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Shelby KearnsMay 11, 2022
(Photo: Ben Blennershassett/Unsplash)

There is an assumption that gets in the way of sexual violence prevention: that talking about things like sexual activity and consent somehow encourages sexual activity. So both schools and families often shy away from teaching about the sexual abuse of children and, later, about the sexual assault of adults.

Most recently, the attitude that silence equals prevention has encouraged a harmful—and confusing—connection between pedophilia and the L.G.B.T.Q. community. After Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed the Parental Rights in Education bill (known by its critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which, among other things, “prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels”), legislators in at least a dozen states proposed similar laws. The fear among lawmakers and other advocates of these bills is that teaching elementary-aged children about gender identity or sexual orientation is not “developmentally appropriate” or amounts to “indoctrination.”

Fears of “indoctrination” or introducing sensitive topics to students too early can keep needed sexual education out of schools altogether.

The debate on which topics are age-appropriate and how to introduce youth to sensitive subjects is born of a shared desire to protect children. But fears of “indoctrination” or introducing sensitive topics to students too early can keep needed sexual education out of schools altogether, ultimately leading to harm. (Florida, which last year enacted a law making it easier for parents to remove their children from such instruction, is one of dozens of states that do not require sex ed for graduation.) Eliminating certain topics from the curriculum altogether also harms adults. Many adult survivors of sexual assault—nearly a third of whom first experienced assault between the ages of 11 and 17—say they received prevention education too late or never received it at all.

But even when families or schools cannot or will not provide critical information about sex, other institutions, including churches, can fill this education gap. The Archdiocese of Chicago’s Domestic Violence Outreach program, for example, has a pilot curriculum in middle and high schools called Dating Matters, which teaches ways to prevent domestic and sexual violence. For churches wishing to provide this education, there are easy, no-cost strategies they can adopt with the goal of helping to reduce alarming rates of sexual violence.

Violence prevention research recommends education that is “upstream” (that is, addressing the root causes of violence) and holistic (delivered by multiple messengers in multiple community settings). For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends comprehensive strategies that treat sexual violence as a cultural problem rather than as a series of isolated incidents. Effective prevention education does not only teach individual safety (carry mace or use the buddy system) but also the characteristics of a person, family or environment that make a person more likely to perpetrate violence. The C.D.C. calls these risk factors, and they include a tolerance of sexual violence and societal norms of male superiority and female inferiority that are present in a neighborhood or other kind of community.

When families or schools cannot or will not provide critical information about sex, other institutions, including churches, can fill this education gap.

For holistic prevention, Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand of the University of Florida, writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, suggest that the most effective strategies target a narrow audience and use the right messengers. Based on this research, churches can have a profound effect on reducing sexual violence in their communities. They have a narrow audience with shared values, and because churches have contact with entire families, they can use prevention strategies that are appropriate for each age group.

For example, strategies for sexual violence prevention for young children include curricula that teach healthy boundaries, like Talking About Touching and Lauren’s Kids. Far from encouraging sexual activity, these curricula specifically teach children that they have the agency to say no to physical contact. And for Catholic school teachers who want help delivering these lessons, local violence prevention organizations will often lead sessions for free. (After receiving training in prevention curricula, I was eager to share the information by offering free presentations to any organization that would host me.)

As students begin dating relationships, effective prevention strategies should include conversations about consent. The curriculum Safe Dates is one example of the kind of content teachers could cover with students. It challenges the societal norm that men are dominant and women are submissive, a norm that leads men to treat women as objects of desire. Safe Dates also teaches healthy communication to resolve conflict and provides information on reporting assault or helping a friend who experiences assault.

Because churches have contact with entire families, they can use prevention strategies that are appropriate for each age group.

Bystander intervention training is another prevention strategy that offers age-appropriate content. Programs such as Green Dot, Bringing in the Bystander and Right To Be are single-session presentations that teach participants how to overcome personal barriers—such as having a nonconfrontational personality or worrying about safety—to intervene in potentially violent situations. Violence prevention organizations can buy these programs to train their staff members, who can then give presentations at no cost to churches, businesses and other organizations.

Because the most successful education campaigns are often local, Pope Francis, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other leaders could provide templates but also encourage campaigns that are parish-centered. Homilies can also reiterate church teachings: that, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, sexual assault is the fault of the perpetrator rather than the survivor; that the parable of the good Samaritan is a story of bystander intervention; and that, when Jesus condemned looking at women with lust, he also condemned their exploitation and objectification. (As noted above, the Archdiocese of Chicago is especially supportive of violence prevention efforts, and its Domestic Violence Outreach site includes videos of several relevant homilies.)

Parishes and faith-based organizations can also help prevent sexual violence by joining community coalitions that include businesses, schools and military installations. At the nonprofit that I worked for, the local parish was an active member of our coalition. The priest, soup kitchen director and other staff posted resources at the church entrance, including a flyer with examples of bystander intervention. Catechism teachers used the annual Safe Environment training, an abuse prevention program for employees and volunteers who have contact with minors and vulnerable adults, to have a discussion with youth about physical, emotional and behavioral boundaries and what they can do if someone violates them. This experience made me hopeful that other churches will fill the education gap so that parishioners receive upstream prevention messaging as children, teenagers and young adults.

Sexual violence is a topic that educators should handle with care, but the desire to avoid discomfort should not come at the expense of safety. Children are never too young to learn about boundaries or bystander intervention. We owe them the knowledge and the tools to protect themselves and others from sexual violence.

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