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Study: Many young girls view sexual violence as 'normal stuff'

Fear of slut-shaming drives many adolescent girls to stay silent and not report sexual violence, a new study found.
Activists Holds Rally For Re-Authorization Of The Violence Against Women Act
Members of the The National Organization for Women (NOW), and other groups hold a rally in support of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) on Capitol Hill on June 26, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Fear of slut-shaming drives many adolescent girls to stay silent and not report sexual violence, a new study found, as many view harassment as normal, everyday life of middle school and high school.

The eye-popping results, from a study on Normalizing Sexual Violence set to appear in the next issue of Gender & Society, exposes how objectification, sexual harassment and abuse are viewed as everyday experiences for many young women.

After analyzing interviews conducted with 100 young people between the ages 3 and 17, Marquette University sociologist Heather Hlavka discovered that girls don’t stand by each other’s side when they report sexual violence. Instead, Hlavka found, girls avoided reporting instances of harassment or violence because they feared backlash from peers and of assuming the label of “whore” or “slut.”

“Some girls belittled others’ experiences, holding them responsible for their victimizations,” Hlavka wrote. Young girls in the study describe how peers -- and even friends -- would question a victim’s story after they came forward. Girls were criticized for not successfully maneuvering men’s aggressive behavior. Others didn’t report violence because they didn’t want to make a “big deal” of their experiences.

One 13-year-old girl interviewed in the study said such harassment was just a fact of life. “They grab you, touch your butt and try to, like, touch you in the front, and run away, but it’s okay, I mean . . . I never think it’s a big thing because they do it to everyone.”

Girls played into the myth that “boys will be boys” and men are unable to contain their sexual desires the way that women do, the study found. “It just happens,” the young teen said, downplaying sexual aggression. “They’re boys—that’s what they do.” Researchers said participants overwhelmingly described unwanted behavior as “normal stuff,” and said they tolerate what “just happens.”

The study results described the many ways girls are often threatened or coerced into unwanted behavior. They didn’t believe anything outside of forced intercourse counted as an offense. Hlavka concludes that educators and policy makers must play a larger role in shifting the status-quo and that sex-education should be gender equality education.

“The lack of safe, supportive space for girls is palpable,” Hlavka writes. “We can thus better understand why young women in this study felt they were expected to protect themselves from everyday violence with little help from others, including those in authority positions.”