When engaging in conversations about campus assault awareness, we cannot limit it to higher education and college campuses.
TW/CW: This essay contains extensive discussion of sexual violence involving minors, including mentions of r/pe.
On June 10, a high school valedictorian had her mic cut off during her commencement ceremony speech. Lulabel Seitz tried to speak about a toxic culture at Petaluma High School in Northern California, but she was silenced in the very moment that she intended to expose the school’s practice of silencing victims of campus sexual assault.
Some of her classmates, as appalled and incensed as she was no doubt, began a chant in support of Seitz, “let her speak!” they cried out, standing to their feet and applauding her courage. Eventually, she gave up and returned to her seat. The administration did not allow her to finish her speech.
Sexual violence on campus prior to college is a serious issue that even those who are committed to combating rape culture and sexual assault on campuses don’t address often enough. Seitz has a damn good point about her high school and countless others.
By The Numbers
According to an exclusive list obtained by America Tonight from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in 2014, 23 school districts in the US have been under investigation for Title IX violations since at least a 2010. Title IX protections are part of a federal civil rights law which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex (gender) in educational programs and activities receiving federal funding, addressing “sexual harassment, sexual violence, or any gender-based discrimination that may deny a person access to educational benefits and opportunities.” In September of last year, Betsy DeVos announced that the Trump Administration would roll back some of these protections in the current President’s unending effort to undo everything that was solidified under the Obama Administration.
U.S. public schools recorded 4,200 sexual assaults in the 2009-2010 academic school year, according to the annual schools crime report by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. These are just the recorded cases, and since about half of survivors actually report incidents of rape and since some schools handle these situations poorly, the number is likely far higher.
In a given school year, an estimated 58 percent of 7th through 12th graders experience some form of sexual violence, especially sexual harassment. A 2011 study published by the American Association of University Women investigated the pervasiveness of sexual violence in both middle and high school. Their findings showed:
- Aside from being called “gay” as an insult, girls were more likely to experience all other forms of sexual harassment
- In the 2010-2011 academic year, 13% of girls reported that they had been inappropriately touched in an “unwelcome sexual way”
- In that same year, 4% reported being forced to perform a sexual act
- 1 in 20 girls who have been sexually harassed transfer to a different school each year in hopes of avoiding the torment
Other studies have found further upsetting evidence of the epidemic of sexual assault among youth. Detailed in a report from the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CCASA), a study published in J Youth Adolescence journal in 2009, found that 1 in 5 high school girls have been sexually assaulted on campus. The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 1 in 8 high school girls report having been raped, and the CDC’s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that 10.5% of high school girls and 4.2% of high schools boys reported that they had been forced into sex at least once.
Sexual violence among children begins earlier than most would like to admit, and we are doing them and ourselves an unthinkable disservice if we do not openly acknowledge this and commit to actively combating it. As someone who was sexually harassed with suggestive and explicit comments, as well as sexually assaulted in the form of aggressive groping, grabbing, squeezing, and other violations of my body as early as middle school, I am a witness and I am willing to testify to it. Always.
Why it Continues and How Adults are Failing Students
We are failing these students in significant and abundant ways. Schools rarely even discuss sex at all, thanks to ineffective abstinence only sex education. This makes it impossible for them to discuss what sexual violence looks like, because students have not been permitted to engage in thoughtfully facilitated conversations with and among their peers about what sexual health looks like in the first place. If we do not begin having important conversations about sexual health and sexual violence with students prior to college, we are effectively allowing damage to already be done by the time they even begin their first college application.
Teens and pre-teens are especially vulnerable to these violations due to lack of autonomy. Both at home and in school, they are typically viewed as uninformed adolescents without the ability to make decisions for themselves. This in turn can make them more susceptible to peer pressure, especially those who have a lack of support from those in power, as well as those who feel unsupported by the institution as a whole.
Many young girls, out of fear of punishment from parents and/or authority figures, stay silent if there were drugs or alcohol involved when they were assaulted, or if they were breaking the rules in another way, like attending a house party, loitering in a forbidden spot, or were out past curfew. The fear of being reprimanded and blamed for one’s own sexual assault can be too heavy for even adults.
The politics of school culture can be as paralyzing as the politics of home, if not more so, and are another added pressure for those who have been violated. With the looming possibility of not being believed, blamed, or being effectively silenced, many do not want to point fingers at the “cool” or popular kids. Perpetrators of violence are often well aware of this, sometimes using their clout to shame and silence their victims, and there is less institutional support for victims in grade school than there is in college.
What girls experience instead is institutionally-sanctioned slut-shaming and victim-blaming. Sexist dress codes perpetuate and are even foundational to rape culture in schools. Faculty are encouraged to and routinely do have girls sent to detention or suspended because of their clothing, with the unconvincing explanation that what they are wearing is a “distraction” to male students and even teachers. Girls, and those assumed to be girls, are regularly removed from spaces of learning for simply existing in their bodies, and this becomes the root of lifelong anxieties about their appearance and guilt complexes about bodily violations at the hands of others.
This ideology enforced by academic institutions instills into students the concept that the bodies of girls, and those assumed to be girls, are to be objectified. It constructs them as belonging to and existing for the male gaze and indoctrinates students of all genders into a mentality that continuously places blame and seeks to inflict punishment on these particular students for the way they dress. It is because of beliefs like these that rape survivors systematically face interrogation about their style of dress when they were violated and it is often used as justification, framing the “immodestly” dressed as deserving of the violence they endured.
This is what we call rape culture, or at least it is a small part of it. Another part includes male entitlement to affection and sex from girls and women, and the idea that these girls and women are disposable commodities. All told, rape culture perpetuates a system of violence.
This year, a Texas-based school shooter killed 10 people, including the girl who turned down his advances, echoing the 2014 murder rampage of incel Elliot Rodger who went on a shooting spree in the Santa Barbara college town because he was angry about still being a virgin and blamed women for his situation. Mass shootings like these are often a vestige of campus rape culture and toxic masculinity, and should be counted as symptomatic of our societal failures in education youth about consent.
Considering Their Perspective
With white feminism’s recent co-opting of Tarana Burke’s “Me Too” war cry, and before that, documentaries like The Hunting Ground, campaigns like It’s On Us, and powerful protests like the student who hauled the mattress that she was raped on around campus for months after her rapist was not expelled and even carried it to her graduation ceremony, talk about sexual violence on college campuses (and in the workplace) is far more prevalent in larger social conversations.
Even so, middle school and high school students are seeing that even in spaces where the fight is far more visible, it doesn’t always bring due justice. They are unfortunately witnessing the lack of accountability for college-aged perpetrators of sexual violence, while also hearing talking points from those who perpetuate a common myth about rape; that is something that only happens via physical force.
Brock Turner was convicted of three felony charges after raping an unconscious 19-year-old known as Emily Doe. This conviction should have carried at least a 14-year sentence, but in the end, Turner only served 3 months, thanks in large part to his father’s advocacy, judge and defense attorney’s sheer lack of human decency, and, of course, wealthy white male privilege. The only satisfying thing about this horrible miscarriage of justice is that a college textbook, Introduction to Criminal Justice: Systems, Diversity, and Change, now uses Turner’s mugshot and the story of Emily Doe in its definition of rape.
The Role and Ruthlessness of Social Media
The case of Emily Doe is lamentably only one of several high-profile sexual violence cases in recent years in which the future and “potential” of the perpetrators were considered more important than the safety of the survivors, even in cases where the assault was captured on camera and documented on social media. Steubenville, Ohio was the setting of one of the most talked about rape cases in recent memory. In 2012, two popular football players — Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, 17 and 16-years-old respectively — were charged with the rape and kidnapping of a 16-year-old girl after several videos and images of them handling her unconscious body were posted to social media. Mays was also charged with disseminating nude photos of a minor.
When the story initially broke about the rape in the small town, the media, townspeople, administrators, and law enforcement alike were disgustingly open about their willingness to blame the girl for the violence she experienced, as well as their hesitancy to “ruin” the futures of two bright and talented athletes.
The two were eventually convicted, with Mays being sentenced to at least two years and Richmond at least one year. After serving only 10 months in a juvenile detention facility, Richmond was accepted to Youngstown State University, but was denied one year of football eligibility due to his rape charge. He sued them to be able to play football again and won.
A 16-year-old girl named Jada had her rape go viral in 2014. She didn’t know that she had been assaulted at a party until her friends started to check on her and she saw photos of herself unconscious, half-naked, and sprawled on the floor make the rounds on social media. It became a grotesque meme, with teenagers recreating the photo with the hashtag #JadaPose and laughing about the incident.
Daisy Coleman and her family ultimately had to flee Maryville, Missouri in 2012 after she, then 14, accused a 17-year-old senior athlete of sexual assault. After months of relentless victim-blaming and threats on social media, the charges were inexplicably dropped by the prosecutors with no explanation.
Social media can be an amazing and useful tool because of its ability to amplify voices and spread information fast, but when what it amplifies and spreads is abhorrent victim-blaming, death threats, mocking hashtags and memes, and even documentation of sexual violence, that is an indictment of us and our failures.
What We Can Do
Be like Lulabel Seitz, who eventually uploaded the entirety of her speech to YouTube because she refuses to stay quiet. Be like Emily Doe, who wrote a letter detailing her ordeal and read it aloud in court as a way to reclaim her voice. Be like Jada, who in the face of a hashtag meant to mock her, launched a hashtag of her own, #IAmJada, to amplify her story, and in doing so gave others the courage to speak up as well.
Do not stay silent. All of those who are able, speak up.
Remember that many middle school and high school students can and do experience a lack of support at home and in school, and are routinely slut-shamed in those very spaces by peers and adults alike. Commit to challenging the normalization of this. Speaking up means calling out your family members, your colleagues, your neighbors, your friends, your enemies, and yourself in the moments when it is necessary.
Here’s the truth: the adult or young person that you confront might challenge you back. They might retaliate and resist. They might get angry and dismissive. You may feel unsuccessful in your attempt, but consider the fact that you said something. You actively tried to protect a child and they witnessed you do it. They will remember, they will know that they have an advocate and perhaps a confidant, and they may even begin the work unlearning falsehoods that they have internalized.
If you have kids or are around kids, have these conversations in front of them and with them. Talk to the teens and pre-teens in your life about sexual violence, and talk to young children about respecting others’ bodies. Do not wait for them to come to you. Actively check in. Actively teach about consent. Actively humanize girls and other non-boys because the goal of misogyny is to dehumanize.
When engaging in conversations about campus assault awareness, we cannot limit it to higher education and college campuses, as it is currently in the dominant discussions. We need to be interrogating all educational systems, especially the spaces that are so often overlooked.
Middle school and high school experiences, and the social restrictions and permissions during the time spent there, become part of the foundation that college-aged students rest their ideologies on. If we are serious about this fight to end rape culture and campus sexual assault, then it is imperative that we commit to raising more awareness of and pouring more resources into addressing the sexual violence happening on these campuses.
– With contributions by Monica Cadena
This article is part of #DishonorRoll, a collaborative media project dedicated to covering responses to sexual assault on college and university campuses in partnership with The Media Consortium and Bitch Media.