How Schools Can Reduce Sexual Violence

Nov 13, 2018
Originally published on November 13, 2018 7:16 am

No one ever shows up at brunch and says, "Oh my gosh, I was so sober last night!"

Risky behavior draws attention. As a result, people tend to assume that everyone else is doing it more than they really are.

But, over the last two decades, research on college campuses has shown that giving students the real facts about their peers reduces unsafe drinking. This approach is called positive social norms. It works because of a basic truth of human nature: People want to do what others are doing.

Now, that research is starting to be applied to a novel area: preventing sexual assault and harassment. From an unwanted comment on the street to groping in the hallways at school, surveys suggest more than half of young women and almost half of young men have experienced sexual harassment before age 18.

And about 8 percent of girls experience rape or attempted rape by this young age.

Since the #MeToo movement, six states have introduced or passed bills to require the teaching of consent in their sex ed classes in K-12. But there's not yet much research on what kind of education actually works to shift teens' attitudes and actions.

Sandra Malone directs prevention and training at Day One, a nonprofit in Providence, R.I., which offers both education and rape crisis services. Her program has been among the first to try to move teens to seek consent and build healthier sexual relationships by harnessing an unlikely force: peer pressure.

She says she can remember from her own teenage years: "Their peers are so important to them. Those are powerful years where you don't want to make yourself vulnerable and stand out."

In its workshops at high schools, Day One uses a version of the positive social norms approach adapted from alcohol education programs.

"Peers are very, very influential, and people of any age who want to fit in will try and behave according to what they perceive as the group norm," explains Alan Berkowitz, a psychologist and expert on preventing sexual assault. But when you're talking about transgressive behavior, like underage drinking, drug use or nonconsensual sexual behavior, there's often a "misperception of the norm."

Social norms approaches start by surveying a population to get accurate information, which is then used to correct that misperception. "One of the most effective and powerful ways of encouraging young people to make healthy decisions is to know the truth about their friends," Berkowitz explains. "Because in fact most of their friends are healthy."

This message doesn't necessarily fit on a poster.

Wes Perkins, a professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, was one of the originators of social norms education for alcohol. On his campus in Geneva, N.Y., they do things like setting up a voluntary random Breathalyzer to test students on a Saturday night, proving that they're just as likely to be in the library as at a frat party.

Yet, compared to drinking, Perkins says that sexual behavior is "politically a little more tricky." By publicizing the fact that "most men" don't commit or condone sexual violence, you don't want to sound like you're downplaying the issue. "It can easily be misunderstood as trying to whitewash the problem."

However, with plenty of conversation, perhaps in a workshop setting, "in the long run you can get men to act more as allies."

To see how the Day One program works, I visited a consent workshop at The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, a high school in Providence. Leslie, a studious 10th-grader, was one of the participants. (We're not using the students' last names to protect their privacy.)

She explains that the workshop leaders started with survey questions. For example: Would you care if a girl at your school was being verbally harassed? Do you think others at your school would care?

"We could see that everybody thought nobody would care," Leslie says. But in fact, "everybody saw, oh, a lot of people do care, which is something a lot of people don't know."

Lindsay Orchowski at Brown University and her team worked with Day One to survey nearly 8,000 students at 26 high schools across Rhode Island, in research funded by the Centers for Disease and Prevention. They shared their as-yet-unpublished data with us, which found trends similar to what Leslie learned:

  • 87 percent of students said that they, personally, would believe someone who reported a sexual assault. But only 51 percent of students thought their peers would believe such a report.
  • 92 percent of students personally agreed that bystanders can help prevent sexual violence. But only 55 percent thought their peers would agree on the power of bystanders.

To correct these kinds of misperceptions, the four one-hour sessions in Day One's program cover scenarios like street harassment, groping, sexual assault by an acquaintance and cyberbullying.

Sadly, these are all common, says Kevin, a 15-year-old with curly hair.

"I've been cyberbullied in eighth grade and that was a horrible experience," he says. "And I remember the first time I got catcalled. It was kind of weird ... good thing I was with a friend, I was shook."

Once they learn that their fellow students agree on things like supporting survivors, the next step is to make that positive social norm more visible.

Alan Berkowitz, the sexual assault prevention expert, lays out a common scenario: A young man makes a sexist remark or even gropes a woman in front of his friends. Most of them probably feel uncomfortable, yet they say nothing, or even laugh along.

As a result, "You have a silent majority that thinks it's a minority," he says. Publicizing the social norms lets that majority know that they have numbers on their side.

But even so, it can feel scary to speak up. Day One's final workshop session focuses on how and when to intervene if students witness something like a boy trying to maneuver an obviously intoxicated girl into a bedroom at a party.

Anyla, one of the more outspoken members of the class, says, "What I learned today is, you not saying anything is making it look like it's OK, and it will continue."

Sandra Malone adds that, in every group of students, you're not just speaking to potential bystanders or potential victims. There are potential perpetrators as well. She says the social norms approach works for them too.

"I think it stops a good percentage of kids from maybe participating in those behaviors because they're seeing that most of their peers aren't OK with that," she adds. "You can see the light bulb go off."

Stopping offenders, not just empowering survivors and bystanders, is obviously central to sexual violence prevention. Perkins, at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, says research shows the vast majority of campus sex offenses involve a heavily intoxicated assaulter. While social norms education may not work for a motivated repeat abuser, he says it can be successful to "discourage the men who might think about carelessly stepping over the line."

But, he emphasizes that most men, in high school and college, prefer to seek consent. "'Boys will be boys,' is not true."

Alan Berkowitz and Lindsay Orchowksi are currently evaluating the effectiveness of Day One's program on students' attitudes and behaviors, an analysis that will be released in several months.

Fifteen-year-old Anyla says that for her, it's definitely made a difference.

She owned up that, since elementary school, she and her friends would grab each other's rear ends to be funny. But now? "After taking this class? No. Absolutely not." She tells her classmates, "If you catch me doing that, honestly, tell me to stop, please."

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With the rise of the #MeToo movement, six states have introduced or passed bills to cover consent in sex ed classes in public schools. But just how do you teach kids about sexual assault? NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports on a program in Providence, R.I., that offers an answer.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: It's a rainy Monday morning and students are gathering at The Met, a high school in downtown Providence.

JOHNSON THOMAS: Welcome back. I know we haven't seen you all in a couple weeks, right?

KAMENETZ: Workshop leader Johnson Thomas addresses a group of sleepy 10th-graders at round tables in the lunch area.

THOMAS: Today is session four. If you feel uncomfortable, you're more than welcome to leave, step out, go grab a water, go take a walk.

KAMENETZ: This is the last session of a four-part sexual violence prevention workshop. It's offered by Day One, a non-profit. The workshop is based on a principle called social norms. It's like positive peer pressure. For teens, says Day One's Sandra Malone...

SANDRA MALONE: I can still remember. I mean, those are powerful years where you don't want to make yourself vulnerable and stand out, which is huge.

KAMENETZ: People want to blend in. But surveys show that whether it's drugs, alcohol or sex, they tend to assume that, well, everybody else is doing it more than they really are. And over the last two decades, research has shown that giving college students the real information about their peers' moderate drinking reduces risky drinking. Sandra Malone wondered if this positive social norms approach would work to prevent sexual violence, too. So she designed this program for high school students. The four one-hour sessions discuss scenarios like street harassment, groping, sexual assault by an acquaintance and cyberbullying. Kevin, who's 15 and has dark, curly hair, says he was cyberbullied in eighth grade.

KEVIN: And that was a horrible experience.

KAMENETZ: Kevin - we're only using first names to protect his privacy - says he's been catcalled, too.

KEVIN: Good thing I was with a friend - like, I was shook.

KAMENETZ: The Day One workshop teaches that most teens don't condone this kind of behavior. And it helps students think through how to speak up if something happens to them or to a friend. Anyla, one of the most outspoken students in the class, says...

ANYLA: Because, basically, like, what I learned today - like, you not saying anything is making it look like it's OK. And it will continue because it is continuing.

KAMENETZ: In every group of students, you're not just speaking to potential bystanders or potential victims. Malone, the program's creator, says the social norms approach works for potential perpetrators, too. Kids rethink their choices when they see that their friends won't approve.

MALONE: You can see little light bulbs go off like, I didn't realize that was going to be so offensive, or I didn't think that that person went home and was really upset by it.

KAMENETZ: Researchers at Brown University are currently evaluating this program's effectiveness. But 15-year-old Anyla has learned something. She said that since elementary school, she and her friends would grab each other's rear ends to be funny. But now...

ANYLA: After taking this class, like, no, absolutely not. Like, if you catch me doing that, honestly, tell me to stop, please.

KAMENETZ: Anya Kamenetz, NPR News, Providence, R.I. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.