New methods offered to assault victims

The School of Nursing, in conjunction with the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, hosted a panel discussion on March 1 about the clinical aspects of sexual assault response, emergency contraception and mental health.

The presentation was part of a month-long programming series on women’s issues and achievements in honor of Women’s History Month.

Sexual assault is a pertinent issue in a college environment: “One in four college students experiences rape or some sort of sexual assault,” Ann Falon, professor of nursing, said.

The panel discussed three components of helping victims of sexual assault and rape to become survivors, many of which are relatively new developments.

One of the most groundbreaking and controversial additions to the treatments available to sexual assault victims is Plan B emergency oral contraceptive, now legal in New Jersey.

In 2005, acting Gov. Richard Codey signed legislation requiring facilities to provide information and the contraception itself to sexual assault victims upon request.

Although myths assert that sexual assault cannot result in pregnancies, “between 25,000 and 35,000 pregnancies occur each year as a result of sexual assault,” Dr. Susan Boughn, professor of nursing and women’s and gender studies, said.

This myth is just one of the manifestations of the politics of sexuality. The scientific technology upon which Plan B is based was developed decades prior to its legal acceptance, and represents one form of social repression of female sexuality. Now, however, “you do not have to pay with a pregnancy for being a sexual woman,” Boughn said.

Plan B contains a high concentration of progesterone, the hormones found in regular birth control pills. When taken within 72 hours of intercourse the pills prevent ovulation, fertilization and implantation.

“Plan B does not induce an abortion and is ineffective at terminating pregnancies,” Boughn said.

It is important to remember that emergency contraceptives are intended for infrequent use and are most effective when taken in the first 24 hours.

Furthermore, while Plan B can prevent unwanted pregnancies, it does not protect against sexually transmitted diseases.

Among other innovations is the creation of the sexual assault response team (SART), an established protocol for providing immediate legal, medical and emotional support to victims.

“Thirty years ago, rape victims would sit in the emergency room for hours and were treated like other triage patients, without any regard for the emotional trauma sustained,” Eileen Alexy, professor of nursing, said.

The team, composed of a law enforcement officer, rape care advocate and a nurse practitioner, was developed by nurses in the 1970s as a way to help victims cope with their experience.

One of the most important aspects of the program is giving the victims control by allowing them to choose the members of the team. SART is available upon the victim’s request for anyone age 13 or older within five days of the attack.

This protocol has not only directly benefited the victim’s emotional needs, but has also aided law enforcement. The program ensures valid evidence and expert witnesses in the event that prosecution ensues.

In spite of political resistance, clinical treatments for rape and sexual assault victims have improved significantly over the years. Nevertheless, overcoming the traumatic psychological and emotional stress and the tendency to blame the victim remain persistent obstacles.

Society seeks to prevent violence against women by telling them to take certain precautions, rather than addressing the perpetrators themselves.

“We tell women not to walk alone, rather than telling men not to rape women walking alone,” Falon said. “This system implies that sexual assault is the woman’s fault.”

Presenting the clinical perspectives of responding to sexual assault calls attention to the unfortunate association of women’s health issues with politics.

These specific developments represent the progress that has been made but also reveal that initiatives like SART are only a start for fighting sexual assault and other forms of violence against women.