A Campus Rape Risk Reduction Program That “Works” Doesn’t Help Much

By Katie Feifer

Let’s not get too excited and happy about the good news.

A new study done by researchers on three Canadian campuses and published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that providing first year students a robust program of “rape prevention”, including self defense tactics, understanding what constitutes consent and sexual assault, and strategies for staying safe on campus significantly reduced those women’s risk of being raped or sexually assaulted compared to a control group only given a brochure about sexual assault.

The New York Times was pleased to trumpet the good news in an article headlined “College Rape Prevention Proves a Rare Success.”  The opening line embellished the point: “A program that trained first-year female college students to avoid rape substantially lowered their risk of being sexually assaulted, a rare success against a problem that has been resistant to many prevention efforts...”

Why are we not so excited, and in fact cringing a little bit at this good news?

Because the study findings, and even more the news coverage of the results, once again put the onus on women to take steps not to get themselves raped. Again we have to remind everyone that the onus belongs on the small number of men who are offenders not to rape women, and on us as a society to stop perpetrators from perpetrating and hold them accountable when they do.

Those who take a course like this can lower their personal risk. Which is fine as far as it goes. That just means that the rapists will find other women to assault. It doesn’t address the cause of the problem, which is perpetrators' impunity to commit sexual violence crimes. As author and activist Jaclyn Friedman notes, quoted in Jessica Valenti’s excellent Guardian article,

Rapes are perpetrated by a tiny percentage of men who know what they’re doing and who rape again and again - they’re just going to find another target”...Friedman, who also co-edited an anthology on ending rape with me in 2008, said: “So just because these girls [who took the training] are less likely to be picked, it doesn’t mean there’s less rape on campus ... This isn’t rape prevention, it’s rape protection.

The findings from the study are encouraging, to be sure. It’s not a bad thing to provide women some tools that can help keep them safe. But we’ll say it again: it’s not enough and it’s not where we need to focus to get to the roots of the problem.

And there are other studies (like one from Kentucky showing a 50% reduction in self-reported sexual violence perpetration in high schools) that occurs when other strategies are utilized. The Green Dot program focuses on bystander intervention to engage the whole community to stop perpetration – and reframe sexual violence as not normal.

Valenti summarizes well:

We need more than just one study and more than just one training to stop rape, not just on college campuses, but everywhere. Small, short-term solutions that work for some women are terrific and I hope we fund a lot of them. But what we need more are lasting solutions for all of us - solutions that don’t just change statistics, but the culture.

 

How CAASE Empowers Young Men to End Sexual Exploitation

By Caleb Probst, CAASE Education Outreach Associate

I was asked to come into a high school in Chicago to work with their 9th grade boys. The school indicated that they were troubled by the behavior exhibited in the halls by some of the boys toward some of the girls, and thought the boys would benefit from going through our program. At the start of the first day, I asked the boys to write down words they would use to describe “a prostitute.” The majority of the responses were words like, “slut,” “hoe,” “THOT” (That Hoe Out There), “easy,” “nasty,” “dirty,” and “worthless.” Many of these words were the same words that the administration reported hearing directed at the girls in the school. At the end of the 4-session program, the boys had a new perspective. They really understood how different the realities of prostitution were from the myths they were accustomed to hearing and how many prostituted people endure violence, poverty, and trauma. They also learned about about how society frequently shames and isolates people in prostitution.

As these young men went through our 4-session program, they had an opportunity to examine what they know about “being a man” and think critically about how those shared perceptions influence their own decision making. They also had a chance to consider how their behavior, and the behavior of their peers, can impact their community. One student wrote, “I’ve learned that men treat women like crap, they use them as an object… I know that this puts girls in danger of becoming a prostitute.” He and his classmates began to see that objectifying women and degrading them with words like “slut” can have serious consequences. When asked how girls end up in prostitution, many responded with “they had a traumatized life,” “they had a rough childhood,” or “[society says] they have less power.”

Now, not every girl who is objectified and degraded will end up being commercially sexually exploited, and these young men acknowledged that. But as one student said, “we [never] know her story.” At the end of the final session, I asked the young men if there was anything that they would do differently now, based on what they had learned during the program. The two most common responses were “I will stop saying words like ‘thot’” and “I am going to respect women more.”

School is out for the summer now, but there's hope yet for these young men who have just begun their journey to better understanding and respect for their female peers.

A Model from Maine for Working With Media

By Katie Feifer

The Bangor Daily News in Maine published an op-ed about sexual assault every single day during April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month. You can read the op-eds (and share them) here. The result was a giant step forward in raising awareness and educating about the realities of sexual assault and domestic violence. Additionally, members of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault trained staff reporters in how to report on sexual and domestic violence in a more enlightened manner.

One of the prime movers behind this effort was Cara Courchesne, a member of CounterQuo. We asked Cara to share the story of how this month of positive media attention and media training came to be, because it is surely a model that others of us can emulate. Cara writes:

 

"As advocates, it is difficult to read news stories that don’t talk about sexual violence the way we’d like. It’s easy to get angry, to fire off an email listing all of the article’s issues, and write off the media as ignorant and continuing to perpetuate the cultural supports of sexual violence.

In order to change this dynamic, the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault(MECASA) and the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence (MCEDV) are partnering with the Bangor Daily News (BDN), a statewide news organization with the largest audience in Maine. The project is designed to increase the BDN’s attention to domestic and sexual violence, and to increase the skills of reporters and editors with regard to reporting on these issues.

The crux of our success came from building relationships with BDN staff. MECASA’s work with the BDN began last summer, when a local service provider and I met with their Editorial Page Editor, Erin Rhoda. We asked to meet with Erin because of the BDN’s reporting on a local child sexual abuse issue, none of which included resources for how survivors could contact their local sexual assault support center. We met, talked about how the BDN could have better reported on the issue, and promised to be in touch.

Over the next few months, other BDN reporters reached out, and our reputation as subject matter experts grew. Ultimately, the paper proposed a new project about domestic and sexual violence. With Margo Batsie from MCEDV, we responded with a list of ways the BDN could proactively address these issues. Because we had already started relationship building, we felt like we were in a good place to make a specific ask. These specifics included more attention to DV/SV during awareness months and a training for reporters and editors to better report on sexual and domestic violence. 

We got what we asked for. Erin requested four op-eds from community members for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. After Erin received those four op-eds, she wanted more – as in one for each day of the month of April. After picking myself up off the floor from (excited!) shock, MECASA staff considered the range of issues we could address, from prevention to intervention, and asked community leaders and stakeholders to discuss the issues most closely related to their area of expertise.  

At the end of April, Margo and I trained all reporters and editors at the BDN over two days. The training was mandatory for staff; the BDN’s commitment to changing the way the paper reported on domestic and sexual violence was clear. The trainings were full of thoughtful conversation, great questions, and of course, pushback. However, even the pushback was a learning opportunity for us, and helped us to consider how we can talk more effectively to members of the media. 

The only way we’re going to change the media is to both write for and utilize various media platforms and successfully engage with members of existing, more traditional media. As the advocacy community seeks to increase this work, I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned this spring.

  • Meet members of the media where they are. Members of the media don’t think about how to talk about domestic and sexual violence all day – they just do it (and sometimes, it’s not done in a way we’d like to see). The media cover a huge range of issues and most reporters don’t realize that when they call a reported sexual assault “alleged intercourse,” they’re helping perpetuate cultural stigmas we’re actively working against (or making the understatement of the week). Honestly, they’re just trying to make sure Grandma doesn’t choke on her cornflakes while she’s reading the morning news. Supporting them in their effort to be more neutral about their reporting starts with realizing they didn’t write the story with malicious intent. Like everyone else, they are susceptible to all of the cultural issues at play when we talk about sexual violence.
  • Think about where they’re coming from. Given our 24 hour news cycle, reporters and editors are pushed to get as much information as they can and get the story out. Sometimes, this results in less attention to language than we’d all like. The media doesn’t report on domestic and sexual violence with a lens similar to ours – their job isn’t to believe or not believe survivors, it’s to report on criminal justice stories. They have to be neutral; the key is to help them understand that you’re not asking them to become a victim advocate – you’re asking them to be more neutral. Helping them understand the difference is crucial.
  • What’s in it for them? There are ways you can demonstrate to members of the media tangible outcomes for their efforts. Many reporters and editors are unsure of where to find a good subject matter expert, or what hotline to include. By providing this information for them at the outset, and by continuing to provide them information when they ask, you are demonstrating your utility to their news organization. Also, by pointing out more neutral language for them to use, chances are, you’re helping them solve language issues they struggle with fairly often.
  • Realize you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need! Members of the media come from an entirely different place than we do. You’re going to have different opinions about specific phrases and what is appropriate for a reporter to write about and what isn’t. Having thoughtful conversations may help sway a reporter, and it may help you understand what is happening with a specific story. You may not reach a common understanding, but you’re building the relationship needed to get there.
  • Praise what they get right. Like most people, reporters and editors respond well to praise. It’s important for us to note what good reporting looks like so we can provide examples for other reporters and editors. When we see great work on sexual and domestic violence reporting, let’s say so!  

It’s not easy to work with the media. It involves dedication to relationship building and work on dicey language issues. It’s time consuming and doesn’t always coincide with your free time (because we all have so much of that!). But if they’re going to get it right, we have to be willing to help them get there. Their job is to report on the news – our job is to help them do it better. Working with the media means that we work together to change culture and the way we talk about sexual and domestic violence – one story at a time."

Compare and Contrast: H1N1 and Rape Prevention Efforts

By Katie Feifer

A recent blog post by Meg Stone in Bitch laid out, in eye-opening clarity, some of the key reasons why our culture fails to treat sexual assault like the pandemic public health issue it is. We're expending much effort to prevent the spread of H1N1 in this country. Widespread, coordinated efforts. Our government and community responses to H1N1 are the way public health initiatives are supposed to work. Media, government, schools, communities - all working together.

She wonders, "What would our media, our public discourse, and our institutional response look like if people cared as much about rape as they do about H1N1?"

The CDC estimates that H1N1 will affect 0.3% of the U.S. population. It reports that sexual assault (defined as any unwanted sexual activity) affected 2.5% of women and 0.9% of men in the past year.

Meg Stone notes "So why is the public health infrastructure working so well? Because it's not being undermined by shame, stigma and denial (you know, the way rape and sexual assault are.)"

Where's our Presidential state of emergency declaration for sexual assault and rape? Imagine if sexual violence were addressed like H1N1. It's a vision we'd like to see.

Sometimes it’s harder to criticize our friends than it is to criticize our enemies. But maybe not this time: Bill O’Reilly and the “It Happened to Alexa” Foundation

By Katie Feifer

In a world that blames, shames and disavows rape victims, how do we as a movement respond to a victim rights organization that invites one of the culture's most public and polemical victim blamers to speak at their fundraising event?

"It Happened to Alexa Foundation" is a rape victim advocacy organization that was founded in 2003 by Tom and Stacey Branchini. Theirs is a worthy group that has done much good in the last few years, which makes their selection of Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly as a headline speaker at the foundation's March 19th fundraiser both shocking and deeply troubling. O'Reilly has a long history of misogynistic and victim-blaming rhetoric, most notably calling 18 year-old rape and murder victim Jennifer Moore "moronic," and suggesting that, because of the way she was dressed, she was "asking for it."  O'Reilly also said of victim Shawn Hornbeck -- who was abducted and allegedly sexually assaulted at the age of 11 and held for four years -- that "there was an element here that this kid liked about his circumstances." Media Matters, a media watchdog group, has compiled a long list of problematic O’Reilly statements about women, minority groups and victims.

Faced with online protests and hundreds of calls and emails - many from survivors of sexual violence - the leadership of “It Happened to Alexa Foundation” stands by their choice. "Bill O'Reilly is still speaking at the fundraiser. We are aware of his comments. We don't have any comment about it. I don't feel as if it would be productive." says Ellen Augello, the group’s Executive Director.

Actually, a public conversation about their choice of O'Reilly as a speakerwould be productive. We need to start talking about how representations of victims in the media shape public attitudes about rape and drive outcomes in the courtroom. We need to be clear about the ways that the words of “talking heads” like Bill O’Reilly have contributed to a culture in which victims of sexual violence are blamed for the violence that has been done to them, and shamed into silence. We need to ask how a pundit at a major news network can continue to express outdated ideas about rape and its victims that have been discredited and de-bunked.

Most immediately, we in the anti sexual violence movement must respectfully challenge any ally who provides a public platform and organizational support for someone with such a long and unapologetic history of hostile and damaging statements. A high profile speaker may be a fundraising draw.  But those who have been wounded by O'Reilly's ill-informed and uncompassionate rhetoric have already paid too high a price.