Sexual assault may seem like a distant fear for some, but on college campuses, it is an everyday reality. Of course, the combination of freedom and alcohol creates a dangerous environment and enhances teens’ raging hormones, thus increasing the likelihood of assault occurring. But the problem does not entirely arise from students seeking to indulge in the pleasures of college life. The problem partly stems from sex education, or the lack thereof.
Last year, Penn reported that 25.9% of undergraduate women, 7.3% of undergraduate men, and 21.5% of undergraduate transgender, genderqueer, and nonbinary students experience some form of nonconsensual sexual contact. But these numbers are deceiving. A majority of sexual assault goes unreported or, even worse, unnoticed. Because many students come to college with little to no understanding of what sexual assault truly entails, it is not surprising that the issue runs rampant in almost every university.
Talking about sex has always been considered taboo, especially among minors, causing sex education to be a touchy and often-avoided subject. As of October 2020, only 30 states require sex education to be taught in public schools. This “education” often focuses on the dangers of pregnancy and STDs, essentially scaring kids away from sex. However, it fails to recognize that sex will eventually happen, if it hasn’t already. Kids consequently turn to their peers who spew myths and condescending opinions about sex, and the media, which portrays unrealistic and degrading depictions of sex through movies and pornography.
Because sex is never viewed or taught in a positive manner, these negative ideas take hold and potentially contribute to assault. Many teens are not taught prevention skills (like to say no or express a change in mind); this kind of training has been proven to significantly reduce the prevalence of sexual assault. In a society that emphasizes masculinity as dominant, boys are portrayed as sexual creatures while girls are expected to remain passive and pure. If kids were taught about healthy and equal sexual experiences, they would understand that no one should have a disproportionate amount of power. Furthermore, avoiding the subject of sex or associating it with shame makes students less likely to report assault.
Upon arrival on campus, students become immersed in a totally new mindset — sex becomes normalized and prioritized, and hookup culture is enhanced with sexual contact or promiscuity serving as integral elements of social life. Students who have never received real sex education become more likely to fall victim to assault or even end up committing assault without realizing it. For instance, two people can want different things, but because they are not taught to voice their desires, one may end up feeling violated while the other has no idea they did anything wrong. Many remain under the broad notion that assault is always a violent act with malicious intent. In reality, both parties often end up confused or unaware.
Penn has made strides to combat sexual assault with programs such as Penn Violence Prevention, as well as the creation of a task force in 2016. And while Penn’s actions are incredibly laudable and necessary, it should not be their job to teach students how to think and behave. Rather, high school sex education classes are responsible for educating kids at a young age.
No one deserves to endure the physical and emotional trauma that results from sexual assault. And though it occurs quite frequently on college campuses, it isn’t just up to students to reduce its prevalence. The lack of comprehensive sex education in the American public education system is part of the problem, and fixing this in high schools would go a long way in solving it.
(For a full list of Penn’s confidential resources, help centers, and health offices, click here).
EMILY CHANG is a College first-year student studying Sociology. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.