Every few years, the CDC publishes the results of their Youth Risk Behavior survey, and the findings continue to be unsettling. In fact, I pause each time I read an article about how our youth in Utah and in our nation are faring when it comes to things like violence, sexual activity, drug use and overall health.
As the director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project, I spend much of my time sorting through such statistics, translating data and finding patterns, and much of it is troubling. But there is something particularly heartbreaking about this survey because the subjects are in high school. And, unfortunately, each year my guess is that the girls of Utah will experience sexual violence at higher rates than their national peers. Sometimes I hate being right.
The question I want to address asked about having “experienced sexual violence by anyone (including kissing, touching, or being physically forced to have sexual intercourse when they did not want to, one or more times during the 12 months before the survey)?” Nationally, 16.6% of females said yes, compared to 5.2% of males. In Utah, 21.2% of females said yes, compared to 7.6% of males. That’s 14.3% of Utah’s youth who have been had sexual contact by force. The only two states with higher rates than Utah were Idaho (14.9% total and 23.2% for girls) and California (19% total, 22.1% for girls).
That’s 1 in 5 girls surveyed who have been sexually assaulted just in the last year.
Taken cumulatively, more than three-fourths of all sexual assault victims in Utah (78.7%) reported being sexually assaulted before their 18th birthday, with more than one-third of these victims (34.9%) stating they were assaulted before their 10th birthday.
Sadly, most of these crimes will never be punished. According to the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, only 11.8% of women report sexual assault to law enforcement. Fortunately, Utah is one of seven states that have made it a priority to process their backlog of rape kits, working through more than 11,000 since 2015. Before that, a mere 37.2% of rape kits were submitted by law enforcement to the state crime lab for testing. This not only expedites justice for the victims, but also makes sure the right people are convicted. So far this new DNA evidence has led to 33 suspects beimg charged, one of them for a crime committed 10 years ago. Justice should not have an expiration date.
Justice should not have an expiration date.
One question I desperately wish I could see the statistics for is, “have you told your parents or an adult you trust what happened to you?” These kinds of conversations are extremely hard to initiate, with many kids too ashamed to know where to start. As parents, we need to make sure “the talk” isn’t a one-time awkward lecture on birds and bees, but an ongoing dialogue, where we use clear language and teach the importance of concepts like boundaries and consent, and that they can tell us when things go wrong. Kids are not prepared for the situations in which they may find themselves, and it’s our job to help them navigate these murky waters.
And research shows most youth want more parental guidance. A Harvard study surveyed over 3,000 18-to-25-year-olds and found that 70% said they wished they had received more information from their parents about romantic relationships. And 76% of respondents had never had a conversation with their parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others. Just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not vital!
With all the mixed messages about sexuality and relationships, kids need trusted adults to serve as guides and safe havens, and communities that take sexual assault seriously. Religious institutions and schools can provide support, but 1 in 5 of our girls say that’s not sufficient. Our daughters are at risk, and as parents and as a community, we must do better. Lives depend on us.
Dr. Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.