“No means No”, “No More”, “It’s on Us” – effective strategies to raise awareness on the issue of sexual assault? Absolutely! But, how do we build on this to potentially affect real change. Maybe it’s time to consider a different approach to address the growing problem of sexual assault on college campuses – to get to the root of the problem. While women are primarily the victims of sexual assault, the problem lies with men. Sexual assault is fundamentally a man’s problem, albeit a problem that can have devastating and long-lasting effects on victims.
How can we begin to address the problem of sexual assault against women and subsequently have a real impact on reducing the incidence? The answer may not lie in traditional, broad awareness programs. Signing to the choir is simply a song. Changing the way men think about themselves and women may be a more effective route. It must begin with and end with men. Most men do not and will never engage in assault. Having men pledge to not assault women, while necessary, is not sufficient. Men’s actions (outside of assault) and their inactions are arguably key factors in maintaining an environment that may enable the victimization of women. It is the culture, expectations, male socialization, and language that may be more salient to the problem. Any intervention, then, must focus on creating an understanding of the implications of the context and culture of masculinity that can contribute to the growing incidence of assault against college women. Obviously, this is much easier said than done. It is unrealistic to think that a macro approach would have a dramatic impact on the masses. It begins with the person – one individual at a time. That one person can then be an agent of change to others. And so begin a movement.
Whether online, in print, or on film; the topic of sexual assault is in our psyche. It is indeed a hot topic – increasingly evident on social media and news reports. Sexual assault has become a more regular part of our consciousness and topic of conversation. It is, however, not a new phenomenon. Unfortunately, it has been a violent part of our culture for years. The silence that has predominated the past is no longer allowed. Today, sexual assault is talked about on social media and reported in the mainstream, news media outlets. While prevalent throughout our society as a whole, its incidence on U.S. college campuses is particularly problematic and the focus of much attention.
In typical fashion, large scale public awareness programs have emerged to address the issue of assault. As a society, we tend to react when a problem becomes so evident and then react on a large scale. Nationally, President Obama’s “No More Campaign” features actors and NFL athletes appearing in public service announcements – with the “no more” pledge. Many college campuses have initiated public awareness programs, such as: a designated week or day of events, ribbon campaigns, pledge forms, and speakers. Personally, our consulting firm, Reframing Leadership Consulting, has had engagements speaking to large audiences on college campuses on the topic of sexual assault on several occasions speaking about incidence, risk factors, psychological impact, outcomes, and prevention. A campus affiliated with our firm recently started the “It’s on Us” campaign featuring students espousing personal responsibility in combating sexual assault on twitter. Collectively, these approaches are designed to foster awareness on the topic of sexual assault on a macro level. This begs one to question their overall effectiveness. Does a macro approach translate to action and change on a micro level?
Is there value in public awareness programs? Absolutely. Any program that brings awareness and becomes an impetus for a discussion on the topic has value. The key lies with its continuation. Does the conversation continue and is it sustained? Does such conversation which began on a macro level translate into ongoing efforts to initiate real change on a micro level? While awareness campaigns have the potential to be a spark for real discussions, active targeted programming that focuses on the individual need to be implemented to impact real and substantive change. This requires a proactive approach – an approach that targets men and, in particular, focuses on the context and culture of masculinity challenging individual men to recognize this context, change their own behaviors, and become an agent of change influencing other men.
Understanding gender differences and the cultural and social influences that shape the notion of masculinity is a necessary first step. The masculine culture can encourage negative attitudes towards woman and negative behaviors, i.e., sexual coercion. Understanding the context in which sexual assault occurs is necessary in any attempt to change the culture and subsequently reduce the incidence of sexual assault among college women. Men should learn to see themselves as gendered people, question assumptions, and choose the extent to which they participate in the masculine culture.
Sexual assault takes place in a context in which men are encouraged to:
- See themselves as different from and better than women.
- Feel entitled to sex and pleasure.
- View women as sexual objects and disregard their feelings.
- Attain status among male friends by being detached from women and having sex with many different women.
- Be ready for sex all the time.
- Overpower women by going after what they want and never taking “NO” for an answer.
- Prove that one is not gay by having sex with many women.
- See sex as an act/technique rather than a relational behavior.
Violence against women is symptomatic of a larger problem: a continuum of disrespect toward women and can take the form of negative attitudes, jokes, sexist language, demeaning pornography, infantilizing terms etc. The culture and character of anti-feminity may condone and encourage the victimization of women. Unfortunately, most men see assault as isolated events and not a reflection of the masculine culture. Men’s social groups, such as, fraternities, athletic teams, friendship groupscan create a dynamic where masculine influences can set the stage for gender based violence. We must move past the notion of focusing solely on the perpetrator. Men who participate in negative attitudes toward women contribute to sexual assault even if they never commit the crime.
Not all men blindly adhere to the social context of hypermasculinity. However, those who accept masculine ideologies, tend to avoid vulnerable emotions, dependence on others, relationship orientations, asking for help, and getting emotionally close to other men. Furthermore, extreme notions of hypermasculinity may manifest in men buying in to the idea that they should always avoid feminine behavior, dominate women, take risks, be sexual conquerors, and never take “no” for an answer (Kilmartin & Berkowitz, 2009).
With this context in mind, efforts to reduce sexual assault should emphasize non-conformity to the ideologies of the masculine culture. The key is to empower men to break away from conformity and masculine socialization and highlight the perception that one has an ally in their midst. If one man takes a leadership role (masculine attribute) to break away, it frees other men to follow suit. An elaborate speech is not necessary; simple statements can have an impact, i.e., “hey – have some respect for her” “I’m not into that”. Given the influence of men, they (men) also have the potential to be part of prevention. The actions of men can shape attitudes (yours and others). The bystander role is not neutral – it is passive. Men need to be empowered to take an active role.
All men can help to reduce sexual assault by:
- Engaging in sex only with mutual, uncoerced consent.
- Striving for fully respectful relationships.
- Modeling respect for women to other men.
- Refusing to participate in activities, behaviors and language that denigrate women:
- Use of pornography, especially violent
- Sexual objectification (rating women, talking with male friends about women solely in sexual terms)
- Exhibiting negative attitudes toward women in sexist humor or using terms that animalize (bitch, fox), dehumanize (whore, slut), or infantize (baby, girl)
- Laughing or giving approval when other men behave in sexist ways (actions, language, jokes)
- Challenging other men’s masculinity in words (be a man, what are you a fag, a wus, etc.)
- Bragging about sexual conquest or approving of others
- Refusing to condone dangerous attitudes by being a passive bystander when male friends behave in sexist ways, even when no women are present.
- Being aware of gender and masculinity, and making choices rather than conforming to gender stereotypes.
- Seeing gender based violence & sexual assault as a men’s issue.
- Becoming a peer educator.
- Actively engaging and challenging male peers to change their perspective and to challenge others (become a model) (Kilmartin & Berkowitz, 2009).
Kilmartin & Berkowitz, (2009), “Sexual Assault in Context”, Psychology Press: New York.