Laura Berman, PhD
An alarming new study has found high incidents of sexual assault among young people.
When it comes to rape and acts of sexual violence, we tend to picture armed rapists hiding in the shadows. We assume that people who commit sexual assault are often on the fringes of society, the type of perpetrators who wait in darkened parking lots or who break into homes in the middle of the night.
Of course, the reality is that rape often doesn’t look like what we see in the movies. And neither do rapists. Rapists aren’t the stereotypical bad guy lurking on street corners. They are people we know and trust. Although it’s frightening to think about, it’s important to realize that rape can come in many forms—it can be forced sexual contact after an otherwise pleasant date, it can be forced intercourse between a husband and a wife, it can be a night of drinking followed by someone taking advantage of your vulnerable state.
And, now a new study published by JAMA Pediatrics has found that rapists tend to begin their violent behavior as early as their teenage years. Researchers from Center for Innovative Public Health Research and the University of New Hampshire found that 1 in 10 youths admit to committing sexual violence. This included everything from rape to attempted rape to kissing, touching, or otherwise committing sexual acts when they knew the other person did not want to do so. Most of this behavior began as early as 15 or 16 years old.
The results of this study are quite disturbing and frightening. What can account for this high level of sexual violence in our society and how can we better protect our children?
While the study found a small association between watching violent X-rated media and crimes of sexual violence, the truth is that that our entire society plays a role in our young people’s sexual behavior. We live in a rape culture, in a world which makes rape and sexual violence the victim’s problem rather than the criminal’s problem. We degrade and dehumanize women and girls with words like “slut” and “whore” and we simultaneously make it okay for certain women to be abused sexually. After all, they were asking for it. We ask questions like: Well, why was she out so late? Why did she have so much to drink? Why was she wearing such a short skirt? If she didn’t want to go all the way, why did she get in the car with him?
In an attempt to stop rape, we try to teach people (usually girls and women) how not become victims, such as by encouraging them not to walk alone and not to dress or act a certain way. However, in doing so, we are tackling the problem from the completely wrong end. We don’t need to be teaching rape victims how not to be raped. We need to be teaching young people how not to rape—how to look for enthusiastic consent, how to listen to the word “no,” how not to coerce, pressure, or otherwise manipulate someone into sex against their will. We need to be instilling healthy sexual behavior and encouraging young people to learn how to communicate about safety, consent, and mutual respect in the bedroom. We also need to end misogynist language and ideology that serves to shame women for their bodies and their sexuality.
In order to end sexual violence, we need to end the systems that allow for sexual violence to occur in the first place. That means ending the silence and the fear that many rape victims feel, and that means holding rapists 100% accountable for their actions. Young people need to learn that a drunk or high person can’t give consent, and that coercing a partner and saying things “Come on, if you loved me, you would let me” and “No one will know,” isn’t just manipulation. It’s rape. No means no. And, for that matter, consent isn’t just the absence of a no. Consent is an enthusiastic yes, and learning how to look for that consent needs to be one of the first lessons we teach young people when it comes to sexual education.