Misinformation, willful blindness and squeamishness have all conspired to keep America’s pandemic of sexual violence off the radar for many years. Thankfully, recent months have seen awareness of this issue explode into the mainstream, generating new discussions and a host of potential solutions.
When it comes to an issue like this, nearly anything that helps drive us toward progress should be considered a plus — even the “bad publicity.” Case in point: Sexual assault is visible on college campuses like never before. But now that we’ve got the beast cornered in the college setting, it’s time to turn our attention to an even younger group of Americans.
What Are We Doing About It?
It’s true — sexual assault is now a mainstream issue. And now, thanks to that newfound visibility in news cycles and in student union halls, we’re now approaching a firm understanding of the scope of the problem: 23% of women report sexual assault in college. That’s more than one in five women.
If you’ve been following along, however, you understand that the “reported” instances of sexual assault are just the tip of a very large iceberg. For every story that breaks into the headlines, perhaps a dozen more go unreported — either by the victim or by pundits. According to the Department of Justice, as many as 80 percent of rapes on college campuses are met with stony silence.
We have a heck of a lot of work to do, but the good news is that some of it is already being done. Unfortunately, some of the so-called solutions are nothing of the kind.
Take, for example, Stanford University’s tone-deaf response to a rash of sexual assaults on its own campus. Its new rule effectively protects rapists and would-be rapists by condemning alcohol and party culture generally, instead of doing the rational thing: blaming the rapists for their actions.
And that’s been the rallying cry all along for the likes of Brock Turner and other degenerates: It was the alcohol’s fault, not mine. It was the party’s fault. It was her fault for dressing like that. And we seem to be buying it, because Brock isn’t rotting in a jail cell right now.
The federal government is, thankfully, taking things a bit more seriously than Stanford’s board of directors. The Justice Department has busied itself providing grants to schools to help them reduce instances of sexual and domestic violence. It’s actually part of a long-running program set up under the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.
The goal of these grants is to help build prevention programs, train staff and law enforcement officers on how to respond to sexual violence, and create a general atmosphere of accountability across college communities when the worst happens.
In 2013, another legislative milestone was reached when President Obama signed an extension of the VAWA, called the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, or SaVE. Part of what makes SaVE’s approach unique, and particularly timely, is its focus on “bystander intervention.” Like the fabled “good Samaritan law,” it’s exactly what it sounds like, and it’s exactly what we need: the responsibility that comes with knowledge. We all know this is a problem, and we all have a responsibility to speak up if we witness something amiss.
Getting Started Earlier
Naturally, no Congressional gesture, and no single school, is going to defeat this problem on its own. We’re also not going to see improvements until we expand the scope of the conversation to include high school, and even middle school. Too often, behaviors that are left unattended in high school, or troubled students who don’t receive the attention or direction they need, grow up to become Brock Turners in college.
Modern universities are often called “hunting grounds” for sexual predators, but predators aren’t born — they’re made. And middle schools and high schools make for some pretty effective crucibles when it comes to churning out would-be predators. If college is a hunting ground, high school is a training ground.
A current frontrunner in targeting primary education for intervention is the state of Massachusetts, and Attorney General Maura Healey. A program called “Game Change” saw 90 Massachusetts schools adopt anti-dating violence programs in 2015. A major part of this program, called Mentors in Violence Prevention, seeks to spread the word about what healthy relationships actually look like in practice, and both inspire and empower younger students to spot risky relationships before they become physically dangerous. The general effect is that students are now better equipped to intervene if they or their friends are courting danger — something that the abovementioned college programs struggle with.
Clearly, we need to start even younger, and the first step is to stop pretending sex doesn’t exist around school-aged children. If we don’t help these kids wrap their heads around it when they first become physically ready to experience it, we’ve already failed them.
In other words, college is already too late for intervention. Even in high school, rape prevention programs grow less effective with each passing year, as students’ brains become less and less plastic and they’re less amenable to correction.
As of right now, more than 25 states have passed laws mandating sexual assault education in public schools. Federal laws encourage programs of this nature, but it’s not mandatory on a national level. Progress is slow, but measurable — and that’s an encouraging sign for things to come.
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