I will be referring to men as perpetrators and women as victims because that is the case in the majority of sexual assault cases. There are exceptions including: women assaulting men, men assaulting men, and women assaulting women. I am aware of these variations but for the purpose of this paper, will not be addressing them.
Despite a consistent increase of sexual assault prevention programs and continued efforts by dedicated advocates of the field, there has been no decrease in the incidence of sexual assault in the American university settings for the past decade (1-2). The rate of sexual assault among women during their five-year academic careers is an astounding one in four women (3). Survivors of sexual assault can suffer from a variety of short or long-term health problems. The combination of physical, psychological and behavioral problems can cripple a students academic success, resulting in failing classes or dropping out of school altogether (9).
Women are the target audience for most sexual assault prevention programs across the nation. These programs aim to keep women out of potentially harmful situations by relying on “target hardening strategies”. Target hardening strategies is an umbrella term for the safety measures that campus administrations take to create a sense of safety for students and prevent sexual violence (4). These tips are commonly used on college campuses and include: jog only on well-lit roads; don’t hitchhike; never remain alone in a laundry room, mail room, or parking garage (5).
These messages automatically label women as victims and can also mislead women to believe the “stranger rape” myth: the idea that sexual assault is most commonly perpetrated by a stranger. These strategies can condition women to have an unreasonable fear of strangers and to heavily depend on the familiar men in their lives who are more likely to be assaulters (5).
Men perpetrate 99 percent of sexual violence against women and 75 percent of offenders are acquaintances, friends, or intimate partners of the victim (6-7). Evidence shows that these target-hardening strategies are not working and it is time for prevention efforts to address the men who are responsible for committing almost 100 percent of sexual assault cases (8).
The public health strategy that I will be critiquing is the use of target hardening strategies as a method of sexual assault prevention on college campuses. My three critiques of this method are the following: it focuses its prevention efforts on women who are the victims instead of the perpetrators; promotes a culture of victim blaming; and is not a comprehensive or holistic approach.
CRITIQUE #1: Prevention Efforts on Victims not Perpetrators
Target hardening strategies do little to prevent rape and actually reaffirm the false, widespread belief that rape is committed by strangers in an unfamiliar, dark, outside, area. More examples of target hardening strategies are: don’t use isolated bus stops; attend a self-defense class, use blue light emergency phones on campuses, stay in at night, do not dress scantily, walk with a male escort, stay off dimly lit pathways, don’t accept drinks from strangers, and use caution in conversations with strangers These messages implicitly tell women that if they are assaulted, they are to blame, because they did not do something right, such as, they walked alone at night, or got drunk at a party. When in reality, even if women do everything they can to protect themselves, perpetrators will still find a way to assault them.
The illusion of control theory states that people feel that they can control the outcome of certain situations (13). They feel this way when they take ownership over a part of the situation. Women will go out of their way to avoid being out late at night. They will download certain apps on their phone that are specifically meant to give the “control” back to women over their situation- such as ‘Hollaback!’. College freshmen are given “rape whistles” that they put on their key chains and carry with them everywhere. These steps make women feel like they have a certain amount of control and ownership. But as a prevention strategy, this is only providing women with an illusion of control, it is not reality.
CRITIQUE #2: Promotes a Culture of Victim Blaming
It seems counter productive to focus a prevention method on the victims of a crime. For example, would you blame a homeowner whose house was broken into because their locks were not strong enough? Or would you blame a car owner whose car was stolen because their car alarm was not loud enough? No, you would blame the robber that broke the lock, and the thief that stole the car. Crimes of sexual assault should be looked at the same way, as every other crime. The victims should not be blamed for wearing “too little” clothing or drinking “too much”. The blame should rest 100% on the assaulter, just like it would if your house was broken into or your car was stolen.
CRITIQUE #3: One Sided Approach Not Effective
Many college administrations rely on target hardening strategies as a method of prevention. It has been proven that relying on this strategy alone does not effectively decrease or prevent sexual assault. And it can sometimes even have adverse effects on women. Without a more comprehensive approach the time and resources put into perfecting each campuses target hardening strategies will be a waste (5).
My proposed intervention of these critiques is to create a sexual assault prevention program that: focuses its prevention efforts on men; shifts the culture away from victim blaming; and is more comprehensive. To defend and support these three interventions I will be using the social expectations theory and social norms theory.
My ideal intervention would be a mandatory program that all men must complete every year that they attend university. Every campus would have a sexual assault prevention office with trained staff and student interns that coordinate these sessions. The facilitators of this program would be well-respected men from the campus and community including: faculty, staff, coaches, alumni, and members of law enforcement. The presenters would be trained by professional sexual assault prevention experts who come to their campus.
The men would cover topics such as: rape myths, healthy sexual relationships, bystander intervention, victim blaming, sexism, drug and alcohol use, sexual assault campus policy and on and off-campus resources. There would also be an emotionally triggering guest speaker such as a survivor or family member of a survivor. I would want this session to have as much interaction and participation as possible between the students and the facilitator. There would be multiple evaluations tracking changed behaviors and attitudes before and after the sessions as well as throughout each semester. Results would be tracked and flagged for warnings to modify each years presentation. Each session should have no more than 100 students in attendance. There would be no women in the room, but the session would be video taped.
Certain groups of men would have smaller sessions including: transfer students, international students, and first year dorm students. These smaller sessions would be justified because; these students may not be familiar with the culture of the, it may be their first time away from home, they may speak different languages, or have more questions than other groups.
It would also be mandatory that all male athletes and fraternities have an extra session per year in school. These sessions would be similar to the general sessions but would put an extra emphasis on bystander intervention, victim blaming, sexism, and holding yourself and your teammates accountable for their actions. These extra sessions would be justified by the increased rate of sexual assaults among college athletics and fraternities.
DEFENSE OF INTERVENTION #1: Prevention Efforts on Perpetrators
Social expectations theory says that behavior is dictated by social norms and that if you want to change behavior, you need to change social norms. In this case, the social norms of accepting sexual assault as a part of college life must be changed. This can be done by using the most successful approach to date: address men as prevention partners and provide them with the skills to do their part to prevent sexual assault and help a survivor of sexual assault (8).
Men in this country are socialized to be dominant and women are socialized to be weak; anyone straying from these norms is considered different from the group. This dichotomy breeds predators and prey, which often results in sexual violence. Single sex groups can aid exploration of socialization that men experience and encourage participants to challenge male peers’ negative behaviors (12). Engaging men as allies for the prevention of sexual assault against women on their campus is necessary for changing the social norms of sexual violence against women (6). With each culture, variables change drastically, including how they perceive themselves, what makes a message relevant to them, and what motivates them. Prevention programs specifically targeting males have proven that men will: feel more comfortable, less defensive, more honest, and reveal a diversity of opinions that may not be expressed if women are present (8).
DEFENSE OF INTERVENTION #2: Promote Culture of Accountability
Social norms theory says that people’s behavior is strongly influenced by assumptions about the way our peers think and act (11). Often those assumptions are incorrect. In the case of sexual assault, university students have a common misperception that it is “not cool” to intervene in certain social settings. The social norms that need to be changed in order to decrease sexual assaults is to create a strong network of peers who stand up against potentially threatening situations.
A powerful tool to prevent all forms of violence, including sexual assault, is bystander intervention. Bystander intervention is the presence of a third party who, by his or her presence and actions, may be able to help prevent a risky situation from escalating. Variables that influence why people do and do not intervene include age, awareness and denial of problem, sense of responsibility for problem, pros and cons of intervening, behavioral willingness, and influence of peer norms supporting coercive behaviors (10). This will provide university students with a feeling of empowerment and obligation when placed in a tricky situation. If students see their peers intervening, they will be more likely to intervene and it will become the “cool” thing to do. Instead of turning the other cheek, students will have learned the tools to break up an unsettling situation.
DEFENSE OF INTERVENTION #3: Incorporate More Comprehensive Strategy
A more comprehensive approach would include: counseling and other mental health services; sexual health information; drug and alcohol education; awareness raising events such as Take Back the Night, Vagina Monologues and the Clothes Line Project; campaigns on busting rape myths; peer sexual assault prevention educators; student advocate groups like MARS (Men Against Rape and Sexism), and campus gender centers (i.e. Gender and Sexuality Equity Center). And of course a more comprehensive approach would include my recommended program.
There is a substantial amount of literature on sexual assault programming on college campuses but few have proven effective for a sustained period of time after the presentation. As stated in this paper, my three recommendations for a better and more effective public health strategy of preventing sexual assaults on college campuses are: to target men as the main audience, take the focus off victim blaming and onto bystander intervention, and incorporate a more comprehensive strategy. After making these changes and implementing them nation wide across college campuses, I am confident that the incidence of sexual assault will decrease.
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