Jamille Fields, Resident Blogger (Law Students for Reproductive Justice Fellow at the National Health Law Program)
The infamous TMZ video showing Ray Rice, a 5’8’’, 206 pound-football player punching his then-fiancée (now wife) out, the University of Montana at Missoula being dubbed “America’s Rape Capital” after at least 80 rapes were reported on campus within the last three years, the recent New Jersey high school football hazing scandal that resulted in three players being charged with various sexual assault crimes. Despite making recent headlines, sexual and domestic violence are unfortunately nothing new. To me, these instances indicate that we are not effectively teaching youth what constitutes a healthy relationship and acceptable sexual behavior. Youth then carry this lack of knowledge into adulthood.
Last month, I wrote about sexuality education in health care delivery, and this month I would like to pick up where I left off. There, I discussed how to help adolescents gain greater sexual health knowledge. But what is often overlooked is the important role sexuality education has in preventing sexual and domestic violence.
Young children are vulnerable to sexual abuse from teachers, parents, and other adults with whom they have a trust relationship. A recent United Nations Children’s Fund report correctly noted younger children are less likely to comprehend what is considered abuse. Sexuality education can teach children what constitutes inappropriate touching and behavior.
Adolescents in informal or dating relationships can be just as vulnerable to intimate partner violence as adults. Adolescents are often new to relationships and romantic feelings, and not knowing how to cope with these new feelings may lead them to physically act out against their mates. Their mates often don’t know how to respond to this physical abuse. Seventy percent of 15 to 19 year old adolescent girls who have been the victims of physical or sexual violence never sought help. The reasons vary, and include not understanding the abuse was a problem. Boys who experience abuse are even less likely to seek help due to stigma. LGTBQ youth and others who don’t conform to gender norms often become the targets of violence. Sexuality education can teach the signs of abusive relationships and healthy forms of sexual expression. Sexuality education should also include information on sexual orientation, and the sexual health education provided should be inclusive of same-sex relationships and sex.
Those who have unhealthy relationships during adolescence are more likely to have unhealthy relationships in adulthood. It is estimated that 1 in 4 women will experience domestic abuse, but it is hard to get an accurate estimate given that domestic violence often goes unreported. Youth who witness violence at home are more likely to be victims of domestic or sexual violence as adults. Also, youth who have been sexually abused in early childhood are at a higher risk of being exploited in sex work and engaging in unsafe sex practices later in life. For all of these reasons, counseling against sexual and domestic violence must begin long before adulthood.
October was domestic violence awareness month, so it is an apt time for these conversations to begin, but it should not be where these conversations end. Sexuality education both in classrooms and providers’ offices offer the opportunity to prevent violence before it makes it to TMZ.