How to Get College Men to Stop Campus Rape

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 12.17.16 PMThe re-trial of a former Vanderbilt University football player charged with a 2013 sexual assault began this week in Tennessee. The defense blamed alcohol, technology and the encouragement of male peers for his poor college-boy behavior. This trial gives us a perfect opportunity to talk about engaging men in ending sexual violence—especially since April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

While there are effective interventions designed to help college women avoid being sexually assaulted, there is much less being done on our college campuses to deter the main perpetrators of such violence: men.

Sexual assault prevention programs that target college men typically provide a couple of hours per week over a few-month period. They start off by explaining things like gender socialization and male privilege, which means helping men understand that yes, girls learn to cook and clean, and boys learn to mow lawns and take out the garbage, but also that there’s more to it than that: There are deep societal attitudes that we all learn around what is expected and encouraged of men and women based on their gender.

The trainings then tell men about sexual violence, including the incredible psychological toll it takes on survivors. There may or may not be what’s called a bystander intervention component—showing men how to intervene safely and effectively before, during and after such violence.

These programs work, somewhat. They generally increase college men’s willingness to help as a bystander and decrease their acceptance of rape myths—and that’s a damn good thing. I’m not knocking these programs. Every bit helps.

But three things give me pause. One is that the intention to intervene to help a woman who is about to be raped and actually engaging in such bystander behaviors are different. Two, these interventions show short-term improvements, and these gains are not maintained over longer periods of time. Three, college men who are at high risk for engaging in sexually coercive behaviors are generally unaffected by these interventions. That’s not good.

Research has identified predictors of perpetration of violence in young men, including things such as histories of witnessing parental violence, experiencing child abuse, current alcohol abuse, holding strong beliefs in traditional gender roles, engaging in rigid power and control strategies in relationships and anti-social tendencies. We need to figure out who these men are and develop intervention strategies that can help them.

Let’s face it: Perpetrators are smart. A recently published study, using one of the largest nationally collected data sets of serial rape cases reported to law enforcement, indicates that serial rapists (perpetrators raping two or more women) typically exhibit a high degree of criminal sophistication. Their tactics, such as the surprise approach and a level of planning, likely help serial rapists evade detection. Sexual assault perpetrators on college campuses won’t likely freely disclose their past behaviors or future intentions, so future research is likely going to have to be creative and go way beyond self-reporting.

The world needs to find ways to create lasting attitudinal and behavioral change to prevent sexual violence against girls and women on college campuses and beyond, and particularly target men at high risk of committing these crimes. That’s a very good investment.

Get the Ms. Blog in your inbox! Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chris West licensed under Creative Commons 2.0



Joan Cook, Ph.D. is a psychologist and associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine. She is also an Op-Ed Project public voices fellow and the 2016 president of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Trauma Psychology.


  1. M.L. Sicoli says:

    Dr. Cook has given us food for thought, especially given her comments on the only limited effectiveness of the typical rape prevention programs held on many colleges. College officers and administrators need to be educated on the pathology of the serial rapist and not just think the rapist is an average college student who has only committed this one offense. Colleges should turn to law enforcement officers who can do much to educate the (sometimes naive) college community on programs that would seek to protect their students from the trauma of rape.

  2. Sharon Wise says:

    I love your writing style. You keep it 100 and it helps me keep it real and honest. Please keep writing and speaking for us whos voice appears sometimes silent.


  3. Julie Rufo says:

    Our culture needs to go to the basic level : how do boys learn that it is okay to impose themselves on girls. Where do they learn that girls are prey, that it is okay to attack them. How do they even get the idea of rape in their minds? The problem is not with girls, it is with the way boys are socialized.

  4. Deborah Fishman says:

    Dr.Cook is spot on. This is a societal and cultural issue that demands very early intervention to change norms and beliefs.

  5. As a psychotherapist who works with women and men with post traumatic stress, I say Amen! I, too, am thrilled about the variety of programs that now exist aimed at reducing sexual assault on college campuses – we’ve come a long way to acknowledge the nature of the problem. Dr. Cook’s call to arms for a more far-reaching approach is an important reminder to keep innovating new approaches, especially aimed directly at potential perpetrators.

  6. I think men won’t stop rape because they don’t believe they are capable of doing it until they have done it.

    I know a lot of my male peers who think they’re fundamentally good. But when they get rejected by women, they get really angry and often abusive.

    The task of stopping rape, when taken on only by women, is like playing soccer with half your team on the bench. I think men should be aware and not in denial of their potential to rape. It is the first step towards vigilance towards the way they treat women, and maybe a big leap towards one less woman raped.

    via WordPress

  7. Contributing to the problem is the belief that getting inebriated is an expected part of the college experience. Every college student seem to know when a classmate at a party has had too much to drink. The culture needs to change.

  8. Judy Moltzen says:

    Dr. Cook brought up a topic that is rarely discussed, that being the education of men regarding sexual assault issues. I see a lot of education directed towards helping women, i.e., prevention, protection and support, but few articles directed at male education. State
    Colleges and Universities in California require a certain number of hours devoted to sexual assault education on campus, but there is little education given to men regarding the physical and emotional impact sexual assault has on women. I agree that more education is needed in order to help men under the ramifications of sexual assault on women and men. Being a passive bystander is no longer acceptable.

  9. Steven Thorp says:

    Dr. Cook makes a compelling point: sexual assault intervention programs should address both survivors and perpetrators to best address the problem. As she notes, funding for continued research in this area could yield big benefits and would be a sound investment.

  10. Richard T says:

    It’s really great to see that we are starting to put the locus of responsibility in the right place. I think in general, getting people predisposed to antisocial behavior to change is difficult; the motivation to change needs to be there and it almost by definition isn’t in sociopaths (I suspect a lot of the repeat offenders have at least sociopathic traits). It seems like the promising areas are in prevention and bystander work- and this would also make this behavior less accepted, which is likely in the long term the best way of preventing.

  11. Mx. "No" Means No says:

    Teaching rape intervention is a great idea. But targeting the entire endeavour solely at men is rather offensive and excludes woman from what would be a valuable learning experience (rape intervention). It would serve it’s purpose better if the content was kept relevant to rape awareness and not an attempt at shoe-horning ideologies involving “male privilege” which should be a separate lesson as it may deter some people from receiving education on rape if they disagree with the patriarchy hypothesis.

Speak Your Mind


Error, no Ad ID set! Check your syntax!