Our country has finally started to acknowledge a shameful problem: An estimated 1 in 5 women will suffer some form of sexual assault during their college careers. But this welcome attention to a serious barrier to education ignores another shocking aspect of the problem: Sexual violence actually begins much earlier than college.
An Associated Press investigation published early this month documented the prevalence of sexual assault in grade schools across the country, noting that assault begins as early as kindergarten. North Carolina reported 860 incidents of rape, sexual assault and sexual offense in public schools from fall 2011 to spring 2015 (the investigation found that official reports across the country underrepresented the actual rate of occurrence).
But this isn’t new information. According to the most recent statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 40.4 percent of female rape survivors experience rape before the age of 18. Further, among female high school students who date, 21 percent experience intimate partner violence, or dating violence, before the age of 18. A 2013 report from the American Association of University Women shows that 81 percent of all young women report that they were sexually harassed before graduating high school.
These statistics make it clear that the national epidemics of sexual assault and interpersonal violence are much more widespread among young people than is commonly thought. And in order to have effective violence-prevention strategies, we must explore their deep and unaddressed roots. By the time students get to college – when consent and prevention are often addressed for the first time – it may be too late.
Why aren’t we doing more to educate youth about the meaning of consent and sexual violence? It turns out that consent and violence prevention can be controversial matters.
A Maryland county public school system’s 2016 decision to add affirmative consent education to its sex education curriculum – making it one of the first school systems across the country to do so – amounted to a local news story over the resulting controversy. Groups like the libertarian-leaning Independent Women’s Forum lashed back against California’s affirmative consent law, stating that attempts to educate children about consent “sexualize” them from a young age.
Such misguided remarks and pushback can have devastating effects on attempts to remedy the gaps in sexual education across the country, as well as here at home. While the North Carolina Healthy Youth Act of 2009 requires that sex education address the causes, risk reduction and reporting of sexual assault and sexual abuse, there is no enforcement mechanism and no requirement to teach affirmative consent. Additionally, risk reduction tends to focus on teaching people how to avoid assault rather than teaching young people not to commit assault.
This why we need a broad program of consent education. Numerous peer-reviewed studies show that healthy relationship and consent education works. One 2015 evaluation of the Tender Healthy Relationship Project in the United Kingdom (among other studies) found that informing youth about healthy relationships and healthy sex reduces the likelihood that they will exhibit abusive behaviors, increases their understanding of their own emotions and improves their communication skills. All of these in turn decrease the likelihood of perpetration.
Furthermore, consent education can be taught in an age-appropriate way to children as early as kindergarten – often without even mentioning sex. Such lessons not only prepare children for healthy romantic relationships, but they also contribute to better friendships and even workplace interactions.
Emily Hagstrom is a rising senior Public Policy and Political Science double major, with a minor in Women and Gender Studies, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.