What I Wish I Had Known
By Jill Conway, Capacity Building Manager
April 19, 2017
In our third blog for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Jill Conway describes her experience in high school, and the knowledge she wishes she could've had.
TRIGGER WARNING: This blog contains descriptions of sexual assault.
When I was growing up in the Colorado public school system, sexuality education was not something integrated into core content programming. We would sporadically receive a lesson focused on the negative outcomes associated with sexual activity, such as STIs and unwanted pregnancy, mixed with a clear rhetoric of “Don’t do it.” Sexual assault was not mentioned within curricula, and most of the messages I received surrounding that topic were from adults telling me to not get in a van with a random stranger, or from television shows like Law and Order SVU that continued to emphasize the idea that sexual assault is committed by strangers. I didn’t receive information about how 93% of child victims often know their perpetrator. So when I was sexually assaulted in one of my first relationships, I froze. I didn’t understand what happened or how to move forward.
It happened in high school, when I was starting to date more seriously. Most of my friends were sexually active (or at least they said they were) and bragged about how great it all was, but I was extremely nervous. I didn’t have any information about what I should do and worried about whether I would be doing things right. My friends assured me that when I met the right person it would be easy. So despite my nerves, I listened to them and waited for the right relationship to evolve. My freshman year in high school, I met someone who seemed like he could be that right relationship. It was completely exhilarating. We went out on dates, were on each other’s Myspace Top 8, made out in my parents' basement, and talked late into the night. It was nice to finally have someone who was interested in me sexually, but I was also a bit apprehensive because he was more sexually experienced. Plus, I was planning on waiting to have sex with someone special, and despite our connection I wasn't totally convinced I wanted him to be that person.
One day, things went beyond our regular make-out sessions. It wasn’t something that we had discussed, and it was not something that I was ready for physically or emotionally. I remember being in shock while it was happening, but not saying anything and just silently crying. I’m not sure if he even noticed. Afterwards, I felt ashamed and utterly confused about what had just happened because I hadn't said yes, but I also hadn't said no. Making matters even more confusing, this was someone who was my partner and someone that I cared for. I thought that sexual assault only happened randomly from strangers in alleyways; I didn't realize sexual assault could happen in relationships, let alone recognize that it had happened to me at the hands of someone I trusted.
My assault shaped many of my relationships over the next decade of my life and insecurities I had with future partners. Looking back, I think that if I'd had additional knowledge and skills about what it means to communicate in a relationship, what consent looks like, and how to live a fulfilling healthy life within my boundaries, I would have been better equipped to express my limits and recognize that his actions were unacceptable. My sexuality education failed me, but it also failed my partner. Like me, he didn’t have a solid idea of what consent is and how healthy communication should be modeled in relationships. He should have recognized his actions were unacceptable and unwarranted, and maybe he would have with better education surrounding consent; maybe the assault wouldn't have happened.
My story is not unique. Unfortunately, it is actually quite common. Part of the reason I chose to go into this line of work as a sexuality educator and social worker is because I see the importance of prevention efforts to combat the cycle of sexual assault with future generations. I truly believe, and the evidence shows, that providing young people with sex-positive information and skill development practice facilitates healthy decisions. I know that if I'd had a trusted adult who spoke to me about sex and sexuality in an honest and medically-accurate manner, I would have been more equipped to communicate my boundaries and say no. I needed to hear messaging from educators and other adults about what sexual assault looked like beyond the stranger in the alley.
So where do we go from here? For one thing, when discussing sexual assault prevention, educators and adults need to emphasize the intricacies of relationships and how to communicate effectively about sex in a variety of sexual encounters. It can be scary or intimidating to talk about sex and boundaries with someone, but consistent and sex-positive education can help to curb that fear. We also need to move beyond the idea that the absence of a ‘no’ is consent. Affirmative consent must become the norm, and it doesn’t have to be presented to young people in a sex-negative, fear-based way. In fact, consent is sexy! It should be the norm of every sexual encounter. The only way that can happen is with a coordinated effort from sexuality educators and other trusted adults to emphasize the necessity of consent.
Looking back on my own sexuality education, I wish that adults had been honest and clear about what sexual assault is, and that it can happen in relationships. Without this clear message, young people are unprepared and oftentimes unable to identify what happens to them as sexual assault. It took me years to come to terms with what happened to me, and my hope is that future generations do not experience the same hardships.