On Wednesday, thousands of college students carried mattresses across more than 100 campuses around the country to demand better support from their institutions for survivors of sexual assault. But those who gathered in honor of the Carry That Weight Day of Action events didn’t only seek to hold administrators accountable for keeping students safe; they also wanted to elevate conversations about sexual and domestic violence into the public sphere. And in turn, this confirmed the importance of teaching young people about healthy relationships long before they reach their late teens.
The national Day of Action was inspired by Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University student and artist who has carried a mattress around campus for two months and says she will continue to do so as long as her rapist is allowed to stay enrolled. As the policy and research associate at Planned Parenthood of New York City (PPNYC), I was honored to speak at the Columbia rally alongside student activists, including Sulkowicz, who shared their stories in the fight for change.
Too often, we confine frank discussions about violence against women to the private sphere of dorm rooms or households. We at PPNYC know that this puts the onus on survivors to demand action themselves, which ignores the need for collective support.
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For me, this issue is deeply personal. My mother faced partner abuse when I was young, and yet I didn’t think it was my job to say something. I was uneasy and uncomfortable, like so many of us are in these situations, and stayed silent. I regret it to this day. Because as bystanders, it is always our job to speak up. And as supporters and staff of organizations committed to fighting for gender equity, we all need to speak up, or we’ll perpetuate the systems of oppression that we claim to challenge.
Bringing the existence of sexual and domestic violence into the forefront of the public consciousness by sharing our stories and speaking out is critical, but it is only one part of enacting wide-ranging change. We must also ask why students are not taught about consent or what a healthy relationship looks like, and why they aren’t given adequate resources to prevent and respond to gender-based assault. Instead, they’re taught that sexual responsibility lies on the shoulders of only one gender.
As a result, sexual violence is rampant. The statistics are staggering—nearly one in five college women have experienced rape, and one in four have faced unwanted sexual contact. And those numbers are not going down fast enough. The fight to end sexual assault must include efforts to improve sexual health education, starting many years before students even think about going to college.
Comprehensive sexual education in every school, for every student K-12, could help decrease incidents of assault and abuse. In New York City, for example, despite efforts to improve sexual education, gaps still exist when it comes to communication, healthy relationships, and support for LGBTQ students. These causes are interrelated—until we are able to talk about what meaningful consent and cultural competency look like, and how the patriarchy hurts all of us, any policies we pass will fail to achieve their stated purposes.
A recent survey sponsored by Connect 2 Protect Bronx, a National Institutes of Health-funded project led locally by Montefiore Medical Center, found that only 47 percent of participating high school students in the Bronx reported learning about condom negotiation. A little more than half said they were taught about healthy relationships, and just 37 percent learned communication skills when it comes to sex. Even fewer—26 percent—learned about supportive LGBTQ measures in school.
When schools fail to adequately teach these lessons, youths enter into relationships without learning how to talk about consent. And that has devastating effects on all young people of every gender.
As providers of health education and services, we at PPNYC know that the gaps that remain in New York City’s sexual health education have a significant impact on young people’s health and well-being. As the largest metropolitan area in the United States, New York City can and must do better to combat assault and become a leader in comprehensive sexual education that teaches not just the basic prevention lessons, but also provides students the skills to build healthy relationships and caring communities, and empowers students to make the best decisions that are right for them.
In addition to comprehensive sexual education, we need better resources on college campuses, including mandatory consent policies, bystander intervention education, and more support for survivors of assault and violence to ensure the resources everyone needs are accessible.
Until this happens, students in colleges across the city and elsewhere will continue to be forced to carry the weight.