April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month – It Takes All of Us

The following post was jointly written by Chancellor Blank and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori Reesor.

*Content Warning: Sexual Assault

While the COVID-19 pandemic took center stage the past two years, another public health issue has persisted — one that is much less talked about and is historically complex to navigate.

We’re talking about sexual and relationship violence.

  • About one of every two students at UW–Madison has experienced sexually harassing behavior — an unwelcome sexual advance, request, or behavior.
  • More than one in four women at our university is a survivor of unwanted sexual contact. The number is notably higher for transgender and gender-diverse students.
  • In more than three of four of sexual assaults at UW–Madison, alcohol was consumed by the survivor and/or perpetrator.

These aren’t mere statistics; these are people’s lived experiences, and they have far-reaching impacts on their academic and personal lives.

Sexual violence is not unique to UW–Madison. Campuses across the U.S. report similar prevalence rates, as well as survivor difficulties navigating layers of campus and community supports.

At UW–Madison, we’re also committed to doing something about it — to supporting our student survivors and ending violence on our campus.

In 2015, our campus participated in a first-of-its-kind national sexual assault climate survey with the Association of American Universities (AAU). This survey provided data on the prevalence of sexual violence, shed light on attitudes around it, and clarified where we needed to create more awareness and knowledge among our faculty, staff, and students. We set out to fill those gaps with a comprehensive plan to improve our sexual violence prevention efforts and response.

In 2019, students participated in the survey again to check our progress toward those goals. The survey revealed that our undergraduate and graduate students were significantly more knowledgeable about sexual assault and campus resources — some progress — but, similar to other campuses, rates of sexual assault remained relatively the same.

We learned that students with disabilities, students of color, transgender students, and gender-diverse students experienced disproportionate levels of sexual assault and misconduct on this campus. Only a small portion of assault and misconduct survivors reported their assault to a campus resource, confidential or otherwise. Most were likely to share their experience with a friend.

We’ve taken several actions since the 2019 survey — increasing the staff at University Health Services (UHS) Survivor Services to help victims receive care after an assault and understand their options for campus support or reporting; strengthening the Sexual Misconduct Resource and Response Program (Title IX) responsible for processing reports of sexual violence; and becoming a member of the national Culture of Respect Collective, a multi-year program that guides institutions of higher education through a rigorous process of self-assessment and organizational change. Our work on this has involved a large and diverse group of students, staff, faculty partners, and community members, and has been ongoing throughout the pandemic.

UW–Madison’s Culture of Respect team has worked hard to improve services and build awareness of the resources available to survivors at whatever stage they need it.

This includes three key entry points at UHS Survivor Services for confidential support alongside information on 24/7 resources within the community:

  • Advocacy — Assistance with accommodations, information about rights and reporting options, accompaniments, referrals, and consultations.
  • Medical — Care for sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing and treatment, emergency contraception, forensic nurse services, pregnancy testing and options, and treatment of injuries.
  • Mental — Trauma-informed group counseling, individual therapy (biweekly), and care management to support healing and post-traumatic growth.
  • 24/7 community resources — Help navigating your options from the Rape Crisis Center and no-cost, confidential forensic nurse exams at the UnityPoint Health – Meriter Emergency Department at 202 South Park Street.

While it’s critical for survivors of sexual violence to know where they can turn on campus and in the community for support, our students are still one of the most important resources for each other.

UHS will continue to educate new students about consent, bystander training and allyship, but we all have a responsibility to uphold a community of care at UW–Madison. Your actions can affect the way those around you think about and respond to sexual and relationship violence:

  • Be accountable — Hold yourself and the people around you accountable. That may mean accompanying a friend home who’s had too much to drink, letting someone know why their rape joke isn’t funny, or reporting aggressive behavior immediately to someone who can help.
  • Offer support — Listen and support someone if they tell you they have been harmed. Share and use the resources listed above.
  • Practice consent — Countering violence on campus means infusing the practice of consent into all relationships. It is a clear and conscious “yes,” not merely the absence of “no.”

We encourage you to learn more and engage as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month this April.  We’re proud to share that on April 20 at 6:30 p.m., our student leaders in PAVE are hosting an online book reading and conversation with Jaquira Díaz, a former Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing fellow and visiting assistant professor and author of the acclaimed “Ordinary Girls: A Memoir.”

As a university, we are committed to creating a safe living and learning environment for all of our students. When sexual assault occurs, we will respond swiftly and with compassion. And we will depend on each of you to be part of the solution. It will take all of us to end sexual violence at UW.

If you are a UW–Madison employee who has experienced sexual harassment or sexual violence, you may speak with someone confidentially at the Employee Assistance Office or Ombuds Office. Both employees and students may report sexual misconduct to the Office of Compliance.