I have never been raped. I have never been sexually abused. When I was dating, I was never insulted or treated disrespectfully. I wasn’t harassed or taunted about my body, my dress, or my behavior by classmates. I wasn’t aware of sexual violence as an issue while I was in school or in college. If any friend, family member, or acquaintance ever suffered such trauma, no one told me. I realize in retrospect how lucky I was.
But that was then and now is now.
Now we have an epidemic of sexual violence affecting young people—overwhelmingly male on female violence—that is enough to take our collective breath away. A few weeks ago, the New York times reported that an 11-year-old girl in Texas was gang raped by a group of teen and adult men. I can’t think of anything more horrible than what happened to this young girl. Yet, young girls in grade school, teen girls in high school, and young women on college and university campuses suffer sexual violence far more frequently than anyone can imagine. To make matters worse, many never report the attacks.
Sexual violence is painful, frightening, degrading, and physically, emotionally, and psychologically scarring to the girls and young women who survive it. Like it or not, male on female sexual violence in schools and on college campuses is as American as apple pie, and we as a nation should be deeply ashamed.
Our government has finally decided to take action about this horrific problem. Last week, Vice President Joe Biden, using as pretext the designation of April as “Sexual Assault Awareness Month,” announced the first ever national sexual violence awareness campaign on “college campuses and [in] public and private K-12 schools.”
Biden traveled to the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, to make the announcement, because the university has done exemplary work in making students aware of and combating sexual violence on its campus. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan accompanied the vice president to demonstrate the department’s commitment to the campaign.
Biden spoke with passion about its importance saying, “A nation that prides itself on fighting the abuse of power has an obligation to prevent sexual violence in schools and college campuses. … We’ve said to the rest of the world: Measure us by how well we abide by that value. I believe that is the measure of the decency of a nation.”
“Measure the decency of a nation,” should be the rallying cry for this campaign.
The vice president used the word “brutal” in describing the underlying reasons for the campaign: “We must deal with the brutal truth. The facts surrounding these incidents are shocking … The misplaced sense of values and priorities in some of these cases is staggering. … We have to do better, and we have to do better now.”
The facts are indeed shocking for a country that calls itself “developed” and prides itself on being the leader of the free world. According to the campaign fact sheet, “recent data shows that nearly 4,000 reported incidents of sexual battery and over 800 reports of rapes and attempted rapes are reported each year in our nation’s public high schools; one in 10 girls will have been forced to have sexual intercourse by the time she graduates from high school, and 20 percent of college women will be victims of attempted or actual sexual assault during their college years as will about six percent of men.
The effects on girls and young women are horrendous. According to another fact sheet: “Victims of sexual assault are more likely to suffer academically from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, to abuse alcohol and drugs, and to contemplate suicide.”
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, pertaining to sexual harassment, will play a large part in the campaign. Best known for guaranteeing equal participation in athletics for females, Title IX also bans sexual discrimination, harassment, and violence in schools and on college campuses. Any educational institution that receives federal funds—and most do—will now have to abide by its requirement “for filing complaints, helping victims, disciplining perpetrators, and monitoring campus climates in the wake of a [sexual] attack.”
Obama administration officials believe that the effort to promote uniform, comprehensive guidelines will make a big difference in helping victims and filing complaints.
The campaign that will primarily focus on 16 to 24-year-olds and will emphasize “prevention through education.” The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to every state and local education agency explaining the purpose of the campaign.
The letter contains statistics, the effects of sexual violence on survivors, what schools’ and colleges’ obligations are under Title IX, and how the Office of Civil Rights can assist.
What makes this national campaign unique—and what I think is a good element—is that for the first time it relies on students themselves to stop sexual violence in its tracks. UNH student Sarah Jane Bibeau, who introduced the vice president, told the audience about the university’s willingness to give students power and control of the issue.
“I believe we can all work together to change the culture, so that rape and sexual assault are not tolerated. Our generation has the chance to make it stop. … [we are going to] prevent rape before it happens,” she said.
Biden supported this emphasis on student control of the campaign:
“These are your friends, these are your classmates, the people you study with. You need to watch out for each other. You are the first—and best—line of defense. …The more and more you bring attention to the issue, the less and less the behavior goes unnoticed, unreported, and unpunished, and the more and more attitudes begin to change.”
Biden emphasized that young men must play a large part in the campaign as they are the primary perpetrators of sexual violence.
“You guys have an absolute obligation as men to speak up,” he said. “You want to measure your manhood? Measure it based on the gumption you have to speak up.”
The government has taken one small step in the right direction to protect girls and young women. Uniform guidelines using Title IX, stressing prevention, and giving young people a key role in the campaign are all for the good.
But I have some questions for the Vice President and the Secretary of Education: How are you going to stop young men from sexually abusing, harassing, and bullying young women? Shouldn’t young men be the leaders in this campaign? Why should the survivors be the ones to try to make young men change their sexual behavior? Isn’t this a little like asking the hens to be kind to the fox who has entered the chicken coop?
Appropriate answers to these questions would make me more optimistic about this badly needed campaign. So while I applaud the effort, I think it is timid rather than bold. I’m also concerned that the federal government may be going into it with one hand tied behind its back. There is no money available to school districts and university and college campuses to start or strengthen programs or recruit students for the campaign. Perhaps private foundations will step up to help with these important aspects, including development of a powerful campaign media component.
Ultimately, my hope is that the campaign begun on a bright morning in April has staying power and, in due time, will truly measure the decency of this nation.
I wish every girl and boy growing up in America has the same good luck that I had: safety from sexual violence.