A Few Good Men

Dana Humphrey / April 6, 2018

Sexual assault prevention programs on campus are increasingly engaging college men

The rise of the #Metoo and #Timesup movements have thrust the country into a cultural reckoning around issues of sexual harassment and assault. For colleges and universities, the issue has been front and center for several years. Recent surveys show that one in five women report having been assaulted while at college.

Traditionally, prevention efforts have focused on women, who are overwhelming the victims of sexual assault, however, initiatives are emerging that put men at the forefront of prevention.

In 2011, President Obama released guidance to colleges investigating sexual assault on campus, pushing them to take the issue more seriously. In 2014, the administration created a special task force aimed at ending campus sexual assault, and introduced the “Its on Us” campaign, which prioritized the engagement of boys and young men in efforts to reduce violence, especially violence against women.

Engaging people as allies and training them to intervene in potentially harmful situations is a strategy known as bystander intervention. Research has shown that men are less likely than women to intervene in situations of sexual assault and that the difference is attributed to the social norms of traditional masculinity.

A valuable part of bystander intervention training is working to help men understand how social norms can prevent them from intervening to stop sexual assault.

Traditionally young men have been socialized to be tough and dominant and to eschew stereotypically “feminine” qualities, like being overly emotional or sensitive. Addressing these aspects of masculine culture and learning healthy masculinity can be a cornerstone of curbing campus sexual assault.

“Healthy masculinity” is a term that represents the practices of recognizing violent or harmful behavior, challenging that behavior in yourself and others, and focusing instead on empathy. Healthy forms of masculinity, can help boys and men become part of the solution by practicing prevention, and to reframe sexual assault as a men’s issue, placing the onus of preventing violence on men.

It’s refreshing to see that college men are increasingly stepping up to push for campus sexual assault and violence prevention initiatives, with a focus on promoting healthy masculinity and stamping out toxic representations of maleness. Many colleges and universities have turned to national organizations for help with these conversations. Schools like Howard University, Washburn University, and Wheaton College, have engaged the help of Men Can Stop Rape, (MCSR), an organization that mobilizes men to create cultures free from violence through initiatives that generate positive, measurable outcomes.

MCSR, founded in 1997, was a pioneer in the effort to address the epidemic of violence against women by engaging men as allies, shifting the responsibility of preventing sexual assault by promoting healthy, nonviolent masculinity. The organization’s Healthy Masculinity Action Project (HMAP) is a national grassroots movement specifically aimed at eradicating the harmful expectations and stereotypes that boys are taught about what it means to be a man. The Healthy Masculinity Campus Conversation project brings that movement to colleges and universities, providing college men with a space and opportunity for critical, constructive, and contemplative dialogue around healthy and unhealthy masculinity.

The Campus Conversations program uses storytelling to spark conversations about masculinity. Participants in the conversations, which can range from 10 to 100 individuals, hear powerful personal narratives about masculinity from a set of campus-based storytellers before coming together to engage in a guided discussion of unhealthy and healthy masculinity. The Conversations push men to replace unhealthy masculine social norms and behaviors with healthier, nonviolent masculine prosocial norms to create a safer campus culture.

Nicholas McGinty, the Manager of Training & Technical Assistance at MCSR says that storytelling “helps bring out the humanity in the room. The language of storytelling removes some of the preconceived notions we might have as we walk in.”

Of the programs success, McGinty said, “I’m always reinvigorated by the enthusiasm, the excitement, and the willingness for folks to really talk about the subject. We may be talking about hard subject matter, things where you have to inspect, look at yourself and realize there may be some behaviors or actions that you should adjust or evaluate. People are really willing to do that.”

One might wonder how much a discussion about masculinity can actually do to change attitudes and prevent sexual assault on college campuses. But according to McGinty, the goal of the MCSR Campus Conversations is to move the discussion beyond the confines of one group, with the hope that the men who attend the event will influence others on campus to practice healthy masculinity, and will have an influence campus sexual assault and gender-based policy.

Similar examples are emerging on campuses throughout the country.

The Women’s Center at Duke University launched an initiative focused on redefining masculinity for male students. The Duke Men’s Project is a nine-week long storytelling-based program during which participants meet weekly to discuss masculinity, feminism and intersectionality.

The goal of the initiative is to create a space where men look inward and critique and analyze their own masculinity, acknowledge unhealthy patterns or thoughts and create healthier ones.

The sessions cover a wide range of topics including male privilege, masculinity and the language of dominance, sexuality and gender diversity as well as intersectional feminism. The project was inspired by a program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which uses a similar curriculum.

The UNC Men’s Project, initiated in 2013, creates opportunities for students of all gender-identities to listen, reflect, and work together to increase men’s involvement in gender equity and violence prevention efforts. The program promotes healthier masculinities and works to shift the culture of masculinity toward non-violent norms.

BWell, Brown University’s Health Promotion office, created programming around healthy masculinity to help men unpack their notions of masculinity and to unlearn the conditioned need for dominance. BWell hosts Masculinity101, a weekly discussion group about toxic masculine norms and healthy alternatives, publishes The Masculinity Storybook, a biannual publication of personal stories about struggles and triumphs related to toxic masculinity, and produces Conversations on Masculinity, a video compilation of interviews with students about masculinity.

Princeton University’s Men’s Allied Voices for a Respectful & Inclusive Community (MAVRIC) Project is an alliance of students, staff, and alumni committed to promoting healthy masculinity and fostering a respectful and inclusive community for all genders through education, mentoring, activism and fellowship. MAVRIC’s focus is on education, hosting bi-weekly conversations.

The Better Men, Better Hawkeyes program at the University of Iowa was created in the spring of 2017 in response to the UI Department of Public Safety’s recommendation to put a greater focus on addressing the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. The program is based on research from three programs: Mentors in Violence Prevention, Step Up Bystander Intervention, and Coaching Boys into Men, and includes a one-hour workshop combining discussions and training on healthy and unhealthy relationships, the meaning of consent, and bystander intervention.

Encouraging a small percentage of college men to intervene in a potentially harmful situation can have outsized effect. One widely reported study indicates that only six percent of men on campus have committed rape or attempted rape, and that most sexual assaults are committed by repeat offenders. Having a group of men on campus who are empowered to intervene is a vital component in sexual assault prevention.

There’s still a lot of work to be done to stop sexual assault on college campuses. But engaging men as allies in the conversations, discussing healthy masculinity and promoting bystander intervention are all positive steps forward.