‘What I have to say is important’ : including youth voices in conversations about sexual violence
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Sexual violence – rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse – impacts youth at an alarming rate. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Youth are also at risk for dating violence. Twenty-one percent of girls and 10 percent of boys experience dating violence while in high school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But adults have created a culture that discourages youth from saying #MeToo. In determining whether and how to have conversations about sex, some parents and teachers stay silent, others talk too much. Both approaches prevent youth from asking questions about healthy relationships, reporting sexual violence and seeking support if their boundaries are crossed. In such conditions, sexual violence becomes tolerated and normalized. Youth are eager to have their voices heard. Following the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 students and staff inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, survivors vowed #NeverAgain. These high schoolers took to the streets to speak openly against adults failing to protect them from gun violence. Against this backdrop of youth activism, a group of teenagers stepped on stages across Austin, Texas, this spring. They devised a play about healthy relationships and consent, based on their own experiences with sexual violence. From February to April 2018, they performed their play, “Just Ask” 22 times in nine middle schools. Their work as student activists offers a window into one form of peer-led prevention with potential for change. Sexual violence is preventable. Youth do not have to grow up in a culture of shame and silence. To get there, a holistic approach is needed. Talking about it won’t fix the problem altogether. But empowering youth to be active participants in these conversations, seen and heard, is a promising place to start.
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