More than 20 years ago, I read a study of junior high school students in Rhode Island that included one finding I’ve never been able to get out of my head. Students were asked if a man who spent money on a woman during a date was entitled to force her into sexual activity. An astounding 25 percent of the young boys said yes — and even more astounding, 17 percent of the junior high school girls agreed.
You may think that sounds like a long time ago — and it was. But, sadly, dating violence remains a very real problem in our country, especially on college campuses. Today, while in college, nearly one in five women will be a victim of sexual assault and one in 10 teens will be hurt on purpose by someone they are dating. These aren’t just statistics, these are people you know. This is a problem we all have to face.
My dad used to say that there’s no worse sin than the abuse of power. Whether it was raising a hand to someone weaker or using any advantage to push people around, he taught me that if you saw abuse, you had an obligation to attempt to stop it. It’s a lesson to remember every day, but especially this February, during Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month.
Awareness is the first step to pushing back against a problem this big. When I held Senate hearings on violence against women more than two decades ago, domestic abuse in American society was rarely spoken about in public. I’ll never forget the stories of abuse I heard in more than 1,000 hours of hearings. The brutality of family members, acquaintances and strangers against the women in their lives was absolutely devastating.
It was those hearings that led to the Violence Against Women Act, and since then annual incidents of domestic violence have dropped by more than 50 percent. But for women in college and younger today, the risk is still much too high.
That’s why I joined with Education Secretary Arne Duncan last April to announce historic new guidelines for colleges and universities about their responsibilities under Title IX to prevent sexual assault. Under the federal civil rights law, schools have an obligation not only to respond appropriately when an assault occurs, but also to create a climate on campus that makes such violence unacceptable.
I also started an initiative called 1is2many to help reduce dating violence and sexual assault among teens and young adults. We harnessed the power of technology to get our message out, launching a national contest to develop “Apps Against Abuse.” The two winning applications will let you get in touch with friends quickly and safely so you can call for help if you need it and stop violence in its tracks. We’ve also made sure the National Dating Abuse Helpline can be reached by text, online or phone 24/7.
Last month, the FBI changed the way the federal government defines rape. The narrow, outdated definition — unchanged since 1929 — said the assault had to be forcible and against a woman’s will to be classified as rape. It’s just not true, and it’s a point that I make on college campuses all across the country. Rape is rape, and no means no. No means no whether drunk or sober. There is never an excuse. Young women and men alike need to understand this. Under the new definition, rape occurs when there is no consent, and it also includes sexual assault against boys and young men in national law enforcement reporting.
These are important changes, but ending dating violence and sexual assault isn’t just a matter of laws and legislation. It’s about education. It’s about attitudes.
The ultimate measure of a civilized society is how its laws and culture treat the abuse of women. Attitudes can change. Violence can end. But it can’t happen without universal understanding that dating violence and sexual assault will never be tolerated. That’s all of our responsibility.