How to Make Campus Violence-Prevention Programs Better

8682675829_555503a78f_zColleges and universities are rushing to find quick fixes for the alarming levels of campus violence. Campus officials know the data from the recent Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll: around 25 percent of college women experience an unwanted sexual incident before graduation. To keep students safe, avoid lawsuits and retain federal grant dollars, many colleges and universities are deploying fast and simple bystander intervention training for students.

In the space of an hour, students can use dating scenarios to teach their peers to recognize and safely respond to common, potentially dangerous situations. Thanks to innovative early adopters like the University of New Hampshire, students learn how to speak up when someone drops a sedative or date rape drug into another person’s drink or spirits away a drunken peer for nonconsensual sex. Trained students are much more able to recognize problematic situations and to step forward to distract or deflect perpetrators. Bystander intervention is the model of choice held up by the White House to reduce and prevent campus sexual violence.

But now, as more prevention programs are widely adopted, scholars in the field are raising questions about bystander intervention training effectiveness, even charging that it may aggravate campus violence unless changes are made.

There’s a key problem with the bystander approach. The World Health Organization’s aspirational standard for violence prevention programs is that they be “gender transformative.” Gender transformative programs encourage men to question gender relations and messages that reinforce aggressive and entitled masculinities and adopt attitudes and behavior that promote equal power and respect for all gender identities. But many bystander programs merely reinforce male dominance as the norm. For example, leadership and respect programs popular in many college athletic programs teach principles of male chivalry but do not challenge patriarchal gender role beliefs. Even though, according to recent scholarly research, male dominance is tied to aggression in boys, few training programs mention the connection. And psychologist Shawn Meghan Burn notes that when programs don’t address gender, student attitudes “revert to previous levels within months, men’s rape-supportive attitudes sometimes increase and there are only weak effects on sexual assault incidence.”

The design of the program can also present problems. Experts agree that successful programs should reduce campus violence, but many programs are too short to be effective. Also, programs often do not consider other factors that might influence dating behavior, such as “family violence” or “other normative beliefs that are more supportive of aggression,” according to researchers. Scholars have found that programs that only provide information rather than teach behavior change are rated low for effectiveness; short-term, resource-based programs generally do not transfer to social situations beyond the immediate safety scenario. Training may be fun, exciting and empowering for students today, but the effects are often gone tomorrow.

What about the trusted programs that teach women self-defense and stranger-danger awareness? Unless they are fully informed by feminist principles, mainstream “awareness” programs can contribute to the climate hostile to women because they mislead women about the sources of danger and place responsibility for safety exclusively on women’s shoulders: walk in pairs, avoid dark streets, watch your drink and wear modest clothing. These prevention strategies ignore the fact that the majority (up to 90 percent) of sexual assaults occur not with strangers but with acquaintances, friends or family. At least, we might say, bystander intervention encourages community responsibility for safety, but it’s not enough.

News of these training shortfalls challenges colleges and universities to try again to shift the social conversation about who is to blame for campus rape and what can be done about it. Patricia Fabiano, Ph.D., the prevention and wellness services program director at Western Washington University, and her colleagues recommend five ways to address rape myths and publicize true but often hidden social norms, as in the successful campaigns against drunk driving and smoking: 1) Support and strengthen men’s existing respect for, and positive attitudes towards, women; 2) Engage men as allies instead of adversaries; 3) Encourage students to counter masculinity norms that propagate disrespect, aggression and sexual competition; 4) Use social marketing and strategic communication to strengthen gender transformative attitudes that already exist among students; 5) Amplify the voice of the silent majority of students already aligned with the aims of campus sexual assault prevention to encourage a “culture of protection.”

Perhaps adding these elements to bystander training models might definitively move campuses closer to greater equity and justice.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Wolfram Burner licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Dr. Irene Lietz is professor emerita of English at Carlow University in Pittsburgh and now lives and works in Detroit.