In 1978, only 24 percent of teenage boys and 44 percent of girls thought it was never acceptable for men to force sex on women, according to a psychological survey of 432 teenagers in Los Angeles. Answering on a five-point scale, the teens registered some degree of uncertainty that rape was wrong in instances where “he spent a lot of money on her” (39 percent of males and 12 percent of females could imagine situations where force was okay); where “she gets him sexually excited” (51 percent of boys and 42 percent of girls); or where “they have dated for a long time” (43 percent and 32 percent).
Reading these numbers, we can take some comfort that times—and social mores—have changed. But how much have they progressed, exactly? A new study called “Normalizing Sexual Violence,” to be published in the next issue of the journal Gender & Society, suggests teenagers are still growing up with the perception that rape and harassment are just “normal stuff” that “guys do.”
“They grab you, touch your butt and try to, like, touch you in the front, and run away, but it’s okay,” said a 13-year-old girl. “I never think it’s a big thing because they do it to everyone.”
Author Heather Hlavka, of Marquette University, wrote that the girls were “appropriating” an age-old set of gender dynamics—“boys will be boys”—to “make sense of everyday harassment, violence, coercion, and consent.” Her study, like so many others, found that sexual assault and harassment are underreported—but often because victims don’t see what was done to them as a crime. Some subjects viewed rape as wrong, but anything short of it as normal.
It’s important to note that the 100 study participants, all girls between the ages of three and 17, had been chosen through an advocacy group that labeled them as at-risk for sexual assault. But as Tara Culp-Ressler writes at ThinkProgress, this isn’t the only recent study to raise a red flag about the sexual mores being imparted to teens. Two studies last fall found that beliefs about sex—including tendencies toward and acceptance of sexual violence—are formed in the teenage years. Just as young women learn to rationalize violence, young men learn “sexual entitlement.”
Fighting for their own social and sexual footing, girls tended to distance themselves from peers who had suffered sexual violence; to blame them for their own victimization; and to "slut-shame" them. "Sexual reputation mattered to girls and the threat of being labeled a 'ho' or a 'slut' loomed large," Hlavka writes—and often kept girls from reporting their own rapes or others'. One 12-year-old girl’s response, when a 13-year-old friend opened up about an incident with an 18-year-old, was, “Why you telling everybody you got raped when you didn’t?”
Hlavka concludes, “The sexual scripts culturally available to girls largely exclude sexual desire and pleasure,” and that girls are taught they have to be “gatekeepers” while boys learn that it’s okay to “work a ‘yes’ out” from someone who’s resisting. “Alternative solutions for the education of young people on sexual relations and abuse are long overdue,” she urges. “Sexual education must be gender equity education.”