An article was recently published in the journal Gender & Society that is enlightening, sad, and for me, brought back memories. The researchers interviewed a hundred adolescent girls referred for sexual abuse about their lives, and discussed themes regarding not only specific incidences of sexual abuse, but day-to-day life as a teen girl. The teen girls interviewed seemed to view sexual harassment, and even sexual violence, as part of everyday life. A common viewpoint was that boys have uncontrollable sexual urges, and it was the responsibility of girls- for better or for worse- to try and dodge them.
As I read the article, I began recalling my own life as an adolescent girl, and how normal a lot of sexual violence seemed. I’ve touched on this topic before, and yet it was startling how familiar some of these themes were to me. I wanted to discuss some of the ideas presented in the study, as well as the overwhelming questions that emerge: Why aren’t teens experiencing sexual harassment or violence seeking help from adults? Why do the teens perpetrating sexual harassment and violence think that their actions are okay?
While I can’t speak for the teen girls involved in the research (they speak for themselves, in the article, which I’d encourage you to read!), I can look back on my own adolescence, and how my friends and I viewed the issue. Here are some reasons why we never sought help:
You don’t report things you’re used to. I can’t overstate how normal and everyday sexual harassment was, even including things like groping or exposure. The idea of flagging down an adult to tell them that a boy made an inappropriate sexual comment would have been laughable. It happened so frequently, and was such a normal part of life, that we didn’t think twice about it.
We didn’t want to overreact. If we reported sexual harassment, or even more escalated scenarios like coercion or assault, we knew that adults would try to intervene in the situation, and that this would have negative social consequences. For incidents that occurred at parties and social gatherings, telling an adult would bring down more intense supervision where alcohol and other forbidden types of recreation were often involved. Furthermore, our peers would have seen repercussions as our fault- not the fault of the perpetrators- for having “no sense of humor,” or for not resisting “enough.”
Anything short of screaming and physical violence was seen as consent. I remember a particular incident in which a boy found my friend alone in a room, shut the door, stood in front of it, and told her she couldn’t leave until she performed a sexual act. She tried to reason with him, but he refused to back down. My friend did what he wanted, and was allowed out of the room. When I later asked why she hadn’t tried to hit or kick him (an inappropriate question, but that’s where I was at the time), she shrugged and said, “I just wanted to get out of there, and it was the easiest way to do it.” Neither of us marked that incident as sexual assault until years later, because we felt the the responsibility had been hers to fight, scream, and tear the room apart- not his, to refrain from entrapping and threatening someone.
We were ashamed. If something happened, and we didn’t scream and fight with all our strength- because we were drunk, or didn’t know what to do, or were too scared to think properly – we felt that we had in some sense consented. How could we approach a parent, or authority figure, and report something that happened when, deep down, we felt ashamed for “letting it happen?” Not only would we have to worry about them “overreacting”, but also letting them down. People don’t tend to share what they’re ashamed of, particularly with people in any position of power.
I used to think that things had changed for the better in the twenty years since I was a teenager, but this study made me question my assumptions. I do think that ideas we never would have considered back then have a strong hold now. Society wouldn’t have had the same response to the Steubenville case in 1993. The idea of it being a man’s responsibility to “seek enthusiastic consent” wasn’t something I had ever heard of.
I also want to note, as did the author of the article, that the idea of sexual interactions presented is overwhelmingly heteronormative. Issues of sexual harassment, sexual consent, and sexual violence are not limited to teens who are attracted to the opposite sex. As the article states, there is a huge need for research on these topics in LGBTQ teens. Also, it is not always the male who is the aggressor and the female who is the victim.
My next post will be on how to address these topics with your teen, so hopefully they will feel more empowered to speak up when sexual violence occurs- and understand it’s unacceptable to inflict it in the first place.