When it comes to having conversations about sexual assault, stigma and assumptions that are often associated with the topic can often cause victims to not reach out for help. It is also difficult to have conversations about sexual assault when many confuse the definition with other sexual misconduct such as sexual abuse and sexual harassment.
“Sexual assault is predefined by any sexual contact or behavior that an individual does not consent to from the recipient,” Casey Zimmerman, a registered nurse at Sandford Health with special training in this area, said.
“Sexual assault occurs when any person is forced, coerced or manipulated into any unwanted sexual activity.”
Zimmerman talked about the Sexual Assault Response Team that was started in the Fargo-Moorhead area. This involves law enforcement, medical personnel and an advocate with the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center located in downtown Fargo.
“As a team we collaborate to meet all the wholistic goals of each victim that comes in or presents to any of our locations whether it be a police department, the hospital or the advocacy center.”
The team also helps with the process of a sexual assault forensic exam which includes the rape kit. “The kit kind of entails the whole list of groups. We have someone there for moral support, we have PD there for the legal aspect and then we have the nurse examiner for the sexual assault collection of the kit.”
An interview is first done with the patient and a police officer. Zimmerman explained that nurses aren’t present during this to “keep our two stories separate. We like to keep the legal side for PD and we like to keep our nurse with just being the evidence collector.”
Each interview with the victim helps the team determine what is going to be collected in the kit. Zimmerman said that there are an “array of different swabs,” that can be collected as well as the victims DNA and any injuries. The evidence collected can include the victims clothing, pictures of injuries and a pelvic exam.
At the end of each exam the hospital also offers STI treatments for the victims “to help better them with taking care of themselves and protecting themselves.”
Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, also referred to as SANE’s, are trained in administering the forensic evidence exams. Zimmerman explained that in the FM area nurses take a 40 hour course for didactic training, two hours of hands-on training and go through cases with previously trained sexual assault nurses.
SANE’s are always in demand at hospitals as Zimmerman explained, “We have a high turnover rate just because of the trauma on both ends.” Zimmerman added that despite the burnout, there are always nurses who want to get trained “to help our victims.”
While Zimmerman sees more people talking about sexual assault which can help spread awareness on the topic in the community, there is still stigma which can cause fear for reporting it. “I think a lot of people, there’s a stigma that they won’t be heard or won’t be believed. Or that if they just don’t report it, it never happened.”
Keeping the conversation going about sexual assault can help eliminate the stigma as well as spreading awareness of the resources offered in the community.
Zimmerman said that more people have reported sexual assault in the past five years adding, “I feel like the stigma has really gone down the more we talk about it, the more we’re heard, the more victims are willing to come out and tell their stories.”