One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college.1
In 2014, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault issued a mandate to strengthen federal enforcement efforts and provide schools with additional tools to combat sexual assault on their campuses.2 It launched the web site notalone.gov to make enforcement data public and provide accessible resources to students and schools.
How can you respond to the challenge? Participate in the April observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). Coordinated by the Enola, PA-based National Sexual Violence Resource Center, the 2015 observance is centered on campus sexual assault. The theme is “Safer Campuses. Brighter Futures. Prevent Sexual Violence.”
The 2015 SAAM campaign will serve as a toolkit for community advocates, campus personnel, students, and allies, says Laura Palumbo, prevention campaign specialist at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (Visit the observance’s dedicated web site, http://bit.ly/1lA4Lgd, for campaign resources, graphics, and other free material.)
Healthcare providers have a unique and important role to play in sexual assault prevention and response on college campuses, says Virginia Duplessis, MSW, a senior program manager for Futures Without Violence, with headquarters in San Francisco. The nonprofit organization works to end violence against women and children around the world. It launched a social action campaign, “The OTHER Freshman 15,” in September 2014 to elevate awareness of sexual assault at colleges across the country. (Visit the dedicated web site at http://bit.ly/1zudHWV.) The “Other Freshman 15” refers to the fact that the first 15 weeks of college can be the riskiest for sexual assault.
“Because experiencing sexual assault can have significant, long-term health effects, it is important to address it in the clinical setting,” says Duplessis. “Providers do not have to be ‘experts’ on sexual assault to recognize and help patients. There are simple strategies they can incorporate into their practice.”
Research demonstrates that women who talk to their providers about their experiences of violence are much more likely to use an intervention, whether it’s calling a hotline, seeking counseling, or pursuing legal options,3 Duplessis states.
Healthcare providers have an opportunity to provide anticipatory guidance on healthy relationships, consensual sexual activity, and bystander interventions aimed at prevention, notes Duplessis. By bringing up the topic, providers also are letting patients know that their clinical setting is a safe space to talk about sexual assault, if the need arises in the future. It is also a way to get information about the local community resources into the hands of students who might not disclose a sexual assault, but who might benefit from having access to those services, she states.
“In the aftermath of an assault, survivors are more likely to seek medical care than to contact a rape crisis counselor, call the police, or access other supportive services, observes Duplessis. “Healthcare providers obviously have a role to play in providing needed medical care, including emergency contraception, sexually transmitted infection testing, and pregnancy testing, but just as importantly they can let survivors know that they are not alone, that the assault was not their fault, and that there is help available.”
Making a warm referral to local community resources, such as the rape crisis center or campus safety office, reduces survivors’ isolation and increases patients’ access to long-term support services, says Duplessis.
To improve the response to and prevention of sexual violence, providers need to enhance their ability to identify risk factors for victimization or perpetration. To develop protocols and practice comprehensive assessments of patients for sexual violence, clinicians can use the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s 2011 resource, “Assessing Patients for Sexual Violence: A Guide for Health Care Providers.” (Download a free copy at http://bit.ly/1IC0VvT).
Enhance your services for early identification of risk factors for victimization or perpetration, says Palumbo. Risk factors that increase one’s risk of committing rape include using alcohol, lacking inhibitions to suppress associations between sex and aggression, holding attitudes and beliefs that are supportive of sexual violence, associating with sexually aggressive peers, and having experienced abuse as a child, Palumbo notes. Refer patients to local organizations and programs to address these risk factors. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a free educational fact sheet, Understanding Sexual Violence. Download it at http://1.usa.gov/1vWKruj.)
Futures Without Violence has developed a sexual assault safety card for use in college health settings, says Duplessis. Designed for college-age women and men, the card details the high prevalence of sexual assaults on campus, defines consent, and offers strategies about how to increase personal safety and prevent sexual assault. It can be downloaded at http://bit.ly/1CqLDGE.
Krebs CP, Lindquist CH, Warner TD, et al. College women’s experiences with physically forced, alcohol- or other drug-enabled, and drug-facilitated sexual assault before and since entering college. J Am Coll Health 2009; 57(6):639-647.
White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault (U.S.). Not Alone: The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault. Accessed at http://1.usa.gov/1hLUFld.
McCloskey LA, Lichter E, Williams C, et al. Assessing intimate partner violence in health care settings leads to women’s receipt of interventions and improved health. Public Health Reports 2006; 121(4):435-444.