WMC News & Features

Campus Rape and the Power of Early Sex Education to Make a Difference

Rape is the most common violent crime on American college campuses. It is estimated that one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. This deeply entrenched reality has a long history—as does activism to combat it.

“Student activists have been working to eradicate sexual violence from college campuses for decades,” said Tracey Vitchers, board chair of Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER), a student-led advocacy organization that started at Columbia University in 2000. “With the issue in the spotlight more than ever before thanks to modern media and social media, there is a heightened awareness of the issue.”

This heightened awareness, along with continued advocacy, has led to some legislative and policy advances, such as California’s “Yes Means Yes” law, passed last year, that mandates consent standards on campuses that receive state funding, and New York’s “Enough Is Enough” law making affirmative consent a standard on all college campuses. On the federal level, last year the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault was established.

However, to enact real change across the board, not just on college campuses, many activists are making the case that outreach and education need to happen years before students even show up for their first day of freshman orientation.

“Talking about sexual assault in college is too late,” said Annie Clark, cofounder of End Rape On Campus, a survivor advocacy organization. “Age-appropriate discussions about consent could start as early as kindergarten. But talking about sexual assault in this country is taboo because talking about sex is taboo.”

Even as sex education in public schools gained widespread support in the 1960s because of concerns about teen pregnancy, issues of consent and sexual violence were never central. But during the Reagan administration, a strong push for abstinence-only programs pushed even these programs to the sidelines. Including comprehensive sex education in public school curriculums has been a battle ever since.

“For decades, the only federal funding available was for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs,” explained Diana Rhodes, director of public policy at Advocates for Youth, an organization focused on adolescent reproductive and sexual health. Although President Obama has been able to expand funding beyond this narrow viewpoint, “sex education policies vary widely, which means young people are being taught vastly different programs across the country. We have to teach about these topics early on (in secondary school) so by the time they are on college campuses, there is no question as to what consent looks like. Denying information about sex and relationships will mean more and more young people will be having unprotected sex and not understanding consent, violence, or healthy relationships.”

More than 10 percent of high school girls and 4 percent of boys report being forced to have sex, according to Answer, an organization that publishes teen-written sex education materials and has worked with public school districts and public health organizations around the country.

“Sexual assault is not just an issue on college campuses, and given that many young people do not attend college, we cannot wait until college to begin educating young people about consent, gender, and power,” said Nicole Cushman, executive director of Answer. “Educators have an imperative to incorporate discussions of sexual violence into their curricula. [They] and parents can start to have age-appropriate conversations with elementary students about gender, gender roles, and the impact gender roles have on people’s ability to communicate and negotiate in friendships. This is the foundational knowledge young people need to later learn about healthy romantic relationships, consent, and sexual assault.”

Currently, 35 states and the District of Columbia require that public schools provide some form of sex education or information about HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. However, the quality and content of the lessons and curriculums differ not only from state to state, but even from classroom to classroom within the same school. Some public school students are receiving comprehensive sex education, including information about consent and dating violence. But most are not.

A new piece of legislation that was introduced earlier this year, the Teach Safe Relationships Act, aims to do something about this disparity. Introduced by Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), it requires the incorporation of lessons about consent into sex education curriculums in secondary schools. But even if it does pass, which seems unlikely with the current Congress, it would apply only in places that offer sex education. The bill grew out of a meeting between Kaine and student activists from One Less, a student sexual assault and education group at the University of Virginia, last December. Some of the students reported that they had never been taught about sexual assault before college orientation.

“By waiting, we ignore the realities that many victims are assaulted before college,” said Alison Safran of Surviving in Numbers, a sexual assault and domestic violence prevention nonprofit. “Many teens are having consensual sex before college, and by not talking about either of those things, we're perpetuating a culture that silences healthy sexuality and experiences of sexual violence. Combating it starts with talking about it openly and in a way that is survivor-informed and survivor-driven, instead of reiterating deeply embedded victim-blaming. It's not a lack of alertness, or a type of outfit, or walking alone that causes sexual violence, it's a perpetrator.”

Many organizations like Answer have already created and implemented sex education curriculums that incorporate information about consent. Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts developed Get Real, a comprehensive program targeted for middle-school students that emphasizes healthy relationships and family involvement, and has been used in close to 200 schools and youth programs in five states. “Learning how to ask for, give, and hear consent—or lack thereof—are skills that need to be learned, and sexuality education provides the opportunity to do so,” said Jen Slonaker, vice president of education and training at PPLM.

Leslie Kantor, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, adds: “We also need to talk about gender in sex education because part of the problem is in the gender script: boys and men are repeatedly given messages that they are always supposed to want sex and girls and women are never supposed to be interested in sex. That sets young people up for terrible dynamics when it comes to saying what they want and don’t want. What we want as parents and educators is for young people to gain the skills to be able to have healthy relationships for their whole lives.”

If the recent focus and media gaze on the issue of rape on college campuses does contribute to increased comprehensive sex education, the benefits could last well past graduation.

“Increased visibility and attention about the prevalence of campus sexual assaults is really critical,” said Heather Boonstra, director of public policy at the Guttmacher Institute. “The first step towards solving a problem is identifying it in the first place. Through these stories, we are learning how truly common an experience this is. Providing comprehensive sex education will not only better serve women in the long run, but will also help to make relationships between men and women more equal.”



More articles by Category: Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Rape
SHARE

[SHARE]

Article.DirectLink

Contributor
Categories
Sign up for our Newsletter

Learn more about topics like these by signing up for Women’s Media Center’s newsletter.