“All of Israel is responsible for one another.” (Shavuot 39a)
Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) has long stood in opposition to gender-based violence, including sexual violence. In 1991, WRJ issued a statement addressing Crimes Against Women, including rape and sexual assault. In 2013, WRJ issued an Advocacy Alert in support of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which provides crucial services for victims of sexual and domestic violence. In 1997, WRJ addressed the need to recognize and intervene to prevent child sex abuse in the home. Sexual violence defiles the holiness of every individual. According to the earliest Jewish law and teachings, rape is considered a capital offense and as such we have a "duty to rescue" and are obligated to intervene to prevent the crime. (Sanhedrin 73a)
The unfortunate reality today is that sexual violence is experienced by young people at an alarming rate and much of it occurs in schools and on campuses. In 2011, the United States Department of Education stated that: “The statistics on sexual violence are both deeply troubling and a call to action for the nation …. One in 5 women are victims of completed or attempted sexual assault while in college [and] approximately 6.1 percent of males were victims of completed or attempted sexual assault during college.” Schools at all grade levels from kindergarten through university are failing to adequately prevent, address, report and adjudicate instances of sexual violence. Schools, in particular, should be places where safety and respect are promoted and therefore, must address the issue of sexual violence as it pertains specifically to the education system.
All people, regardless of gender, can become the victims or perpetrators of sexual violence, yet women targeted by men experience it at disproportionate rates. This holds true in educational settings as well. The U.S. Department of Justice reported that 20 percent of high school girls between the ages of 14 and 17, as well as 20 percent of women undergraduates, are the victims of completed or attempted acts of sexual violence. The Department of Justice of the Government of Canada reported that the highest number of sex offenses occur against female students ages 15 to 24. In a study of Canadian colleges, 30 percent of students reported being the victims of sexual violence at their school. In the U.S., one in sixteen undergraduate men will also experience sexual violence while in college. LGBTQ students experience higher rates of sexual violence than heterosexual students. Data shows that 12 percent of transgender youth report experiencing sexual violence in K-12 settings.
In recent years American and Canadian governments have increased their efforts to address the issue of sexual violence in schools. These efforts include proposed legislation in the United States and recent legislation in Canada, as well as guidance and resources for universities and students. Such efforts in the United States build on earlier measures, such as the 1994 Violence Against Women Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in education.
Because sexual violence perpetuates gender inequality, universities and K-12 schools in the United States have a further legal obligation under Title IX to respond to reports of sexual violence. A 2011 Dear Colleague Letter issued by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights emphasized and clarified the duty of schools at all levels of education to act in response to reports of sexual violence. Survivors may choose to turn to their school over the criminal justice system because they fear retaliation or do not think the police will help them. That is a reasonable concern, as just 57 of 1000 reports will lead to arrest and only 13 of 1000 reports will be referred to a prosecutor during a lengthy process. Yet, many schools are not following the Title IX requirement to follow through on investigations. Despite evidence that sexual violence is occurring on campuses, 40 percent of schools had not pursued investigations of a single rape or sexual assault within the five-year period prior to 2014, and in 2014, 91 percent of schools reported zero incidents of rape.
Many factors contribute to the risk of sexual violence. A lack of education and openness about sex and sexual violence has led to myths surrounding the issue and confusion about what constitutes consent and sexual assault. One study showed that 18 percent of college students or recent graduates believed that someone has consented to sexual activity as long as they did not say “no.” That same study showed that 62 percent of college students or recent graduates had been drinking alcohol just prior to the incident. The October 2015 PPFA Consent Survey Results Summary states “there is still much confusion to address with young people around [consent] when alcohol is involved, but there isn’t a clear difference in sobriety.” Rape culture, i.e., “the environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture”, has led to the normalization of negative attitudes toward sex and the acceptance of rampant sexism and violence. Victim-blaming is prevalent: only 48 percent of women and 35 percent of men disagree with the claim that if a victim dresses or acts a certain way, it is their fault that they were assaulted or raped. About 90 percent of sexual assaults that occur in college are perpetrated by someone known to the victim, which counters the historically-held belief that these acts are committed by strangers in dark alleys. In fact, 18 percent of teens in dating relationships have experienced sexual abuse by their partner. Education around all of these factors should begin as early as pre-school; starting the conversation in high school or college is too late.
We have an obligation to educate our students and endeavor to protect them from experiencing sexual violence. We, the Board of Women of Reform Judaism, therefore: