Tools for Teens to Call Out Sexual Violence

Tools for Teens to Call Out Sexual Violence


I was making lunch when my 17-year-old son sat down at the kitchen table. “Hey Mom, is this real?” he asked, and showed me an Instagram post that read: “97% of young women have experienced sexual harassment. If you are surprised, then you’re probably not listening.”

I asked to take a closer look and he handed me his phone. The statistic wasn’t completely accurate but it was close. It was pulled from a British study that found that among women aged 18 to 24, 86 percent had been harassed in public spaces, 3 percent didn’t recall ever having experienced sexually harassing behavior, and 11 percent chose not to answer the question. There was more to the post; when I swiped left, it demanded: “Boys do better.”

“What do I do with that?,” my son asked. “What does that mean?”

It was a good question.

Posts like the one my son showed me have been all over social media since the death of Sarah Everard, the young British woman who was kidnapped and killed several weeks ago (a police officer has been charged).

As a high school sex educator, working both in person and remotely as a national consultant, I talk to young people all over the country. The posts they see include statistics about sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape that my students describe as “devastating” and “terrifying.”

When I asked some of my students and other teens I know about the statement “Boys do better,” several boys said they felt “attacked” or “hopeless” because it feels as if they are being accused of perpetrating crimes they haven’t committed. Many say they consider themselves a “good guy” and want to help, but don’t know how.

According to another survey, this one done in the United States, 87 percent of 18- to 25-year-old women reported having experienced sexual harassment. The report found that 76 percent of respondents (72 percent male, 80 percent female) had never had a conversation about how not to harass, or express other forms of misogyny. The National Violence Resource Center concluded that one in four girls and one in six boys is sexually abused by the age of 18. We also know that boys experience sexual abuse not only at the hands of men, but in some cases, girls and women. And a large number of those who experience sexual assault are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

So, yes, sexual violence is a significant problem. Chalina Morgan-Lopez, 17, from Raleigh, N.C., who told me she had been repeatedly harassed and grabbed at school, said: “It made me feel powerless and like an object. I felt uncomfortable and unsafe in my classes with my harassers.”

When I teach, there are certain questions about sexual assault that teenagers always ask. They want to know, “How do I keep myself safe?” “How can I be a supportive friend and ally?” They also want to know, “What’s the deal with drunk sex?” Here are some answers to those questions.

Promote respect

Speak up about objectifying and dehumanizing language, whether in the media or in school hallways. During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016, he dismissed his vulgar comments about grabbing women as “locker room banter.” The incident heightened awareness of the way that talking about women as sex objects normalizes sexual harassment and may contribute to sexual assault.

Amanda Ehrenhalt, a 16-year-old who lives in Philadelphia and plays field hockey and track and field, said, “Locker room talk isn’t made up. It’s for real. As an athlete who is around other athletes, I hear it all of the time.” If you hear someone talking about sex in a demeaning way, you might say, “Hey, let’s keep it respectful,” or “What do you mean by that?”

Take care of yourself

As you go through adolescence, it’s important to understand consent. Your body and sexuality belong to you. Just because you say yes to one form of sexual activity, doesn’t mean you’ve said yes to another. You and your partner have to agree about what you’re doing together and whether to take things to a new level. You also have the right to change your mind at any time and choose not to move on or even to stop the activity altogether.

If you choose to be sexual with someone else, know how to manage what’s going on. You can say “No,” “This is making me uncomfortable,” or “Let’s go back to what we were doing before.” If you don’t feel you can say something directly, you can make up an excuse: “I forgot that I’m supposed to be home early — I have to go.” If the person you are with continues to try and persuade you or is just not listening, you can say, “If you continue you will be assaulting/raping me.”

We all deserve to be treated with dignity and enjoy our romantic and sexual relationships with others. If you are sexually active, you have to ask the person you’re with to make sure your interactions are welcome, and keep on asking. It can be as simple as, “you good?” or “this OK?” Pressuring, manipulating, pushing or talking someone into saying yes to sexual activity is not a “yes” or consent. It is coercion and potentially illegal.

Remember that federal law recognizes that someone who is incapacitated by alcohol or drugs is legally incapable of giving consent. Each state has its own laws, as well.

Put simply, getting someone drunk so they will have sex with you could land you with a criminal charge or in jail.

And, if you are the one who is assaulted, no matter what choices you make, what you are wearing or consuming, it is not your fault.

Step in to help others

There are several ways to be a supportive friend or an ally to someone who has experienced sexual harassment or assault. They include raising awareness, speaking up when you see or hear suspicious, risky or dangerous behavior and being compassionate to survivors.

Ramis Banuri, 19, of Salt Lake City, Utah, said he speaks up whenever he can, and tries to get others to do the same. “People don’t necessarily want to intervene because there’s this notion that it’s not your business and they don’t want to embarrass themselves if they misread a situation, he said. “I tell them ‘would you rather be embarrassed for a moment about a small situation that nobody will really remember, or be sorry because you were right and could have prevented someone from getting hurt?’”

Bystander intervention is a strategy for preventing harassment and assault from happening or continuing. The goal is to disrupt what feels like a loaded moment before things can escalate. Every situation is different and there is no single way to intervene, but here are some guidelines from the Green Dot program, a widely used bystander intervention training system, which encourages people to act using what are called the Three Ds.

Direct intervention is straightforward. If someone uses sexist language or makes someone uncomfortable with sexual comments or jokes, you could say, “Hey, that’s making people uncomfortable — that’s harassment. Stop.” Or “You’ve had way too much to drink. You’re in no shape to even think about hooking up — let’s get you home.”

You can also interrupt a risky dynamic with a distraction. If someone is making another person uncomfortable with their attention, you could say, “Hey, the guys are looking for you downstairs. Let’s go see what’s up.”

In other situations, you may delegate to someone else who has more training, authority or social leverage and may be more effective at intervening.

If you see someone you don’t know well acting inappropriately, tell the people they came with and encourage them to intervene. If you witness a couple fighting and it seems to be getting physical, find a trusted adult or authority figure, or call the police.

If you or a friend are harassed or assaulted, the National Sexual Assault Hotline can provide information and guidance.

Ms. Morgan-Lopez took steps to be proactive: “I began by forming a small group of students at my school who were also passionate about targeting this issue, and we connected with local organizations who offered us trainings in sexual assault.”

Mr. Banuri also had training through a peer-led sex education program. He said what inspires him is knowing that “I am doing the right thing — that reaffirms my values: community, connection, family and friendship. That’s affirming and strong — helping people stay safe.”

Shafia Zaloom is the author of “Sex, Teens and Everything in Between.”

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