Research released this year has shown that instances of sexual coercion among teens are disturbingly high. What was ground-breaking about this study is that it focused on self reports of perpetration. It asked questions about sexual coercion- verbally intimidating, pressuring, using guilt, getting someone drunk, or harassing behaviors- as well as forced sexual contact. Teenagers were asked if they “had tried to make someone have sex with me when I knew they didn’t want to”, or “made someone have sex with me when I knew they didn’t want to”. And based on their own responses – nearly 10% of teens have been sexually coercive. Also disturbing are patterns around personal responsibility. Fully 50% of the perpetrators said that the victim was completely responsible for what happened. And by the way, by the age of 18 perpetrators were equally boys and girls.
A 2008 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy looked at teens’ behaviors around sharing sexual content online. They found that 25% of girl and 33% of boys reported that they had been shown naked pictures intended to have been sent privately to someone else. Add this to what we have seen in the news about patterns of sexual harassment and bullying among teens and children.
I have believed for a long time that we should to be providing better and more comprehensive sexual education. Now it is clear to me that not only do we need to talk about sexual health and safety, but we need to be talking about sexual respect. It is time to define polite sexual conduct. And to erase once and for all the insidious idea that if someone is behaving sexually, they no longer deserve respect.
If kids are learning just by observing what is going on around them, then I can understand how they would be confused about how to treat others respectfully. In this era of decreased privacy and people’s personal lives as public entertainment, it is critical to teach about personal privacy and choice. Maybe the ever- intensifying ramp up from afternoon talks shows featuring humiliations, have numbed us to other people’s shame and turned us into virtual perpetrators, invited to laugh at someone falling down drunk and flashing their underwear. Humiliation has become entertainment. In this environment, how do we talk to kids about vulnerability? How do we help them to separate how we relate to the “real lives” on TV from how we relate to real people in our lives? How, in a world of selfies and sex tapes, do we talk about the fact that many people want their sex life to be private and that beginning a sexual relationship with someone can be a tender, trusting act? We need to explain why it is ok to laugh at the sexual behavior of “Carlos Danger” but not at the girl in your class who sent a topless pic to the person she has a crush on. And while we are at it, we need to talk about handling frustration and that you will not get to satisfy every desire you have the moment you have it, regardless of what the constant availability of nearly everything else may imply.
Maybe we can tell ourselves that as adults we that we are clear on where to draw the line between harmless amusement at other’s expense and actual harm, or who has abdicated their right to sexual choice or privacy. But it is time to admit that kids aren’t clear about that.