Love shouldn’t hurt: dating abuse in school

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Me too. It was a simple statement that created a movement on social media, then radiated outward to thousands of empowered individuals who are continuing to voice their outrage over sexual assault, speak out in favor of gender equality and refuse excuses for violence against women. The people spearheading this movement come from different walks of life: gold medalists, actors, singers and bureaucrats, alike, and they have raised global consciousness by holding the feet of the powerful directly over a fire of public indignation.

Yet, despite the progress that led the “Silence Breakers” of the Me Too movement to be named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year,” date rape and sexual assault continue to be prominent throughout America, and particularly on school campuses. In fact, according to the Huffington Post, around half of all sexual assaults occur in middle and high schools.

Abuse isn’t always clear-cut physical assault—it often includes something as simple as making sexual advances without consent or other agressions like verbal and emotional abuse. Say you’ve been dating for a few months, and your partner threatens to end a relationship over a disagreement, makes you feel isolated from your other friends or tries to keep tabs on your location what seems like every second of the day. Even though there’s no hitting, slapping or rape involved, those situations are still examples of abuse and signs that a relationship is no longer healthy.

Catcalling, another example of verbal abuse, seems normal and even commonplace, but any tolerance for demeaning language feeds a mentality that men are entitled to sex or allowed to disrespect their female partners and peers. Sexual abuse is very often the successor of verbal abuse, especially in the context of romantic relationships. Because many people unknowingly dismiss verbal abuse as harmless or “just a normal part of relationships,” something that should be a clear red flag of abuse can become normalized in the victim’s eyes.

But why are these problems so particularly persistent among high school students? The first answer to that question might be attitude—something that would be considered sexual assault if it occurred between two adults is dismissed as “fooling around” when it happens between kids who “don’t know any better.” And while it might be true that high school is a time for people to explore their identities and discover what is socially acceptable, allowing kids to grope and harass each other without any repercussions is exactly what leads to a culture of adult men who don’t understand sexual harassment.

The second reason sexual harassment is prevalent at this school level is that, while high schoolers are protected under the same Title IX statutes that aim to safeguard college students from assault, many are often afraid to admit that they’ve been sexually assaulted or raped because it would be an intrinsic admission that they’ve been involved in sexual activity. For many teenagers, the prospect of parents and family finding out is an even bigger nightmare than the sexual assault or harassment itself.

So what can be done about this problem? To start, adults need to be able to step back and let teenagers talk without judgement. If we continue to demonize teenagers who have sex, regardless of the accompanying circumstances, rape victims will never come forward and tell their stories—and internalizing or repressing trauma in that manner only leads to further complications later in life. In addition, teenage boys need to be told that “no means no” and that their words, whether intentional or not, can play into the culture of violence toward women. Furthermore, consequences need to be enforced. Many Hollywood stars and politicians found out in the past few months that their actions would have repercussions, costing them roles and votes. We must now send the same message to high schoolers across the nation—especially during a month meant to commemorate love—if we want to avoid a future where images of romantic relationships have become tainted with normalized violence and abuse.