University of Wisconsin recently took steps to improve the ability of survivors of sexual assault to access an appointment with a forensic nurse on campus. But, the work to strive for a campus climate that prevents assault and provides holistic post-assault support to survivors is not over.

Beginning this semester, students will have the option to schedule an appointment with a forensic nurse at University Health Services following an assault because of a partnership with local nonprofit, DaneMAC. A victim’s advocate will be on hand during each appointment to ensure that the survivor has emotional support and a knowledgeable source of their options and rights following an assault.

Prior to this move, UW students had to commute to the only place in Dane County that offered forensic tests, or “rape kits,” for sexual assault — the UnityPoint Health-Meriter Hospital.

Though the hospital is not far south of campus, having to go to the emergency room in a new building off campus may be discouraging or intimidating for survivors seeking a forensic exam.

In UW’s participation in the 2019 Association of American Universities survey, AAU reported that less than a third of respondents were aware of the services available at Meriter.

This raises the question: How do we create a campus environment where survivors are encouraged and supported in their experience with post-assault services?

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This resource expansion was made possible by UW professor Kate Walsh, who received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for the purpose of expanding post-assault services to students. Walsh is head of the Sexual Violence Research Initiative, which researches psychological and societal aspects of sexual violence, as well as policy related to preventing sexual violence.

Approximately 26% of female undergraduates at UW report experiencing sexual assault on the UW-campus, and 11% have reported being raped. These numbers demonstrate just how present rape culture is at UW.

Women are not the only ones to experience sexual assault, and it is estimated that the vast majority of cases go unreported across the board — about 87% of assaults on college campuses.

Adding forensic nurses to UHS services is a good development, but the program is not perfect. For starters, UHS will only be offering services during business hours on weekdays. Forensic exams need to occur within days of an assault.

This means that a student who is assaulted on a Friday night may still have to go to the off-campus hospital on Saturdays and Sundays to receive an exam as soon as possible.

DaneMAC co-founder Rachel Sattler said in a Wisconsin State Journal article that finding support following an assault is more difficult than one would think.

“Most survivors that we talk to and work with in our day jobs say navigating the support systems can be as traumatic as the assault itself,” Sattler said.

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Guaranteeing a representative from the Rape Crisis Center at every exam means students will have someone on hand who can answer questions while ensuring confidentiality. It allows for misconceptions to be corrected, like the false but widely believed ideas that going to receive a forensic exam will show up on a parent’s insurance bill, or that a survivor must file a police-report in order to receive an exam.

Every survivor has a different story that is their own to share if and when they choose to do so, so it is hard to say definitively whether or not this move will help more survivors report their experience to UW.

But, improving access to forensic exams sends a positive message to survivors on campus in a time when the number of assaults that go unreported demonstrates that they feel generally unsupported by the university.

The fact that there has only been one program like this in all of Dane County until this point is indicative of the incredible lack of support survivors face. This action will encourage survivors on campus to seek help by demonstrating the University’s initiative to make it easier for student’s to access resources while giving them the freedom to choose whether or not they file a report with the university or with the police.

Though adding forensic nurses to the campus clinic will provide much needed support to survivors, the policy fails to address the root of the problem — the prevalence of sexual assault on the UW campus.

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Studies have found that active bystander intervention is one of the best ways to actually prevent sexual assault from happening in the first place.

Creating a safer campus is not something that happens overnight, and there is no single solution. It will take years of work from dedicated faculty and students committed to creating a safer campus for everyone.

One of the biggest fears that survivors face is not being believed and being denied their right to resources that will help them. Survivors of assault continue to be discouraged by infamous stories such as Brock Turner and other rapists who are let off the hook and not held accountable.

This is a positive initiative that makes it easier for survivors to access forensic testing exams, but UW needs to continue expanding access to these services by offering weekend appointments on campus and making these services more widely known.

If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault and is looking for support services, call the national sexual assault hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or visit https://www.uhs.wisc.edu/survivor-resources/ for campus resources.

Leah Terry ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in political science and communication arts and pursuing a certificate in public policy.