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Sexual Assault Awareness Month: A Call for Engaging Boys and Men in Prevention

By: , Posted on: May 2, 2022

This past April marked the 21st anniversary of sexual assault awareness month. During sexual assault awareness month – often abbreviated as “SAAM” – many colleges and organizations will be hosting events to raise awareness about sexual assault and support survivors.  Although it is remarkable to acknowledge that we are now entering the third decade of SAAM, in fact, marches and events to mobilize advocates and survivors of sexual assault during the month of April emerged nearly 50 years ago.  In the early 1970’s – a time when women were often told to avoid walking alone at night to avoid harm – “Take Back the Night” rallies emerged as a way to bring women together to demand safety from violence and “reclaim the night”.   Even today, Take Back the Night Foundation continues to support hundreds of events across the United States. And if you live close to a college, or in a city, my guess is that you can easily locate a Take Back the Night walk or event to participate in this month.  Events hosted during SAAM range from traditional marches, as well as other events like “Bike for the Night” and 5K runs, all designed to bring more individuals within communities together to support survivors in their healing.

As an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, I remember participating in my first Take Back the Night Walk.  Students brought signs listing the names of organizations that they hoped would be expelled from campus, mainly fraternities who were suspected of harboring predatory men.  Years later as a graduate student, I participated in a name burning event at Ohio University, where survivors and their supporters gathered around a small bonfire on the main green.  I was a Co-Leader of the Sexual Assault Survivors Support Group at our counseling center at the time and sat on the cold spring ground at dusk alongside students, faculty members and staff.  On small folded up pieces of notebook paper, survivors had written the words they hoped they might one day have a chance to tell their attacker.  Others wrote the names of friends, family members, and colleagues who they hoped would find peace in their healing process.  Some wrote down their hopes for a future without violence. Over the course of the hour, we sat in silence bearing witness to each other as we took turns to walk up to the fire, drop our papers in, and watch our our wishes burn.

The next day, a group of students and advocates from the local rape crisis center wrapped clothesline throughout the trees of the college green.  Rainbow colored t-shirts, permanent markers, and puffy paints were left out on tables. Throughout the day, members of the community stopped to write a message on a shirt and add the shirt to the line.  Some shirts were made by survivor of sexual abuse or assault, others were made by individuals who supported survivors.  As the shirts started to encircle the walking paths of the college green, students on their way to class passed by the red, pink, and orange shirts hung for survivors of rape and sexual assault, blue and green shirts for survivors of sexual abuse, and purple and lavender shirts for women harmed because of their sexual orientation. Each shirt bore a different message: “Why me?”, “If I was too drunk to stand, I was too drunk to consent”, “I haven’t told my parents”, “You stole something from me“, “You assaulted my roommate before assaulting me”. Some shirts left hints to the identities of attackers.  This April, if you pass by a Clothesline Project I hope you pause to take in the stories that survivors need a space to tell.  Even while social media allows a global platform for saying “#MeToo” with the click of a button, the public events of SAAM play a vital role in creating visible public spaces where survivors’ stories are seen and heard.  This April, we must continue to stand in solidarity with survivors to provide a space for awareness and advocacy because the pain of sexual victimization runs deep, the healing process is ongoing, and – despite over 50 years of awareness raising – we are nowhere near close to bringing rates of sexual assault down to “zero”.

As a Clinical Psychologist who focuses my research and practice on sexual assault prevention and supporting survivors of sexual assault, I often feel like the process of tackling gender-based violence is akin to down a mountain with a spoon. The problem is so vast and there is so much that needs to change.  The prevalence of sexual abuse and assault is extremely high among cisgender women, as well as individuals who identify as transgender, gender queer or nonbinary, and individual who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.  Nearly 1 in 10 children experience sexual abuse.  Individuals with disabilities are especially vulnerable to sexual misconduct perpetrated against them by their caregivers.  One in six men is sexually abused or assaulted.  Of the 7,816 reports of sexual assault among military service members received by the Department of Defense in 2020, 6,290 involved incidents that occurred during military service.    Mary Koss’ early research on acquaintance rape – which gained publicity through a 1987 Ms. Magazine article – found that over 50% of college women had experienced some form of sexual victimization from the age of 14 until around their first year in college.  Sadly, these rates are virtually unchanged.

So, what needs to change to bring rates of sexual assault down to zero? First, we must consider sexual violence to be a 100% preventable crime for which perpetrators are 100% responsible. When we recognize that sexual assault is a preventable event, we can envision a world without violence. Second, we must each take responsibility and become personally involved in ending violence. Each of us at some point in our lives has witnessed something that contributes to sexual assault, have witnessed someone who is at risk for harm, or have spoken to a survivor.  You might be a basketball coach who hears a member of their team boast about their sexual exploits.  You might be a fraternity member who sees someone adding extra alcohol to the punch with the goal of “loosening everyone up” that night.  You might be a College Department Chair who witnesses someone making excuses for a professor who chose to get drunk with their students and invited them back to their room to “sleep it off”. You might be around the dinner table when a family member tells the same story (again) about how they really enjoy looking at the new neighbor walking their dog in spandex leggings.  Too often, when presented with these opportunities to speak out, we remain silent.

Our silence when presented with these occurrences of toxic masculinity, coercion, misconduct, and objectification send the signal that we are OK with these comments and the violence they feed into. Our silence leads perpetrators of sexual harassment and misconduct to believe that others are OK with their behavior.  Our silence is a part of the problem because most perpetrators of sexual assault believe that others support their behavior when in fact they don’t.  Research also suggests that when people’s misperceptions about other’s support for violence are corrected, their own perceptions about the acceptability of violence changes as well.   This is all to say that your response to instances of misogyny really do matter.  During sexual assault awareness month, it’s a time that we can all be more vigilant to notice these opportunities for intervention,  and speak up express our discomfort.

While essential, the awareness-raising initiates hosted during SAAM are also just one of the many layers of strategies needed to take down the mountain of sexual violence.  Too often, the burden of taking steps to prevent sexual assault has been levied on those most vulnerable. Although anyone – regardless of gender or sexual orientation – can experience or perpetrate sexual violence, it is often cisgender heterosexual men who are identified in research studies as the perpetrators of sexual assault. As I discuss with my Co-Editor Alan Berkowitz in our new volume “Engaging Boys and Men in Sexual Assault Prevention: Theory, Research, and Practice” released this March 2022 by Elsevier, bringing boys and men into the fold of violence prevention efforts is an essential component of a comprehensive prevention approach. There are now several approaches with boys and men reviewed in the book that show promise for reducing rates of sexual aggression, including both more traditional workshops, as well as online programs and social marketing approaches.    As discussed in the volume, boys and men tend to be highly influenced by what they believe other boys and men think and do.  For this reason, calls to engage boys and men in sexual assault prevention may be most effective when made by boys and men.

In the early years of the anti-rape movements, the voices and actions of men were relatively absent. With notable exceptions – such as the Bristlecone Project  — men’s own experiences of violence have not been recognized as a part sexual assault prevention efforts. Doing so fails to recognize men’s humanity, contributes to the stigma faced by men who experience sexual victimization, and hinders efforts engage boys and men in sexual assault prevention efforts.  Early prevention efforts which framed men as potential perpetrators also elicited defensiveness from some men. In the past decade, however, sexual assault prevention efforts have shifted from viewing boys and men as potential perpetrators of sexual violence to viewing men as important allies and partners in promoting change.  Most men are not sexually aggressive and are uncomfortable with expressions of toxic masculinity, coercion, misconduct, and objectification. Because of this, most men are ideally poised to take action to intervene and influence other men who might be more prone to harm. Thus, it is critical that all men be invited to be a part of the solution.

Indeed, seeing violence prevention as a problem only for those who experience harm is a part of the problem – and these days most pro-feminists, anti-rape organizations are actively engaged in efforts to involve men in anti-violence efforts.  Over the past several decades, some men have also come out to voice their complicity in remaining silent in the wake of other men’s problem behavior and have made a commitment to facilitating change.  Some men get involved in sexual assault prevention efforts because their partners are already involved in the movement, because they know of individuals who were harmed, because they have been harmed themselves, because they are invited by other boys and men to get involved, or simply because they feel it’s the right thing to do.  Although there are now more profeminist men involved in efforts to end sexual assault, it is not enough.  Men sharing their discomfort with sexism and the problematic aspects of traditional masculinity plays an important role in helping other men to get involved in shaping healthier masculine norms.

In the closing chapter of our Co-Edited book, Alan Berkowitz offers some suggestions for men in becoming an ally in ending violence against women and other social injustices that I think are ideally suited for reflecting on during SAAM. First, this April, we can reflect on our assumptions and biases, which we each have, and may be unaware of their impact.  This may be reflecting on we believe our own peer thinks or do – which could influence the misconduct which we take a stand against – or also assumptions that we make about individuals who experience sexual violence.  Doing so requires vulnerability and introspection. Second, we can also recognize that aspiring to be an ally can be a process, which we develop over time. It can be difficult to confront the problematic language and behavior of others, and we may harbor guilt stemming from times where we could have intervened to address problem behavior but didn’t.  Our actions to be engaged as allies in sexual assault prevention are a process that requires continual examination and commitment.  Garnering the support of other advocates and allies is essential.  Lastly, this SAAM, I hope that we can all take time to truly listen to the stories of others, including survivors and advocates working to end sexual assault.  As promoted in campaigns such as Start by Believing, showing support for survivors by listening and believing is an essential component to communicating to others that violence is not OK and that we are committed to doing something about it.

Engaging Boys and Men in Sexual Assault Prevention: Theory, Research, and Practice is available in the Elsevier Store.

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