The recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found an unprecedented wave of grief and sadness among teenage girls uncovered a stunning statistic: In 2021, nearly 20 percent said they had been victims of violent sexual behavior. More than one in 10 had been raped, they said.
While women of all ages have long endured a disproportionate number of sex assaults compared to men, a closer look at the CDC data reveals that the number of young girls forced into sex grew by nearly 200,000 in just two years.
The CDC's Youth Risk Behavior survey is given to more than 17,000 U.S. high school students every other year. Based on the responses in 2019, an estimated 850,000 high school girls reported that they’d been raped. By 2021, that estimate soared to more than 1 million.
The agency’s chief medical officer, Dr. Debra Houry, said she was disheartened by the steep rise, but not surprised.
“Sexual violence has been a pervasive problem among girls for quite some time,” Houry said. “We aren’t making the progress we need to.”
The percentage of boys reporting they’d been raped 2021 has remained the same — 4 percent — since 2011.
The CDC survey did not ask teenagers about the circumstances of the assaults or where they had occurred.
While it is known that sexual assaults do occur in schools, most teens spent the majority of 2020 and 2021 at home because of the Covid pandemic.
How the pandemic increased vulnerability
And home is not always a safe haven for young people.
“A lot of sexual assault and sexual abuse occurs from people known to the youth, whether it be family or close relationships,” said Dr. Willough Jenkins, medical director of emergency and consultation liaison psychiatry at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. “The pandemic did not limit exposure to these people, but rather in some cases increased exposure due to lockdowns at home.”
The pandemic increased teenagers’ vulnerability to violence in other ways, too. Remote schooling tended to leave them isolated from their friends and trusted teachers or coaches with whom they may have been able to seek help or advice.
Kids spent an unusual amount of time online, on social media.
“We have heard from a number of the rape crisis programs that we work with across New York City, and a number of the youth programs specifically that rates of cybersexual violence increased dramatically over the course of the pandemic,” said Emily Miles, executive director of the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault.
Cybersexual violence includes sexual harassment and stalking online, as well as repeated messages and threats of sexual assault.
Sex ed in schools, if it was ever provided before the pandemic, was either curtailed or cut all together as teachers tried to focus on the basics of reading and math.
Alcohol and drug use increased among adults. Families lost their jobs. Stressed moms, dads and other caregivers unleashed verbal insults, put-downs and other forms of emotional abuse during the height of lockdown in 2020, teens said in a previous CDC report on adolescent behavior and experiences.
“There’s a whirling disruption of the usual kinds of safety nets in place for our young people,” said Dr. Elizabeth Miller, a violence prevention researcher and director of adolescent and young adult medicine at UPMC, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “When there’s this level of structural and social disruption in the lives of children and young people, there is increased exposure to all forms of violence.”
The 2021 CDC report also found that girls and boys were generally equal in saying that they’d been threatened or injured at school (6 percent and 7 percent, respectively).
But girls were more likely than boys to say they were too scared to go to school because they felt unsafe either in class or while traveling to and from school.
Digging deeper, the increases in girls reporting assaults may reflect a growing ease and empowerment in speaking up.
“Ever since the MeToo movement, I feel like more people are speaking out about it,” said high school senior Ellie Hinkle, 17, of Charlotte, NC.
Still, she said, “it’s super hard.”
Hinkle believes the numbers of teen girls reporting sexual assaults in the 2021 CDC report are underestimates.
“That’s just people who are coming forward, but there’s a lot of people who are too scared,” she said.
For some young women, the movement has provided support and community, Miles said.
“But there are incredibly loud voices also on the other side that stigmatize and harm survivors when they come forward,” said Miles.
The CDC’s Houry, who has been a sexual violence researcher, said emphatically: “We want to be clear: Girls are not to blame.”
Early education is key
More than half of women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. The majority happens before age 25, Houry said.
“The patterns that occur in colleges are ingrained in middle school and high school,” Miles said. “Unless we’re actually able to have those conversations earlier, we are going to continue this same cycle of violence over and over.”
The CDC report called for an increase in school programs like sex education to help curb sexual violence. The Guttmacher Institute, a group that advocates for reproductive rights and health, says that just 38 states and Washington, D.C. require sex ed in schools. Not all sex ed classes have the same requirements, however.
“We really don’t have that robust evidence-based, supportive, trauma-informed education at scale in the United States. And at this particular time in history, it is especially needed given what we’re seeing,” said LB Klein, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Such a curriculum would be included in what's known as comprehensive sex education.
Comprehensive sex education “is not just about condom usage,” Miles said. It’s about “educating our youth about healthy relationships and consent, affirmative consent, and how to navigate those conversations from the very beginning.”
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center encourages these kinds of conversations begin with age-appropriate language in kindergarten.
One of the ways to do that is to “help young people recognize when they have experienced harm and have an idea of what those warning signs are in relationships,” Klein said.
Despite the troubling increases in sexual assaults among girls, boys need comprehensive education, as well, said Neil Irvin, executive director of MCSR (formerly known as Men Can Stop Rape). The program’s mission is to show men to view sexual violence as not just a woman’s issue.
“Boys are inundated with images of unhealthy examples of humanity across the board, whether it be sexual or not,” Irvin said. “We need more resources for boys.”
What can parents do?
Jenkins, of Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, has advice for parents who may have no idea when or how to approach the subject of sexual violence for their teenagers.
“It’s best to be honest, to be upfront and to be really clear. Our children know about this. They are living this. They have friends going through this. It’s not a secret,” Jenkins said. “Talking about sexual assault does not put anybody at higher risk of experiencing those things.”
Houry encourages moms, dads and other trusted caregivers to use direct and appropriate language, such as ‘we want to make sure you’re safe. You should never be forced to do anything you don’t want to do. Come to us should anything happen.’
Ask questions, Jenkins said, then listen to the answers. “Make sure your child or your youth is talking more than you. No child likes a lecture.”
Above all, experts advised keeping a strong, positive attitude.
“Our children are not broken,” Miller, of UPMC, said. “With the right support, us all pulling together to say our young people deserve more, and that we have the resources, the love and the intention to do right by our young people, they will bounce back.”