Sexually charged insults in the schoolyard, porn, or nude photos on the internet: a new German study shows that every second young person has experienced sexual violence - mainly at the hands of their peers.
"I wish that people knew about this and that it would stop. I would like to have someone who could protect me," writes one girl who took part in a study on sexual violence in the life of teens in the German state of Hesse. The author behind the study, Sabine Maschke of the Philipps University Marburg, doesn’t know what became of that girl, nor if she was able to stop the harassment she was experiencing. For the survey - called "Speak!" - Maschke and her colleagues asked more than 2,700 students between the ages of 14 and 16 about their experiences with sexual violence, whether as a victim or perpetrator. The team deliberately widely defined the term to include such things as sexual insults or gestures, sexual harassment on social media, being forced to see pornographic images or films, as well as unwanted touching or attempted penetration.
"What surprised us the most is that sexual violence is part of these young people’s everyday lives, and that they mostly experience such violence at the hands of their peers," said Maschke. For her, the study represents a way to systematically analyze the issue of sexualized violence and its causes.
Gender a major factor
According to the survey, every second young person between the ages of 14 and 16 has experienced non-physical sexual violence. Girls are especially affected: every third reported being kissed against her will, and more than 5 percent of girls said they’d been forced into participating in nude photos or videos, forcibly touched, or had to defend themselves against sexual advances. Among the boys surveyed, every fourth said they had been subjected to sexualized verbal attacks. And among boys, too, 5 percent said they had been groped against their will.
Roughly 80 percent of teenage boys and 40 percent of teenage girls surveyed had viewed pornography online
According to Maschke, many of the students surveyed said such behavior was something they just have to put up with, because it is part of their everyday lives. "The girls also feel vulnerable, and they suffer as a result. They welcome this discussion," she said, adding that the need to talk about this issue was reflected in the high degree of interest in the survey. Participants filled out 40 pages of questions, taking 90 minutes to provide very thorough answers.
"In school, the girls are taught to not get raped, instead of teaching the boys not to commit rape," wrote one girl. Maschke says such responses reveal the need for dialogue that reaches everyone, both victims and aggressors.
The state government in Hesse now hopes "Speak!" will be used to develop preventive measures and create educational material to raise awareness about sexual violence among young people. Maschke and her team also asked respondents about how to solve the problem of sexual violence among teens, and say they were surprised by some of the answers they got.
"Even those people who had committed sexually violent acts say that they need help and orientation as they search for their own identity," Maschke said.
Sexual studies researcher Heinz-Jürgen Voss from Merseburg University says boys need to learn to recognize boundaries, and differentiate "fun" from violence. "They sometimes only learn what their boundaries and the boundaries of others are after they’ve crossed them. But we still need a social environment that makes them aware of this," he said.
Appealing to teachers and parents
Researchers say part of the problem is pornographic material that continues to portray men as dominant, and women as submissive. The study in Hesse found that around 80 percent of teenage boys have watched porn online, compared to around 40 percent of teenage girls. Every second boy and 8 percent of girls said that they frequently consume pornographic material. Voss says that, given such figures, it’s important to discuss the way men and women are portrayed in such films.
Maschke also stresses the importance of parents discussing sexuality and the portrayal of sex in the media with their children. "We live in a sexualized world, but grown ups still need to learn to speak openly about these things," she said.