This post is from Rachel Greene-Wilber on BGCA’s Youth Trends team. Be sure to check out their other posts for more culturally responsive content.
The issue of sexual assault has been center stage in the news and social media, which means it’s also on the minds and in the conversations of teens across the country. This post provides best practices and important information to help you support teens as they think through this difficult topic.
Sexual assault is a serious crime and is defined as any type of sexual activity or contact that happens without consent, and can take many forms including rape, attempted rape, sexual coercion, and unwanted sexual touching. Consent is an agreement between two participants to engage in an activity.
It can be easy to think, “Well, this isn’t happening to teens I know.” However, the hard truth is that sexual assault is incredibly common and severely underreported. One out of every four girls and one out of every 10 boys is sexually assaulted by the age of 18, and nearly 40% of LGBTQ youth report being touched without their consent. Additionally, over one-third of teens who have been sexually assaulted did not report the incident.
Some common reasons for not reporting or disclosing sexual assault include:
- Shame: Sexual trauma is often stigmatized, and most teens are embarrassed for their family or other people to know what happened.
- Fear of not being believed: Sexual assault is often mischaracterized as consensual sex and can be difficult to prove. Many teens may fear not being believed or worry that others will defend the perpetrator.
- Fear of being blamed: It is common for victims of sexual assault to be blamed for what they did to “cause” the incident (i.e. what they were wearing, if they were intoxicated, etc.) rather than focusing on the perpetrator’s actions and lack of consent.
- Fear of punishment: Teens often fear parental punishment for rule breaking, retaliation from the perpetrator, or social isolation.
- Feeling partly responsible: When teens know their perpetrator, they are less likely to report. Additionally, some teens may believe they did something to contribute to the assault, not recognizing that the perpetrator is responsible for their actions.
- Trauma: Teens often do not want to think or talk about traumatic incidents. Also, in response to trauma, teens may feel shocked, dazed, confused, and not remember some details of the event.
- Fear that nothing will be done: Fewer than 2% of reported incidents of sexual assault lead to successful prosecution of the perpetrator.
- Cultural or religious reasons: Religious beliefs may increase a teen’s fears about punishment or social isolation. Cultural experiences may also influence a teen’s trust in various institutions, such as law enforcement, as well as how a family deals with a crisis.
As adults, one of the most impactful thing we can do to support teens is to encourage open, honest conversations. This may seem awkward or intimidating at first, but here are some ideas to get started:
Talk about what teens already know.
You can use the news or current events as a conversation starter, saying that you’ve been hearing a lot of people talking about sexual assault lately. Ask teens what they’ve been hearing and what their friends are saying at school and at the Club. Telling teens how common sexual assault is may make them feel more comfortable admitting if they’ve seen or heard about this kind of behavior among their peers.
Talk about healthy relationships.
Relationships can be confusing and exciting for teens – but they should always be built on respect and consent. Make sure teens understand what that means, and that they can always talk to you or other Club staff if someone isn’t being respectful or is making them feel unsafe. Take a look at BGCA’s Teen Dating Violence Discussion Guide for more information and resources, or this ClubX Blog post.
Talk about consent.
You can seize this opportunity to take a deeper look at consent and how it is taught in your Club. Consent is more than just “yes” or “no” – it is a dialogue about desires, needs, and level of comfort with different physical or sexual interactions. See this previous ClubX Blog post for information on how to teach consent to younger members. BGCA also has a Consent Discussion Guide that can be used with your SMART Girls or Passport 2 Manhood programming, or any group of teens, to create a safe, open dialogue.
Emphasize that it’s never the victim’s fault.
No matter what, being sexually assaulted is never the victim’s fault. No one should ever feel guilty about saying no to unwanted physical contact. Additionally, ensure your teens know that they can come to you for help if someone has made them feel uncomfortable or has violated their boundaries. Many people who have experienced sexual assault feel ashamed about what’s happened to them and worry they’re to blame, but it’s vital that your teens understand they will never be judged when coming to you for help.
Teach teens to be empowered bystanders.
It is important to enable teens to intervene when they know sexual assault or harassment is occurring. Rather than being passive bystanders, we can teach teens to confront abusive peers, seek help, and report incidents to a trusted adult.
Lead by example.
Teens are watching and listening to your example. Pay attention to conversations you hear around the Club – if someone dismisses sexual assault as “no big deal” or makes insensitive comments, correct them. We must all work together to change the culture around sexual assault and spread the message that sexual violence will not be tolerated.
Keep the conversation going.
It is important to continue bringing up the topics of sexual assault and consent with your teens as they grow, mature, and have new experiences at the Club. By talking regularly, openly, and honestly about relationships, health, and safety you can create a culture and environment within the Club where teens feel safe and comfortable.
For a printable version of this post, visit BGCA.net.