“They grab you, touch your butt and try to, like, touch you in the front, and run away, but it’s okay, I mean… I never think it’s a big thing because they do it to everyone,” said a 13-year-old girl as part of a new study examining why 60 percent of sexual violence incidents go unreported.
The answer turned out to be as simple and as disturbing as the 13-year-old's statement: Teen girls "regard sexual violence against them as normal."
Why would teen girls think violence against them was normal? Researchers found four main reasons: First, the girls believed that men are unable to control themselves and so it's the girl's job to endure, ignore, or deflect unwanted sexual advances. The girls also didn't understand what sexual violence was, thinking it was only heterosexual forcible rape. In addition, they reported not trusting male authority figures, and worried that other girls would label them a "whore" or "slut" if they made it into a big deal.
While this research is sobering, it's not that surprising. Sexual violence is common on TV. A recent example is this past Sunday's episode of Game of Thrones [SPOILERS AHEAD] in which brother and sister characters Cersei and Jaime Lannister are standing in front of their dead son's body and Jaime forcefully pushes Cersei to the ground and rapes her. Fans of the book were shocked, partly because the scene as written in the book is completely different from what appeared on the show. In the book, the two siblings do have sex—but it's consensual (yes, we know).
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But perhaps more concerning is the way director Alex Graves explains the rape scene by saying, "It becomes consensual by the end," even though there's nothing ambiguous about the scene. Cersei fights her brother and repeatedly tells him no. But the scene serves as a terrible reminder that if grown adults can't articulate what constitutes sexual violence, there's no way teens will be able to, either.
"I see the primary problem affecting youth in our society as the duplicity around sex," Betsy Crane, Ph.D., a human sexuality professor at Widener University says. Teens are inundated with images of sex, many of which feature men treating women badly (see: GoT). Plus, many adults have a "no-talk rule" around sex that discourages kids from asking questions or commenting on the context of those sexual images, she says.
Crane says that in order to have an open, meaningful, honest conversation about sex with teens, adults first need to get over themselves. "With so many adults afraid to talk about sex, teens are left on their own to try to figure it out," she says. As the study shows, girls are figuring out that that it's normal for them to be abused by boys, and if they make it a "big deal," they risk ostracism or public shaming. And these attitudes are just as harmful for teen boys as they are for girls, Crane says.
It's important to teach young girls that they have a voice, but what may make the most difference, according to the researchers, is simply getting to girls at a younger age. Parents and trusted authority figures have a responsibility to teach both girls and boys that sexual violence is not acceptable—before media and community norms give the impression that it is. So how young is that? The experts said that it depends on each individual child but better to have the discussion too early than too late. "When it comes to sexual assault, the sooner we empower young women and men with agency and information, the better."