Here We Go Again…and Again…

I hate that I have to discuss this…again. Within the past couple weeks, more Steubenville-like rape cases have emerged into the public eye; however, sadly, these most recent cases have more unfortunate – and devastating – endings.

Last week, Rehtaeh Parsons, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, committed suicide. She was only 15 years old. She was gang raped at a party by four other teenage classmates over a year ago. Since then, Rehtaeh suffered not only due to the trauma of being raped, but because she was continually cyber-bullied by classmates. The rape was documented by the perpetrators who shared the photos across the internet; however, the police could not find “enough evidence” to arrest anyone. Rehtaeh lost her friends, and had to leave her school. Since the news has hit social media, Anonymous and other online activists have called for action to be taken agains Rehtaeh’s rapists; while, her mother, Leah Parsons, has asked that no one causes any more violence or harm. Thankfully, the last I read, law enforcement in Nova Scotia was looking into re-opening the case.

A similar incident occurred in Saratoga, California in September 2012. Audrie Pott, 15 years old, committed suicide after being sexually assaulted by three boys who later distributed explicit photos of her around their high school. The three boys were finally arrested last week after almost seven months of police investigation that involved interviews with Audrie’s high school classmates and subpoenas of cell phone records. Audrie’s parents are pushing for them to be prosecuted as adults. The family’s attorney was reported saying, “We’re talking about, other than murdering someone, the highest degree of a crime you could possibly do, which is to violate them in the worst of ways…and then to effectively rub her face in it afterwards.” From what I have gathered, Audrie’s family did not know about the assault until after it happened and her friends revealed the information. Prior to her death, pictures had been shared over the internet and Audrie shared on Facebook that her “life was ruined” since her entire high school knew about the incident. The assault occurred when Audrie stayed the night at a friend’s house for a sleepover when their were no parents or other adults present. Alcohol is also reported to have played a part in the case.

Jane Doe of Steubenville, Rehaeh Parsons, and Audrie Pott’s stories are devastating. It’s clear to me that cases like this have always happened; however, today social media adds an additional layer of humiliation.

In addition to all three cases have social media involved, there are other similarities. All cases happened within a social setting, with little or no parental or adult supervision, and the presence of alcohol. Already, and with little surprise, I’ve heard and read people’s comments saying that the girls were “party animals” or “promiscuous” or “knew what they were getting into.”

I think it’s time to stop this kind of language and to start educating our children and adults about rape culture, what consent looks like, medically-accurate sex education, and respect for all human beings.

It’s clear to me that we are not on this path when I hear stories of people like Pam Stenzel slut-shaming female high schoolers about being sexually active by saying:

“I could look at any one of you in the eyes right now and tell if you’re going to be promiscuous”

This kind of information being fed to high schoolers is part of the rape culture problem and it needs to stop.

A call for more comprehensive sex ed

An externality is a cost or benefit which results from an activity or transaction and which affects an otherwise uninvolved party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit.

As I have been researching domestic violence, sexual assault, rape and other forms of violence against women, I have been searching for a “root” or for a common factor that could be used to alleviate this issue.

For me, the Steubenville case has highlighted the external factor that contributes to high rates of violence toward women in our society.

The Steubenville case focused on children. Children who were glorified because they were boys and good athletes living in a small town. Children who were taught the bare minimum about sex from the public school teachers. Children who’s parents probably never sat down with them and explained what rape is. Of course, their fathers and others surely told them never to hit a girl, but did they advise them not to rape one? Doubtful. (I acknowledge that I’m making assumptions here.)

From my experience in public schools, sex education is minimal, awkward, and ineffective. Aside from showing pictures of herpes as a form of – hopefully – scaring students away from sex, many schools not only allow students to opt out of sex ed, they teach abstinence-only sex and fail to provide contraceptive protection or tell students how to access it themselves.

If many schools (and I don’t have stats for this) are only teaching abstinence, I wonder what information students are missing out on?

  • They miss out on learning about protection and how to use it effectively (i.e. condoms, birth control, Plan B, etc.)
  • They miss out on learning how to identify the signs of an STI and how to avoid it
  • They miss out on learning what happens to their bodies when they get pregnant
  • They miss out on learning what happens to their lives socially and economically when they have a child
  • They miss out on learning what consent looks like
  • They miss out on learning how alcohol and other drugs affect a person’s ability to make decisions
  • They miss out on learning what the consequences are of raping or sexually violating another person
  • They miss out on learning that what a person wears is not an indication that they are looking for sex

Imagine if American students started learning about these things in school? I’m a strong believer in the saying, “Those who know better, do better.” Studies show that children who learn about sex and how to protect themselves are less likely to engage in sexual intercourse, and if they do they are more likely to use protection. However, when a child is taught abstinence-only sex education, they are more at risk of becoming pregnant and contracting a STI.

What if schools started having conversations about rape too?

We’re lying if we say that teenagers aren’t experimenting with drugs, alcohol, and sex.

If we’re honest with ourselves and each other, then we should be able to acknowledge that students need to learn about rape and sexual assault at an early age in order to be able to stand up for themselves and others and know that it is wrong to rape.

I believe that if we started with the schools by revitalizing sex education and incorporating information about rape and sexual assault, within a generation the number of rapists and rape victims would decrease. We would not only be reducing the number of potential rapists in our society, but we would be arming young people with knowledge of what rape is. This could empower future generations to stand up and speak out.

As one blogger – who is also a teacher – describes: children are ready and eager to learn and they are paying attention to what the media says. It’s our responsibility to engage them and show them in the classroom what consent is.

Nonprofits committed to advocating for more comprehensive sex ed are beginning to crop up in our country. One nonprofit – TellThem, SC! – has done research throughout South Carolina and found that sex ed is lacking due to abstinence-only education and lack of accountability among health educators. Because of this SC has an average of 21 teen pregnancies per day and higher than the national average of STIs (2011). SCCADVASA reports that South Carolina ranks #2 in the country for the highest number of women killed by men; their teen dating and sexual violence statistics are equally horrifying. I have no doubt that better sex education could contribute to lowering this staggering numbers.

South Carolina is just one example. It would be interesting to see if there is a correlation between high rates of teen pregnancies, STI, sexual violence, etc. and the quality of sex ed programs in other states.

Regardless, knowledge is power, and people need to learn at younger ages how to protect themselves and how not to rape.

Thoughts?