Just like so many adults, young people of all ages watched or overheard the news stories about the sexual assault accusations and investigation that were part of the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh. This may have been the first time these youth have heard someone describe the details of a sexual assault or watched a group of adults discuss accusations including “gang rape.” This is scary, real stuff, and our children are listening. They need and deserve our clear and direct communication to help them make sense of what’s happening – communication about what sexual violence is, why it happens, and why we take it seriously, no matter our political party.
At Hallways, we facilitate trainings and provide consultation on sexual violence prevention and consent education for New York City’s independent school community. This work is critical as, sadly, no school is immune to sexual violence occurring amongst its student body. We have heard countless stories from students, parents, teachers, and administrators – about incidents including rapes at parties, forced performance of oral sex by younger peers, online harassment and sharing of sexual photos, coercion of multiple peers into unwanted sexual activity; the list goes on and on.
It is painfully clear that when young people and the adults around them don’t have a framework for understanding these events, their confusion can enable an environment where harm can be normalized, minimized or dismissed. Students and educators often express questions and ideas that are commonly heard in our larger society:
“But what if they were dating?”
“What if they were both drunk?”
“What if she actually just regretted the hook up?”
“Most people that report sexual assault are lying”
These concepts are all a manifestation of the victim-blaming attitudes and rape myths that are deeply ingrained in our culture. This thinking is a large part of why sexual violence is so common, and is the most underreported crime with the lowest conviction rate. It’s also what leads many of us to be silent about these issues with the young people in our lives.
Previous to my role at Hallways, I spent years working with teens victims of sexual violence. I heard over and over how they feared talking to their parents about what had happened to them because they worried they would be blamed and shamed. They held their trauma in, which often led to the use of negative coping skills to shut out painful memories and deal with overwhelming, and sometimes confusing, feelings. So, for the sake of the young people in our lives, it’s essential that adults and adolescents develop clarity about this issue.
First, a quick summary of some key points about sexual violence:
Sexual violence, including harassment, attempted rape, and rape, is a gendered form of violence. This means that violence is an expression of power inequalities based on gender norms and roles.
Key risk factors for perpetrating violence include:
Adhering to traditional ideas of gender (e.g. boys should be tough and in control)
Hostile attitudes towards women and girls (e.g. viewing women and girls as sexual objects, believing that women are trying to take power from men), both held within an individual and supported by peer groups
Believing in rape myths (e.g. thinking that rape is a crime of passion, that a lot of victims lie about their experiences with sexual assault)
Because of these socialized, cultural factors, the majority of assaults are committed by boys and men, either towards women and girls, other boys, gender non-conforming and transgender people. This is why boys and men, the majority of whom do not harm others, must be part of the solution to stop sexual violence.
Alcohol does not cause sexual assault. It contributes to the risk of an assault occurring by further enabling those who seek to display dominance through sexual behavior. Studies on this topic show that it is drinking contexts (the social/cultural expectations within peer groups in particular settings) and not drinking per se that increase the risk of sexual violence.
Teens are at the highest risk for being victims of sexual assault and most of the time, violence is perpetrated by someone a teen knows.
Sexual assault is not an uncommon experience – there have been reports of sexual violence and many more unreported disclosures at almost every one of the 30 +schools we work with in the independent school community in New York City.
Many adults do not know the facts about sexual assault, and their confusion can send problematic messages to children that normalize sexual assault (such as using phrases like “boys will be boys” and “sometimes girls confuse rape and regret”).
Only 2-10% of of sexual assault reports are false, which is the same false report rate as all other felonies. However, sexual violence is the most underreported crime, with 2 out of 3 assaults going unreported.
Bystanders are critical to preventing sexual violence. Most boys and men do not perpetrate harm, but are often silent and passive in the face of “locker room talk”. These behaviors objectify and dehumanize others, which lays the foundation for violence and assault. And when no one speaks up to challenge these types of comments or language, everyone gets the message that it is ok.
Changing attitudes about gender and sexual violence is difficult work, and requires having challenging, ongoing conversations with each other and our children. But it is essential, both to keep our children safe and to ensure that they don’t harm someone else or stay silent about any violence that has been done to themselves or another.
Here are some resources to get these critical conversations started – with children of any age. Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org for guidance and training on how to talk with children about consent and gender. This is hard, emotional work, and we are here to support you.
Resources for Talking About Consent (at all ages):
RAINN: Talking with your children about sexual assault – https://www.rainn.org/articles/talking-your-kids-about-sexual-assault
The Good Men Project – https://goodmenproject.com/families/the-healthy-sex-talk-teaching-kids-consent-ages-1-21/
Child Mind Institute – https://childmind.org/article/how-talk-kids-sex-consent-boundaries/
Consent for Kids (video) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3nhM9UlJjc
Rachel Henes is an expert in consent education and sexual violence prevention and is the Director of Hallways.