This post: Teenagers and Sexual Assault: The Conversation You Need to Have with Your Teen
Written by: Amy Carpenter
Discussing sexual assault and safety with our teenagers isn’t easy. In fact, a lot of parents find it especially difficult to approach a conversation that’s already uncomfortable.
However, because teens today are far more exposed to sex and profoundly influenced by what they view on the Internet than past generations, this is one conversation you need to have with your teen to help them become more aware, proactive and safe.
Teenagers and Sexual Assault:
The Conversation You Need to Have with Your Teen
I’ve been researching the subject of sexual safety for teens for years and I still get nervous when I’m about to enter a classroom for the first time to talk with teens.
Am I going to say the wrong thing? Will I inadvertently pressure them in any way? Will I make anyone uncomfortable? I sometimes even worry myself into questioning whether the curriculum I spent three years building is able to meet the needs of my students.
Every time I enter the worry zone, I have to remind myself of my mission.
It’s not my job to tell teenagers what they should or shouldn’t do with their sex life. It’s my job to give them all the information I can, then ask the type of questions that will allow them to decide for themselves.
Talking about sexual violence isn’t simple or straightforward, but if we don’t find a way to talk about it — specifically with teens and young adults who are statistically more at-risk — then we’re leaving them ill-equipped to manage the variables that affect assault outcomes. Variables such as peer pressure, alcohol, drugs, and confusion about what consent really means.
What is Sexual Assault?
Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual behavior that makes any person (male or female) feel uncomfortable, threatened or scared. According to eMedicineHealth, it includes:
- Any type of sexual contact with someone who cannot consent, such as someone who is underage (as defined by state laws), has an intellectual disability or is incoherent (from drugs or alcohol), or unable to respond.
- Any type of sexual contact with someone who does not provide consent
- Attempted rape
- Sexual coercion
- Fondling or unwanted touching above or under clothes
It’s important to recognize that sexual assault can also be verbal, visual or non-contact.
- Sexual harassment or threats
- Forcing someone to pose for sexual pictures
- Sending someone unwanted texts or “sexts” (texting sexual photos or messages)
According to teenagers, we need to bring forth more awareness of the issue…
From October to December of 2021, student walkouts took place across the country, as young people demanded that schools and communities take sexual violence seriously, end the pattern of victim-blaming, and do better by providing a safe educational environment for students.
When Elena Serpas, a student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin in Boston, was interviewed by Salon magazine on December 10, 2021, she said, “It shows that there is a cultural lack of concern for addressing young people’s needs…It all comes back to listening to youth; listening to them, their voices, and their needs. And, when it comes to a topic like sexual assault, that means listening. Really listening.”
Because 80% of assaults involve a known offender, high schools are seeing a rise in the number of assaults taking place between fellow students.
Rocio Fabbro, a journalist for Salon reported: “According to studies conducted by the Department of Education, sexual assault is more prevalent among adolescents than any other group.
Moreover, schools are reported as the most common location for sexual harassment to occur among this age group. The data also found that 51% of high school girls and 26% of high school boys have experienced “adolescent peer-on-peer sexual assault victimization.”
How is it that in the midst of a pandemic requiring social distancing, the number of assaults annually has risen, not declined?
In 2019, when I began writing my first book in the Be Strong, Be Wise series, “The Young Adult’s Guide to Sexual Assault Awareness and Personal Safety,” there was an assault every 92 seconds in the U.S. Currently, there is an assault every 68 seconds, many involving young people as offenders.
All too often, parents shy away from conversations about sexual assault and safety with their teens out of a desire to protect their child’s sexual innocence. Understandably, parents see it as their job to safeguard their innocence given all the mixed messages their child receives daily.
But having open, honest, engaging conversations with our teenagers doesn’t mean we’re condoning sexual activity. Rather, it has more to do with meeting teenagers where they’re at by recognizing that teenagers will be interested in sex as a normal part of their development and that they are constantly being bombarded with sexual messaging that can be confusing – especially for younger teens.
As adults, we can go farther in equipping teens with a sense of right and wrong if we establish a ground rule: sexual interest is normal for teens; coercing, pressuring, or threatening one’s sex partner is not.
Without a space to discuss and explore the influences teens are navigating, the media will ultimately be the default educator of our youth. When we acknowledge that sexual curiosity and desire are a normal part of adolescence, we can more easily listen and have the kind of direct conversations that empower our teens to understand and protect their boundaries.
Here are questions parents can ask their teen about sex, sexual pressure and assault:
- What would you say if someone was pressuring you to have sex?
- What do you say or do when you hear a classmate make a sexually derogatory comment?
- Do you believe you are supposed to have a lot of sexual partners because it’s considered “normal?”
- Do you and your friends have a strategy for staying safe when you go out for an evening, such as agreeing to check on each other throughout the night and protecting each other if you’re under the influence?
- Do you understand the meaning of consent? How about affirmative consent?
- If you felt unsafe in a relationship, would you tell someone or would you assume their behavior might change if you wait it out and have patience?
- What (if any) is your rule for yourself regarding drinking and “hooking up?”
For more information about sexual consent read:
Encouraging teenagers to follow their gut instinct or intuition can avert potential situations that put them at risk for sexual assault. Also, helping them develop a “script” to use in the event they’re being sexually pressured can help lower their risk and build self-confidence. Talk to your teen. Ask them to consider what they would do if they were in a toxic relationship, which can increase discretionary thinking. Educate them about the connection between alcohol and hooking up – especially considering most assaults occur when one or both parties are under the influence.
Empowered teens are safe teens, and having tough conversations is crucial in supporting their entrance to adulthood.
If you’re interested in more information about the Be Strong, Be Wise curriculum for youth, or our workshop for parents, please reach out. We’d love to connect with you in support of your teen!
About Amy Carpenter:
Amy Carpenter, LCSW, CYI, is a bestselling author, educator, and psychotherapist with over twenty-five years of experience. Her work has been featured on CBS, NBC, ABC, USA Today and hundreds of nationally-syndicated newspaper and magazine outlets. She is the founder of the Be Strong, Be Wise Sexual Assault Awareness and Safety Program, and the author of two books in the bestselling Be Strong, Be Wise series. Contact Amy at: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Be Strong Be wise website.
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