How to Get College Men to Stop Campus Rape

The 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.

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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.