During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, this three-part Daily Cardinal series delves into the numbers, spotlights available resources and expands the conversation to reflect the real impact of sexual assault at UW-Madison.

Since 2009, the number of sexual assaults reported by UW-Madison students nearly tripled. According to Assistant Dean of Students Tonya Schmidt, that increase is a good thing.

“It means that the victims are getting help for themselves, and that’s the most important thing,” Schmidt said, but added the numbers do not necessarily tell the “real story.”

As Schmidt explained, increased reports do not mean more sexual assaults are occurring, but that more students are disclosing a typically underreported crime.

“This isn’t about numbers, this is about victims getting the support they need after a very traumatic incident,” she said.

Schmidt credits the increased reporting to the efforts of campus groups working in coalition with Ending Violence On Campus, an initiative designed to combine local resources to end instances of sexual assault, dating violence and stalking on campus.

EVOC works with campus groups to dispel myths preventing students from reporting sexual assault, including the misconception that they could be charged for underage drinking and the tendency for victims to blame themselves, rather than the perpetrator.

When the initiative began in 2009, students reported 45 sexual assaults on campus. In 2010, that number more than doubled to 112. In the past year, the Dean of Students Office said there have been 123 instances of sexual assault reported by UW-Madison students.

Still, Val Kowis, chair of student group Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment, agreed the increased reports do not tell the whole story of sexual assault at UW-Madison.

“When I look at it, I think about the fact that one in four women will experience sexual assault during her time at college,” Kowis said. “We’re not seeing nearly close to those numbers being reported.”

Kowis hopes the relative uptick in numbers means students are more aware of campus resources available and are not falling for the “myths” she said prevent many from reporting.

“It’s that whole mindset that you could’ve done more,” Kowis said. “All those victim-blaming questions: Why did you drink so much? Why did you walk alone? Why did you go to a party with him? The societal attitudes are some of the biggest barriers by far.”

Carmen Hotvedt, a violence prevention specialist for EVOC, has been working to dispel myths like these for over 15 years.

According to her, societal attitudes lead victims to blame themselves, rather than their assailant, especially if the perpetrator is an acquaintance.

According to the Dean of Students Office, 71 of the 123 victims in 2011 knew their assailant.

While the term “date rape” was once used to describe such assaults, Hotvedt said this generation of college students rarely dates in the traditional sense of the term. “Acquaintances” are usually just that, a friend of a friend or even someone loosely connected to a friend.

“’Acquaintance’ is something that’s loosely defined. But there’s still a sense of trust when someone brings you a drink or you have a 20-minute conversation,” she said.

EVOC, PAVE and UHS emphasize to victims they should not blame themselves even if the perpetrator was an acquaintance, date, friend or even a significant other or individual with whom they had been sexually intimate previously.

Whether or not the victim knew their assailant, students are significantly less likely to report assaults if they had been drinking, Kowis said, calling it a “huge barrier” for victims to overcome.

Fifty-six of the reported assaults in 2011 involved alcohol, according to the Dean of Students Office. Historically, about half of reported cases involve drinking.

Both Schmidt and Kowis said many students are wary of using campus resources because they fear retribution for drinking underage. But as Schmidt explained, that assumption is “a misnomer.”

According to the university’s Responsible Action Guidelines, if a student discloses drinking underage while reporting an assault to anyone on campus, including the University of Wisconsin Police Department, the drinking ticket and disciplinary process will be waived, and no mention of alcohol-related misconduct will go on the student’s record.

“There’s a bigger crime out there, and underage drinking isn’t it,” Hotvedt said.

Most importantly, both victims and those in the community commonly misconstrue what the crime of sexual assault actually is, she said.

“Sexual assault’s really defined by consent. Did the perpetrator get consent or not?” Hotvedt explained. “It’s not defined by the perpetrator’s use of force, which is how I think our culture wants us to think about it.”

Throughout the coming month, PAVE will work to dispel myths and raise awareness about sexual assault on campus. A full calendar of the group’s events can be found on Facebook.

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