Teen Sexual Violence — A Hidden Epidemic

Photo by Andy Towle. |

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For “Becky” it happened where she least expected it — at school with hundreds of people around. Pinned down by an older senior, she was groped repeatedly until she finally squirmed away. Becky fought back, though, taking the boy to court and eventually watching him plead guilty.

For “Dawn,” being raped by her boyfriend was never a thought that crossed her mind. But unlike Becky, Dawn chose to stay quiet about the event, harboring the memories in fear of ruining both their lives. Both girls asked that we not use their real names.

Both cases capture a hidden epidemic — a violent, underreported crime that no one seems to talk about.

But stop. Ask nearly any high school student and they can list friends affected by sexual assault.

In fact, the Roundup spoke to Dawn randomly at a school assembly. Dawn and her friend where the first people asked about teen sexual violence and both girls said they knew friends that had done things sexually they didn’t want to do because a boyfriend or male had pushed for it.

And sexual violence is the reason two out of three teen girls seek help at Southwest Behavioral Health Services in Payson.

With the number of cases growing every year, underage sexual violence is a growing concern for Payson counselors and police.

In an age when more teens experiment sexually earlier, the line between innocent fun and assault grows fainter.

Victims, frequently girls, often hold the shameful secret for years.

For those that choose to report, the consequences are almost worse than the act. Many experience an enormous trauma when their friends, community and sometimes family turn against them, refusing to believe their story.

Some even side with the abuser.

For counselors, how victims deal with the event afterward is most troubling. Some attempt suicide, others withdraw from school and into seclusion, some turn promiscuous, believing sex is the only way to get positive attention from young men, and others simply pretend it never happened.

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Payson Police Sgt. Les Barr discusses abusive relationships at Payson High School’s Depression Awareness Day during a break-out session.

For Becky, taking her abuser to court came at a heavy price.

She lost most of her friends, she was harassed and forced to withdraw from school with the catcalls and comments in the hall becoming too much to handle.

“People came after me,” she said. “They threatened me all the time, especially girls.”

Some students even threatened to stab her if she did not drop the charges.

But Becky persisted and her abuser was convicted, having to deal with the title of child molester the rest of his life. That has not stopped the harassment.

By contrast, 17-year-old Dawn, elected not to report that her boyfriend had raped her in his closet.

She told her parents, but they decided they didn’t want to wreck the boy’s life with the label of sex offender.

Although Dawn says she is “over” the event, counselors say most teen girls don’t have the coping skills to deal with such a traumatic incident.

Debra Shewey, program director of children’s services at Southwest Behavioral Health Services (SBHS), says nearly every day she deals with girls who have experienced sexual violence. Of the roughly 30 teen girls 12 years and older treated at SBHS last year, 20 reported sexual violence in their past.

Most, however, don’t report the incident and most don’t even tell their families, Shewey found.

It isn’t until they come in for help for behavioral problems that the real issue emerges.

“Once they get in and we do an assessment, we find out about incidents such as date rape,” she said.

Nationally every year, one in four adolescents report verbal, physical, emotional or sexual abuse from a dating partner, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Moreover, 75 percent of sexual assault victims are between the ages of 12 and 24 with many of the offenders being youths themselves, according to the University of Arizona Frances McClelland Institute.

Police say they can only guess at how big the problem is in Payson.

“This is a very underreported issue,” said Police Chief Don Engler.

Engler believes because many sexual crimes occur when alcohol or drugs are involved, girls are afraid to come forward, fearful they will get in trouble because they were drinking.

“I wish we could change that stigma because these things are wrong and should be reported,” he said.

Nationally, more than 80 percent of rape victims do not report the assault to police, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

For Becky, her abuser was a fellow high school student. Although they were only acquaintances, she went with him to a remote part of the school.

Looking back on that moment, Becky said she ignored her gut feeling not to go.

“I remember the feeling, but I thought I was overreacting,” she said. “I didn’t want to be rude.”

Away from everyone else, the boy kissed Becky and then pushed himself on her. She shoved him away and said “No!” but this made him try harder.

“The look in his eyes said he would not stop,” she said.

Afterwards, Becky ran away, afraid to tell police because she didn’t want to deal with “the drama.” Witnesses eventually told police what they saw and Becky agreed to press charges.

When everyone at school heard what happened, many people sided with the guy because he was popular.

“I was chased out (of school) by two girls at my own school,” she said.

When other girls see what happens to someone like Becky, it scares them out of coming forward when it happens to them, Shewey said.

“Acceptance of dating abuse among friends is one of the strongest links to future involvement in dating abuse,” according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Becky withdrew from school and spent the remainder of the year at an out-of-town high school.

But the harassment did not stop. Becky got frequent phone calls and text messages stating she was ruining an innocent boy’s life. She thought about dropping the whole thing.

“I realized that if I had dropped the charges I would regret it,” she said.

Although her mother enrolled her in counseling, Becky developed stress, guilt, fear and became increasingly promiscuous.

Acting out sexually was the only way Becky saw to get positive attention from guys.

“I had to call my mom and tell her I need help,” Becky said of her out-of-control behavior.

Research supports Becky’s conduct.

“Teen victims of physical dating violence are more likely than their non-abused peers to smoke, use drugs, engage in unhealthy diet behaviors, engage in risky sexual behaviors and attempt or consider suicide,” according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Becky thought several times about taking her own life.

“I would pray for God to make a car accident happen,” she said.

Among teen girls that report being sexually assaulted by a dating partner, they are six to nine times more likely to report suicide ideation.

Becky’s mother saw her daughter’s once cheerful attitude change for the worse.

She enrolled Becky in self-defense classes and things finally started to improve.

Where Becky once questioned how to say “no” to a boy’s advances, she realized she had the power to stand up for herself.

At school, Becky said she knows of at least three other girls who have been sexually assaulted.

Some boys just don’t understand that “no” means no, she said.

“They don’t know how to control themselves.”

When it goes unreported

For Dawn, 17, her abuser was someone she trusted.

After dating two weeks, Dawn was over at her boyfriend’s home watching TV on his bed. She got a funny feeling lying there with him, but ignored it.

He lay on top of Dawn, but she said she wasn’t ready. When she got up to leave, he pushed her into the closet.

He raped her despite her pleas to stop. When it was over, she pushed him off and ran home.

Dawn told her mom, who went over and talked to the boy and his parents.

They decided not to press charges and the boy told Dawn “she had had a good impact on him,” helping straighten him out.

Asked how she feels about the incident now, Dawn said she is over it because she has a better boyfriend.

While Dawn could not predict what would happen to her, she realizes now she should have listened to her inner voice.

Shewey said it is common for girls to remember feeling something amiss before an attack.

However, when alcohol is involved, it is easy to ignore those signs.

Shewey, who specializes in juvenile counseling, said she regularly sees girls as young as 12 who report going to a party, drinking and being assaulted.

“For a huge number of them it was their first time drinking, so they are not educated about the effects of alcohol,” she said. “A lot of times they wake up the next morning with a boy in bed and wonder what happened.”

After an assault, many girls don’t report the incident because they don’t want their parents to know, they don’t really understand what happened, they don’t think it will happen again and they are embarrassed.

“Dealing with the stress of the incident, there is a lot of guilt and shame,” Shewey said.

How often an assault happens at school is unknown because many teens do not report the incident, Engler said.

Every year, the PPD investigates only a few cases of sexual violence in the school district, but Engler believes there could be many more.

At Payson High School, school officials recognize there is a problem and recently held a class on abusive relationships during Depression Awareness Day.

Sgt. Les Barr with the PPD discussed what a healthy relationship looks like and how to recognize the signs of an abusive relationship.

Qualities like respect, good communication and honesty are part of a healthy relationship.

“Anything opposite of healthy is abusive,” Barr said.

The tell-tell signs of an abusive relationship include jealousy, anger, bitterness and mistrust. Obvious signs include physical, verbal and sexual violence.

Most teens falsely believe, however, that they will never be in an abusive relationship. When it does happen, it can crush their confidence.

For Shewey, increasing a girl’s self-esteem is the No. 1 way to help them deal with the event.

Developing coping skills is crucial, she said, otherwise, they carry scars of the trauma through life.

“We have to help them understand their feelings and what they went through,” she said.

Many women who don’t get help end up in therapy years later.

“They stuff it and stuff it, but you can’t stuff it forever,” she said.

In part two of the Roundup’s coverage of sexual violence, read how abuse often carries into adulthood. Through several police reports, we examine how assaults occur and why it is often hard for police to make arrests, especially when alcohol is involved.

In part three, we look at ways to prevent sexual assault and what schools and communities can do to prevent it, including education and legislation.

For more information, contact Southwest Behavioral Health Services at (928) 468-8055, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center at www.nsvrc.org or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-HOPE.

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