Teenage boys, not young women, need sexual-assault programs

2015-06-11

Resistance is not futile, according to research published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, and young women need to be taught how to do just that if there is any hope of ending sexual violence against women. That claim alone is bound to stir controversy, but while we are having that debate perhaps we should consider why we are so fixated with the safety of female university students when other young women are at even greater risk of sexual violence.

The system proposed for reducing sexual assault on college campuses would see every female first-year university student take a 12-hour course in groups of 20; at current enrolment rates that would necessitate that about 14,000 courses be taught each year. Funding would have to come from federal and provincial governments, since universities are already too stretched to cover what would undoubtedly be a very expensive program. Ultimately, Canadian taxpayers would be footing the bill to help teach university women how to resist rape.

Given that sexual assault imposes real economic costs on society in terms of health, policing and justice, investing in these courses for university students could be taxpayers dollars well spent.

Except for one thing: Despite the pervasive notion that female university students face the greatest risk of sexual assault, they are actually safer from sexual assault than other young women.

For high-school students, for example, the risk of sexual violence is much greater than for university students. According to the study, female university students face a 20-per-cent to 25-per-cent chance they will be sexually assaulted in the four years they are in university. However, among the very same women who participated in this study (average age 18), 23 per cent had already experienced a completed rape, 27 per cent had experienced an attempted rape, and more than 50 per cent had experienced other unwanted sexual contact.

And contrary to public perception, women on university campuses are not at greater risk of sexual violence than other young women. According to U.S. data, women between the ages of 18 to 24 who are not enrolled in school are 1.2 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than were women who are enrolled in school.

The truth is that sexual assault is not a university campus problem, it is a young adult problem; young women are more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women and young men are more likely to be perpetrators of sexual violence than other men. I understand that governments will have an easier time selling programs to the voting public that protect the next generation of university-educated women, but if we want to reduce the chance that a Canadian woman is raped at any point in her life these interventions need to come much, much, earlier; probably when these women are in Grade 8 or 9.

If you ask me, however, training young women is not where the government should be putting our money.

If women can be taught to recognize situations in which they are exposed to the risk of sexual assault, then men can be taught to recognize when they are about to become sexual offenders.

If women can be taught not to lead men on by letting them buy drinks, then men can be taught that women who let them buy drinks have not relinquished their right to refuse sex.

If women can be taught to stay together to provide protection, then men can be taught to challenge other men they see exposing women to risk of sexual violence.

Canadians don’t need to teach women to resist rape while we await cultural change that brings an end to violence against women. We need programs that bring about that cultural change starting with the men who are most likely to be sexual offenders – boys under the age of 18.

Originally published in The Globe and Mail.

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