Not a day goes by without hearing another story in the media about bad behavior in the workplace. These stories shine the light on significant and systemic cultural issues regarding power, sex, abuse, consent, and consent confusion. Many have come forward, and many powerful men have fallen from grace. These stories have only scratched the service, as to the broader sickness in our culture that at times intentionally or unintentionally sets people up to be sexually harassed- especially young people. We have the opportunity to reflect on when we may have behaved badly or unknowingly contributed to unhealthy cultural practices. Here are some excerpts from my reflections.
Beauty and The Beastly
Molly was a former student in the special education program I directed. She was 16, and beautiful! Blonde and blue-eyed with a lovely figure she could have been on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition. I remember seeing her dad in my office wringing his hands and saying, “what do I do with her? Do I just tie her tubes?” He was terrified. You see Molly’s beauty was a curse in our culture. She functioned cognitively as a third grader in an adult-sized beautiful body. She had no idea how to deal with the sexual harassment she experienced every day at school, and she often misinterpreted male attention as love. She was a sexual target, not because of anything she did wrong, but because in our culture, we have lost respect for one another. We have objectified, textified and sexted our way into thoughtless and rude behavior for each other. I felt helpless because I had no strategies for her or her dad at that time. Molly passed away her senior year in high school. Dying was likely a blessing. She no longer had to experience intense daily harassment in her vulnerable state.
Sexual Targets Among Us
I remember the students in my vocational education program. We were teaching them about the world of work and creating partnerships between business and industry. The business partners we had hired my special needs students for non-college bound high paying jobs.
I watched in horror as several of my 17-year-old female students tried to navigate the intense sexual pressure from older men once the word got out that they all had Norplant’s and could not get pregnant. I brought my concerns to our teen pregnancy prevention program specialists, and they said, “Well, they aren’t getting pregnant!”
I felt helpless to do anything, and this experience has motivated me for the past 20 years to do better. You see the system had no way to communicate back to clinicians about the negative socio-cultural pressure and harassment my students were facing. Fueled by our noble attempts to prevent unintended pregnancy, we were unaware of the reality that set our most vulnerable youth up as sexual targets in their own culture.
Recent reports about the unintended consequences of Long-Acting Contraception (LARC) and high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases support the prevalence of unhealthy cultural phenomena.
A 2016 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association identified a disturbing trend with teens using Long-Acting Reversible Contraception (LARC). While the recent reductions in teen pregnancy and birth rates are notable, LARC users were less likely to use condoms and more likely to have increased multiple partners. “STDs are a persistent enemy,” Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for STDs and TB Prevention said in a September 2017 news release. He added that the epidemic is, “…growing in number and outpacing our ability to respond.” Over 50% of new cases of STDs occur in adolescents and emerging adults age 15 – 24. Chlamydia cases are the most prominent, causing infertility in 20,000 women annually.
#What to Do??
Newer initiatives are promising and include combining primary care strategies with integrated care. These models are enhanced to include therapy for those who need it. For example, more research regarding personality vulnerabilities such as insecure or anxious attachment disorders better informs prevention efforts. Youth with insecure attachment patterns are more likely to have unwanted consensual sex, more likely to confuse sex and love, and more likely to get a sexually transmitted infection and experience an unplanned pregnancy. Integrated care efforts can buffer these vulnerabilities while young people receive medical care.
New digital health technology and patient-reported outcomes leverage mhealth technology to better inform clinicians about broader socio-cultural issues that may be occurring. This new technology supports patient-centered care that can bring to light unhealthy harassment, and sexual pressure young people may be facing in real-time. Clinicians are better informed to know what is going on with patients and strengthen life skills to set appropriate boundaries that protect young people from becoming sexual targets in their schools, workplaces, and communities at large.
This blog post is the first in a four-part series called #MeToo, #You Too, # Whattodo?
Next: Interpersonal resiliency strategies that buffer vulnerable youth.
By Lisa Rue, PhD., Preventative Technology Solutions, Inc., Photo by Gerome Viavant