I was 18 years old and a few months into my first semester at college when I was sexually assaulted by a friend in the dorms. It was an event that left me shattered. I felt dirty and broken. Every time I showered I felt disgusted by the sight of myself in the mirror and every night when I laid down in my college-issued bed, a model identical to his, I had the desire to peel off my skin and step out of my body. For two years I kept everything locked up inside. My grades fell and I became increasingly secluded. I cut my hair off and started drinking. Things came to a head when I was hospitalized for being a hair’s breadth away from a suicide attempt.
For two years I didn’t talk about what he did to me. I didn’t know how. I didn’t even know definitively that what occurred was sexual assault. He didn’t rape me according to what I knew as being rape (i.e. non-consensual intercourse). I didn’t say no. I just laid there and let it happen. I had a crush on him so why did the memory make me want to vomit? Had he done anything wrong? Or even worse, was I to blame?
Over time and with a lot of hard work, I rebuilt my life and climbed out of the hole I dug, but I still felt uncomfortable. I didn’t understand what had happened to me, I just knew that it felt bad. My junior year I joined a leadership class. This class was filled with some of the strongest, most inspiring individuals that I’ve met in my life. It was also in that class that I met multiple other women with experiences similar to mine, except they had words for it and called it like it was– sexual assault.
At the same time that I found the words I had been so desperately looking for among these women, I also realized that the perpetrator wasn’t the only party complicit in my assault, my education was too.
Growing up in rural Eastern Oregon, I received a similar sex-ed experience to what Utahns receive: abstinence-based. My full education on the matter lasted a couple weeks at most and consisted of reproductive anatomy, the stages of pregnancy, and how to check for lumps. There was no condom-on-a-banana demonstration, no mention of the different types of birth control, no mention of what consent and a healthy sexual relationship should look like. I am angry at the person who assaulted me, but I’m just as angry at schools. My experience was sexual assault. That is something that shouldn’t have taken two years after the fact to learn. Had I known then, I could have reported. I could have gotten help and support. Instead, I faced it alone.
It’s very difficult to get the help you need when you don’t have the words to talk about it. A study of female survivors found that 60.4% of participants did not acknowledge their rape as being such. What students need to learn isn’t “refusal skills” or whatever term the state and school boards like to use to skirt around the topic of sex. Sex-ed should have a focus on what a healthy relationship looks like, what consent is, and how to communicate about sex.
According to the 2016-2017 Utah Statewide Domestic Violence Needs Assessment, 39.6% of women and 19.6% of men in Utah report having experienced rape, stalking, or physical violence in their lifetimes, percentages that are higher than the national average. Approximately 40% of adult homicides in Utah are domestic violence related. Unhealthy relationships are a crisis in Utah. We have the means to do something about it by teaching how to be emotionally intelligent and recognize harmful relationships, but in order to do so, we need to talk about sex and intimacy.
The data is clear: teens and young adults are still having sex, with or without abstinence-based education. Sexual violence happens even in relationships that were previously non-sexual. If schools are going to skip over the mechanics of safe sex, the least they can do is teach safe relationships. Students deserve to have the information they need to determine if their boundaries were violated and what to do if that’s the case. I suffered alone with my burden for years because my education let me down. Utahns, don’t let your children down too.
Clara Robertson is a Better Utah policy intern.