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Teen Sexual Assault: Where Does The Conversation Start?

The narrative has become all too familiar: accusations of sexual assault, followed by bullying of the victims on social media.

The case in Steubenville, Ohio, last year drew national attention. Two high school football stars were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl. The assault was filmed and photographed; the images and threats circulated online.

More recently, the focus has turned to Torrington, Conn. Two football players were arrested for the statutory rape of two 13-year-old girls. Social media comments from students swarmed to protect the players, and the girls were called names like "whore" and "snitch."

Activists have been pushing for years to stamp out assault on campus through campaigns for awareness and stronger accountability. But classroom education isn't the end of the story.

At Torrington, for example, half of the high school's students had participated in classes provided by the Susan B. Anthony Project, a nonprofit that educates young people about healthy relationships and preventing sexual violence.

Project Director Barbara Spiegel tells Neena Satija of member station WNPR they taught students at the school boundaries and consent, healthy relationships and cyberbullying in media.

Cyberbullying, in particular, plays a key role in these recent assault cases; social media provides the potential to amplify the reach of hurtful comments.

Cyberbullying is a public act that now has infinite witnesses, but bullying itself is not exactly a new phenomenon.

Amanda Hess, who writes about the relationship between teen sexuality and technology for Slate's XX Factor blog, is not convinced technology can be blamed. Before Twitter, she says, kids used paper "to shame each other sexually."

"That's been going on for a very, very long time. Social media's just the new way that we talk about everything, whether it's positive or negative," she tells NPR's Jacki Lyden on weekends on All Things Considered.

It's not just how people communicate — what they say can be revealing, too. Deborah Roffman, a longtime human sexuality teacher, says she has noticed a shift in the way her students think about sex and relationships. She began teaching grades four through 12 in Baltimore in the mid-1970s.

"When I first started teaching, kids understood, almost by osmosis, that sex and relationships were really flip sides of one another," she says.

About 20 years later, Roffman says, they seemed to become separate things.

"The whole concept of sex as a meaningful form of human intimacy is really vanishing — at least in the things they are exposed to," she says. "And kids are not going to be making real choices; they are just going to be modeling what they see around them."

Roffman points to the ubiquity of pornography. She overheard two male 10th-graders commenting on how lucky they were to have easy access to porn.

"How did previous generations learn about real sex?" one asked.

Roffman told the students that once a camera is involved, the act becomes a performance. The conversation expanded to more students, and eventually others shared new perspectives.

"That's where the power is in working with groups of kids, is for them to feel safe enough to articulate differing points of view, and that's when they really pay attention," she says.

A new conversation is also taking place in Torrington, says Spiegel of the Susan B. Anthony Project. While students are taking different sides, she says, at least they are openly talking about the issue.

But in tackling sexual assault and searching for answers, Hess of the XX Factor says zeroing in on teens is misguided.

"I think it's interesting that we focus on teenagers," she says. "Rape is not a teenage problem. Cowardice in bystanders is not a teenage problem. That's a societal problem, and that's a human problem."

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