We are in the midst of a seismic shift in consciousness around sexual harassment and assault. The sweeping allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein—more than 100 women have accused him of sexual harassment and assault since October—was only the beginning. A growing group of high-profile actors, television executives, politicians, academics, news editors, and journalists have been accused of sexual aggressions, including actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K., and Republican Senate candidate Roy S. Moore. Every hour brings scores of testimonies from women and men publicly sharing their experiences, including on social media through the #MeToo campaign.
But amid the accusations and public outrage, there has been scant attention paid to how to prevent sexual harassment or assault. Yes, we have workplace policies and awareness campaigns, and many employers are requiring some form of harassment training for their employees. But these trainings are largely ineffective. They don’t provide honest and comprehensive education about sexual and gender power dynamics. And they are largely aimed at limiting an employer’s liability. Most critically, we aren’t teaching young people the prevention strategies they should learn beginning in elementary school.
Here’s what we should pay attention to: Teaching self defense and empowerment to young people decreases sexual violence. Multiple studies have proven that comprehensive safety education is the most effective and long-term solution to harassment and assault prevention. But it takes trained educators to help students realize the strength they have to fight this epidemic.
Like most, I never received any warning about sexual predators. At age 16, I had the brilliant idea to hitchhike across the country alone. One evening in a Colorado hippie commune, I woke up with a drunken housemate on top of me. Although I struggled and repeatedly said no, his force and mass were then too much for me. It took many years for me to call the incident rape, and even longer to understand why, in a house filled with people, I didn’t call out for help.
It wasn’t until I took a self-defense course years later that what had happened in Colorado became clear. The course, which taught an empowering model of self defense, opened up another world for me. I learned how to listen to my gut and register dangerous situations. I learned de-escalation and negotiation skills that I applied in my everyday life, not just when I felt my safety was at stake. I learned I have the right to say “no” loudly and publicly in response to unwanted behavior, however minor, and if my no was not respected, I learned physical skills to stop the behavior.
In 2009, building on my work as a self-defense instructor, I founded the rape-prevention nonprofit No Means No Worldwide and began adapting the methods to one of the most sexually violent places in the world: Nairobi, Kenya, where 1 in 4 girls is raped every year.
All instructors are young men and women from local communities who complete a training before teaching an empowerment, self-defense, and intervention program to secondary school students (typically ages 10 to 20). While the girls learn assertiveness, boundary-setting rules, and self defense, the boys learn to challenge rape culture, ask for consent, and use bystander intervention when they hear someone planning or bragging about a rape or witness an assault in progress.
The research we’ve conducted in collaboration with Stanford and Johns Hopkins universities has shown that wherever our [self-defense] courses have been taught to girls, rape rates have decreased by half."
To be clear: In no way do we stress meeting violence with violence. Students are encouraged to follow their intuition in an attack. The goal of empowerment self-defense is to get away safely and tell someone about the situation. The key is giving students the skills—both mentally and physically—to stand up to inappropriate behavior at a young age and create a culture of mutual respect.
Since 2009, the research we’ve conducted in collaboration with Stanford and Johns Hopkins universities has shown that wherever our courses have been taught to girls, rape rates have decreased by half. One 2014 study found that more than half of the nearly 2,000 high school girls in Nairobi who finished the self-defense course had deflected sexual harassment or rape. Similarly, after taking the training, of the 35 percent of adolescent boys who witnessed a sexual assault in progress, three-quarters of them successfully intervened to stop it. Similar self-defense approaches at several colleges in the United States and Canada reduced the risk of sexual assault among students by as much as half.
At home, K-12 schools have an important role to play in sexual-violence prevention. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18, but it doesn’t have to be this way. All children need techniques to challenge rape culture and to learn how to deal with inappropriate comments, unwanted touching, coercion, and assault.
As children grow, educators—be they teachers or school counselors—must create space for honest and sincere dialogue about age-old sexual power dynamics. Since most schools don’t offer these kinds of classes yet, to do so will require bold, innovative leadership on the part of school leaders. They will need to advocate and fundraise for sexual-assault-awareness curricula, as well as recruit trained professionals well prepared to teach empowerment and self-defense strategies that are proven effective. There may be naysayers and other red tape, but these are skills students will use over the course of a lifetime.
This type of sexual-assault-prevention education is not about blaming women for their clothing choices or labeling young men as rapists. Nor is it about revenge or turning young women into battle-ready maidens. It is about providing a countering voice to the violence and negative gender stereotyping that boys and girls experience beginning in puberty and remain trapped in for much of their lives. It is about changing our culture through education, one step at a time.