Another high-profile person being accused of sexual assault? Sadly it's nothing new, but these cases are getting more attention, and it’s not just adults who are talking about the issue. Because many of these sexual assault cases involve abuse against teenagers, young people—especially those who may have been in similar situations or know someone who has—are paying attention and taking everything in.
“While the details of the allegations are graphic and disturbing, what is perhaps most disturbing, and in fact dangerous, is that many in the public eye continue to say that even if these allegations are true, this type of behavior is not a big deal,” says Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald. “This message that sexual assault is just a teenage indiscretion, that it’s akin to horseplay, or that it’s ‘normal behavior’ for adolescent boys is damaging not only to girls, but to all young people.”
Specifically, these types of dismissals can make victims even less likely to report sexual assault, more likely to blame themselves, and keep them from getting the help they need to recover. Meanwhile, this messaging is damaging to boys because it’s unfairly stereotyping them all as toxic, misogynistic, and violent—and essentially giving them a free pass to engage in these horrific acts.
The hard truth is that teen sexual assault is incredibly common and severely underreported:
- One out of four girls is sexually abused before her 18th birthday, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
- One in ten adolescents who have had romantic relationships reported that a dating partner kissed, touched, or forced them to have sexual contact against their will, according to the National Institute of Justice.
- Females between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely than the general population to experience rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).
- A whopping one-third of girls who have been harassed or sexually abused said they did nothing in response to the harassment or assault, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
It’s terrifying to consider, and often easier to think, “Well, not my girl!,” but as parents and caregivers, we have to do better.
“It’s our job to let the girls in our lives know that we take what happens to them seriously—that their bodies and rights are to be respected and that their safety and well-being come first. Additionally, we need to let boys know that nothing about sexual assault is normal and that we expect, and in fact demand, better from them,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald.
Having these types of conversations with your children might feel awkward at first, or even intimidating, but their health, safety, and well-being depend on it. Here are some ideas on to get started:
- Talk about what she already knows
You can use the news as a conversation starter, saying that you’ve been hearing a lot of people talking about teen sexual assault. Ask what she’s been hearing and what her friends are saying at school. Telling her how common this type of abuse is might make her feel more comfortable admitting if she’s seen or heard about this kind of behavior in her friend group.
- Share your own stories
Because aggressive and unwanted sexual behavior is so prevalent in the teen years, many of us have our own stories or know someone who has experienced sexual abuse. There’s no need to disclose your own personal experience if you’re uncomfortable doing so. Opening up about something that happened to someone you knew or that happened at a party when you were young, and how it affected you, can build trust and let your girl know you’ve been in her shoes and take sexual violations seriously.
- Talk about healthy relationships
Friendships, crushes, and early romantic relationships can be confusing and exciting—but they should always be built on respect, reciprocity of feelings, and explicit consent. Make sure your children understand what that means, and that they can always talk to you if they feel someone (even someone they know and like) isn’t being respectful or is making them feel unsafe.
- Emphasize that it’s never, ever her fault
No matter what a person wears, where she goes, who she talks to, or what other choices she’s made—being sexually assaulted is never her fault. No one should ever feel guilty about saying no to unwanted physical contact, even if that person has a crush on her, is popular, has bought her something, or if they’ve had physical contact in the past. Additionally, your girl should know that she can come to you for help if someone has made her feel uncomfortable or has violated her boundaries. Many people who’ve experienced sexual violence feel ashamed about what’s happened to them and worry they’ve played a part in the assault, but it’s vital that your girl understands she would never be judged when coming to you for help.
- Keep the convo going—at home and out in the world
Unfortunately, the problem of sexual assault isn’t going to disappear anytime soon, so it’s important to bring up the subject again and again as your girl grows up and has new and different experiences. By talking regularly, openly, and honestly about her relationships, health and safety, you can erase the taboo around the topic and create an atmosphere where she’d feel comfortable coming to you should the need arise.
Beyond having these conversations with your girl, keep your ears open for comments and chatter you hear out in the world. If someone you know dismisses sexual assault as “no big deal,” do the brave thing and correct them without apology. Our girls (and boys) are watching and listening to your example, and your boldness could give them the courage to do the same. Changing the culture and spreading the message that sexual violence will not be tolerated is perhaps the most powerful thing we can do to keep our girls and in fact all young people, safe.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, free and confidential support is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE.