“That’s Just One More Barrier to Coming Forward”

A professor who studies teens and sexual violence on the very obvious reason girls don’t report these crimes.

Teenage girls
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While Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, long-standing debates about what is and isn’t a normal reaction to being sexually assaulted as a teenager continued to broil. Is it normal to simply leave the house and tell no one, as Ford says she did? Or to continue attending parties with boys you’ve heard have assaulted women, as Julie Swetnick, a more recent Kavanaugh accuser, has done?

Heather Hlavka, a professor of criminology and sociology at Marquette University, has studied how teenage girls talk about sexual violence. She spoke with Slate about how kids think about sexual violence and why it comes to seem commonplace. The conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

Haley Swenson: I know there’s a lot of diversity among teenagers, but broadly speaking, what do we know about how teenage girls think about and react to sexual violence and harassment?

Heather Hlavka: What we know is that young people really think about sexual violence in their lives similarly to the way adults do when they’ve been victimized. I’ve done work with boys and girls, but girls in particular are really talking about objectification [and] sexual harassment as part of the fabric of their lives. It seems to be commonplace that unwanted touching and grabbing were described as typical and routine interactions with boys at school, at parties, on playgrounds, on buses. Young people experience sexual violence at alarming rates and describe it as commonplace.

How do they come to see it as normal?

It’s not exactly that they see it as normal. The interviews I looked at are forensic interviews, with young people who reported it, so they wouldn’t have reported it if they didn’t know it was wrong.

What I am saying is the language that they use to talk about it normalizes the experience for them. The culture is telling them that this is what they can expect if they’re women or girls. We keep trivializing these things as routine interactions, and then they trivialize it for themselves. Our culture says we won’t take them seriously, so they have to come to some reconciliation with that in order to fit back into their lives and feel like they haven’t been victimized.

They’re getting messages from friends, family, media that say, “These are the ways we interact.” It’s reinforced by microinteractions between children, but it’s mostly language that they’re picking up from the culture around them.

When we have news cycles that are addressing sexual violence and responding to it in certain ways, you can’t shield your kids from that. That’s how it gets reinforced. If no one’s taking us seriously, if we’re being told that’s not really that big of a deal because it wasn’t forceful sexual intercourse, they’re seeing it as routine because it’s happening to their friends and to them and everyone around them, so they develop this kind of normalization language.

In my research, young women described chronic instances of unwanted touching, grabbing, harassment, and threats that they tried to ignore using language like “It just happens” and “They’re boys—that’s what they do” or “I never think it’s a big thing because they do it to everyone.” One young woman described harassment by a young man in her peer group as they rode the bus every day to and from school. He often threatened to “come over to her house and rape her” if she didn’t let him touch her body. She said, “I know he’s joking. It’s just hard to, like, why would he say that?” She was 14 years old.

And an 11-year-old girl told an interviewer that she was forced to perform oral sex on a 17-year-old neighbor boy. She said, “He forced me … grabbed me tighter, and he said if I didn’t do it he was gonna rape me.” She continued, “If you don’t do what they want, they say they’ll rape you.”

All of these experiences generally go unreported to anyone in a position of authority because “They do it to everyone—it just happens sometimes” or “We just deal with it.” Young women continually note that “no one will believe me” or “everyone believed him.” Friends and family members taught women to be the gatekeepers of men’s sexual aggression and violence, and if they “failed” to protect themselves, young women often blamed themselves and kept the secret because of the shame they felt and fear—and belief—that no one would believe them when they came forward to tell. In this very precarious position, young women who are experiencing sexual harassment and violence in their lives cognitively adapt to their experiences not by labeling themselves as victims but rather normalizing their experiences within a broader peer group and culture that says, “Boys will be boys”—they will be sexually and physically aggressive. It is normal and tolerated, and thus young women are told they must tolerate it as well.

And girls also think it’s normal and natural that boys will behave that way?

Exactly. That’s what they’re being taught. It seems astonishing, and we think, “Oh, we can’t really be treating children that way,” but we do. What’s going on these last few days in the media [with Kavanaugh] are examples of what’s happening in our culture. And our kids are listening. So that’s when they’re picking up cues: “Yes, if I come forward with what happened to me, then I know they won’t believe me or will say it wasn’t a big deal and that I’m making a big deal out of nothing.” Or “His future is more important than mine.” Or telling boys that they will be forgiven for their behavior, and they can be expected to be bad and they’ll get away with it.

If this is how you treat women and young girls, that’s a kind of normalizing discourse and language that they’re hearing that they now need to interpret in their lives.

What do we know about rates of reporting this kind of violence among young people?

Young children report, but in ways that aren’t always totally clear to adults that that’s what they’re doing. They show us through their actions, their emotional changes, perhaps decreasing grades at school, desires not to be around certain people in their families, increased anxiety or depression symptoms, and sometimes even their physical bodies in the way children cling to parents, wet the beds, become despondent, have stomachaches or headaches or other unexplainable pain. Surely, and importantly, many children and young people experiencing violence may not show any of these sorts of symptoms, but as parents and caregivers, educators, and community workers, we should pay attention to all the many ways children tell us something isn’t right. It’s about asking, talking to children, paying attention to them, picking up on really important cues, and truly not expecting them to come forward directly and verbally to tell someone about harassment and abuse because they have been taught, for their whole lives, to not talk about sex, sexuality, or anything related to it.

But among teenagers, reporting is very, very low. Because developmentally, you start to be aware of all these cultural things and barriers that stand in your way. But you know, no matter what your age, you always want to be included. You don’t want to feel isolated or like you don’t belong, whether it’s high school parties, fraternity parties, college campuses, or your workplace. And if you report people who are close to you, you could lose all of that, not to mention get someone close to you in trouble.

In my research I do see young women who see young men or even older men around them who are perpetrating sexual violence against women in their same peer group. That just makes it even more routinized and habitualized, because you can’t speak out against that person without risking being denigrated and ostracized by your peer group. You could lose all of your friends and then have no support. There are so many barriers.

We know that reporting is higher when the person who commits assault is a stranger. It’s far more common to go through sexual assault adjudication if it’s a stranger. It’s very complicated to be violently hurt so deeply by someone you trusted, and you’re far less likely to report.

I can’t believe we’re still asking why people didn’t report. We have to stop asking that question. There are just so many barriers to reporting. And if you say, “Well, why didn’t you report?” then that’s just one more barrier to coming forward.

Do you get the sense that #MeToo has trickled down to high school students? Is there any chance this kind of violence is becoming less normalized?

I believe we are at a critical juncture right now, where we have a national and global conversation happening around rape culture and the routine, trivialized violence in women’s lives and those underserved and underrepresented, marginalized populations.

But we need to be very careful about what we do with these discussions as adults, who clearly are not understanding or listening to our youth. I believe young people today are leading us into a new moment in which sexual violence will not be tolerated in the same ways and speaking out might not be as difficult as it has been in the past for so many. Adults and those in power have to take a back seat to young people, however, and let them lead the way. Social media and social movements have made it clear that experiences of violence and harassment are not rare but are instead routinized, and I believe the language of normalizing that violence will change along with these voices—despite, seemingly, the best efforts of many men in positions of power who repeatedly engage in violent, predatory behaviors, and purport that this is normal heterosexual courting. They are spinning a tale that fewer and fewer are committed to.