THE BUZZ 2: It Happens Here

By on July 12, 2017

A young woman’s story shatters myths about sexual assault among youth in a small town.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Growing up, Anne Carter (not her real name) thought sexual assault was something that only happened in movies or big cities. “I didn’t really believe that this stuff happened in our town,” she said. “This is Jackson, nothing bad happens here.”

And then as a high school student, it happened to her. She was at a party and her assailant was a friend. “I was just so angry and upset and confused,” Carter said. “I was like, ‘Friends don’t do this to each other. I don’t understand.’”

A PJH story last week noted how Jackson’s ski-town party culture normalizes non-consensual sex among its adult population. Carter’s story, however, suggests that such a culture trickles down to, or perhaps starts in, the homes and hallways of the youth that grow up in the valley.

Carter’s assault, and her life in its wake, unearthed a massive divide in how she understood consent, and how some of her peers did. “My view had always been that yes means yes and everything else means no,” she said.

But other influences in her life suggested otherwise. That her assailant was a close friend was traumatic enough, but what was more difficult was seeing how many of her peers defended him after she came forward. “I lost a lot of my friends,” Carter said. “It was kind of crazy seeing some of the people who supported me, and then people saying I ruined his life. People I thought were close friends were like, ‘oh, you were asking for it.’ And it crushed me.”

She says she came to realize disregard for consent starts on the playground. “If you’re playing tag and someone says no and you ignore them, you’re just teaching them that’s OK.” While growing up, Carter recalls messages that harassment was synonymous with affection. “When we were younger we were like, ‘Oh that’s so funny this boy was mean to me and bothers me on the playground, maybe he has a crush on me.”

Indeed, youth and adolescence are times rife with confusing and inconsistent messaging, especially about sex. Playground and popular culture, as Carter observed, romanticize persistence and perseverance in the face of denial. 

In the new class “Gender Issues in Society,” taught by Jim Jenkins at Jackson Hole High School, students listen to the song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. The No. 1 most-played song of 2013 repeats the phrase “I know you want it” 18 times. After the students were done listening and singing along, Jenkins told them, “Just so you know,’ that line right now is the most popular thing that rapists say to their victims while they’re raping them.”

A big part of Jenkins’s curriculum in his health and gender issues classes is encouraging students to think critically about the messaging they receive from song lyrics, movies and magazines. He was inspired by a talk the Community Safety Network hosted about media messaging and consent, where he learned that one in four women between the ages of 15 and 25 has been sexually assaulted. “My daughter was just turning 15 at that point. I got really fired up about it,” Jenkins said.

He works with Community Safety Network education director Shannon Nichols on building curriculums that encourage healthy, consensual relationships. But such lessons require lots of un-teaching. Nichols says she is constantly working to dismantle the idea that physical contact and affection is something to be won. Especially among young men, she says, the pervasive idea is that “you don’t give up until you get yes for an answer.” Like the message of Thicke’s song, teenagers often see sex as a rite of passage, and all parties involved should always “want it.”

Equally as dangerous, Nichols says, is the idea that consent can be quiet and unspoken. It’s weird to ask for a kiss, Nichols recognizes, but “if you’re not ready to ask them [for something], then you’re not ready to do that.”

Nichols works closely with public and private schools in Teton County to create curriculums that promote healthy understandings of sex and relationships. CSN brings speakers and programming to high schools, and works with teachers like Jenkins on course curriculums. Last year, of 130 freshman students in Jenkins’s health class, Jenkins estimated 99 percent correctly defined consent on a final exam. His definition was exactly the same as Carter’s: “Yes means yes, and everything else means no.”

Jackson’s teenagers are not strangers to the town’s party culture. Teton County Public Health’s Public Health Assessment found that more than 80 percent of Teton County’s 12th grade students had tried alcohol, compared to 70 percent statewide. Thirty-one percent reported binge drinking. But Nichols said that conflating drinking with sexual assault contributes to an idea of a “grey area” of consent that doesn’t, or shouldn’t, exist. “It’s just really an excuse that people use,” Nichols said, both to deflect blame from assailants and place blame on survivors like Carter.

“It’s not a cause and effect, that’s not how it works,” Nichols said. “It’s so important for people to know that you can do absolutely everything right and still get raped. It all depends on if you’re in the presence of somebody who chooses to violate you.”

Carter said she “felt safe going to the party I was going to.” But now going out is constant cause for anxiety. She’s not only constantly on guard, but she also feels responsible for the well-being of her friends. “I’m constantly looking around and watching where my friends are,” she said.

She struggled to adjust to college life after her assault. There are things, she said, that are still “huge triggers,” like people touching her back. Wearing dresses still scares her. But what comforts her, she says, is the idea of preventing others from experiencing the same trauma she has.

She now works with young children, and pays particular attention to “playground culture.” She makes sure kids understand the importance of listening to “no.”

“I call it out,” she said. She tells them, “if he or she says no, you’re gonna stop.”

“This starts when we’re young, and that’s when we’ve gotta stop it.” PJH

About Shannon Sollitt

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