The statistics are dire: 54 per cent of female rape victims are under 18, and being raped in adolescence means victims are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted again during their first year at university. Among women under 18, police recorded more than 11,000 sexual assaults in 2008, according to the most recent figures available from Statistics Canada. And in Ontario high schools, 27 per cent of girls said they'd been sexually pressured into doing something they didn't want to do, the Girls Action Foundation found in 2013.
Sexual assault doesn't wait until high school graduation: young women in this age bracket are at a higher risk of being attacked than those who make it to university and its booze-drenched parties.
With news last week of pioneering – and controversial – Canadian research that found rape rates plummeted by half after university-aged women were taught "resistance," experts are agitating that we introduce such knowledge earlier – teaching high school girls clear-eyed risk assessment skills and self-defence.
While critics took issue with the study for putting the responsibility to stop rape on women's shoulders, rather than on perpetrators, others argued that women have every right to assert their personal boundaries – and be given the tools to do so early on. As Kathleen C. Basile wrote in a New England Journal of Medicine editorial that accompanied the Canadian research last week, "We must start younger."
High school is a pivotal moment for both women and men as they form attitudes about relationships, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recently analyzed three successful interventions offered to middle-school and high school students in the United States. The findings were echoed by the Canadian Women's Foundation, which evaluated four co-ed, high school programs focusing on healthy relationships. Grade 9, the researchers found, was a critical year: "They are starting to date or want to, so you've got a ready audience," one facilitator said. Young women who had completed the programs said they learned how to set sexual boundaries, in some cases leaving abusive relationships.
Proponents of early intervention believe that it can stop the cycle of revictimization that sees women who have been raped once being more vulnerable to again being assaulted. If we start in high school, said Charlene Senn, lead author of the Canadian university study, "the effects could be much more far reaching. If we can prevent those early ones, then we are preventing later ones."
While experts continue to stress that much of the focus should be on potential perpetrators – with programs curated for boys such as Calgary's WiseGuyz and the Washington D.C.-based Men of Strength Club teaching healthier models of masculinity and undoing bystander culture – several Canadian interventions intended strictly for high school girls are also showing signs of promise.
In 2007, Senn, a women's- and gender-studies professor at the University of Windsor, created a resistance program for students at three high schools in that city's Catholic school board. It was a prescient initiative, given that Senn's later work with university students found that 23 per cent of that study's participants had been raped since the age of 14, long before first year. Running over two days, the program features lessons about consent, acquaintance rape and verbal and physical self-defence tactics. The 41 Grade 11 and Grade 12 students who went through the 12-hour program learned how to break wrist holds and choke holds and get somebody off them. Carrie Anne Hojnoski taught some of the sessions, recalling that is was during the self-defence classes that the girls really "found their voice."
"We make them yell when they punch, which actually scared a lot of them, that they could make this sound. There's the gender stereotype of being a good girl, of being people-pleasing and nice. The self-defence brought out that animalistic reaction of defending your body," said Hojnoski, who now works as a clinical social worker in Oakville, Ont.
Perhaps more importantly, the program rejigged some of the young women's more ill-informed attitudes about rape: that victims can spur attacks with their demeanour or clothing, or that perpetrators simply can't control themselves.
In her assessment of the program, Senn noted that the youngest women "were in particular need of the intervention … as they were found to hold woman-blaming and other rape-myth attitudes more strongly than the older university students."
"Debunking victim-blaming and tapping into our self-worth" are hallmarks of Deb Chard's Wen-Do Women's Self Defence classes. Chard, who has taught middle-school and high school girls for decades in Toronto, says young women in particular take on the blame when they are victimized. "Without that lived experience, without those extra few years, younger women have fewer opportunities to talk about this with people who are not going to blame them," said Chard, who weaves in discussions about setting boundaries and healthy dating when she teaches girls.
One young woman who had taken Chard's course returned to tell her about foiling an attack. Too drunk to bus it home, she had accepted a friend's offer to stay overnight at his house. "He tried to rape her," Chard said. "While she was drunk, she was able to do a strike between his legs. She took him down. He was in a puddle crying on the ground and she got away. I use that story to convey that if you're drunk, no one has the right to cross the line with us. Don't blame yourself."
Some prevention experts advocate starting even earlier. Research shows that by Grade 6, girls' resiliency drops. At the same time, depression starts to spike, as peer pressure and sexualization emerge in girls' lives.
Carolyn Frew believes Grade 7 is the best time to start the conversation. "By Grade 7, their lives are already so complex with the challenges they're dealing with that it's really essential," said Frew, chief operating officer at Carya. The non-profit organization has partnered with the Calgary Sexual Health Centre to offer Starburst, an intensive, three-year program that aims to bolster "resiliency" in girls between Grades 7 and 9. Offered weekly in schools by external facilitators, Starburst includes sessions on sex ed, body image, self-confidence and dating violence. "We're helping them to develop that ability to go inside and know what they value and challenge the things that don't work with them," Frew explained.
Alumnus Jenna Maetche believes the weekly lessons boosted her confidence for life and taught her to follow her intuition, empowering her to speak up for herself and her friends in risky situations throughout high school. "I'd be at a party and if someone wanted to go into another room with me, if I didn't feel right about it, I felt I had the confidence to say 'no, these are my boundaries,' " said Maetche, now a 26-year-old business student at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
Crucially, the program also had girls discussing sexual negotiation: "They focused on us being able to make the right decisions based on what we're comfortable with," Maetche said.
While this can be tricky at this age level, experts believe that teaching young women to consider what they actually want is a key component of acquaintance and date-rape prevention strategies, "so that girls grow up with a firm sense that their sexual desires and values matter," Senn said.
The Catholic board didn't permit Senn to teach its high school girls the sexuality unit of her program, the part that deals with relationships and women's own desires. Senn hopes the much-protested Ontario sexual-health-education curriculum will address some of these issues in the fall, particularly with Premier Kathleen Wynne's promise that affirmative consent will be discussed in high school.
Says Senn: "It's about balancing your sexual rights on the one hand with all those things you've been socialized to do, like not hurting people's feelings. We're saying, your sexual integrity is worth so much more than that."