Supposedly, if you put frogs into hot water they jump out. But if you put frogs in a pot of cool water and then gradually heat it up, the frogs acclimate to the warming and never see the danger coming until it’s too late: boiled frogs. While I don’t know whether this is true, the story illustrates a fundamental flaw in human nature: Sometimes we fail to recognize danger in time to act.
The danger I am referring to is the crisis of physical, emotional, verbal and sexual abuse. Epidemic is not too strong of a word to describe it. More than one-third of women in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner. Nearly half have experienced some form of sexual assault. While women of all ages are affected, girls ages 16 to 24 are at the highest risk. And according to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 20 percent of men have been sexually assaulted, often in childhood or adolescence.
The seeds of the problem seem mundane and unremarkable, and, like the frogs, we mostly fail to respond. Sexual harassment starts young, and often goes unnoticed or is minimized. We say “boys will be boys,” and we tell girls to ignore taunts and insults because that’s how boys show they like you. The water is hardly warm. By middle and high school, unwelcome sexual comments, jokes or gestures are everyday experiences. The American Association of University Women reports that one-third of students are harassed through texts or social media.
By high school, the water is boiling. Ten percent of teens report being physically hurt on purpose by someone they were dating within the past year. But, as cited in the Journal of Adolescent Health, nearly half of parents have not discussed dating violence with their teenage children in the past 12 months.
But we’re smarter than frogs. Thanks to the tireless work of advocates and with consistent bipartisan support for policy reforms, we have made great progress in addressing these crimes. Since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, U.S. Department of Justice statistics show annual rates of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence have declined by nearly 60 percent. Consistent investment in services, advocacy, police training and justice system reforms have dramatically improved treatment for victims who reach out for help.
It has been encouraging to watch the cultural changes over recent years. Public outrage has been brought to bear on those who abuse women and on those who enable abuse by standing by and failing to intervene. Institutions such as the National Football League and Major League Baseball and universities across the nation have changed policies, instituted training and taken steps to support victims and hold abusers accountable.
Uber is the latest in a series of tech companies to be criticized for not taking action after receiving complaints about sexual harassment. Fox News announced its separation from Bill O’Reilly. Bill Cosby will soon be tried for sexual assault. But in each of these cases, the response has been late and at the expense of numerous victims who will not see justice for the harms done to them. It is 2017, and while things have improved in many ways, we can and must do better.
Future funding for the Violence Against Women Act, the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (the enforcement vehicle for Title IX complaints and a catalyst encouraging colleges to more effectively address sexual violence) is at risk, jeopardizing programs that have been proven to work.
Many K-12 schools have not taken the proactive steps that are required to create safe school environments, free from sexual harassment and abuse. And the abuses faced by women and girls of color; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and people with disabilities rarely attract widespread public attention or the urgent response that is warranted.
Focusing on awareness and on providing support for victims of abuse is essential, but it’s not enough. A recent survey of college-age men, led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that more than one-third admitted to using threats, coercion or other force to make their partners engage in sexual activity.
We, as a country, need to get better at believing victims when they share their stories, fully funding crisis services, educating young people to recognize when flirting and sexual behavior cross the line into abuse, and holding abusers accountable for the crimes they commit.
We must be better at recognizing our opportunities to act before it’s too late.
Kristy Trautmann is the executive director of Downtown-based FISA Foundation (email@example.com).