End sexual assault epidemic with early education

The OlympianApril 13, 2014 

FILE - Monica Lyons of Thurston County health department gives a talk on sex education at South Sound High School in 2005. (The Olympian file)


It’s not by accident that many of the events for Thurston County’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month take place on a college campus this year. One in five women nationwide are sexually assaulted at college, most often by people they know and usually at parties where drugs and alcohol are involved.

Although advocacy organizations such as Olympia’s SafePlace have made huge progress in shedding light on what constitutes rape and sexual assault, too many young women and men still enter colleges and universities without sufficient knowledge to navigate intimate relationships.

That makes young women vulnerable who are living on their own for the first time and trying to figure out the dynamics of college life. Sexual assaults on college campuses often occur while the victims are drunk, high on drugs or otherwise incapacitated.

SafePlace is helping young women in the South Sound prepare for this dangerous environment in two ways.

The 30-year-old nonprofit has recently founded SPEAK, a group of students from Thurston County high schools who discuss sexual violence issues, such as what constitutes consent, setting boundaries and the impacts of social media. It encourages the students to advocate against sexual assault at their schools.

SafePlace advocates also make presentations at high school health classes to empower young women to avoid abuse and threatening situations, and to help young men recognize when they become sexually aggressive.

Washington’s Healthy Youth Act requires public schools to provide comprehensive sex education programs that are appropriate for students of all age, gender, race, sexual orientation and disability status. We’re only one of 13 states to require that information to be medically and scientifically accurate.

Without comprehensive programs beginning in elementary school, girls and young women learn how to behave from a highly sexualized culture. And it’s not just Internet porn and popular media doing the damage. These days, even Disney Channel role models display questionable behavior and clothing choices.

The recent White House report, “Rape and sexual assault: a renewed call to action,” says that nearly half of female survivors were raped before they were 18, and that more than a third of those raped as minors were also raped as adults.

American society fosters this epidemic by sending mixed messages to formative young minds. On one hand, we want young men and women to understand that sex without consent is a crime, but these same young people can go online to ask strangers if they’re hot or not, and to learn about their bodies from fantasy images.

Suffering from this fundamental confusion, students of Steubenville (Ohio) High School, in 2012, watched as classmates repeatedly raped a young woman, who was passed out on alcohol, and posted video of the sexual assault on social media. Clearly, we need to do a better job of educating students, and earlier in their lives.

The solution may come from programs such as SPEAK expanded to middle and elementary schools. If we educate more young people early enough about healthy sexual relationships, they will one day find the courage to help end this violence.

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