April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a month during which communities and classrooms focus on making everyone aware of how prevalent sexual assault is in our society and what we can do to help stop it. Sexual assault—particularly on college campuses—has gotten a lot of media attention lately, as have several political measures meant to target the problem.
April is the perfect month for teachers to: make their students aware of how often sexual violence happens; talk about consent; share safety and prevention strategies; teach students how to identify and stand up to evidence of rape culture when they see and hear it; and learn helpful and compassionate ways to talk to survivors.
As a high school English teacher, I am talking about this in my classroom whenever the opportunity arises, and my afterschool girls’ group, Fearless Females, is using the month of April to host an awareness campaign at the school. The great thing about any of these prevention and intervention measures is that anyone can participate, including male students. In fact, it is vital that male students become involved because their understanding of the issues is essential to changing rape culture.
The following are some of the activities they have planned that can be used in any service club or adapted for classroom use.
Perhaps the most important part of any awareness campaign is education. When students discover how prevalent and underreported sexual assault is, they are often shocked. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center:
- One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives.
- One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.
- One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, and 90 percent of assault victims don't report the assault.
- Rape is the most underreported crime with 63 percent of cases never reported to police.
To create an awareness campaign, students can create flyers to post around the school with these statistics on them. Students who are familiar with technology or who are in technology classes can create a public service announcement video with pictures, music and text sharing these statistics to air over the school news network or in study hall and advisory classes. On any poster or in any public service announcement, be sure to include your local sexual assault support hotline the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) hotline number (1-800-656-HOPE) for people to call if they need help processing or reporting sexual assault or abuse.
Another way educators can make a difference is by helping students learn the language of consent. Even very young children can understand that individuals have the right to exercise control over their own bodies, and that everyone needs to ask before touching another person or crossing their physical boundaries.
Finally, schools and school groups can make a public commitment to spreading awareness and ending sexual violence by adapting the National Sexual Violence Resource Center proclamation and reading it aloud at school and community events.
Once students learn how prevalent sexual assault is, they often want to help. One way to engage students is to create a culture of upstanders to intervene before, during or after a situation in which they see or hear about behaviors that promote sexual violence. If they see or hear something, they should say something and not ignore it. This includes witnessing acts of sexual assault, suspecting an assault is about to occur and hearing dialogue that promotes rape culture.
There are a lot of resources for teachers who wish to engage bystanders. A few important guidelines to emphasize with students are:
- Sexual assault is never the survivor’s fault. Never criticize or question a sexual assault survivor about their behavior leading up to or following the assault.
- Be respectful, direct and honest when intervening in a situation where you suspect a peer is in danger. Do NOT act alone. Contact the police if you do not feel safe.
- Teachers and school personnel are mandatory reporters. If a student contacts a teacher, counselor, dean or anyone else employed by the school, the adult has to report the incident to the authorities.
- Sexual assault against members of the LGBT community is severely under-acknowledged. Students need to understand that this is a problem that affects everyone and be prepared to respond appropriately.
- Local sexual assault centers often offer resources and trainings for advocates and survivors of all ages. Here is a great site to find local resources.
As teachers, one strategy we can build into our practice is encouraging students to stand up against sexually degrading dialogue (e.g., “slut shaming,” victim blaming or double standards about sexual activity). These conversations perpetuate rape culture. When we foster a culture of engaged, aware students, it increases the likelihood that someone will intervene when they hear someone objectify another student or when they hear dialogue that glorifies acts of sexual assault.
Talk With Survivors
During any awareness campaign, it is likely that some survivors will feel empowered to come forward. If you are not qualified to talk with survivors of sexual assault, have someone on hand who is, like a counselor or social worker. It is possible for victims to remain silent for many years after the initial trauma, and they might feel encouraged to come out and report the crime, especially during this month. Treat any survivors gently and respectfully, and get them the help they need, whether by referring them to a counselor or calling the hotline number with them. Be especially careful to reassure them that their experience was not their fault. For more resources about talking to survivors, visit this link.
With thoughtful planning, an awareness campaign at your school can be successful and help students find a way to understand, discuss, report and take action to end sexual violence. The earlier we have these conversations with our students, the more we will be able to foster a culture that is intolerant of sexual assault and rape culture before our students get to college.
Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.