April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Sexual assault is life changing and a worry for many people. It’s not just something that happens to women late at night in dark alleyways in large cities. It is pervasive among our schools, colleges, and communities. There are sociological forces which make this a complicated issue too, but when you attempt to boil it down we see that what lies beneath assault is disrespect, anger, and low self control. The lack of respect is rampant. Not to crucify the media, but the images of disempowered women, apathetic young adults, and sexual violence, drown the voices of women and men who campaign for respect.
What is Consent?
Consent is when people agree, and say yes, before they have any kind of sexual activity. Consent isn’t force, exploitation, pressure, or guilt. When people consent to one behavior, it doesn’t mean that they consent to everything. It also doesn’t mean that they consent to future activities. Sexual activity has to be agreed to by both parties, and there has to be an ongoing conversation.
Hannah Brown, a writer for Fusion.net, wrote an article that led me to reflect on my sexual health education in school. It’s a good read, and raises questions about sex education. Read it here. She says “As it turns out, there is shockingly little that California requires high school health teachers to teach about sexual assault. Sure, they have the option to expand…But there’s still no emphasis on consent. Instead, sexual assault education today is often spun to warn young women against dressing a certain way or putting themselves in ‘compromising situations’.” Sadly, there isn’t enough being done to educate youth about healthy sexual behavior and relationships. My experience confirms this, we learned the basics in school, but I don’t remember any impactful conversations about assault and consent.
I think teaching girls to stay away from “compromising situations” is important because there are environments or situations where you can sense that things aren’t safe. However, I can see how this kind of education can create major problems. It teaches young women that their choices (of dress, mostly) affect whether they’re sexually assaulted; it removes blame from the attacker and places it on the victim; and it fails to teach anyone, boys or girls, about the importance of consent.
What do the statistics say?
- About 1 in 5 college aged women are victims of sexual assault.
- According to RAINN: The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, sexual assault cases have declined, yet there are so many victims each year that the average assault takes place every 2 minutes.
- Sadly, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, a college with 10,000 students could experience as many as 350 rapes per year.
- 2/3 of all sexual assaults are committed by a non-stranger, which includes friends, relatives, and intimate partners.
This can be scary for women and men living on a campus with few acquaintances, and can make someone feel distrust around others. The fact that an offender is usually someone that a person knows really points out the way that men and women interact with each other, and how we are taught to interpret our relationships.
What is being done: Positive forces in schools
If we are to limit violent acts, and sexual aggression, it makes sense to empower our youth. There is harm being done when children are raised to think gender inequity is the norm, and when these same children grow to become victims of assault.
Students should learn that saying no to any encounter is okay, they should also learn that they have to respect when someone says no. Instead of treating these conversations as taboo, leaving youth to think sex is like a game, where girls (or guys) are teasing, or leading them on, we should make sure our youth is prepared to have these conversations. We have to make sure they know how to communicate what they want, or don’t, and are not coerced to do something that they don’t want to do.
MOST: Men Of Strength Club is an awesome program that I found out about in my research that works with schools around the country. Any program that supports our youth, especially young men has my total support. The program trains advocates to empower young men to become leaders who address social justice issues. They work to challenge assumptions of masculinity and gender relations. If I had lots of money to give, I’d send it to them right now.
See for yourself what the program is about here.
What we need to spread positive attitudes is to not just teach youth about respect and compassion, but create safe ways for them to experience it. That’s why programs like Men Can Stop Rape are important. Men involved in the program are in the schools and their presence creates a sense of responsibility for the young men they mentor. All involved act as mentors and role models of respect, compassion, and upstanding. Teaching teens to become upstanders and advocates for respect is priceless because they will take those lessons with them into college.
1 is 2 many: http://www.whitehouse.gov/1is2many/take-action/young-adults
Palo Alto Medical Foundation: http://www.pamf.org/teen/abc/sex/consent.html
RAINN: http://www.rainn.org/statistics ; https://www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/sexual-assault-offenders
Men of Strength Club: http://www.mencanstoprape.org/The-Men-of-Strength-Club/
photo source: http-//www.nj-law-garcesgrabler.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/sexual-assault.jpg