Amid a heavy focus on sexual assaults on college campuses, President Obama established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault at the beginning of the year. The Task Force released its first report, “Not Alone,” a few months later in April, and Daniel Craig, Benicio Del Toro, Dulé Hill, Seth Meyers and Steve Carell, along with President Obama and Vice President Biden, anchored a video campaign titled “1 is 2 Many,” advocating for an end to sexual violence. When the White House Blog published the video, they called up the harrowing statistic that “1 in 5 college-aged women is sexually assaulted in college.”
But what about the 44% of victims who have already been sexually assaulted before they reach college age?
This is the shocking number that students at Youth Rights Media in New Haven, Conn. focused on for the development and production of their 2014 project, “44: Sexual Violence in Youth Culture.” At the debut screening of the documentary, a compilation of three short films, at the Yale University Art Gallery on June 5, Youth Rights Media high school interns expressed the importance of highlighting the subject that they chose. Sexual assault is “really difficult to talk about,” noted one intern, adding that the ever-present and pervasive media is not always truthful or properly informative about such matters, leaving the students wanting to “show you … this is what it is, this is what really happens.”
In a post-screening panel discussion, the YRM students discussed not only the creative process behind producing a documentary, but also the arduous task of choosing a topic, especially one so socially taboo and difficult. Ultimately, one student expressed, “power was a constant theme” in their initial brainstorming sessions. Realizing how few resources there were for young people especially on preventing and coping with sexual assault as opposed to, say, cyber bullying, they decided on their subjects and the film is thus divided: “Speechless: Sifting Through the Silence Around Child Sexual Abuse,” “Trapped: The Hidden Truth Behind Teen Dating Violence,” and “Un-Blurred Lines: Bringing Rape Culture Into Focus.”
Well-informed and researched, the three mini documentaries are packed with statistics from the National Center for Victims of Crime and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and interviews with professionals, including Dr. Steven Marans of the Yale Child Study Center, Dr. Tracy Tamborra of the University of New Haven, and youth and domestic violence counselors, as well as thoughts from New Haven area high school students, parents, and community members. Though detailing different topics under the broad umbrella of sexual abuse, each segment was tied together with common threads: the importance of appropriately educating youth throughout their lives and the role of the media in perpetuating cultures of violence and shame.
The voices of young people in matters that concern them–and that they certainly are not ignorant to–are critical but often silenced, one of the most marginalized groups in media. The oppressive nature of society against its youth only enables the perpetuation of the violence studied and documented so courageously by these students in New Haven. Sexual violence survives because, as early as childhood, we are ashamed of knowing and talking about our own bodies. Says Dr. Tamborra in “44,” “if [parents] give [their] children these other strange words to classify their reproductive organs, they start to think about this part of their body as this strange, weird place. And so if a child is sexually abused and their parents have told them it’s their ‘private parts,’ they may feel responsible for allowing their ‘private parts’ to be seen or touched.” Sexual violence survives because teens see abusive behavior as “normal,” says Ingrid, of the Hill Youth Action Team of New Haven, in the documentary. “If … your parents are in an unhealthy relationship and that’s your best example of what a relationship should look like, and you find yourself in the same kind of situation, it’s normal.” Sexual violence survives because popular culture is saturated with romantic comedy characters who stalk women into giving into them and because, as one YRM intern pointed out, “everyone knows how catchy [‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke] is,” getting stuck in our heads and internalizing in us its praise of non-consensual sex.
Giving young people the tools to talk about the issues of their generation and of their worlds gives them the ability to interrupt these cycles by reducing the stigmas and taboos that shame and silence victims while enabling and empowering perpetrators. They are already doing this, and now it is everyone else’s turn to listen.