Caption: She was on her own, so I made my move… and told the guys hassling her to back off. They were really crossing the line. (Taken from the ad campaign Make Your Move! in response to Missoula being named the “rape capital of the US”. It’s definitely an interesting twist, I think!)
“They grab you, touch your butt and try to, like, touch you in the front, and run away, but it’s okay, I mean… I never think it’s a big thing because they do it to everyone,” said a 13-year-old girl as part of a new study examining why 60% of sexual violence incidents go unreported.
The answer turned out to be as simple and as disturbing as the 13-year-old’s statement: It’s because teen girls “regard sexual violence against them as normal,” the researchers reported.
Why would teen girls think violence against them was normal? The researchers found four trends among all the teens’ answers. First, the girls believed that men are unable to control themselves and so it’s the girl’s job to endure, ignore or deflect unwanted sexual advances. The girls also didn’t understand what sexual violence was, thinking it was only heterosexual forcible rape. In addition, they reported not trusting male authority figures and worried that other girls would label them a “whore” or “slut” if they made it into a big deal.
Caption: He was acting all sweet, offering her a ride… but it just didn’t feel right. So my friends and I stepped in and got her out of the bar.
While this is sad it’s not exactly surprising, especially considering the way sexual violence is portrayed on TV – emphasis on the sexy. Consider the most recent episode of HBO’s juggernaut Game of Thrones where Jaime (spoiler alert) rapes his sister Cierse next to the corpse of their dead son. The fact that I don’t even watch this show (never have) and yet still know every detail shows how broadly the controversy has escalated. Apparently the scene hit a nerve not because of the incest, the crypt-sex, the inbred kid or even the rape itself but rather because they’d taken a sex scene that was consensual in the books (didn’t read those either) and made it rape in the show.
Even worse was director Alex Graves explanation of his decision to make the rape scene, saying, “It becomes consensual by the end because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle.” But there was nothing ambiguous about the scene. Cersei tries to fight off her brother and screams no all the way through it – so if Graves was attempting to show consensual sex then his skill as a director (and possibly a human being) is sorely lacking. But really I don’t care about Game of Thrones (sorry not sorry) nor some director’s artistic vision/attention grab. The real victims here aren’t fictional characters, they’re the very real teens who watch the show and come away thinking this is what romance looks like. If grown adults can’t even articulate what constitutes sexual violence, how do we expect teens to?
Betsy Crane, Ph.D., a human sexuality professor at Widener University, said in an interview I did with her for Shape on this subject that while many teens are missing formal sex ed, they are certainly getting a sexual education – from the media. “I see the primary problem affecting youth in our society as the duplicity around sex. They are inundated by media images of sex, many of which are of females in sexy poses and clothes, wanting or acting in ways that get male attention. All too many of these feature males treating females badly.” She points out that even though teens see hundreds of these images every day, many adults still have a “no talk rule” around sex and kids are often discouraged from asking questions or commenting on the content of sexual images.
Crane says that in order to have an open, meaningful, honest conversation about sex with teens, adults first need to get over themselves. “With so many adults afraid to talk about sex, teens are left on their own to try to figure it out.” And, Crane points out, the study shows that what teen girls are “figuring out” is that it’s normal for girls to be abused by boys.
But what about the boys? The study didn’t look at teen boys’ attitudes towards sexual violence but this cultural attitude has to be seeping down to them as well – and I would say is ultimately as harmful to them as it is to girls. We’re doing all our kids a grave disservice by not teaching them that sexual assault is not sexy.
Past initiatives have focused on teaching teen girls about domestic violence in sex ed classes and showing them how to speak up for their wants and needs, but what may make the most difference, according to the researchers, is simply getting to girls (and I’d add boys) at a younger age. Parents and trusted authority figures have a responsibility to teach both girls and boys that sexual violence is not acceptable—before media and societal norms give the impression that it is.
So how young is that? I remember the first time one of my sons asked me what rape was after hearing the word used in a news report on NPR. But even more I remember the look of horror on his 9-year-old face when I explained to him – in very simple terms – what it was. At the time I was kicking myself for not paying more attention to the morning news while I cooked breakfast as certainly he was too young to think about this stuff but maybe he wasn’t. The experts said that it depends on each individual child but it’s better to have the discussion too early than too late. “When it comes to sexual assault, the sooner we empower young women and men with agency and information, the better.” Which is kind of a sucky way of saying “They’re going to see it sooner rather than later so you’d best prepare them for it.”
What do you think – does this study surprise you or confirm what you already know? Do you watch GOT – what were your feelings about that episode? What do you think of this ad campaign – good way to talk about helping stop sexual violence or does it, as some suggest, infantilize women and make it look like we can’t take care of ourselves?
Caption: A girl that wasted is way easy to hook up with… so I made sure her friends got her out of there. She was in no shape to be going home with some guy.