This is the second in a series of columns discussing the issue of sexual assault against young people. The first —“What Do We Do with a Subject That’s Taboo?”—appeared in the January 14 edition of The Free Press.

When we read about sexual assault in the news, we try to wrap our heads around the specifics of each incident. Every time, there are at least two sides to the account, and often, when it involves young people, victims brave enough to share their story face massive retaliation from their peers. In our post-#MeToo era, reporting, it seems, has not gotten any easier.

What are the forces that affect these outcomes? Why is it that the ACLU estimates 95 percent of rapes on college campuses go unreported? How come 90 percent of assault victims are female, and in studies conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, half of all LGBTQ and transgender participants report histories of sexual assault? How can we keep young people safe in an environment that seems almost hostile toward victims, even though everything we teach our children from a young age centers around this fundamental premise: If you feel unsafe, tell someone.

The answers to these questions are buried in layers of social constructs as old as time, many of which circle around a reality that is in itself multi-layered: gender.

In my practice and in my own life as a survivor, what I’ve learned from countless stories is that assault outcomes were often influenced by two gender-related forces: 1) “good girl conditioning” and 2) “bad boy allure.” In addition, young people are learning about sexual conduct primarily from their devices, where sex is available in visual and audio form almost any minute of any day. They’ve also heard accounts of sexual aggression at the highest levels of authority in our nation, and until Harvey Weinstein’s fall and the #MeToo movement, there wasn’t much being done about it.

According to KeyLogger Review, as of April 2019 there are now more than 24 million pornography sites available online, prompting more than 68 million daily searches. In 2010, a study analyzing the level of violence occurring in these videos found, “Of the 304 scenes analyzed, 88.2 percent contained physical aggression, principally spanking, gagging, and slapping.… Perpetrators of aggression were usually male, whereas targets of aggression were overwhelmingly female. Targets most often showed pleasure or responded neutrally to the aggression.”

Culturally, close relationships between men and women are most often thought to center around sex, with teenage boys conditioned to believe that sexual prowess is a hallmark of manhood. Yet the underlying human need for healthy relationships that include platonic touch and non-sexualized communication is as real for boys as it is for girls. With sexual expression becoming more popular, such as the sharing of nude or semi-nude pictures online, boys are often blamed for the practice more than girls. But in reality, both sexes are participating, and both are replicating what they observe in society at large. The underlying goal of bravado is connection, but without a healthy alternative means to the end, connection can easily become sexualized.

Here’s a quiz to get male readers of all ages thinking about what healthy touch and relationship means to them:

1. When was the last time I gave a full bear hug to one of my guy friends?
2. Do I feel like I know how to give and receive healthy touch with others (men and women)?
3. How many times a week do I find myself looking at something on social media that my conscience knows is demeaning to women?
4. Am I willing to be more safety-minded with what I expose myself to in the media?
5. Am I willing to stick up for women in a situation where there’s risk?

Masculine energy is one of the most beautiful forces on earth. At its best expression, it gives those near to it a sense of assurance, protection, and comfort. However, unless one is a poet or musician, boys aren’t often encouraged to express themselves emotionally in social groups. Family conversations that include reflective questions such as these support healthy relationship building on all levels.

The same is true for girls acculturated to be “good.” Learning to let go of this deep social imprint is a necessary attitude adjustment in the fight for gender equality and increased safety for girls. Although we need and love the inner good girl when the right situation presents itself (like when two friends are fighting and the good girl helps create peace between them), if the good girl gets in the way of safety, the inner warrior needs to take over by being crystal clear about her boundaries. The good girl might prefer to silently suffer rather than risk massive social upheaval on the heels of an assault. But reporting goes a long way in decreasing the sense of victimhood and powerlessness that often attend the aftermath. Victim-blaming can be a devastating experience for those brave enough to share their story but, from what I’ve observed, is not as permanently damaging as silence. The effects of sexual violence can leave scars that are invisible to the outside world, and they are compounded when kept secret.

Here are some questions to help female readers identify their inner good girl:

1. How many times a day do you say you’re “sorry”?
2. How often, when you disagree with someone, do you keep your feelings to yourself in order to avoid conflict?
3. How often do you steer clear of a political debate with someone who thinks differently than you?
4. How often have you decided against joining a public protest even though you agree with the cause?

Regardless of your age, if you answered with at least two or three (times per week/day) for the first two questions, then perhaps your inner good girl is responding more often than she should. In order to build confidence and strengthen your inner warrior, try doing the following for two weeks and see how you feel. Remember, it’s helpful to expect that changes will be uncomfortable at first as you rewire your brain’s response system:

When you disagree with someone, tell them so, and why.

Try saying “pardon me” instead of “I’m sorry.” Nine times out of 10, we use “sorry” for very mundane and simple blunders like bumping into someone in the hallway. “Pardon me” will do just fine in those moments.

Engage in discussion with someone who thinks differently than you. This is a hard one, but I guarantee you will be working a very important component of your confidence muscle. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just give it a shot!

We may not have a blueprint to offer young people for how to manage the effects of the media, cultural conditioning, and the complexities of social life, but we can help them build an awareness of how to separate themselves from it, as they begin to identify the type of person they want to become.

Since discrimination increases risk, safety protocol is especially important for people who identify as LGBTQ and gender-fluid. Because of the negative stigmas people in the LGBTQ community face, it can be harder to seek help when needed. There can be fewer resources and lack of support from family and friends, but local and national hotlines are there for support 24 hours a day. Talking about safety before a risky situation presents itself makes it easier to broach the subject when and if there’s a need.

Here is a questionnaire that could apply to anyone. Reflecting on your answers will let you know what areas may need additional safety-mindedness if you identify as LGBTQ or gender-fluid:

1. When was the last time I made a safety protocol (like designating a time and place to meet if we get separated) with my friends before going out for an evening?
2. Have I ever met a date at their car?
3. Do I have confidence that I can talk to my friends or my family if I feel I’m at risk in my relationship?
4. Do I know someone in my circle who has been assaulted?
5. Do I feel confident that I would call an anti-violence hotline or seek legal support if I was ever assaulted?

The answers to questions such as these are broadly applicable, regardless of gender or orientation. As with all matters related to safety and healthy relationships, there is far more commonality across the sexes than there is separation. Welcoming family conversations that suspend judgment and invite openness supports young people as they begin to claim the future they deserve.