility for a student organization.
“We are just relying on students and that is unfair to us,” Melnik said. “It is also unfair to the student body as a whole because we just can’t be as effective as we need to be.”
Workers at PAVE are paid $10.50 an hour due to its status as a GSSF organization, allowing funding for salaries and supplies. This rate, however, does not represent the work done by PAVE. Top paid administrators doing similar work have annual salaries of over $55,000 and the average advocate on a college campus makes over $46,000 a year. Comparatively, PAVE received a total of $43,501.50 for fiscal year 2023 to fund nine different positions.
In contrast, other Big Ten schools have responded to the calls for a stronger sexual assault response with more resources. Michigan State University’s Prevention Outreach and Education Department, for example, is the largest Big Ten sexual assault response program. MSU also developed a comprehensive written plan after former gymnastics coach Larry Nassar sexually assaulted over 150 women.
Melnik and Walsh both serve on the Campus Advisory Group on Sexual Assault and Misconduct, known as CAGSAM, with representatives from other schools in the UW System. Melnik says there is a disconnect between the work of practitioners and the “bureaucrats” who have the power to allocate more money to support that work.
PAVE drafted a letter to CAGSAM and a created a petition to call for UW to do better by “actively participating in violence prevention and adequately giving money to campus resources.” Without a stronger and active effort, UW is “perpetuating violence” on campus, according to the letter. PAVE’s other demands include hiring a strategic planner at the Associate Vice Chancellor level within student affairs.
“Every time we go to those meetings, I ask what we are going to do about this, and they say, ‘Oh, this is such a big problem,’ and nothing ever happens,” Melnik said.
To help students navigate and improve UW’s response to sexual assault, PAVE plays two roles on campus – response and prevention.
Currently, PAVE is focusing primarily on response. As a student organization, PAVE is not an official service provider, but PAVE helps students connect them to resources like therapy and medical help.
In terms of prevention, PAVE conducts workshops for student organizations and classes to deconstruct rape culture and provide information on how to support survivors. In the spring of 2021, PAVE held over 45 workshops, each tailored for their specific audience. PAVE emphasizes that men can be victims of sexual violence, ensuring inclusivity in their services through offering a variety workshops and resources.
“A lot of the resources and education is geared towards white women– that’s what the system has been made for,” Melnik said. “We’ve really tried to bring an anti-oppression intersectional approach to everything that we do because ultimately, marginalized communities are impacted at way higher rates by sexual violence and other things as well.”
Marginalized communities including but not limited to Black women and members of the LGBTQ+ community are at higher risk of sexual violence, though this is largely overlooked in sexual assault education.
PAVE is also working with the Interfraternity Council at UW to start a group to combat sexual violence within Greek life, starting with a men’s engagement workshop that focuses on men’s role in violence prevention.
In addition to filling the large gaps in prevention and awareness on campus, PAVE organizes the programming on campus for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Stalking Awareness Month and Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Though this work is important, it often generates burnout in the limited number of students at PAVE who dedicate their free time to advocacy.
Future of support on campus
Achter says accountability could not only prevent future assaults but also provide a sense of safety to victims.
“I would love to see real action from UW and for rapists to face real punishment,” Achter said. “UW must realize that sexual assault impacts the victim for the rest of their life. Without proper punishment, UW-Madison will continue to show that they care more about their statistics than they do their students’ well-being.”
UW had seen great improvements in their response to sexual assault from efforts like Kate Walsh’s grant and organizations like PAVE that work to combat sexual violence on campus and provide support for those who experience it.
In an email statement to The Badger Herald regarding funding to enhance services, Director of Media Relations and Strategic Communications Meredith McGlone emphasized the importance of continuing to make progress in UW’s response to sexual assault.
“One of our strengths as a campus is that in each of the units that work in this area, we have incredibly dedicated staff members who are constantly seeking out ways to improve and advocating for and with students,” McGlone said. “Many of them work directly with PAVE and other student organizations.”
There are, however, always improvements to be made to best assist survivors at UW.
Melnik would like to see a written plan at UW that outlines their approach and proves their commitment. Melnik said administrators at UW claim that the issue is really important, but there has been no actions to prove that concern.
“The chancellor hasn’t really communicated anything about this to us,” Melnik said. “But the rhetoric doesn’t match the actions.”
To see deeper, lasting change, there needs to be more cross-communication between administration and student groups to unify efforts and break down those isolating “silos.”
Melnik believes in the ongoing expansion of services. If someone is going through the process of getting a forensic exam or seeking advocacy services, she said they should be able to be connected with everything they need immediately.
At the end of the day, she says, it is about being there for students — no matter what.
“People don’t get assaulted [just] during business hours. They get assaulted at all times of the day,” Melnik said. “It’s like we are expecting people to wait until 9 a.m. to solve the problem.”
Resources regarding sexual assault:
- UHS Survivor Services: [email protected]
- Rape Crisis Center: (608) 265-5600 Extension 3 or (608) 251-7273 for after hours
- Let’s Talk: uhs.wisc.edu/wellness/lets-talk
- Room to be Safe: For Queer survivors of violence: (414) 856-LGBT (5428)
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224
Editor’s note: this story was updated Feb. 1 at 9:34 a.m. to include resources for survivors.