A Fine Line: How to Teach Kids About Sexual Assault

Michael Domitrz, founder of the Date Safe Project, has tee-shirts for these Greenhill students.
Michael Domitrz, founder of the Date Safe Project, has tee-shirts for these Greenhill students.
Tamekia Reece
August 7, 2006

Michael Domitrz, founder of the Date Safe Project, has tee-shirts for these Greenhill students.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, the rate of rape and sexual assault has declined by almost 85 percent since the 1970s. A big reason for the drop is because it's being discussed more, which reduces the stigma, says Lynn Parrish, vice president of communications for the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation's largest anti-sexual assault organization. "The more people are aware of it, the more likely victims are to report, and the more likely perpetrators are put in jail," she says.

This decrease doesn't mean sexual assault awareness and prevention education is no longer needed. Every two-and-a-half minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in America. Clearly, there's more work to be done raising awareness and working on prevention. Here's a look at some strategies that seem to be effective.

Make it real

The first step in preventing sexual assault is awareness, say experts. "It's very important for young people to know what their risks are," Parrish says. "As far as people who are victimized by sexual assault, 44 percent of them are under 18 and 80 percent are under 30." The problem is an adult telling a child or teen these things might not be enough, because young people often dismiss what adults say. "We're much more likely to be receptive to messages that come from our peers who experience the same information and speak our language," Parrish says.


RAINN's National Sexual Assault Hotline
Provides counseling and assistance to victims and their family and friends 24 hours a day; also can put victims in touch with local rape crisis centers.
Witness Justice
A non-profit organization whose mission is to empower and assist victims of violence and their loved ones in healing from trauma and navigating the criminal justice process.
National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)
A comprehensive collection and distribution center for information, research and emerging policy on sexual violence intervention and prevention.
Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA)
A Texas statewide organization committed to ending sexual violence in Texas through education, prevention, and advocacy.
California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA)
A California statewide organization whose sole purpose is to provide public policy, advocacy, training and technical assistance on the issue of sexual assault.

Security on Campus, Inc., a Philadelphia non-profit uses this approach in its Safe on Campus Peer Education programs. "We have college students, who are trained as peer educators, go into high schools and do programs about high-risk drinking and sexual assault," says Catherine Bath, the executive director. The students are much more attentive than they were when she did the presentations, she says, partly because the college kids are closer to the students' age and they're able to give examples from their college experiences.

The information must be made relevant to the child or teen's life. "For example, when you talk about not leaving a drink unattended, if someone doesn't frequent bars, they may think that doesn't really apply to them," Parrish says. You have to let them know it doesn't have to be an alcoholic beverage and doesn't have to happen at a bar or party; someone could slip something into a soda at school.

This isn't to say that peer-based programs are the only ones that can be effective. Having someone who is really knowledgeable about teens and up with the latest happenings and slang will work, too. It's all about making the conversations something kids and teens will be able to and want to understand.

'No' means no, but what means yes?

One of the foundations of any discussion of sexual assault is an understanding of the concept of consent. "Most educational outfits, when it comes to consent, are based on 'no means no,'" says Mike Domitrz, author of May I Kiss You: A Candid Look at Dating, Communication, Respect, & Sexual Assault. "It tends to be what not to do; there's very little on how to do things right," he says. In 2003, he founded The Date Safe Project, a Greenfield, Wis.-based project that focuses on consent and healthy dating habits for middle school, high school and college students. "We wanted a much more proactive approach&#151putting the responsibility solely on the person taking any action before they do so," he says. "Anytime consent is not explicit, there's room for misinterpretation."

Ryan, 16, from Beaver Dam, says after Domitrz's presentation at his school, he realized that silence can also mean no. "If they don't say anything, and you go forward with it, they might not want it but are too afraid to say anything," he says. "So I learned to always ask instead of just assuming."

With consent should come information on alcohol and drugs and their effects on a person's mental capacity. Teens and college students should be aware of their limitations and environment, and realize that if they've been drinking a lot, they're not going to be in a situation where they would react as quickly as if they were sober, Parrish says.

They shouldn't only watch what they drink, but how much their (potential) partner drinks, too. "Anything that can change somebody's mental capabilities can disable them from giving consent," Domitrz says. "So we want to make sure we teach students, anytime someone has been drinking and is intoxicated, this is not a situation where you're going to absolutely know you have consent." He adds that students shouldn't question how drunk is too drunk or how high is too high. "The moment you have to say how much is too much means you've got a problem."

'He' isn't the enemy

One of the biggest mistakes any sexual violence program, or anyone for that matter, can make is to target males as the problem. Although it's more common for a woman to be sexually assaulted, about 10 percent of sexual assault victims are male. Instead of looking at men as the enemy, "we need to look at them as partners in the fight to abolish sexual assault," Parrish says.

Neil Irvin, national director of Men of Strength Clubs (MOST clubs), agrees. A component of Men Can Stop Rape, a Washington, DC-based non-profit, MOST clubs target males ages 14-21. "Our goal is to address men's violence and sexual assault and what healthy masculinity looks like," Irvin says. "We put men, particularly young men, in a position to take action with one another around the prevention of men's violence against women, and to see sexual assault is not just a woman's issue."

The program doesn't only teach guys how to take action and how not to become perpetrators; it tackles the "tough guy" image. "There's a [stereotype] that teaches young men and women that to be a real man is about having power over people," Irvin says. "But real masculinity requires you to share power to build people up; it's not about tearing people down."

These educators stress that until the finger-pointing stops, and both males and females work together, any strides we make in combating sexual assault will be small.

Beyond programs

Although programs do wonders, they work best when educational and parental involvement is part of the equation. "In recent years, colleges (and some high schools), have started stepping up to the plate to educate young people about their risks and what to do," Parrish states. "They have health centers, peer-to-peer education and programs, and they're really talking about the facts because they know this is happening on college campuses&#151When you're in college, you're four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than when you're not," she says.

Educators at all grade levels can become better resources by letting students know they are available. But the experts warn that if you offer to be someone students can come to if they've been assaulted, make sure you mean it. Sexual assault is a very traumatic experience, and needing to talk to someone only to find the door closed deepens the pain.

Parents have an important role to play in sexual assault education, and one that many of us don't carry out fully. Most parents talk to their children about improper touching and rape, but experts say those discussion often lack depth. They say parents need to talk about the different types of sexual assault and make sure their children understand what they're saying. They advise discussing ways to be safe, and teaching children to say no. Children should also be taught that no is all they need to say. "They don't have to have to a reason to not want to have sexual contact with someone. Just the fact that he/she doesn't want to is a good enough reason," Parrish says.

Whatever you do, remember to tell your child you'll always be there should he or she need to talk. Experts also say that parents can err in overemphasizing their protective role, for instance by threatening to kill or harm anyone who sexually assaults or rapes their child. "The message we sometimes hear from survivors is they remember their dad saying that and are afraid to tell him because they're more worried about what Dad will do than them getting the proper support they need," Domitrz says.

A child may also be reluctant to tell a parent for fear she'll be blamed and asked questions like 'What were you doing there?' "In reality, none of that matters," Parrish says. "It's about the crime, so it doesn't matter what they were doing or wearing."

If your child tells you he/she has been sexually violated, your child's emotional support should come first. Don't try to force her to report the crime or do anything else. Instead, ask what you can do to help, Domitrz advises. "Your child just experienced a crime that was all about taking away their power and control, so the last thing you want to do is make them feel powerless at that moment," he says. When and if your child is ready, contact a rape crisis center. Trained specialists can help you and your child through this turmoil.

Sexual assault and rape strip away a victim's sense of self and leave him or her feeling powerless. By raising awareness through various organizations, media campaigns and parental and school education, experts hope we can help to eradicate sexual assault and take back some of the power.

Tamekia Reece is a freelance writer in Houston, Texas who specializes in health, relationships, and teen issues.

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I think this is very important. I am an RA on a college campus and have been looking for a way to discuss this with my freshman residents. I want to make the subject it real for them so they stop using offensive language and making joke about rape.

September 19 at 07:13pm

I really appreciated this article and it will help me talk more with my young teen son about dating. Especially helpful is the fact that silence means NO, unless consent is explicitly given. I know these facts will help my son be a responsible human being. Thanks!

August 7 at 03:05pm


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