How schools can reduce sexual violence

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

No one ever shows up at brunch and says, “Oh my gosh, I was so sober last night!”

Risky behavior draws attention. As a result, people tend to assume that everyone else is doing it more than they really are.

But, over the last two decades, research on college campuses has shown that giving students the real facts about their peers reduces unsafe drinking. This approach is called positive social norms. It works because of a basic truth of human nature: People want to do what others are doing.

Now, that research is starting to be applied to a novel area: preventing sexual assault and harassment. A 2011 survey suggests that more than half of young women and almost half of young men have experienced sexual harassment before age 18, ranging from an unwanted comment on the street to groping in the hallways at school.

And about 8 percent of girls experience rape or attempted rape by that age, a 2012 survey indicated.

Since the #MeToo movement started, six states have introduced or passed bills to require teaching about consent in K-12 sex ed classes. But there’s not much research yet on what kind of education actually works to shift teens’ attitudes and actions.

Sandra Malone directs prevention and training at Day One, a nonprofit in Providence, R.I., that offers both education and rape crisis services. Her program has been among the first to try to move teens to seek consent and build healthier sexual relationships by harnessing peer pressure.

She says she can remember from her own teenage years that “Their peers are so important to them. Those are powerful years where you don’t want to make yourself vulnerable and stand out.”

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