Last weekend, two teenage boys who were popular football players from Steubenville, Ohio, were found guilty of raping a teenage girl last summer at a party. In a culture that portrays rapists as scary men in dark alleyways, the boys and many of their friends did not identify what happened as rape and even photographed and spread images of the crime on social media.
Sadly, I am not surprised. Just upset.
In our society, speaking out about men’s violence against women can often lead to death threats. Zerlina Maxwell, a law student, writer, and political pundit, received both rape and death threats last week after stating on Fox News that giving women guns was not the way to stop rapes; teaching boys and men not to rape is the way to prevent it.
Speaking out can also mean losing your friends, as AAUW-supported plaintiff and military sexual assault survivor Kori Cioca experienced after her story and the lawsuit bearing her name made national news two years ago.
Is it any wonder so few people report sexual assault?
These types of reactions are fueled by rampant victim-blaming (including by judges) and by people (including major news network reporters) who worry disproportionately about the effect the legal penalty will have on the perpetrator rather than being concerned about the lasting impact on the survivor’s life.
I am not a survivor of sexual assault, but too many of my friends, classmates, colleagues, and family members are. Each of them has had her or his life altered in different ways because of the attacks — and not just right after the attack but for years, for decades. For some of my loved ones, the sexual assaults have also indirectly negatively affected their children, their grandchildren, their significant others, and other family members.
The lasting effect of assault is what the general public seems to not understand but should. Instead of revictimization, threats, and blame, we need to give survivors justice, peace, and safety.
While changing attitudes about sexual assault and victim-blaming will take time, one immediate step we can all take is to talk about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and consent with middle and high schoolers.
After I posted Maxwell’s story on my Facebook page, AAUW member Charmen Goehring wrote a comment: “Had chats with my boys this week about the subject and Steubenville and told them they better not ever dare act with such disrespect and stupidity. Yeah, they are only 11 and 13, but evidently, it is never too early!”
Sadly, it is never too early. These are difficult conversations, but they are essential ones.
You can also send AAUW’s report Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School to principals and guidance counselors. Schools can make a difference in teaching youth that disrespectful, harassing, and nonconsensual behavior is never OK, nor is blaming the victim or threatening people who report crimes.
This post was originally published at AAUW and it’s cross-posted here with permission