Bold Moves to End Sexual Violence: Challenging the Dialogue on Sex and Relationships Facing Gen Z

This year’s National Sexual Assault Conference theme is audacious and inspiring: ending sexual violence in one generation.

It calls out the damaging misperception that sexual assault and gender-based violence is inevitable. It summons us to think and act more creatively and courageously than ever before.

Challenge accepted. Here at EVERFI, our bold move is to dismantle the myth that Gen Z’ers are interested in hook-up culture—and support young adults in their desire to form meaningful, respectful intimate relationships with each other.

Thankfully, we’re not alone in asserting this challenge. A significant body of research has emerged over the past decade that indicates the majority of young adults do not engage in—or, perhaps more importantly, even desire—no-strings, no expectations sexual encounters. Too often, when parents, educators, and caring adults talk with young people about intimacy and sex, the conversation focuses on what Harvard education researcher Richard Weissbourd calls “disaster mitigation”—a hand-wringing monologue about their likely sexual explorations threaded with vague references to avoiding unplanned pregnancy, asking for and receiving consent and respecting themselves and their partners.

I’ll confess: I’ve done this, even recently. It’s all important stuff, for sure. But these talks don’t do enough to offer what young adults hunger to understand better about relationships. We’re pretty lousy at teaching young people the skills they need to engage in meaningful, emotionally responsible and respectful relationships with each other.

As Weissbourd notes in a recent study on the subject: “We do remarkably little to prepare [young people] specifically for the focused, tender, subtle, generous work of learning how to love and be loved.”

But this is what college students tell us they want.

As the nation’s largest provider of online sexual violence prevention education for college students, we have significant insight on young adults’ beliefs, perceptions and experiences when it comes to relationships and sexual violence. In 2018, we included questions about this issue in our course surveys.

What we learned from nearly 4,000 college students may be surprising: 70 percent identified that they want love and respect in their relationships—and, contrary to the messages we often hear about college students and their fickle hearts (and libidos), 65 percent identified commitment and noted faithfulness as qualities they desire in relationships. Only 14 percent wanted to have casual sex, described in the survey as having “friends with benefits,” and even fewer—only 11 percent—were interested in hook-ups, which were described as “sexual encounters with no expectations attached.”

Yet, while 48 percent of college students desire love and respect for themselves, they don’t think that their peers want the same. When asked what they believed their peers wanted from relationships, 53 percent said “friends with benefits” and nearly half thought that other college students desired “sexual encounters with no expectations attached.”

The distortion these data surface between what young people personally believe about relationships and sexual intimacy and what they perceive their peers to believe is quite troubling. As sexual violence prevention scholars have noted, young adults are more likely to shape their actions based on what they believe their peers think than what they personally feel.

To end sexual violence in one generation, we all must act. Challenging the narrative that pigeonholes young people into unfulfilling sexual dynamics is the first step—and everyone can play a part in making it possible.

Colleges and universities can gather institution-specific data about student relationship choices and values to close the misperception gap when it comes to what students want out of relationships and sexual intimacy, provide parents and other supportive adults with guidance on talking to young people about love and romantic relationships and partner healthy sexuality education and sexual violence prevention efforts on campus by developing shared goals, language and programming efforts that include content related to developing, sustaining and ending emotionally significant relationships.

Parents and caring adults can engage in meaningful conversations about love, intimacy beyond sex and what is important in their own relationships, model healthy and respectful words and actions for young adults and request that schools provide developmentally appropriate and ongoing skills-focused education about healthy relationships and healthy sexuality to their students.

And here at EVERFI, we will invest our organizational creativity and courage in developing and delivering effective, positive education that helps our five million annual learners build healthy relationship skills and take action when someone is at risk of harm. We will continue to gather data about student beliefs and experiences, and deliver data- and research-driven insights to our 1,600 partner schools and to the broader community of prevention practitioners and higher education leaders.

The young adults in all our lives want and deserve respectful, loving, meaningful relationships. It is our work, together, to show them how they’re built.

Editor’s Note: We talked to Holly LIVE at NSAC 2018! Watch the video below to hear more from her on campus sexual assault prevention and find us on Facebook to watch more conversations from the conference.


Holly Rider-Milkovich is the Senior Director of Prevention at EVERFI. She brings over two decades of experience in sexual violence prevention and response and in higher education to her role.