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Read our latest newsletter: February 2017.

Want healthy youth? Let's talk sexual violence prevention: Guest viewpoint

As part of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month in April, communities throughout Massachusetts and across the country are asked to take a hard look at what they are doing to address and prevent sexual violence.

Daily news stories investigating sexual assault and rape on high school and college campuses, charges against teachers and day care providers, and sexual trauma in the military, make clear that sexual violence is affecting too many people in our communities.

In fact, the 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey revealed approximately 80% of female victims experienced rape before the age of 24; almost half experienced rape before age 18. In most of these cases, the sexual offender was someone known to the victim. In the most recent Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) 5% of middle school students reported being a victim of dating violence. More than 8% of high school students reported being a victim of dating or sexual assault. Female students were three times more likely to report being victims of dating violence than male students (12% vs. 4%) and being victims of sexual assault (13% vs. 4%). National studies indicate that young LGBQ/T survivors (up to the age of 24) are 2.6 times more likely to experience sexual violence within intimate partner relationships.

Those statistics just reflect the cases we know about. Far too many go unreported because we have not created a culture that encourages open and safe conversations about sexual violence. We can't expect young people to talk about and get help after experiencing sexual violence if we don't first empower them with information that is medically accurate and age-appropriate about relationships, respecting boundaries, and sexuality and gender.

To do so requires us to look upstream and start promoting a culture of consent, mutually respectful relationships, and healthy sexuality earlier.

It's common – and in many ways expected – that parents will teach their pre-school-aged children the importance of putting on their "listening ears" and seeking permission before using someone else's toy. When those conversations stop on the playground and aren't picked up again until first-year college orientation, we forfeit countless meaningful opportunities for more substantive and age-appropriate conversations that serve as a prescription for healthy sexuality and may be an antidote to sexual violence. Delaying these conversations also neglects the many young people not enrolled in college who may be at greater risk of sexual assault.

This responsibility does not have to lie exclusively on parents' shoulders. Given the critical role they play in youth's social and emotional development, schools are uniquely positioned to help contribute to sexual assault prevention at its roots. Already, youth activism in high schools and colleges is raising awareness about sexual violence and holding educational institutions accountable for creating safe environments for all students. Schools are partnering with local rape crisis centers and domestic violence programs to support survivors and to implement violence prevention programs. But more can be done to prevent sexual violence.

Comprehensive school-based sexuality education teaches young people how to make positive, informed and empowered decisions about their health and their futures. Young people can learn how to have open communication, set and respect boundaries, develop positive, healthy interpersonal relationship skills and be media literate when it comes to the narrow, rigid and often violent representations of gender and sexuality in popular culture. Learning how to ask for, give and hear consent – or lack thereof – are skills that need to be learned, and sexuality education provides the opportunity to do so.

The value placed on the health and well-being of society's youth often transcends political, religious, and other differences, and can help drive efforts to successfully prevent sexual violence. Creating a culture of consent, respect and non-violence is essential for the health and well-being of today's youth and the broader society. Establishing public policies that expand access to comprehensive, medically accurate and age-appropriate sexuality education in Massachusetts is an important part of the solution. This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, find out what your schools and local leaders are doing to prevent sexual assault and ensure every child in Massachusetts can lead a healthy life free of violence.

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