Editor’s note: Six Cape Elizabeth High School students organized and hosted Sexual Assault Awareness for Everyone, a daylong event for high school juniors and seniors held May 23 at the University of Sourthern Maine in Portland. The guest commentary that follows is from one of the organizers, Natalie Gale, who discusses how the event got off the ground.

It was one of the first meetings of our fledgling club, and we had organized the desks in Ms. Harrington’s room into a haphazard semicircle as our members suggested possible projects for our group to take on. I stood poised at the whiteboard taking notes with Maggie Gleason and Lily Mackenzie, the co-presidents of our newly formed intersectional feminism group.

We didn’t want to sit around and talk about issues; we wanted to actually do something about them. One student mentioned that she had heard that our principal, Jeff Shedd, was mulling over the idea for a day dedicated to promoting sexual assault awareness, an idea sparked by senior Caroline Lengyel’s suggestion that our school host a speaker on the topic. The more that our club discussed this concept, the more our enthusiasm grew, and so immediately after the meeting, I emailed Mr. Shedd to ask how we could get involved. He suggested that the leaders meet to begin discussing ideas, and the rest is history.

Of the 278 juniors and seniors who attended this event that was for so long discussed only in hypotheticals and in hopeful what-ifs, it is estimated that about 37 of them will be the victims of sexual assault during their college careers – for men, the statistic is 1 in 15, and for women, a whopping 1 in 5. Despite this, the topic of sexual assault has in my experience been one never broached on school grounds. Students don’t hesitate to sling vulgarities heavy with implications about sex and sexuality, and yet to many, having an open and honest conversation about the very real and increasingly immediate risk of sexual assault is unthinkable. Our society glorifies sex, glorifies those who have it and utterly fails to acknowledge those who suffer at the hands of those who don’t take no for an answer.

Up until very recently, the curriculum of the mandatory freshman year health class at Cape Elizabeth High School did not include any discussion of consent, any definition of what is and is not consent or any clarification of who can and cannot give consent. This has since changed, but the fact remains that freshmen carefully examining their desks so as not to make eye contact with anyone during that desperately awkward sex ed unit are unlikely to retain the information that they learn there into their post-high school life. The statistics speak for themselves – evidently, whatever consent education is currently in place needs an update, because too many people just aren’t getting it.

In creating this day, our hope was simply to initiate a candid and nuanced discussion of the issues. We wanted to get the ball rolling; we wanted to create a safe space, one where students could ask their questions and receive honest answers, where they would start to really think about the causes and effects of sexual assault. This mission was present in every step of our decision-making in planning the event. After that first meeting with Mr. Shedd, we assembled a committee of like-minded individuals dedicated to the cause. We had Caroline Lengyel, the senior whose simple proposition to Mr. Shedd snowballed into our day-long conference; Stephen Bennett, the senior leader of anti-bullying group Peace Jam; juniors Lily Mackenzie, Maggie Gleason and myself, the leaders of the gender equality club; and an array of passionate and experienced faculty and community members.

We began meeting weekly, and a plan quickly came together. We would partner with the Violence Prevention Network, a coalition of organizations based largely in Southern Maine, to provide a number of sessions covering everything from cyber assault to Title IX to self-defense skills. Students would be able to select the sessions that interested them most, but all students would attend three sessions designed to emphasize what they could do to prevent sexual assault. As much as the event was to raise awareness, we wanted to be sure to avoid simply impressing upon them the gravity of the situation and to instead empower them to make a difference.

A final point of emphasis in our creation of the day was its non-discriminatory nature. While statistically it is undeniable that the majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by men against women, this day was not about pointing fingers; on the contrary, we wanted to emphasize that without education on these topics, anyone – identifying as male, female, or anything in between – could be the perpetrator or the victim in an act of sexual violence. For this reason, we named our day Sexual Assault Awareness For Everyone, or SAAFE – because that’s all that we ever wanted, really.

We want a safe world, and we want a safe forum for discussion of how to achieve one. At that InterFem meeting, we didn’t want to sit around and talk about issues. We wanted to do something about them. As it turned out, those two actions can be one and the same.

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