U.S. Rape Culture Is Sidelining and Silencing Future Female Leaders

Young women and girls are grappling with unprecedented levels of violence, sadness and trauma—putting U.S. democracy further at risk.

Abortion rights supporters outside of the Austin Convention Center on May 14, 2022, in Austin, Texas, where the American Freedom Tour with former President Donald Trump was being held. Protests were a response to the Supreme Court’s then-leaked draft opinion indicating the Court’s plan to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) most recent report on the health and well-being of U.S. high school students was sharply contextualized by chief medical officer Dr. Deborah Houry’s headline-grabbing remark at the report’s release: “America’s teen girls are engulfed in a growing wave of sadness, violence and trauma.” She confessed to being heartbroken as a parent and driven as a public health leader to take action to address the dramatic increases in violence, poor mental health and suicide risk reported among the findings of the Youth Risk Behavioral Survey (YRBS). Recalling her experience as an emergency room doctor treating a college student who had been raped, Houry acknowledged the need to do more than treat the physical injuries associated with the sexual violence that figured so prominently in the survey results.

While the CDC’s survey findings overall are daunting, they are particularly dire for girls.

  • The percentage of female high school students who reported experiencing sexual violence by anyone during the past year was nearly four times as high as for male students—at 18 and 5 percent, respectively.
  • The rate for female students rose 3 percentage points between 2017 and 2021, compared with a 1 percent increase for males. 
  • The percentage of girls reporting that they had ever been forced to have sex increased from 12 percent to 14 percent between 2011 to 2021—a figure at least three times higher than for boys during that period, whose rate remained at 4 percent.

Trump-Era Policies and the Normalization of Rape Culture

Policy measures can be proposed as partial antidote to public ills or may themselves be potential causes of population outcomes.

The increase in the number of female high school students who experienced sexual violence from 2017 to 2021 correlates with the time period of Trump administration policy measures. Under the guidance of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration revoked guidelines that had made it easier to for students to report incidents of sexual assault on college campuses under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. 

The rule change on Title IX—which was first contemplated in 2017 and went into effect in August 2020—was followed by the rescission in October 2020 of the Clery Handbook, described as a support beam for Title IX by Kenyora Parham, executive director of End Rape on Campus. Parham said the move created confusion for survivors and administrators, perhaps intentionally so. The net effect of these measures essentially allowed accused “sexual assailants to hide evidence against them” and “make Title IX cases all but impossible for survivors to win.”

Rape culture is defined in part by its tolerance of some degree of subjection of women to a continuum of threats, ranging from sexual harassment to sexual assault, and the related physical and emotional toll they exact. Failure to enact, sustain or implement policy or other measures to address sexual violence in its many forms is tantamount to explicitly condoning it. This results not only in individual harms, but also constitutes a structural impediment to women’s advancement to positions of power in the public sphere—as I argue in my recent book, Women, Power and Rape Culture: The Politics and Policy of Underrepresentation. Failure to address these conditions for young people of school age creates hurdles on their already encumbered path to personal and professional success and the possibility of public leadership, where the ranks of women leaders continue to be proportionally much smaller than they are for men.

Rape culture is also characterized by sexism, which involves normalized denigration and dismissal of women. The full-throated rhetorical backing for such denigration and incivility during the Trump era was associated with violence against specific women—like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who was subject to a foiled kidnapping plot which some attributed to Trump’s open criticism of her. The Trump years were also characterized by the incitement of violence more generally, such as the insurrection at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) reported fearing that she would be raped and killed due to the “misogyny and the racism” that animated the attack.

Trump bullied political opponents, many of whom were women and/or people of color, leading up to and during his time in the oval office. As that time came to a close in 2021, “16 percent of high school students were electronically bullied, including through texting, Instagram, Facebook, or other social media,” according to the CDC report.

Among LGBTQ+ students, nearly one quarter were bullied at school and almost 30 percent were bullied electronically and “female students were more likely than male students to be electronically bullied.” Cyberspace has been shown to be particularly inhospitable for women and girls, where they are often subject to sexual harassment or threats of violent assault.

Bullying, including sexual harassment as well as all forms of sexual and interpersonal violence, is associated with higher incidence of mental health issues. The CDC reported that, of the 29 percent of students who reported experiencing poor mental health in the last 30 days, females were more than twice as likely to report this. “Persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” increased between 2011 and 2021, more steeply among female students—57 percent of whom reported such feelings in 2021 compared with 29 percent of male students.

A devastating 30 percent of female students reported having seriously considered attempting suicide in 2021, making them more than twice as likely as male students to entertain such ideation, and showing a more than 10 percent increase from a decade earlier. And, almost twice as many female students—13 percent—actually attempted suicide or were injured in a suicide attempt compared to male students.

Addressing a Generation in Distress

Creating supportive school environments to prevent and address sexual harassment and assault and their cascading consequences, including “clinically significant levels of anxiety and depression” and longer-term impacts on “women survivors’ educational and career attainments,” will require commitment to improved public policy interventions. Such interventions must be designed with appropriate acknowledgement of the striking magnitude of gender differences if they are to be effective in addressing the alarming trends indicated in the most recent Youth Behavior Risk Survey.

A pair of Converse designed by Anna Geisler in her room in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., on July 7, 2022. (Emily Elconin for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As the survey makes clear, “young people in the U.S. are collectively experiencing a level of distress that calls on us to act.” That action should take into account who is perpetrating violence and bullying, among the other causal factors that contribute to the distressing outcomes we observe, and how it can be stopped. Where teen dating violence is concerned, for instance, we know that girls have almost twice the rate of victimization and less than one-third the rate of perpetration compared with boys.

The CDC’s Teen Dating Violence website notes that about one in 12 teens experience physical or sexual dating violence and that female and LGBTQ youth experience higher rates, but does little to convey the sheer magnitude of those disparities. The assertion that teen dating violence profoundly impacts lifelong health, opportunity and well-being requires elaboration elsewhere. That staggering discrepancy in adverse impacts for women and girls also effects their ability to attain positions of public authority from which they might work to mitigate those gaping gender disparities.

The YBRS makes clear that female, Black and Hispanic students are more likely than male, Asian or white students to miss school because of safety concerns. Corroborating research shows that minority students are more likely to be bullied and women are more likely to be subjected to sexual violence in all forms. Unaddressed adverse and unwelcoming conditions in schools can be a first step to excluding women and minorities from formal institutions associated with the attainment and enactment of professional success and public authority.

The implications of the CDC’s staggering statistics extend beyond individual harms to systemic, historical patterns of exclusion, with evident implications for justice and the meaningful practice of democracy. Sound policy rests upon a solid grasp of such facts, however disturbing. Yet some jurisdictions, like Duval County, Fla., and the Town of Westerly, R.I., have cancelled the survey in their jurisdictions due to what some call “inflammatory” and “inappropriate questions about sex.”

Without a full understanding of the conditions faced by our youth in the course of their educational attainment, and meaningful acknowledgement of disparities in subjection to violence and related outcomes, our young people and our democracy, will continue to be at risk.

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Bonnie Stabile, Ph.D., is associate professor and associate dean for student and academic affairs at the Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, where she founded and directs the Gender and Policy Center. You can follow her on Twitter @bstabile1.