On September 21, 2015, The Association of American Universities (AAU) released a study finding that one out of four college women reported that she had been sexually abused while attending college, with one in eight reporting rape or attempted rape. The number was higher for transgender students and lower for male students.
These sobering statistics tell us that kids go to college without understanding personal boundaries, consent, and perhaps even what constitutes sexual assault. It just can't be possible that on the day that they arrive on college campuses, male students suddenly become sexual predators. If we want to ensure that our children thrive while in college, as they prepare for adult life, we have to make sure they know how to interact safely with one another and within the boundaries of the law. That takes time, but it is doable.
Education about healthy relationships and sexual assault awareness needs to begin at a very early age. That should not be hard, because, to a large extent, schools already do this. In 2015, children in almost every school around the country learn about tolerance of others, human and civil rights, and that bullying is wrong and should be reported and stamped out. Also, starting in middle school, in many schools, children begin learning about sexuality, in age-appropriate ways.
It would be a natural extension of these curricula for schools to teach about respectful non-platonic relationships: how they are formed (mutually); how to treat a partner (with kindness and without violence); and that "no means no." Experts abound who can devise curricula that would foster these basic tenets throughout a child's elementary, middle and high school years.
In the meantime, however, colleges and universities have to act immediately to stem sexual violence on campus. Colleges should mandate that before new students are permitted to register, or play competitively for a collegiate team, they must complete an interactive seminar on human sexuality and healthy relationships. That class should include instruction on affirmative consent and sexual assault prevention. Hand-in-hand with that class should be mandatory classes for all students on recognizing the signs of an imminent assault and warning signs of abusive relationships.
As was reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in June 2015, a team of social psychologists designed a program that trained first-year women college students in Canada to recognize signs of sexual assault. Students were randomly assigned to either the "resistance program group" or the "control group." The "control group" was exposed to commonly-used university practices aimed at preventing and reporting sexual assault, such as having access to brochures about those topics. The "resistance group," on the other hand, participated in twelve hours of "games, mini-lectures, facilitated discussion," and other activities that honed their ability to assess the risk of sexual assault. These sessions also included exercises to resist verbal and physical coercion. Notably, after one year, 9.8% of women in the control group reported that they had been raped, compared with 5.2% of women in the resistance group. While both statistics are unacceptable, the Canadian experiment shows that education and awareness, if done properly, help stem sexual violence on campus.
To end sexual assault, both on and off a campus, we should start focusing on prevention, as well as dealing with assaults after they occur. Students of all ages must know that sexual assault is a violent crime, and has no place anywhere, including at school. All students must be taught how to navigate consensual relationships respectfully, and what bright lines they should never cross.