As a young woman in high school, I engaged in sexual acts that I didn’t necessarily want to do. This wasn’t just out of pressure—though that component definitely existed—but it was also due to a curiosity about sex. Lacking any sort of community or safe place in which I could discuss female sexuality and my own desire within that sexuality, I was left to my own devices to figure out what it was all about.
Participating in behavior I didn’t necessarily understand, I let the boy I was dating convince me that it was appropriate. I’m not alone in this either. Almost half of teens in Liz Claiborne Inc.’s “Teen Relationship Abuse Survey” in 2006 said they’ve done sexual acts that compromised their own values in order to please their partner.
Many people cite their preference to live in small communities because of the safety factor. Often it’s easy to feel as if you can trust everyone around you—whether it’s church, work, or school, most feel secure with their fellow small-town patrons.
There’s nothing wrong with trusting your small (or large) community. In fact, there’s a lot of harm done to the human psyche when life is lived in fear, and I don’t recommend that lifestyle for anyone. Yet, when 1 in 5 female high school students report being physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner, we must stop assuming that no harm will come to our children and teens just because we live in well protected communities.
Last Wednesday I spoke at Iowa Mennonite School’s morning chapel about sexualized violence and rape, as well as the importance of awareness and why Our Stories Untold is needed in the Mennonite, and broader Christian, community. A little wary of potential parents or educators saying, “Why on earth are you telling our children about these horrid things?” I was relieved to receive positive affirmation for what I shared.
From experience I know there are some parents out there who are thinking “Don’t fill my daughter with fear of rape!” or “Don’t take away my sons innocence by telling him these horrible statistics.” But the fact is that our teens already know these things happen—it’s in the news constantly and unfortunately they or their peers have experienced it. Therefore, it’s now up to us to teach them how to frame sexualized violence. And we can’t do that if we don’t talk about it.
Teen dating abuse is common and can be a number of things, including:
- A partner exerting power over a significant other through verbal, emotional, physical, or sexualized abuse—or any combination of those.
- A partner pressuring another into any sort of sexual or physical act that the other is not comfortable with. This can include unwanted tickling or hugging, kissing, wrestling, unwanted sexual comments, any sort of unwanted sexual contact, and a refusal to stop unwanted intercourse (which is called date rape).
- A partner who consistently lies, gives the silent treatment, shows extreme jealously, issues insults and put downs, dictates how the other dresses or where they go, keeps the other away from personal interests, or consistently breaks promises.
- Abuse happens regardless of gender or sex. It can happen towards self-identified males or females, or whether a person is gay or straight.
That same Liz Claiborne survey sited that 1 in 4 teens reported pressure to date, while 14 percent said they would do almost anything to keep a boyfriend and girlfriend. Me Ra Koh, author of Beauty Restored: Finding Life and Hope After Date Rape, bravely tells her story of how a young, Christian man who she was dating as a first year in college date-raped her. Documenting her healing process, she explains her story of becoming trapped in a controlling and isolating relationship, an experience that is all too common for young women in high school and college.
Teen females must understand what it is to be a strong woman—how they can take control of their own bodies, their own decisions, and their own destinies. Teen males need to understand what it is to respect women, what jokes are appropriate and which are not. When 33 percent of 16 to 18-year-olds—and 31 percent of teens who had been in a serious relationship—reported that sex is expected as a part of a serious relationship, there is a disconnect in what youth are learning is appropriate dating behavior for who they are as an individual.
Our current method of teaching denial when it comes to sexualized violence, or that rape cases are black and white, is not working.
- We need to start talking about sex, both the pleasurable aspects of it and the fearful parts of it.
- We need to teach both boys and girls that lack of consent—even when a clear “no” isn’t stated—does not equal consent. Verbally chiding someone into doing something is absolutely not appropriate behavior, and it’s just as detrimental as physically bulldozing someone into doing something they’re not ready or interested in.
- We must reiterate to teens that sexual assault, rape, or abuse is not a joke. There’s nothing funny about it. When someone feels ripped off, saying they were “raped” is only making the crime less serious in nature. And even participating in jokes through texts, emails, or videos when all your friends are doing it, too, is still not acceptable.
- Both girls and boys need to understand slut-shaming. Even if they think a woman is a “slut” and dresses provocatively, she’s still a person who does not deserve to be raped or abused in any sort of way.
- Teens must know that date rape and marital rape are possible. These types of rapes are just as serious as “rape-rape,” and it rarely looks like what media has deemed to be “rape.” A physical struggle doesn’t need to be shown to be coerced into doing something. Rape is rape, no matter the context.
In our world you can see everything—all circumstances and opportunities—through the reflection of mirrors. No matter what we are talking about or who we look at, we are talking about ourselves. Through slut-shaming or re-victimizing others, we are slut-shaming and victimizing ourselves. Instead of these old and outdated patterns of speech, we must now teach youth that the real focus is love. “There but for the grace of God go I.” We must remember and teach our children that we too, like someone seen to have suffered misfortune, might have suffered a similar fate, but for God’s mercy. This is how we must learn to frame sexualized violence.