Asking men to visualize being raped is a graphic way to prove a point-but is it an effective strategy to prevent assault? College campuses around the country are beginning to adopt prevention programs and a new article examines their tactics.
On Sunday, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece exploring the struggles of colleges trying to measure the effectiveness of programs designed to reduce rape and sexual assault. These programs have shifted the focus from women to men - and have stepped up the idea that men can assist in preventing third party assaults.
The Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women gives grants to colleges to develop or strengthen various resources, including policies related to prevention, victim counseling, and training for administrators and the campus police in identifying and responding to sexual assaults.
Some colleges try to reach all their incoming freshmen during orientation, or work the training into their curricula, while others aim to reach a few hundred students a year. On some campuses, well-financed women's centers funnel thousands of dollars into the effort, while other colleges have found ways to educate a good chunk of students without a real budget, relying on student volunteers and fund raising.
The challenge for colleges is that even the best prevention strategies lack guarantees. "There is no magic bullet," says Paul Schewe, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Research on Violence. The field is relatively new to academe, and not all experts agree on the best approaches.
John D. Foubert, one of the pioneering instructors, believes that one of the ways to stop sexual assault would be to focus on getting men to envision what it would be like if they were raped:
The program, which Mr. Foubert created in the late 1990s, consists of an hourlong workshop on sexual assault. The cornerstone of the program is a video that dramatizes the rape of the male police officer, which is both graphic and disturbing. And according to his research, Mr. Foubert says, the video increases men's aversion to rape while casting them not as potential abusers but as "potential helpers" who can help prevent assaults.
On its Web site, Mr. Foubert's organization highlights statistics from studies he has conducted on the program's effectiveness. It says that not only does the program improve men's understanding of how to help a woman recover from rape, but it also lowers "the likelihood of raping for an entire academic year-longer than any other program evaluated in the research literature." Furthermore, Mr. Foubert concluded that 75 percent of "high risk" men who attend his program report lower likelihood of raping after the program concludes.
This sends up some red flags. One, who determines who is high risk? Anyone is capable of sexually assaulting someone else, and while it may help deter men in social settings where a lot of peers are egging on forcible contact, it doesn't really stop one-on-one occasions like acquiescence rape. Secondly, are these statistics based on self-reporting? As we've seen before, many people will dance rings around the word "rape" without realizing that their behavior falls squarely within the definitions.
The more commonly known strategy aimed at women is a "risk reduction" tactic - where programs explain to women what they can do to try to mitigate the risk of an assault:
While some rape-prevention strategies were created specifically for men, others were designed to empower women. The latter include "risk reduction" programs that have been shown to decrease the likelihood of being assaulted. Such programs teach women, for example, to keep an eye on their drink to prevent someone from drugging it; to attend parties in groups; and to set boundaries in sexual situations. Self-defense training can be another component.
But the majority of programs are for both genders, according to a recent review written by a panel of sexual-assault-prevention experts, including Mr. Berkowitz and Mr. Schewe. Most rely on a lecture format, but many use videos, interactive skits, role-playing, and rape survivor stories. And according to Rape Prevention and Risk Reduction: Review of the Research Literature for Practitioners, mixed-gender programs have been shown to produce positive changes in attitudes about rape, although they have generally not been successful over the long term.
Several companies have gotten into the game, too. Colleges can book a performance of Sex Signals, a two-person play designed to educate students using a mix of improvisational comedy and audience participation. NFormed.on.sexual.assault, which bills itself as a "not for too much profit" company, offers online video training to colleges at a cost of up to $6.95 per student.
Although it's important to applaud educators for taking a closer look at rape prevention, it's possible the dwindling and hard to measure returns will continue as long as they solely focus on risk management, to the detriment of everything else. One of the reasons I enjoyed the Yes Means Yes! anthology and blog (full disclosure: I'm one of the contributors) is this idea of enthusiastic consent. So often, questions of consent hinge upon hearing "no" as in "she never said no" or "I didn't hear her say stop." Yes Means Yes reframes that idea, positioning that the absence of no should not be taken as consent, and that only a full, enthusiastic yes leads to a positive sexual experience for both partners.
In addition, there are a number of amazing documentary films examining the larger role of cultural influences that often go unchallenged. Dreamworlds 3 is one of these resources, where the images of women in society are critically examined. While some men may gain valuable insight by trying to place themselves in the shoes of someone who has been raped, another effective tactic may be to show how dominant and unquestioned are certain ideas about sexuality. The segment in Dreamworlds on masculinity and control is a major eye-opener:
In addition, Byron Hurt's Beyond Beats and Rhymes provides a hip-hop focus that still provides men and women with a shocking glimpse of what types of behavior become normalized.
At 6:37, the statistics begin flashing on screen: One in four black women are raped after age eighteen, that black women are 35% more likely to be physically assaulted than white women, and that more than 700,000 women are assaulted each year, with 61% of those victims being under 18.
The following segment, "Sisters and Bitches," provides an illustrated view of the problems with rationalizing away behavior. As the scenes Hurt films become more sexually aggressive and more violent toward women, he eventually approaches as police officer, who more or less shrugs it off as regrettable but not preventable:
In order to change the way sexual aggression is viewed in the culture, people must make sure that they examine and challenge assumptions. Which brings me to this problematic passage in the Chronicle of Higher Education report:
The majority of rapists, almost all of whom are male, are never reported or prosecuted, according to David Lisak, a clinical psychologist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston who has spent more than two decades studying rapists. These "undetected rapists," as he called them in a 2002 paper, hold rigid beliefs about gender roles and objectify women. They are usually hypermasculine, equating aggression, sexual prowess, and violence with their own adequacy. They tend to use alcohol deliberately to make their victims more vulnerable to attack.
While I agree that the majority of rapists are never reported or prosecuted (thanks social stigmas!) I disagree with creating a profile of someone who could commit a sexual assault or rape. For one thing, putting characteristics like hypermasculinity into the mix could become confusing. How then, does one deal with the manipulative dynamics of Nice Guys, or the murky consent dynamics of the open-source boob project?
In addition, a focus on the outcome (dealing with or preventing rape and sexual assault) can also lead to ignoring the causes and effects leading up to these types of assaults. At Racialicious, we recently published a piece from Fiqah who talked about her problems dealing with sexual advances from a uniformed police officer that lives in her neighborhood. She wrote:
"Where you headed?" he asked, looking down at me as my eyes landed everywhere else: his shoes, a lamppost, a trashcan, a little boy barrelling down the sidewalk on his scooter. As we stopped at a crosswalk, he moved a full step closer to me so that we were separated by no more than a few inches. I swung the shopping bag hanging from my hand between us, casually, so as to appear non-deliberate. My flitting eyes landed on the gun at his hip. I quickly looked away.
"Oh, not far," I'd said, calmly, making small talk as my mind screamed angry accusations and panicked instructions. Don't let him walk you to your building! Stall him! It's your fault for wearing a V-neck shirt without a minimizer! Tell him you have run to the bodega across the street and pick up something you forgot! Tell him your boyfriend's waiting for you! You must always remember to wear your wedding ring when you go out or this will happen! This is your fault! Your fault! Don't tell him your real name! Don't tell him anything! Keep talking! This is your fault!
"OH!" I said, feigning dismay. "I forgot something! I gotta run into one of these bodegas and grab it."
"No problem, I'll walk you there," he'd said. My stomach turned over.
"Thank you so much, that's really nice, but I got it."
"You sure?" he'd asked, handing me my bags.
"Oh, yeah, it's not a problem. I mean, a little weight-lifting won't hurt!" I added. He laughed, and gave me one last nauseating up-and-down.
"Don't get too much exercise, now," he'd drawled.
I had swallowed my rising bile and forced a smile, thanking him for his help, and hastily crossed the street.
As is par for the course with any blog posts on rape, street harassment, and sexual harassment, comments started creeping in asking what the cop did wrong, why the writer would feel threatened if a man was just saying hello, and asking what men are supposed to do if women dress in a way to attract attention. One commenter even went so far as to suggest Fiqah would have been fine with this harassment if she thought the police officer was attractive.
These types of ingrained ideas need to be explored. There is no reason why men should have so many problems distinguishing between flirting and sexual aggression, or why reflexive reactions like "well why are you wearing that?" should go unchallenged.
Luckily, on campuses, administrators are open to changing tactics. As Dorothy Edwards, creator of the Green Dot program, says at the end of the Chronicle article:
Ms. Edwards, of Kentucky, echoes some of her peers when she says it doesn't matter to her which strategy comes out on top, as long as the goals are met. "I couldn't care less about Green Dot," she says. "I want to end rape."
Rape-Prevention Programs Proliferate, but 'It's Hard to Know' Whether They Work [The Chronicle]
Official Site [Yes Means Yes Blog]
Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape
Dreamworlds 3 (Unabridged) [Media Education Foundation]
Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes [PBS Independent Lens]
Nice Guy (TM) at XKCD [Restructure]
Open Source Boob Project [Feminist SF Wiki]