Stop Shaming, Start Talking

By Marisa Losciale

I arrived in Binghamton, New York the evening before March 5. Eager to see an old friend, a psychology student at the university and excited for the weekend ahead of us. It was “Parade Day” weekend in Binghamton, a St. Patrick’s Day celebration held in the city. But the events that unfolded didn’t live up to my expectations. Instead, they altered my life and forced me to become just another statistic.

 

Each year there are approximately 293,000 victims of sexual assault, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, with one occurring every 107 seconds. This year, I became one of them. On the afternoon of March 5, I was sexually assaulted at a fraternity party. A man, that I had neglected to get the name of, followed me into the bathroom of the Pi Kappa Alpha frat house.

 

Prior to the assault, I had been conversing with the John Doe and found his company to be comedic and welcoming. My guard was down and he kissed me. At the time I wasn’t too upset—granted it was a kiss I didn’t solicit, it was just a kiss and I was going to get myself out of the uncomfortable situation…or so I thought I was. I pulled away from him, politely told him I wasn’t interested and went to find a friend. He followed me.

 

He followed me into the bathroom and pushed my friend off of my arm. Brashly, he turned to her and stated “Don’t worry I’ll help her (referring to me) pee,” and then shut the bathroom door behind him. I stood there terror-stricken, it was like an electrical charge had run through my spine; every muscle in my body was flexed and frozen. I felt like a turtle trying to contract into its shell, except I didn’t have anywhere to hide, quickly falling backwards into a shower. I needed an escape route.

 

Then he slid his hands down past his belt buckle and revealed himself. It wasn’t until he touched my breast that I felt my mind reconnect with my body. Immediately, I was flushed with anger and adrenaline. I needed to get out of that bathroom.

 

“That was fast,” I said, referring to the little amount of time it took him to get me isolated, trapped and feeling like my body was something for any-body but my own. He stepped forward, toward me and was now no longer leaning against the door. With his pants around his ankles and a cocky grin on his face he replied, “Yeah it was.”

 

It was then I realized I had the opportunity to escape.

 

“Not as fast as this!” I said while quickly grabbing him from around the collar with one hand and using the other to throw open the door. “Wait! Wait! Wait!” he shouted while trying to gather his pants, but it was too late. I had gotten the door open and successfully shoved him out of the bathroom and into a crowd of people; “This only makes me like you more!” he hollered, with his dick still out and pants strewn across the floor.

 

I was shocked I made it out of hell alive, queasy from what had just happened and still shaking from all the adrenaline, but in one great exhale I managed to utter the phrase “fuck off!” as I made my way to safety. It wasn’t until I got out of the hell house that I realized I lost my purse and belongings in the struggle, but it was better than losing my dignity.

 

The impasse may be over, but the repercussions linger like the unwanted families of mildew and mold that cling to the walls of your house after a violent storm. There will always be trace evidence left behind. Welcomed visitors can only see it if you peel back the wallpaper, but as the homeowner, you live with it.

 

Even six weeks later while writing this, I only feel anger, confusion and shame. I’m angry about what happened and that I didn’t report it because at the time, I felt like no justice would be found. The friends that I was with claimed the attack was my fault, “For kissing him.” They saw my wide-eyed silent plea for help as he shoved me into the bathroom, they stood there and they watched…but they still blamed me.

 

I’m confused as to how someone could think it’s okay to force him or herself upon another person. And I’m ashamed it happened, I’m ashamed to talk about it. Many times while writing this piece I’ve had to stop and convince myself that this was still the right thing to do.

 

Growing up in a Roman Catholic household, I was taught to value my body and myself, so telling my parents about my sexual assault was nearly impossible. But when I finally told them, a month later, their lack of reaction concerned me more than the actual attack.

 

“What happened?” they asked cautiously, while motioning for my 17-year old sister to leave the room. “A guy followed me into a bathroom when I went to visit Ashlee last month.” I watched the blood leave my mother’s face, my father’s jaw tightened and suddenly he was overtaken by a sense of disbelief.

 

Trying not to cause anymore harm than had already been done, I quickly blurted out, “But don’t worry, he didn’t rape me…and I took care of him. I made an ass out of him—no, actually he made an ass out of himself, I just made sure other people were there to see it.”

 

Silence ensued and that was the end of the conversation.

 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that violent sexual crimes on college and university campuses rose 77 percent between 2001 and 2012, but why? Is it because of the type of sex education American public schools are providing? Or because the United States shames the discussion of sex; especially amongst already marginalized groups like people of color, members of the LGBTQIA community and those who identify as female?

Either way, it’s time for the system to change.

Elizabeth Smart, now an American activist and contributor for ABC News was abducted, raped and held captive in June of 2002, the traumatic ordeal lasted nine months. She was only 14-years old at the time. In a 2013 interview with Huffington Post she said, “The best thing we can do is educate young people as young as we can reach them. Survivors of rape need ‘permission to fight back.’” While I do agree that we need to educate our youth on topics like sexual assault and violence, I don’t think any survivor should have to be granted “permission” to fight back and speak up.

Which leads to the question, what exactly should we teach our youth? In modern day American culture, sex is considered an expletive; many still shaming open-discussions around the subject claiming it would only lead to increased amount of adolescents engaging in sexual activity. But is this censorship causing more harm than good?

In a 2006 study curated by the University of Hawaii, researchers Hazel Glenn Beh and Milton Diamond explore some of the consequences of abstinence-only education.

 

“The federal government spends over $170 million annually to subsidize states and community organizations that provide abstinence-only sex education to America’s youth. This type of sex education is limited to teaching that a monogamous, marital, heterosexual relationship is the ‘expected standard of human activity’ and that sex outside such a relationship will be physically and psychologically harmful. Abstinence-only education also advocates only one method to prevent disease and pregnancy, abstinence, and it offers no information concerning contraception and disease prevention except that all methods other than abstinence fail. As a result of its singular focus, the curricula not only pose significant problems with respect to ensuring minors’ sexual health, but also ignore the needs of sexual minority youth altogether.”

 

The study goes onto suggest that the shamed discussion of sex and abstinence-only education are results of a battle over “American values.” But while the population argues over whether or not chastity is the only righteous path, or if this “hook-up” culture is liberating, students are suffering. Beh and Diamond further explain that providing students with an all-inclusive sex education won’t increase sexual activity among minors, it may actually deter it.

A 2015 study by Dana Raphael of Duke University for WomenNC, found that an abstinence-only education leads to “increased experiences of victimization, teenage pregnancy, and increased dropout rates.”

Raphael’s study suggests that a more informative sex education system would lead to lower rates of teenage pregnancies and sexual assault. The study quotes an Ontario School District’s recent inclusion of information on consensual sex, “To end rape culture, we must create a consent culture.”

But according to The Guttmacher Institute, as of March 1, only 24 states and the District of Columbia believe it’s inherent to provide sex education to a population that is claiming to already be engaging in such behavior. A 2011 CDC survey states that more than 47 percent of high school students are sexually active.

Of the states that do mandate sex education be provided, 36 states and D.C. allow a parent to opt their child out. Only 33 states require instruction about HIV/AIDS. 20 states still allow for abstinence-only proctoring, 13 states require teaching material to be medically accurate and a mere eight states regulate instruction not be biased against any race, ethnicity, or sex.

New York, for example, regulates very little. Although sex education is required to include information on HIV/AIDS, parents are allowed to opt their child out of that chapter. According to The Guttmacher Institute, abstinence is stressed but the use of condoms is made part of the curriculum as a form of prevention. But as for other forms of contraception, the importance of communication and the development of healthy-decision making skills, among other factors, are still yet to be decided upon on a state-level. In other words, each school district’s Board of Education is left up to deciding what information is provided and taught in the classroom.

Utah, Texas, Alabama and South Carolina propose an entirely separate issue. The Guttmacher Institute found that in these states if sex education was provided, it included only negative information on same-sex relationships.

Former United States Representative Henry A. Waxman cultivated a study, The Waxman Report, in which he found, “Serious and pervasive problems with the accuracy of abstinence-only curricula may help explain why these programs have not been shown to protect adolescents from sexually transmitted diseases and why youth who pledge abstinence are significantly less likely to make informed choices about precautions when they do have sex.”

The Waxman Report also concluded, “That over 80 percent of federal grants go to providing abstinence-only curricula that ‘contain false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health.’ Including exaggerations about contraceptive failure rates, the physical and mental health risks of abortion and the health susceptibilities of the gay population.”

19-year old SUNY New Paltz student and New York native, Sam Manzella, claims she had to turn to the Internet to find information on protected sex between same-sex couples. “My sex education teacher was extremely conservative and only talked about condoms as a means of protection, while emphasizing abstinence. There was no information readily available about gay couples outside of the discussion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.”

“I didn’t even know what dental dams or female condoms were, let alone that they existed,” she said. “And then I felt guilty and ashamed, like I was doing something wrong because I had to turn to the Internet to learn about sex.”

Although the Internet can provide useful information to those who would otherwise remain in the dark about certain topics, it can also perpetuate harm with the overdosing of violent material, especially in pornography. According to a 2015 study by Covenant Eyes, an Internet accountability and filter company, approximately 70 million people visit pornographic websites each week, with over 11 million of those users being under the age of 18.

Covenant Eyes also found that 88 percent of porn displayed scenes of physical aggression in the form of spanking, slapping, and gagging, while 49 percent of porn videos contained verbal aggression, primarily name-calling. This agro-arousal “technique” is fine for willing participants, but when the scene depicts a partner crying and screaming, how are the now desensitized and mis-educated teens supposed to know the difference between role-play and rape?

This same study discovered that there were higher percentages of porn subscriptions amongst the younger, more impressionable demographic of teens and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24. Although Internet porn has been around for years, it’s only becoming easier to access. With the rise of mobile smartphones, tablets and the like, it’s much harder for parents to censor what their kids are exposed to. With options to delete one’s search history or browse privately, kids and teens can access pornographic material without anyone ever finding out.

But this ease of access doesn’t come without consequence.

In 1982 and 1984, Dr. Dolf Zillmann and Dr. Jennings Bryant conducted an experiment to exercise the psychological effects of exposure to pornography. The doctors divided 80 male and 80 female college-age participants into three groups that each watched roughly five hours of media over six weeks. The “Massive Exposure Group” was shown 36 non-violent pornographic films; the “Intermediate Exposure Group” viewed 18 pornographic films and 18 non-pornographic films, while the “No Exposure” control group observed 36 non-pornographic films.

Researchers concluded that exposure to porn conditioned participants to trivialize rape and overtly accept adultery. The study also found that the Massive Exposure Group was more likely to believe all women fit the porn-star stereotype as, “Socially non-discriminating, as hysterically euphoric in response to just about any sexual or psuedosexual stimulation, and as eager to accommodate seemingly any and every request.”

But when a child or adolescent is exposed to pornography, the consequences are much more grim. Covenant Eyes found that children or adolescents directly exposed to porn believed, “Sexual satisfaction is attainable without having affection for one’s partner,” thereby reinforcing the objectification of men and women. More specifically, exposure to sexually explicit films is directly correlated to the belief that women are sex objects. The study also discovered that exposed adolescents have an increased risk of retaining incorrect information about sexuality.

Furthermore, Dr. Gary R. Brooks observed a “pervasive disorder” linked to the consumption of pornography. Brooks describes five symptoms: voyeurism, objectification, validation, trophyism and fear of true intimacy. Brooks goes on to suggest that this disorder, amongst the other consequences of porn as a means of education, is linked to the increased risk of sexual violence.

Hundreds of studies have been conducted to determine the psychological affects of pornography consumption in young teens and they’ve all concluded that there is a correlation between explicit content and both active and passive sexual violence and unwanted sex. In a meta-analysis of 46 different studies, Covenant Eyes discovered, “Among perpetrators of sex crimes, adolescent exposure to pornography is a significant predictor of elevated violence and victim humiliation.”

Since it’s nearly impossible to prevent adolescents from viewing such explicit content, we must change how they react to the subject matter by educating them on all sectors of the sex spectrum. If children and adolescents were presented with an all-inclusive sexual education, they wouldn’t need to turn to porn or other explicit material as a means for instruction. A more inclusive sex education, not one just based on abstinence and conservative opinions, would not only decrease the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, but that of sexual assault and violence as well. Additionally, the expanded sexual education discussion would teach teens how to effectively communicate and improve healthy decision making skills, disparaging domestic violence and other forms of abuse.

It’s time we stop teaching sex as only a means of procreation and start teaching it as a natural means of recreation. Students must be presented with all the facts so they’re able to make healthy and informed decisions. In order to end rape culture, we must create a consent culture, and a proper education is the first step. It’s time to stop shaming and start talking.

I’m a 2017 graduate of SUNY New Paltz, where I studied digital media journalism and communications with a concentration in public relations. I consider myself to be more than a journalist or photographer, but a story-teller. My work has been published on a variety of media platforms, from The Daily Dot to The Norman Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies.

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