It’s been a bad summer for sexual assault.
From the Stanford rape case to the 13-year-old unaccompanied girl molested on the airplane, it seems like there’s been one difficult news story after another about sexual attacks on young women. Parents are left searching for words to explain to their young daughters and sons about what it is and why it happens. Correction: we may never truly understand why it happens.
The good news is, today’s young women are more willing to come forward and accuse their attackers. While it may seem there are more cases of sexual assault, it’s actually on the decline. We’re just hearing about more reported cases than ever.
The bad news is, despite the few brave pioneers and our national awareness of the problem, rape is still the most underreported crime, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Among the general public, up to 63 percent of sexual assaults are never reported to police. On campuses, fewer than 5 percent of attempted and completed rapes are reported to campus or municipal police, according to a Department of Justice report released in 2000.
To put that in perspective, Stanford University reported a sexual assault every two weeks in the three years leading up to the case that made headlines this summer.
Closer to home, between 250 to 300 men and women visit the on-campus Women’s Resource Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee every year to talk about sexual assault, according to Media Milwaukee, a student-run news site.
How many rapes and attempted rapes went unreported? The best guess is that one in every five women in college will be sexually assaulted at some point in her college career.
There are efforts to nurture more public attention and understanding of sexual violence, beginning with the “It’s on Us” campaign that was initiated by the Obama administration. At itsonus.org, you and your teen can join celebrities, collegiate athletes and more in taking a pledge:
• To RECOGNIZE that nonconsensual sex is sexual assault
• To IDENTIFY situations in which sexual assault may occur
• To INTERVENE in situations where consent has not or cannot be given
• To CREATE an environment in which sexual assault is unacceptable and survivors are supported
Many schools, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, require incoming freshmen and transfer students to complete an online prevention program on sexual assault and dating violence. UW-Milwaukee’s program focuses on sexual assault in the context of alcohol and drug abuse, since the two are often closely linked.
One of the most touching commentaries I read after the Stanford sexual assault case came to light was an untitled blog by Kim Saumell, which included:
“I was never raped, but at my first job, a man old enough to be my father grabbed my ass while I was hostessing. Every. Week.
I was never raped, but I still check under my car and in the back seat at night before I go anywhere.
I was never raped, but I still carry my keys like spiked brass knuckles when I’m walking alone.
I was never raped, but there are things I don’t wear and places that I don’t go and things that I don’t allow myself to do because I don’t want the attention. I don’t want the consequences.
I was never raped, but I’ve seen enough news and read enough stories to know that if I am, I will have to defend every decision I’ve ever made about what I wear, how much I drink, where I go and who my friends are. And that the burden of proof will be on me. And that my word will not be enough.”
Is there any woman who can’t relate to these scenarios? Each of us has experienced the date who went too far or the customer who creeped us out with his personal comments or the stranger propositioning us from the car.
And sadly — because women are taught to be polite, not hurt someone’s feelings and not make a scene — we are worried about being rude to the very people who are molesting or harassing us. We question whether we’re interpreting the situation correctly. We second-guess our own actions and wonder if we are to blame.
This starts unfortunately young. Just go to a public place with a mature 13-year-old and you’ll catch men — not just 17-year-old boys — checking her out. It’s disconcerting and disgusting.
As the parent of a tween or teen girl, it’s your responsibility to tell her just what is and isn’t appropriate. Let her know what’s normal flirting and what crosses the line into creepy behavior. Let her know it’s OK to speak up or make a scene when it crosses that line. Tell her how to stay safe and avoid situations that could put her at risk. Teach her to keep using the buddy system and practice responsible drinking. Above all, let her know that anytime something happens, she can come to you for help.
As the parent of a tween or tween boy, it’s your responsibility to tell him that no means no, and girls can change their mind at any time. They don’t “owe” a boy anything. Teach them to respect women like they would want you or their sister to be respected. Abolish the “conquest” mentality, and tell them there is no pride in adding notches to the bedpost. Above all, teach him (and model) responsible drinking.
Whether you’re sending your child off to middle school, high school or a college dorm this fall, it’s a good time for an age-appropriate conversation.
Maureen Connors Badding is a Wauwatosa freelance writer, mom and habitual volunteer.