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The Answer Blog

Sexual Assault

Sex Education Must Work to Dismantle Rape Culture

June 12, 2015

I read Nicholas Kristof’s recent column “When the Rapist Doesn’t See It as Rape” with a heady mix of revulsion, familiarity and gratitude that such a widely read and respected journalist had devoted white space to this issue. Kristoff drew on Jon Krakauer’s new book Missoula to call attention to the discrepancy between the public’s perception of rapists as menacing strangers and the much more common reality of rape committed by acquaintances who often don’t perceive their actions as rape at all.

The cognitive dissonance that resides in many perpetrators’ minds is hardly news to those who have advocated, educated and fought to end rape and sexual assault for decades. This latest commentary brought to my mind a three-year-old Reddit thread in which rapists told “their side of the story.” Predictably, the collective effect of thousands of comments was chilling. Men (primarily) described plying women (nearly exclusively) with alcohol and physically overpowering them, and they excused their behavior by blaming peer pressure, biological necessity and, above all, the women they assaulted, whom they perceived as sending mixed signals.

While reading rape apologia ad nauseam can seemingly lead to nothing but despair, once you cut through the victim-blaming, I believe these accounts do a better job of laying bare the nature of our rape culture than many erudite feminist analyses. It is hard to deny the pervasiveness of gender double standards, biological determinism, slut-shaming and a good old-fashioned “boys will be boys” mentality when faced with such firsthand accounts.

So how should we respond? I believe that sexuality educators can and must play a fundamental role in dismantling rape culture by addressing these issues head on in the classroom. A good place to start is with age-appropriate discussions about gender and power. For example, educators working with elementary school students can ask students to reflect on the types of toys and clothing marketed toward boys and girls as a way to introduce the concept of gender roles and societal expectations about gender. In middle school, students will be ready for discussions about gender roles and stereotypes in friendships and romantic relationships. These conversations lay the groundwork for more detailed lessons for high school students to analyze the ways gender roles and expectations influence young people’s ability to refuse or consent to sex, negotiate condom use and set and maintain boundaries.

High-quality sex education can and should equip young people with the language and tools to understand and critique the roles of gender and power in their friendships and romantic relationships. Creating safe classroom spaces for students to explore these topics can begin to create cultural shifts in gender norms and related behaviors. Research shows that sex education that addresses gender and power is more likely to have positive sexual and reproductive health outcomes. Given that greater than ten percent of high school girls and four percent of boys report being forced to have sex, and more than 14 percent of girls and six percent of boys have experienced sexual dating violence, educators have an imperative to incorporate discussions of sexual violence into their curricula. Only by openly addressing these issues and laying bare the discrepancies and dissonance that underlie rape culture can we begin to create a new paradigm in which victims are believed, boundaries are respected and healthy relationships are established.

If you would like to learn more about teaching about healthy relationships and addressing the unique needs of boys in the sex education classroom, check out our online workshops Boys and Sex Ed and Relationship Skills for Teens.

Could Sex Ed Prevent Another Steubenville?

April 2, 2013

As a parent of a boy, I understand how some people have found sympathy in their hearts for the boys convicted of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, OH. I have to be honest, however—I have not. But I do feel strongly that what these boys did came from years of distorted cultural lessons about what it means to be a boy or man, and therefore the blame for what happened does not lie with them alone.

“Boys Will Be Boys” Hurts Us All

News coverage has posited that Steubenville was another case of “boys will be boys”—the collusive attitude that boys are uncontrollable, and therefore we should shake our heads with an appreciative smile and enjoy their rough-and-tumble way of figuring out the world.

But the typical “boys will be boys” attitude implies a passive acceptance that boys figure out on their own what it means to be male and behave accordingly. In reality, that’s not the case at all. Our culture proactively defines masculinity for boys and is deeply invested in creating so-called “real men.” Tragically, what our culture glorifies in masculinity leaves no room for teaching boys that being a “real man” means being a person of integrity who is respectful and kind. Masculinity is defined so narrowly that boys do not question whether their behavior is appropriate let alone abusive—especially when their peers are behaving the same way or cheering them on. We see this in bullying cases as well as sexual assault cases. Our culture is far more comfortable with a hyper-masculine “All American” boy who can hardly keep himself away from girls than a boy who is caring, respects boundaries or says he isn’t interested in having sex at the moment.

The Indoctrination of Boys Into Rape Culture

As the Steubenville case gained more national attention, strongly-worded messages and memes were posted on the Internet to protest rape and the attitudes that foster rape. These included, “Culture teaches women not to get raped, instead of teaching boys and men not to rape,”  “Don’t tell me how to dress, tell them not to rape” and “Real men don’t rape.” Yet what was also posted online were offensive images, such as a photograph of the Dos Equis beer’s “most interesting man in the world” character with the caption, “I don’t always rape your mom, but when I do, I don’t use a condom.” Stemming from historical, and relatively tame by comparison, insults about a person’s mother, these sentiments have morphed into abhorrent references about sexual assault.

Last year, Amazon’s UK division stocked t-shirts with the statements, “Keep calm and hit her,” “Keep calm and rape a lot,” and “Keep calm and rape me.” Although the site eventually took down the t-shirts, the fact that these t-shirts were created and posted for sale in the first place demonstrates how ubiquitous the  attitude that violence—and, in particular, violence against girls and women—is funny.  Now, I don’t think—as someone who is parenting a boy and has worked with many adolescent and teen boys-that boys are incapable of feeling sympathy and empathy. I think boys come into this world with great capacity for sensitivity and caring, and are then aggressively socialized away from having those feelings-that being emotionally intelligent is a female trait, and therefore a weakness. The result for boys is a disconnect between their actions and the consequences of those actions.

Trent Mays’ “apology” was a clear example of this:

“No pictures should have been sent out, let alone been taken.”

What is missing here is a pronoun. The photographs were not magically taken and forwarded on to others. I speculate that Mays apologized because he got in trouble and people were upset. But he did not acknowledge or own that he should not have done what he did; he should not have taken or forwarded the photographs. I also think that part of why he and Ma’lik were crying so hard in the courtroom was because they were genuinely confused by how what they did was wrong, and why what they tried to do to cover it up didn’t work. The lessons they’d received about male invincibility failed them, and the result was incomprehensible and devastating.

How Sexuality Education Can Help

Could sexuality education have prevented what happened in Steubenville?  No one knows for sure, especially in an abstinence-only-until-marriage state like Ohio where it’s highly unlikely any discussions relating to gender, gender roles and relationships would take place. But it’s not just Steubenville, and it’s not just Ohio.

Sexuality education certainly can help. But to be most effective, it must start early. Kindergarteners need to learn about maintaining and respecting others’ boundaries. Instead of just learning “no, go, tell” if they were to be touched inappropriately, children need to be clearly told, “And you should not do this to others, either.” Sexuality education in the first and second grades should include lessons about how boys and girls are similar and how they are different, and that no one has the right to put someone down for being different. Specifically, kids need to hear that it is OK if boys do not like sports and instead like music; if girls like sports instead of dolls and dresses. Sexuality education needs to extend into fourth and fifth grade with lessons about not just the physical, but also the emotional changes of puberty, which can be scary and overwhelming to boys as well as to girls. And sexuality education should continue on from there, getting into what is considered to be traditional lessons about pregnancy and STD prevention, as well as lessons about gender and relationships and much more, throughout middle and high school.

By and large, sexuality education nationwide still focuses on the needs of and issues relating to girls. This must change. Sexuality education needs to provide lessons that are designed for and include the realities that boys face, and it needs to be far more direct about how people can and should treat each other, regardless of gender. It needs to stop holding girls up to be the moral gatekeepers of their sexual interactions with others. It needs to be comprehensive in scope and must get the time in the curriculum that is required if we are hoping to change negative attitudes relating to gender and relationships. Finally, sexuality education must include training and education for parents and adult professionals who can play integral roles in ending the perpetration of gender role stereotypes and creating respectful boys and young men.

What happened in Steubenville happens far too frequently, in communities throughout the United States. It happens in urban settings, suburban settings and rural settings; it happens to girls, and it happens to boys. Incidents are reported, and they are covered up.

So Steubenville isn’t alone. Like Ma’lik and Trent, Steubenville just got caught. I hope that an enduring lesson from Steubenville is that more young people can and should have the courage to come forward. Only then will the groundswell of national motivation to end sexist attitudes and socially-endorsed misogyny continue to grow.

Moral Courage and the Penn State Child Sexual Abuse Case

November 22, 2011

I stood on the Trenton train station platform last week waiting for the 6:26 a.m. train to Washington, D.C., and found myself thinking of the 10-year-old boy enduring anal rape by an adult man in the shower in the football facility of Penn State University.

Even in the early morning darkness, I had a clear mental image of the assault described by the assistant coach who witnessed it. I had just walked by a newspaper stand blazing with headlines about the child sexual abuse charges against the man, Jerry Sandusky, Penn State’s former defensive coordinator, who has been arraigned on 40 charges related to sex crimes against boys by a grand jury in a 23-page report. University officials first ignored and then lied to the grand jury about their failure to report the child abuse to authorities.

After I boarded the train, my only thought was that it get through Pennsylvania as quickly as possible, so I could turn off the picture of the child rape. I wanted to put the horrific, immoral crime out of my mind, because it made me almost gag or cry whenever I thought of it.

Throughout history, adult men have raped male and female children. It is close to being the most heinous crime, short of taking a child’s life. Sexual abuse survivors suffer bodily invasion, loss of power and trust, and possible lasting pain and sorrow that can destroy positive feelings about sexuality. It was a horrendous story out of Penn State, and it brought back memories of the pervasive rapes by the pedophile Catholic priests.

My head had cleared by the time I arrived in D.C. to attend the 28th Annual Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, given annually by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. This year’s award went to Frank Mugisha of Uganda, who the center described as “a leading advocate fighting for equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community in Uganda and against the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which would make “homosexual activities” punishable by life in prison on the first offense and death sentence for aggravated offenses.”

Photo: Brendan O’Donnell

Photo taken of Frank Mugisha on 14 December 2009 in the House of Parliament in London.

I learned more about Mugisha’s exemplar life and work when he appeared onstage with Robert Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, his daughter, Kerry Kennedy, who is president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, and other dignitaries. He looked small and frail, but I soon learned that the only aspect about him that seems diminutive is his height. When Kerry Kennedy detailed why he had received the award, I realized that he had the heart of a lion.

“Frank Mugisha knew at 14 he was gay,” Kennedy said, “and he came out knowing full well that he was taking great personal risk, and he was going to have to suffer harassment and abuse throughout his life if he chose to remain in his homeland.”

She added that the extent of the abuse hurled at sexual minorities in Uganda is unimaginable to people living in a free society. As a result of coming out as a gay man, Mugisha has lost jobs, friends, and is estranged from his family. He was expelled from his homeland because of his advocacy, but chose to return and fight for the rights of sexual minorities — knowing that he could lose his life in the effort.

Uganda is “one of 80 countries in the world where homosexuality is criminalized and punishable by death,” Kennedy said. She estimated that while homosexuality is opposed by almost the entire society, of the “32 million people who live in Uganda, about 500,000 are undoubtedly homosexual, but only few people — one of them Frank — are willing to speak for them.”

“Frank told me that he gets up every day in a hostile climate to advocate for these persecuted people, because he believes ‘I have to do what I have to do,’” she said.

This past January, one of the other few people who did speak for gay people’s rights — Mugisha’s colleague David Kato, an advocacy and litigation officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) — was brutally murdered in his home.

“Yet Frank continues to courageously provide leadership for the movement in the face of constant death threats and in the aftermath of the ruthless killing,” Kennedy said.

Since 2007, Mugisha has led SMUG, which advocates for LGBTI rights, HIV/AIDS awareness, and support for openly gay people in the form of counseling and suicide prevention services. An important aspect of the RFK Human Rights Award is that for the next six years, the center will work with Mugisha, SMUG members, and others to advance the rights of sexual minorities in Uganda.

Not only will Mugisha go home with this beautiful honor, but he also has the promise of resources from a well-recognized nonprofit. Now he is not quite so alone. In fact, Kennedy asked everyone in the audience to stand and join her in a pledge to Mugisha, saying together in one strong voice: “You are not alone.” Chills went down my spine.

Kennedy ended her speech by referring to a lovely Africa proverb: “Plant trees when you are young, so when you are old you will enjoy their shade.” She assured the newly honored Human Rights Award Laureate that with the help of the RFK Center, he would be able to enjoy the shade of the trees they plant together.

The theme of the morning was a simple one: personal moral courage, so fundamental to Robert Kennedy’s beliefs. His daughter mentioned it, as did two other speakers who followed her to the podium: Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

In their brief congratulations, both quoted the following words of Robert Kennedy’s, because they applied to Mugisha’s life and work:

“Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their peers, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.”

These words rang in my ears as I took the train home. Unquestionably, every single adult connected with the Penn State sexual assault case failed the moral courage test that Mugisha passes each day of his life in Uganda.

Sandusky’s alleged crimes against young boys go beyond any discussion of morality and courage — and a jury of his peers will make a final determination as to his guilt or innocence. If he lived in Uganda, he probably would be hanged without any sort of a trial, because, as Kennedy told us, “most people there believe that gay men rape teenage boys.”

I wish everyone on the Penn State campus — especially the students who cheered fired head-football coach Joe Paterno — could have listened to Mugisha’s acceptance speech. He said that LGBTI rights are human rights, universal and non-negotiable. He said we must be people of good conscience who stand up and take action when we see something that is terribly wrong and hurtful to others — and that we all must celebrate moral courage wherever and whenever we find it. He assured us that even in Uganda, “Change will come.”

I was fortunate last week to see a personification of moral courage. It made the train ride home — even through Pennsylvania — much easier to bear.

“Moral Courage and the Penn State Child Sexual Abuse Case originally appeared on New Jersey Newsroom.”

A Brutal Crime Against an 11-Year-Old Girl in Texas

March 18, 2011

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An 11-year-old girl was brutally raped in November 2010 in Cleveland, Texas, a small community of 9,000 that lies about 50 miles northeast of Houston. There, according the New York Times article “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town,” the girl was gang raped by 18 young men and teenage boys, all of whom have been charged with the crime.

The suspects range in age from middle school students to a 27-year-old. Five are Cleveland High School students, including two basketball players. Another is the son of a school board member. A few men have criminal backgrounds. (The attack occurred around Thanksgiving, but the story didn’t appear in the Times until March 8.)

It is hard for me to write about this rape, because I have a granddaughter who is almost 10 years old. The girl, who survived the rape, attended Cleveland Middle School. School authorities interviewed her and her mother, and when it was determined that the gang rape had occurred, they turned the matter over to the police, because the attack hadn’t occurred “on school property.”

Some town residents’ reactions, as reported in the Times story, are shockingly unsympathetic. Although one resident said that the rape was “really tearing our community apart,” others blamed the victim, because she “dressed older than her age, [wore] makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s, and [hung] out with teenage boys at the playground.”

One of the few residents willing to speak on the record went so far as to say, “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?”

In a letter to the Times, reader Jinnie Spiegler, of Brooklyn, NY, expressed some of my outrage about this last comment. She pointed to the residents’ willingness to “subtly blame the victim” and her mother, forgetting that the victim as well as the suspects “are innocent until proved guilty.”

An 11-year-old girl’s or any woman’s dress or behavior should never be an issue in rape and sexual assault cases. This approach falls into the “she asked for it” type of wrongheaded thinking.

The girl now lives in a foster home after having been removed from her home by Child Protective Services, according to The Houston Chronicle. I hope she is receiving the appropriate counseling and care that she needs. But I am deeply concerned that she will have to relive the brutality of her experience, if or when she has to face the accused who raped her in court, testify to their cruelty, and undergo cross-examination and possible humiliation from their lawyers, who’ll be eager to keep their clients out of jail.

What’s happening in northeastern Texas to address the aftermath of this brutal crime? Are schools administrators, teachers, and community leaders using the gang rape as the “teachable moment” that it surely is? Are other middle- and high-school students learning that rape and sexual assault are illegal, unacceptable behaviors? Are all teachers receiving training, so they can effectively discuss these issues? Are they explaining that even if a girl or woman wears what might be called age-inappropriate clothing and makeup that makes them look far older than they really are, that never means they are “asking” to be raped? I wish I were confident that the town is abuzz with this type of education.

Special attention needs to be directed to young and adult men in Cleveland. I’ve always favored sex education for boys and girls in both separate and mixed-gender groups. When boys and girls are alone, they often feel freer to ask questions that they might feel embarrassed to ask in a heterogeneous group, which is good. But it is essential to have both genders discuss issues like rape together, so they can understand each other’s points of view. If sex education is started early, in elementary school, boys and girls can address subjects like rape much more comfortably as they grow into adolescence and adulthood. Silence on this topic never helps.

Males need to know that if they rape and are found guilty of the crime that they forever will be listed as “sexual predators” and be required to check in with authorities in any town in which they live. This seems to me a punishment that fits the crime, along with jail time. I wonder if the teen and adult men who raped the little girl in Cleveland knew about or understood the lifelong consequences of their actions for themselves and the victim.

Schools need to discuss consequences of sexual actions much more comprehensively than many presently do. We need to ensure that discussions of real subjects like rape are included in sex education/health courses, starting in grade school.

As for the parents in Cleveland, Texas, and elsewhere for that matter, they too need a course on rape and sexual assault prevention. They need to know how to better protect their own kids and how to counsel them about how to avoid dangerous situations.

Mothers and fathers – and if there are no males in the home, then male relatives and friends – must talk to teens and young men about the horrors and illegalities of rape.

I also hope that the community addresses the matter of blaming the girl’s mother. I would ask, “Where were the mothers of the 18 young men charged with the crime? Where were all the fathers?”

Cleveland, Texas, isn’t the only place in America that needs a re-education in how to prevent rape and treat its survivors. Schools and communities all over the country need to talk more forthrightly with young people and adults about rape and sexual assault. The President and First Lady were masterful in calling the nation’s attention to the problem of bullying, with a conference at The White House and a video in which they spoke movingly about the seriousness of the problem. Now they need to consider using the brutal crime against this 11-year-old girl in Texas to call the nation’s attention to the epidemic of rape and other sexual violence against girls and women.

To the young girl in Texas who had to experience such degradation, my concern and deepest sympathy. I hope she will never be ashamed about being repeatedly raped by those men in that house and abandoned trailer filled with trash. I am not a therapist who might counsel her to “put this awful event behind you, and go on and live your life.” I can see the sense in this point of view. But, as an educator, a parent, and a grandparent, I hope that as she grows older – and after the physical and emotional pain have healed – she will find the courage to speak out about what happened.

If she finds the courage, she will be doing other young girls like my granddaughter a real service and perhaps lessening the incidence of rape in our country.

Image from The New York Times.