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Stopping Campus Sexual Violence by Educating Men

An 11-week program that looks at both male privilege and the impact of sexual assault on women alters the mindset of male students.
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The University of Connecticut. (Photo: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)

The University of Connecticut. (Photo: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)

The issue of sexual violence on college campuses has re-entered the national consciousness in recent days, thanks to an apparently flawed magazine story and a didactic episode of an HBO drama. But for all the hand-wringing and finger-pointing, there has been surprisingly little discussion about finding ways to prevent such assaults from happening in the first place.

Fortunately, a paper published in the October issue of the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity points to a potential solution. It finds a University of Connecticut program that introduces male “student leaders” to issues of gender inequality and sexual assault appears to alter attitudes.

The Men’s Project represents a promising primary prevention program,” reports University of Connecticut psychologist Andrew Stewart.

After completing the 11 weeks, "participants report lower sexism and rape-myth acceptance, and higher efficacy to confront sexism and challenge sexual assault."

The men were invited to participate in the project because they “had access to large social networks through their leadership roles in their respective organizations,” such as being residence-hall assistants. Thirty-six (or about 30 percent of those invited) agreed to participate; 20 of them provided detailed information on their gender-related assumptions and opinions before and after attending the 11-week program.

All met for two hours per week. The first three sessions were “dedicated to understanding different masculinities, socialization, and male privilege,” Stewart writes. The next five weeks were devoted to “exploring the breadth, depth, and emotional impact of sexual assault,” while the final three focused on “developing bystander intervention strategies.”

The before-and-after questionnaires were structured to reveal their level of sexism, both hostile and benevolent; their acceptance of rape myths; their use of gender-biased language; and their willingness to take action to stop sexual assaults. The men specifically responded to statement such as “Women are too easily offended,” “A good woman should be put on a pedestal,” and “When women are raped, it’s often because the way they said no was ambiguous.”

The results: After completing the 11 weeks, “participants report lower sexism and rape-myth acceptance, and higher efficacy to confront sexism and challenge sexual assault,” Stewart reports. They also expressed more willingness to take collective action against sexual violence.

Stewart concedes that the participants tested “relatively low on sexism” to begin with, and may have been motivated to show they had learned something from the experience. It’s also impossible to say whether their new attitudes would wear off as time went by.

Nevertheless, it appears the guys did learn something from their experience. Presumably, this knowledge would inform the way they counseled younger students about their attitudes and behaviors.

“Engaging men has been noticeably absent from the discussion of sexual violence prevention until only recently,” Stewart writes. The Men’s Project suggests that doing so can have significant benefits—especially if it involves “encouraging the expression of different forms of masculinity other than ones in which dominance over others is primary.”