Efforts to reduce rape and sexual assault on college campuses have rightly focused on engaging men, who are the demographic most likely to rape or commit sexual assault. This typically takes shape in consent-based education at orientation that works to raise awareness about what consent is and what counts as inappropriate sexual behavior. Consent-based education is certainly necessary, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it is insufficient. The data is in: consent-based education is just not that effective.
While short-term attitudes surrounding sex may improve with consent-based education, problematic behavior is shown to barely decrease at all. Part of the problem appears to be that men are very resistant to efforts to change their attitudes and behaviors. Men don’t view themselves as potential rapists. In their mind, if they aren’t a potential rapist, then there is nothing they need to change about themselves to be less likely to rape. If we want to end rape culture, we need to change the attitudes and beliefs that men are socialized to hold in a sexist rape culture.
The reality is that the high rates of rape and sexual assault on college campuses are the consequences of, among other things, a cisheteropatriarchal society that socializes men to feel sexually entitled to women, not an inability to comprehend consent. Feminists call this entitlement the “male sex-right” and claim that “men’s access to women is a taken-for-granted assumption often exercised on women’s bodies and sexualities.” The problem of male sexual entitlement is not just that men and boys feel like they have a right to access women’s bodies, but that in order to be men they must access women’s bodies. Rape culture tells boys they “become men” once they claim their male sex-right, while their masculinities remain in “jeopardy” when they fail to.
Changing the attitudes and behaviors of men has proven to be so difficult precisely because sexual conquest is deeply tied to masculinity. Modern culture shapes masculinities by supplying boys and men with constant messages that implicitly or explicitly say that sexual conquest is proof of manhood and the key to happiness. We see this in television, movies, music, pornography, and other media, only to be played out in the social hierarchies of school, sports, and the rest of everyday life. (Consider: Why are men so insecure about the size of their genitals? Why are they so worried about proving to other boys and men their ability to get girls? Why is their self-worth so painfully connected to all of this?)
In order to effectively engage rape culture, we need to eliminate the social pressures that tell boys and men that they must have sex in order to prove their own self-worth. As of now, it is the entire sexist culture versus a consent-based education at orientation. Which is going to be the prevailing influence on young men at university? By changing the culture, we reduce the number of messages boys and men receive that contradict, either implicitly or explicitly, the messages of consent-based education and anti-sexist attitudes more generally.
However, since cultural norms do not disappear overnight, it is necessary to think about practical steps that can be taken now. The most important thing we can do is work to eliminate what sociologist Michael Kimmel refers to as the “culture of silence” that surrounds the sexual misconduct of men. Perpetrators can continue to get away with sex crimes because those who know what is going on remain silent. We see this when fraternity brothers keep quiet about the sexual abuse committed by some of their brothers. Another example is how the majority of Hollywood said nothing about Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual abuse, despite it being known for years.
College campuses can more effectively contribute to breaking this silence by implementing, and providing more resources for, bystander intervention programs. These programs are still a work in progress but have a lot of potential because of their ability to change norms and involve the community. If bystander intervention programs can help give young men the tools and confidence they need to begin to hold other men accountable, we will finally deliver a major blow to rape culture on college campuses. Men will change their sexist behavior not when an educational PSA tells them to, but when the other men around them stop tolerating sexist behavior.
1. Anderson, Linda A. and Susan C. Whiston. 2005. “Sexual Assault Education Programs: A Meta-Analytic Examination of Their Effectiveness.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 29 (4), pp. 374-388.
2. Newlands, Rory and William O’Donohue. 2016. “A Critical Review of Sexual Violence Prevention on College Campuses.” Acta Psychopathol 2(14).
3. Scheel, Elizabeth D., Eric J. Johnson, Michelle Schneider, and Betsy Smith. 2001. “Making Rape Education Meaningful for Men: The Case for Eliminating the Emphasis on Men as Perpetrators, Protectors, or Victims.” Sociological Practice 3 (4), pp. 257-78.
4. Fahs, Breanne. 2014. “‘Freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’: A new vision for sex-positive politics.” Sexualities 17(3), pp. 267-290.
5. Kimmel, Michael. 2008. Guyland: The Perious World Where Boys Become Men. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
6. Heffer, Fred, Charlotte Krol, and Alice Vincent. 2017. “They Knew All Along: Hollywood’s In-jokes about Harvey Weinstein.” The Telegraph.
7. Coker, A. L. et al., 2016. Multi-College Bystander Intervention Evaluation for Violence Prevention. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 50(3), pp. 295-302.