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Empathy and autonomy

Reducing sexual assault by educating our country’s youth

Erik Thulien, Columnist

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Opposition to sexual assault is one of those easy-to-have opinions. It’s easy to go online and shred the most recent attacker for being horrible, selfish, heartless, etc.

I’ve done it plenty of times, including in multiple columns. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with doing that. I think it’s important to stand in solidarity with victims in any way you can, and social media is a great avenue to reach out to them.

What I am saying is that this is only the first step, the easy one, and we usually just leave it there. We’ll share an article or write a post, then go about our day secure in the fact that we are on the right side of this issue. But very seldom do we actually address sexual assault prevention.

Because as important as it is to want the attackers to be held accountable, it is imperative we take measures to prevent these attacks from happening in the future.

When it comes to sexual assault prevention, there are numerous avenues that advocates within this issue are exploring. One of the more promising ideas comes in the form of early education. Early education programs around the country teach children about healthy relationships and proper treatment of others.

The logic behind these programs is pretty clear. People sexually assault other people for a variety of complex reasons, but clearly a factor must be how they learned to treat other people. Teaching children early in the developmental process about the concepts of boundaries and respecting others’ privacy and autonomy can be a big step in preventing sexual assaults before kids even leave high school.

One such program addressing this issue is Game Change: The Patriots Anti-Violence Partnership. This program, led by New England Patriots CEO Robert Kraft, seeks to reduce sexual violence by “reaching students at an early age and teaching them about healthy relationships, how to recognize warning signs and how to intervene.” 

These seminars, led by various experts as well as Kraft and even some Patriots players, teach kids in high school and below about how to treat others with respect and how to intervene if they see instances of sexual assault or abusive relationships.

Another promising program is Green Dot, which was created and implemented at the University of Kentucky, as well as numerous Kentucky high schools.

The Green Dot program is a basic education course that teaches people to recognize situations that have the potential to lead to sexual assault and relationship violence, how to recognize established instances of sexual assault or relationship violence, and how to intervene.

It also teaches about advocacy and ways to educate other people about this issue, to help spread awareness.

When someone recognizes one of these situations and intervenes, or helps someone understand this issue, it is considered a “green dot.” The ultimate goal is to create enough green dots to get rid of all of the “red dots,” which represent instances of sexual assault or relationship violence.

A study by the University of Kentucky regarding the effectiveness of the Green Dot campaign found it was effective in reducing instances of sexual violence. The study was done over five years and found a more than 50 percent decrease in self-reported sexual violence perpetration at the high schools that received green dot training, whereas schools that didn’t receive the training saw a slight increase.

Sexual assault is an issue that seems like an insurmountable battle. On college campuses, the issue seems so pervasive that it is difficult to blame universities when they mishandle a case due to the sheer volume they have to address each year.

Of course universities need to have clear, strict guidelines and procedures on how they deal with these issues, to ensure justice is served. And of course our judicial system needs to value women as much as men, so attackers receive punishments that fit the crime they committed.

But our focus needs to shift slightly. Don’t lose your passion for holding attackers accountable for their actions, just shift some of that passion toward stopping these attacks before they start.

As it stands, there is legislation being proposed to make early education and sexual assault prevention programs mandatory for kids in elementary, middle, and high school. And that seems like a step in the right direction.

If we can teach our young men and women at an early age to value individuals’ autonomy, we can raise much more empathetic and respectful people, drastically reducing the number of attacks that anger us so severely.

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Award winning, student run, weekly campus newspaper of the University of Illinois, Springfield..
Empathy and autonomy