* Editor's note: Check out a special Facebook chat with education reporter Stacy Teicher Khadaroo on how men are standing up and speaking out against sexual violence.
At noon on a Monday this past April, Alex Stepanek and some of his brothers from Sigma Phi Epsilon set up a big seesaw in front of the student union at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. For 24 hours, they took turns tipping up and down to draw attention to their yearly Sexual Assault Awareness Week events and their giant jar to collect money for a local crisis shelter.
“The biggest response we get is, ‘You guys are a fraternity. Why are you doing Sexual Assault Awareness Week?’ ” says Mr. Stepanek, now a junior. “Someone thought that we were making a joke out of it ... and we just explained [that] victims of sexual assault don’t stop being affected by the event ... so the least we can do is seesaw for 24 hours.”
It won people over. Around 2 a.m., Stepanek was surprised to see about 50 students show up to cheer the night shift.
For this fraternity chapter, taking a stand against sexual violence goes far beyond wearing teal (the color of sexual assault awareness). Most of the members have trained as peer educators, and they take on the subtle work of changing the culture. Like a ref calling a foul, if they hear a brother use slang that denigrates women or another man, they’ll say, “That’s a teal card.”
It may not be a typical fraternity (it’s nonpledging), but it is symbolic of a new generation of young men who are eager to play a role in stopping campus sexual violence, which in recent years has generated intense attention from activists, Washington, and the media.
For decades, women have taken on this challenge, joined by a small subset of men. But research has shown the promise of bystander education – helping people speak up or step in when they see violence or the precursors to it – so reaching out to men has become a focal point on many campuses.
“There’s an increased sensibility that this is not just an add-on or a new flavor-of-the-month trend,” says Jackson Katz, cofounder of Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP). The organization pioneered bystander training related to sexual assault two decades ago, largely among male coaches and athletes. “Men commit the overwhelming majority of sexual violence. If men aren’t engaged, then there’s no hope,” he says.
The positive role that men can play has become more visible in just the past few months, as individual men have spoken out in the wake of the Ray Rice/NFL domestic violence scandal and Vice President Joe Biden and President Obama have continued to push for better policies on college campuses.
The White House’s new “It’s On Us” campaign – using celebrities and social media to call on men in particular to help prevent campus sexual assault – has already generated more than 70,000 signatures for an online pledge and the involvement of more than 300 student body presidents, a senior official in the Obama administration says.
One thing that’s helped shift the conversation toward treating men as allies, rather than potential rapists, is research indicating that most college men don’t commit sexual assault, but those who do are often repeat predators. In a 2002 study of 1,882 men at an urban commuter university, 6.4 percent said in a confidential survey that they had committed acts consistent with the definition of rape. More than 60 percent of those men had raped more than once, noted the report, co-written by researcher David Lisak.
Prevention efforts have also become more inclusive with a growing awareness that men are the victims in an estimated 10 percent of sexual assaults.
The bystander approach appeals to wide swaths of both men and women because “the vast majority are anti-rape ... and they already want to help,” they just need more tools, says Dorothy Edwards, founder and executive director of Green Dot etc., a violence prevention group that encourages people to take positive actions. (Green dots can symbolically cover over the red dots showing up on a crime incident map.)
‘Don’t feel guilty ... feel responsible’
It’s a warm October night in Waterville, Maine, and 20 upperclassmen on the Colby College men’s soccer team settle into a ring of purple chairs. The freshmen will meet, too, but for this group, it’s the second discussion with their MVP-trained coach, Ewan Seabrook, about the role they can play as respected athletes to prevent harassment, dating violence, and sexual assault.
About 90 percent of violence that women experience is perpetrated by men, he tells them, quickly adding a reassurance: “I don’t feel guilty. I don’t expect you guys to feel guilty. But I do feel responsible.”
They look at a series of statements, walking to different parts of the room if they agree, disagree, or are unsure. They all cluster in the “disagree” camp and discuss the first one: “If one of my friends is being abusive to women, or is being abused, it’s none of my business.”
Among these teammates, there’s not as much consensus around the next example: “It’s okay for a man to call a woman a
b---- if it’s in a joking manner.” Most of them choose “disagree” (using the term “is fundamentally demeaning ... disrespectful,” one says) or “unsure” (women say it, so should men be held to a higher standard?).
But two plant themselves solidly on the “agree” side. One says he’d be OK saying something like, “My professor’s a b---- for giving me an assignment over fall break.”
Later, Mr. Seabrook unveils a drawing of a square labeled “Be a Man.” One player stands at the whiteboard to write in the box what the others say society expects men to be like: confident, dominant, “wearing the pants,” chivalrous, protective, independent, strong, competitive.
“What about emotionally?” Seabrook asks. Disengaged, they answer. “ ‘Bros before hos,’ ... you place your male friends ahead of that relationship” with a woman, one says.
“If you are outside the box, what do you get called?” Seabrook asks. Gay (or related slurs), soft, weak, loser.
“As leaders, how can we play a role with that box?” he asks. “Expand it. Being a man is so much more,” one team member says. “Make a conscious effort not to push people inside the box,” another adds.
After the 90-minute session, several students say they want to tackle these issues partly because they feel protective of their own female relatives and friends. “The guys they are interacting with – I hope they have the same standards we do, but you just don’t know,” says sophomore Jack McGeachie.
For sophomore Conrad Troast, one motivation is to help keep his male friends from “doing something stupid, especially in the presence of alcohol.”
These conversations are happening more and more at colleges nationwide. MVP and Green Dot have each conducted trainings on more than 250 campuses. Men Can Stop Rape has eight college chapters, and the group One in Four, with an emphasis on men’s engagement, has 15. Fraternities and male sports teams often participate in “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” events – wearing heels to raise awareness about gender violence. And many college men have started their own peer educator groups.
Men’s engagement has been gaining ground for the past two decades, but “it’s not anywhere near systematic yet,” Mr. Katz says. Many institutions need to get past a “check the box mentality” and put “funding and sustainable administrative oversight” into this work, he says.
When recent graduate Jackson Murphy started his freshman year at Connecticut College in New London, he and a friend joined One in Four. It had five or six core members, he says, but by his senior year, it had grown to 20 or more.
“There’s been a culture shift, especially with men in college who are realizing they can be part of the solution,” he says.
Mr. Murphy is also among more than 500 Connecticut College students who have had Green Dot training. He recalls putting his bystander skills into practice at a party: “I noticed a friend of mine was being pursued a bit too aggressively, so myself and a friend walked over ... and tried to alleviate the situation. Then it happened again, and a bunch of others saw it happening, so we all walked over and asked him to leave. And he did.”
More research is needed to determine how effective bystander training is. But several programs, ranging from MVP, based at Northeastern University in Boston, to Bringing in the Bystander, based at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, have been shown to increase students’ awareness of gender-based violence and boost their ability to identify and intervene in problematic behavior among their peers.
At the high school level, preliminary findings from a five-year study show a 50 percent reduction in the frequency of sexual violence at schools with Green Dot training, while a comparison group of schools without the training saw a slight increase.
Another study looked at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where Green Dot was founded and many students have received training. The number who said they had been victimized by sexual harassment and stalking was 11 percent lower than at two comparison campuses (after adjusting for demographic factors).
Some tension remains between proponents of bystander education with gender-neutral messaging (such as Green Dot) and those whose messages explicitly focus on male gender norms (such as MVP).
Green Dot trains men and women together, because Ms. Edwards found that men placed in a separate room would get defensive. The groups that challenge definitions of masculinity “are important, but it’s advanced content, and most mainstream men are not signing up for that,” she says. “If I say, you can’t laugh at these jokes and you have to deconstruct your masculinity ... they write me off as a radical feminist.”
On the other hand, Katz and other proponents of MVP’s approach say men are open to the discussions and relieved to be able to talk about societal pressure to “be a man.”
“It’s not just about questioning male gender norms to stop sexual violence. It’s to make men in general feel like they can express themselves in a whole lot of ways,” says Emily Schusterbauer, director of Colby’s Gender and Sexual Diversity Program. “It’s a form of sexual violence prevention, even if you never mention that phrase.”
Colby requires training on sexual-assault and bystander intervention for freshmen and sophomores. The most successful are those co-led by male and female students, Ms. Schusterbauer says, so she’s working to recruit more men to join the three she currently has on her team of 12 peer educators.
Some men respond with lawsuits
Some men are concerned about being railroaded as colleges revamp their sexual misconduct policies to comply with 2011 guidance from the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which enforces the Title IX prohibition of sex discrimination in education.
At least 44 men have brought related lawsuits against universities – many of them arguing that the pendulum is swinging too far away from due process for the accused – according to a database on the website AVoiceforMaleStudents.com.
One such lawsuit is against Columbia University in New York, which has seen a wave of activism among rape survivors and their allies who say the administration has not done enough to protect them and hold rapists accountable.
The plaintiff, John Doe, says in the suit that he was unfairly suspended for two years because the one night of sexual activity in question was consensual and at Jane Doe’s invitation. “In essence, there was a rush to judgment, pandering to the political climate on campus and pressure from [women’s] groups, with little thought, if any, given to the actual specifics,” the suit says.
John Doe, it adds, was not allowed to question Jane Doe or bring key witnesses.
While such complaints have been mounting, so have actions brought by women and OCR. As of late October, the agency had 86 investigations pending into colleges’ handling of sexual violence claims.
Some men at Columbia are very supportive of sexual assault survivors, says Erik Campano, a postbaccalaureate student and member of Columbia’s Men’s Peer Education group.
In March, he wrote an article in the Columbia Daily Spectator about being assaulted by a pastor at his church while living abroad in 2011. He wanted to share his perspective on “what most men know and don’t know about sexual assault,” he says.
“In the weeks after the story came out, I was contacted by dozens of survivors connected with Columbia, and very few had reported [their experiences] to the university or police. All of them were female,” he says.
About 12 percent of college sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement.
More people might file a report if they sense there is community support – and the sense that such support is building, experts say. “This is an unprecedented window in time.... Even a year ago, there’s no way you’d imagine what’s happening with the NFL” and the changes it’s made, says Edwards of Green Dot.
“The iron’s hot.... We’ve got populations that are rising up and demanding response and accountability,” she says.
Now she and other prevention experts just hope to find the resources to scale up their efforts.