A wall of articles, pictures and letters regarding rape victims was part of the public display during the 20th annual Take Back the Night event at UNLV on Oct. 23.
Passersby look at a display for the recent Take Back the Night event at UNLV. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2012 study on teen dating violence, 9 percent of high school students report being hit, slapped or physically hurt by a partner.
Somehow in the conversation about rape among high school students — carried out on a national stage with cases in Steubenville, Ohio and Maryville, Mo. — the discussion shifted.
It wasn’t on the alleged or even convicted perpetrators.
It was no longer on educating young people about sexual violence.
The conversation was on the victim — what she wore, what she drank and how late she was out.
“Steubenville is a great example of rape culture,” said Gabrielle Amato, the education and outreach manager at the Rape Crisis Center Las Vegas. “Instead of focusing on what would motivate a person to assault someone and brag about it, it became about the victim’s drinking.”
And that, Amato suggests, is not the appropriate response.
“Drinking is not punishable by sexual assault.”
In March, two teens in Steubenville were convicted of raping a fellow classmate in August 2012. The assault was captured on video and went viral, passed around among students at the victim’s school.
Similarly in Maryville — an ongoing case — two students allegedly raped a fellow classmate, who was further victimized by the reactions of her school and town. A social media post by one of the alleged rapists gave an insight to his view on women: “If her name begins with ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ, she wants the D.” In other words, women crave sex, the tweet suggests, so that insight gives license for sexual assault.
In these cases and others, family, friends and strangers have banded together to support the perpetrators, the football teams they played for, their coaches and indeed the culture that fostered the perspectives on sexual assault.
“There is a trend to vilify the victim and talk about how the perpetrator’s future is destroyed,” Amato said. “What about the victim’s future?”
She added that rape culture makes perpetrators feel as though they did nothing wrong because of their status in society and the fact the victim was drinking.
The cases may have happened hundred of miles away, but teens in Clark County, as well as around the country, aren’t immune to the issues of sexual and dating violence.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2012 study on teen dating violence, 9 percent of high school students report being hit, slapped or physically hurt by a partner.
The study surveyed adult victims of rape, physical abuse and stalking by an intimate partner. About 22 percent of women and 15 percent of men first experience some form of partner violence between 11 and 17 years old.
Growing up, and even well into adulthood, people have developed this false perception of rape committed by the stranger lurking in the bushes.
What Steubenville and Maryville has reminded society — at least those willing to heed its lessons — is that it is more so committed by people the victim knows.
Many people in Clark County, such as Amato, are rallying for curriculum that would help youths learn early about these issues.
“Access to comprehensive and age-appropriate sex education is critical to adolescents and the well-being of young people,” said Laura Deitsch, program manager with Planned Parenthood of Southern Nevada. “Putting up dialogue about consent and what healthy relationships look like can prevent those tragedies.”
During the 2013 legislative session, Planned Parenthood advocated for this dialogue to be added to curriculum through the passage of Assembly Bill 230, a bill that would have set statewide standards for comprehensive sexual education. It passed 26-15 in the Assembly, but died in the Senate.
Nevada law calls for sex education in public schools, but the standards are loose and locally interpreted; as a result, many students fail to hear important concepts.
“The language is incredibly vague,” Deitsch said.
Elisa Cafferata, the president and CEO of Nevada Advocates for Planned Parenthood Affiliates, said the existing standards only teach about the reproductive system and the basics on HIV and AIDS. Sex education in fifth grade when students, separated by gender, discuss the human reproductive system, puberty and an age-appropriate discussion on HIV transmission.
In secondary schools — a class in middle school and another in high school — students are introduced to abstinence-based sex education and the function and types of contraception, according to the school district.
Students must have parent permission to opt into lessons. Some advocates and students argue that some teachers are skipping over important discussions leaving a lot of misinformation floating around.
“There is testimony from young people during the hearing (at the legislative session) who wished they had more information,” Cafferata said.
Sex education in Nevada doesn’t cover critical issues such as domestic violence, human trafficking, sexual identity or sexual assault, Deitsch said.
“Healthy sexuality encompasses many elements,” she said. “It should include learning about consent and communicating about boundaries.”
And that’s what they were advocating.
“The idea of the bill heard in this session would have given a more definitive list of topics covered,” Cafferata said.
Topics addressed by the curriculum would have been age appropriate, said Annette Magnus, executive director of ProgressNow Nevada and a former Planned Parenthood staffer.
“Studies show that if young people have access to comprehensive sex education, they are better prepared to deal with situations,” Magnus said.
But the legislation didn’t pass.
Although topics such as domestic violence or rape aren’t included in sex education classes, those topics — as well as cyberbullying, sexual abuse and assault, harassment, Internet safety and human trafficking — are covered in another unit of instruction, said Mary Pike, director of K-12 science and health for the Clark County School District. The district relies on organizations such as the Rape Crisis Center, which has a program called “Your Space” to discuss those topics with students.
Amato said it’s up to teachers and principals to invite the program into the school.
She added that schools usually reach out to the Rape Crisis Center toward the end of the semester when there is more wiggle room in the schedule to talk about these issue.
If invited into the school, Your Space discusses anything from media representation of women to dating and sexual violence. The program is usually presented over the course of a school week.
“It’s a lot to take in over four or five days,” Amato said.
But Amato said youths are eager to discuss and learn about the topics because a lot of them are already dealing with these issues.
“We talk about what is means to be able to give consent and define sexual assault with and without force,” Amato said.
Teens are taught that in Nevada, there are four instances when people cannot consent to sexual activity: if they are under the age of 16, severely mentally handicapped, unconscious or intoxicated. Sex in these situations can constitute sexual assault.
In her experience, Deitsch said she sees mixed reactions from young people who are learning about these topics.
“I think it is interesting to hear young people talk about consent,” she said. “(They say) if you don’t get consent, keep pressuring until you do. It’s surprising how many young people say ‘keep asking or pushing.’ Or if they didn’t say no or not sure, it’s still OK. It’s surprising and disheartening.”
One problem with having the program separate from sex education, some advocates have pointed out, is facilitators can’t use words such as penis, vagina or penetration when talking about sexual assault.
“They are not allowed to talk about sexual acts,” Pike said. “We are bound by regulations.”
Magnus thinks those prohibitions have to be lifted.
“Our argument is how can you talk about prevention of these things without the context of sex interwoven into the discussion,” Magnus said. “It needs to be holistic.”
Pike said the district would have welcomed a change to sex education. Regardless of the law, she said the district is still able to reach out to students.
“I think having speakers to come in and talk about those subject would do a better job because they know more about those topics,” Pike added.
The fight for comprehensive sex education and the necessity to talk to youths about these topics isn’t over.
“More education is better,” Magnus said.
Expanded sex education for all Clark County’s youth won’t be a panacea to stop sexual violence among students, along with other issues they face, advocates acknowledge.
But it would be a start.
Amato said the fear is that sexual education that includes explicit words and concepts would compromise the innocence of young people.
“But it gives them the power to make good decisions,” she said. “Knowledge is power.” CL