sexual assault prevention at a women's college -- WITHOUT victim blaming

So I was presented with this problem:

Put together a sexual assault prevention program for a women’s college.

Now, a large proportion of the sexual assault that happens among college students is actually perpetrated by men – not all of it, by any means, but a large proportion. So how do you teach PREVENTION if the population from which the majority of perpetrators will come is totally absent?

Because the BEST want to prevent sexual assault is to teach people not to, you know, assault people. But most of the potential perpetrators are dudes, you know? I mean most people with penises are totally great and would never assault anyone, and at the same time it’s still true that most perpetrators have penises.

Easy, some might say. Talk about personal safety. Watch your drink, carry pepper spray, park under lights, stay with your friends, etc etc.

Two words my friends: victim. blaming.

Not being assaulted is not a privilege to be earned through the judicious application of personal safety strategies. A woman should be able to walk down the street at 4 in the morning in nothing but her socks, blind drunk, without being assaulted, and I, for one, am not going to do anything to imply that she is in any way responsible for her own assault if she fails to Adequately Protect Herself. Men aren’t helpless dick-driven maniacs who can’t help raping a vulnerable woman. It disrespects EVERYONE.

So what’s an educator to do?

Answer: bystander intervention.

It’s an evidence-based approach that teaches the audience how to recognize a high-risk situation and how to intervene if they notice one. It also increases participants’ feeling of personal repsonsibility, thus increasing the likelihood that they’ll actually DO something.

It works. The science tells me so.

So I designed an intervention that walks participants gently through a party scenario where one person observes two other people in a bad-seeming situation. What are the barriers to doing something? What could the observer do, if they decided to act? What responsibility do we have to act?

But there’s another piece to the puzzle: I’ve heard from students that sometimes people don’t respond with the same survivor supportiveness if she is assaulted by another woman; somehow they can appreciate and support a survivor assaulted by a man, but when the perpetrator is a woman, out come all the victim-blaming standbys: it was miscommunication, or you wanted it at the time but now you regret it, or she was just drunk… and so on.

So here’s what I did that is turning out to be quite radical and important:

I made all three characters gender-neutral. The vulnerable person is Jesse, the potential perpetrator is Chris, and the bystander is Morgan. Each goes by the pronoun “they.”

I’ve stripped away gender, so that the attitudes, knowledge, and skills that the intervention builds are applicable to situations where anyone, of any gender, may be a potential perpetrator or vulnerable person or bystander.

Even though sexual assault has a lot to do, often, with gendered ideas about sex, I’ve decided that’s not what matters for prevention.

It’s a radical notion, it turns out, and it’s not what students expect. They’re expecting, I think, to be told to watch their drink and stick with their friends. But me and my peer educators, we aren’t interested in telling women they’re responsible for their own assault, and we’re not interested in underestimating men by implying that they can’t be held responsible for their choices.

We’re interested in teaching students that violence in any form is unacceptable, and that they are part of the solution. Period.

So that’s what I’m trying, as a way to prevent sexual assault in a population that includes both potential perpetrators and potentially vulnerable people, but which is statistically likely to generate more of the latter than the former.

It’s not wholly unproblematic, but I’m pleased so far.

And I have the most remarkable, hardworking peer educators on the planet. Holy crap, ya’ll. I want to give them medals – though they’ll probably have to settle for t-shirts.

EDIT: And just by the way, I owe my whole training in sexual assault prevention and intervention to University of Delaware Sexual Offenses Support (SOS). You will not find better people anywhere.