Preventing sexual violence starts with what we teach our boys
Most girls and women in the United States are given advice about rape prevention: never let your drink out of your sight, don’t walk alone at night, don’t wear revealing outfits or high heels, and so on. We live in a society where violence against women—both in action and in speech—is prevalent, and for that reason, it’s reasonable for those who care about women and girls to worry about their safety. But what are men and boys being taught, as girls are given this advice?
Research confirms that parents talk more frequently with daughters than sons about these issues, and tend to frame conversations around reducing the risk of assault. Survey data have even revealed widespread confusion (more pronounced among men than women) over the mere concepts of consent and sexual assault. Few people receive formal education on either topic, in school or from parents; to whatever extent conversations about risk reduction might help individual girls think about their safety, they are ultimately ineffective when it comes to prevention.
The extent of the problem
National estimates indicate that 1 in 5 women in the United States have experienced rape at some point in their lives. Ten million women report that they experienced rape or attempted rape before turning 18, and 1 in 3 girls have reported experiencing dating violence (physical, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner).
Empirical evidence demonstrates that “sexist, patriarchal, and/or sexually hostile attitudes” are predictors of violence against women. Societal tolerance—and even embrace—of these attitudes is known as rape culture. The election of Donald Trump, who dismissed his derogatory comments about women as “locker-room talk,” is a prime example of our culture’s widespread acquiescence to these attitudes.
That attitude is also reflected in the fact that assaulters and rapists often face minimal consequences—according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, out of every 1,000 rapes, as many as 994 perpetrators walk free. A prominent example is the case of Brock Turner, a college freshman who raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster after a fraternity party. Turner faced up to 14 years in prison for this offense, yet prosecutors asked only for a sentence of 6 years. Despite indisputable evidence, including eyewitnesses and testimony from the victim, Turner was sentenced to just 6 months in jail and served only 3.
What’s to be done?
Though little research has evaluated the effectiveness of educational approaches to reducing violence against women, there are some promising theory-based primary prevention strategies currently in practice that focus on the role of conventional gender norms in sexual violence perpetration.
For instance, Coaching Boys into Men, a program delivered by high school coaches to male athletes, was designed based on evidence that dating violence is typically perpetrated by young men who demonstrate negative attitudes toward women and promote abuse. Compared to athletes who did not participate in the program, those assigned to this intervention were better at recognizing abusive behaviors and more likely to intervene when they did.
Another example is Promundo’s Manhood 2.0 program, designed to engage young men in questioning and challenging harmful gender norms with the goal of reducing sexual violence and dating/relationship abuse. Manhood 2.0 is currently being evaluated in Pittsburgh and Washington, DC (the latter by Child Trends). The program is an adaptation of Program H, an intervention previously evaluated in India, Brazil, Namibia, and the Balkans that resulted (in all areas) in increased support for more equitable gender norms and in reduced health risks, such as risk for HIV or sexual violence perpetration.
Education alone is by no means a panacea, but it is undoubtedly a solid start. This education, like all good prevention, should start early and occur often. It should go beyond what girls can do to prevent being victims, to the attitudes that boys have about women and about masculinity, and the actions that men can take to promote mutual respect and egalitarianism.