In our opinion: Utah must have zero tolerance for sexual violence

State health officials and the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault are working on a program to educate people on how to intervene appropriately to prevent instances of sexual violence, which studies show will claim a large percentage of the population as victims. The thinking is that high rates of sexual aggression might be tapered if more people were made aware of just what constitutes a pattern of behavior that could lead to sexual violence, and what steps they might take to prevent it.

It is a worthwhile project that will hopefully lead to better awareness of a problem that persists even as we are in the process as a society of coming to grips with just how frequently sexual violence occurs. Education programs can only help speed that process.

Fortunately, we have moved past an age in which sexually oriented teasing or taunting was looked upon as harmless fun. We have become more aware of the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses, though it has been a painful process of coming to realize how common it is and how it has often gone undetected and unpunished. We are cognizant of the harm brought by instances of “sexting” and the spreading of sexually graphic material through social media — which also are forms of sexual violence. We have learned more about the integral role sexual violence plays in many cases of domestic abuse. We have bolstered prosecutorial efforts to attack sex trafficking. We are better versed on the nuances of sexual harassment in the workplace. Yet, despite all of this, the problem persists.

​The health department estimates that 1 in 3 women in Utah will experience a form of sexual violence during their lives. One in 8 women will be victims of rape, as will 1 in 50 men. The societal costs of sexual violence in Utah top $5 billion a year, associated with the costs of investigation and prosecution, treatment, related medical and psychological effects and general “pain, suffering and diminished quality of life that victims suffered,” according to the health department.

​Empowering people to step up and intervene when they see evidence of pending or ongoing sexual violence is an important approach, although it’s hardly a panacea. The health department has categorized various risk factors for the perpetration of sexual violence, which can offer warning signs. Studies reveal a strong correlation between perpetrators and substance abuse. Also, people who have witnessed or been victims of sexual violence are more prone to be violators themselves. Other risk factors include anti-social behavior and acts of hostility toward women. Studies have also pointed to influences in popular culture that seem to condone sexual aggressiveness.

​Those working with the health department and the coalition against sex assault believe understanding those risk factors and other dimensions of behavior will empower people to step forward to prevent violence or help a victim escape from a cycle of abuse. Just how effective that approach can be in practical terms is subject to conjecture. What is not in question, however, is that sexual violence remains a problem for which society should demand zero tolerance.

This piece originally appeared in the Deseret News. Click here to read the original article.