Bystander Education is Not a Silver Bullet

Bystander intervention education is great. I really believe in its power to make the world a better place, and to make college campuses safer and more welcoming for all. But I also believe that bystander education won’t do much to prevent sexual assault until we agree that sexual assault is a gendered issue, and that sexism is still a big, fat, effing problem.

Let me explain.

Bystander education teaches students how to step in and intervene when they see or hear something that’s not okay. When they witness someone in trouble. But it will never be effective at combating sexual violence or harassment if we can’t even agree on the basic premise that yelling at women on the street is not okay. Or that having sex with a really, really, blacked-out, drunk person is not okay. If that’s where students are stuck, then bystander education is a waste of everyone’s time. Those students don’t need bystander education. They need Sexism 101.

But do students get taught Sexism 101? Ever in their 12 years of grade school? Nope. Not one bit. Why not? Because we – the adults – can’t even agree that sexism still exists.

DESPITE THE FACT that most women experience street harassment on a daily basis. DESPITE THE FACT that most women would love to “Lean In,” except for that whole bit about how it so often backfires because nobody likes an assertive woman in the workplace. DESPITE THE FACT that most women have experienced being groped by a stranger at a dance club. DESPITE THE FACT that even the supposedly-feminist “girl’s” toys are pastel pink. DESPITE THE FACT that news about women is a separate category on news sites as if women were a special interest group instead of half the population. DESPITE THE FACT that intimate partner violence is a leading cause of death for pregnant women. DESPITE THE FACT that Game of Thrones Director Alex Graves thinks a textbook rape scene isn’t rape. DESPITE THE FACT that rape-threats and death-threats are “just another day at the office” for female bloggers. DESPITE the wage gap, slut shaming, “BLURRED LINES,” and multiple pro-rape Fraternities, we still can’t reach consensus that women are marginalized in America.

Hades angry gif

Despite all evidence to the contrary, respectable, educated people still argue that sexism isn’t a thing anymore. That we are living in a “post-sexist” America. (Just like we are living in a “post-racial” America, amirite?) But not only are they arguing that feminism succeeded and we’re fine now, they’re giving space in publications like the New Republic to voice the concerns of MRA’s who think that men are now the primary targets of gender discrimination, and who have been known to harass, stalk, and bully feminist writers and activists to further their cause.

really

Some college students respond really well to bystander intervention education. They recognize the problem and want to help. Other college students think that bystander education is unfair and “biased” because sometimes men are the aggressors or perpetrators in various scenarios.* Try telling them the truth – that even though most men do not rape, 99% of rapes are committed by men – and they argue back that that’s one-sided. Biased. Unfair. Demonizing. The only sexual assault prevention education they’re interested in is one in which men and women are “equal,” regardless of the reality.

Equal?

tumblr_madf8iTGSD1qcp1zx

*The scenarios I use feature men, women, and the gender-neutral “Jamie” as aggressors, yet that special minority of students will still accuse me of bias against men.

As an educator, you have two choices. You can pretend that men and women are “equal” when it comes to sexual assault, thereby validating this inverted thinking and perpetuating the fallacy that women are just as likely to rape men as men are to rape women. And you can rationalize it by telling yourself “Well, if that’s what I have to do to get them to come to the table and talk about this stuff then it’s worth it.” You could do that. But you’d be wrong.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not equal. They are not even. They are not fair. They are gendered issues. Who are most likely to be victims? Trans people and women. Who are most likely to be perpetrators? Men. Sorry. That’s the reality.

Am I suggesting that men are evil? That men are hardwired to be horrible, violent, abusers? No. Not even close. Men and women are shaped by the society they live in, and our society is one that tells young men that women are asking for it, that drunk women are “DTF,” that women lie about being raped because they regret having sex, and that real men want sex all the time no matter what. That a boy being raped by a woman at age 8 will help him grow up to be a “beast” at sex. That being offended by homophobic slurs makes you a “pussy.” That the worst thing you can ever be accused of is being feminine – or gay, because it’s basically the same thing.

And even so, men who grow up in that society, espousing those hideous, sexist beliefs, usually don’t rape people. Except for a small few. But those hideous, sexist beliefs of the majority allow the violent few to rape with impunity. Because who would ever believe that drunk slut anyway, right? 

All the bystander intervention skills and techniques in the world won’t make a damned bit of difference to a student who won’t accept the simple premise that rape is real, and it is gendered. That “false rape accusations” are not happening as frequently as actual rape. That sexual harassment is actually harassment, and not a compliment.

The White House recently created a Sexual Assault Task Force and handed down a bunch of new mandates for colleges under VAWA and the Campus SaVE Act and Title IX. One of those mandates is bystander education. And I think that’s good and right and important. But nowhere in that recent White House report did it say anything about addressing sexism. Nowhere is anti-sexism education mandated. Some colleges have Women’s Studies programs and Women’s Centers and those are amazing. But plenty of schools don’t. And at those schools, no one is standing up and acknowledging that sexism plays a major role in campus sexual assault. No one is mandating that first year students take an anti-sexism seminar.

What about primary and secondary education? Grade schools have taken up the anti-bullying flag, but still, no anti-sexism flag. It’s okay to talk about being an active bystander and standing up to bullies, but it’s not okay to talk about sexism because the grown-ups still can’t agree that it exists.

Until we start teaching anti-sexism, bystander education can only do so much. When it comes to primary prevention – actually preventing sexual assault from happening – bystander education is not our silver bullet.

Until our students understand what sexism is, what it looks like, and the role it plays in perpetuating sexual violence against women and other marginalized groups in our global community, bystander education will not be effective as a primary prevention strategy to combat rape. Unless our students can understand and identify situations of sexual harassment and assault, bystander education will remain a solution to a problem-they-don’t-believe-is-actually-a-problem.

As an educator charged with the task of bystander education, I am frustrated. I love doing bystander education because when students are ready for it, it is the most fulfilling and inspiring and uplifting part of my job. But lots of students aren’t ready for it because they have no understanding of sexism or gender discrimination or gender violence. And who takes responsibility for that? Where is the accountability for that?

Sexual Violence, the Patriarchy, and the Government Shutdown

Sometimes current events that don’t seem related begin to overlap and parallel in weird and uncomfortable ways. Earlier this year I wrote about a string of oddly connected stories in Connecting the dots: Nice Guys™, MRAs, mass shooters, and aggrieved entitlement. I discussed how the thread of aggrieved entitlement (an unfortunate product of a deeply patriarchal culture) underlies the Nice Guy™, MRA, and mass shooter phenomena. This time, the release of a groundbreaking new study on young people and sexual assault, Chris Brown’s childhood rape, and the government shutdown feel eerily connected.

This week, a groundbreaking study on sexual assault among young people was published in JAMA Pediatrics.  The study found that 9% of young people have committed sexual violence: 8% reported that they kissed, touched, or “made someone else do something sexual” when they “knew the person didn’t want to”; 3% verbally coerced a victim into sex; 3% attempted to physically force sex; 2% perpetrated a completed rape. (The numbers don’t add up because some perpetrators admitted to more than one behavior.)

Perpetrators reported having higher exposure to violence pornography (non-violent porn had no correlation to sexual violence). They also found that 98% of perpetrators who committed their first perpetration at 15-years-old or younger were male, whereas by the time they reached 18- or 19-years-old, perpetrators were more evenly split between men (52%) and women (48%). Perpetrators who began perpetrating later in life were also less likely to get caught. To top it all off, 50% of all perpetrators said that their victim was responsible for the sexual violence committed against them.

On October 4, Chris Brown (notorious for his violent assault against his girlfriend Rihanna) told the Guardian about “losing his virginity” at age 8 to a teenage girl. Many outlets have appropriately acknowledged that this is rape. Olivia A. Cole deftly explained why Brown’s framing of the event is problematic: “Chris Brown was raped, but to hear him tell it, that experience was positive, healthy. Something to brag about. “At eight, being able to do it, it kind of preps you for the long run, so you can be a beast at it.” Cole writes:

Can you imagine being sexually abused and then growing up being told that this is a good thing? That your sexual potency has been enhanced? That rape was a “head-start” into the wonderful world of sex? The damaging system that tells girls they are worthless after rape has a disgusting flip side for boys: you have worth now. This violence has made you a god.

Then we have the government shutdown. The Tea Party and their conservative Republican friends are being the worst kind of sore losers — the kind that decide to flip the table over rather than play the hand they were dealt. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is law, and shutting down the government is not a rational, reasonable, or in my opinion, legal way of trying to “undo” a law whose constitutionality was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Robert Parry suggests that this is about more than Obamacare. He places the debate over Obamacare within the historical narrative of federalism vs. state’s rights, which was, notably, a big deal when the country was divided over the constitutionality of slavery. He writes:

The relevance of this history to the present is not only that the ideological descendants of the Confederacy are now up in arms over the election and reelection of the first African-American president but that they are insisting on the slaveholders’ distortion of the Constitution, over its truly “originalist” interpretation and the plain reading of its words.

The overwhelmingly white Tea Party, with its foothold in the overwhelmingly white Republican Party, has now developed a new variation on the theory of “nullification,” asserting that the Tea Party’s Confederate-style interpretation of the Constitution must be accepted by the rest of the nation or the country will face endless political extortion.

Through this lens, the Tea Party’s hostage-taking stance is, in effect, a tantrum over the looming loss of privilege and power for white men.

So where is the connection?

A small but significant percentage of America’s young people are perpetrating sexual assault at alarming rates. They are most commonly using verbal coercion (including threats) and manipulation to do so, all the while while believing their victims were responsible for their assaults. A small but significant percentage of America’s adult leaders are using coercion, including threats, to shut down our government – an action resulting in harm to our nation’s most vulnerable populations. Populations that these same adult leaders believe to be responsible for their own poverty or vulnerability.

Chris Brown’s story reminds us of the role that aggrieved entitlement has to play here.

Aggrieved entitlement inspires revenge against those who have wronged you; it is the compensation for humiliation. Humiliation is emasculation: humiliate someone and you take away his manhood. For many men, humiliation must be avenged, or you cease to be a man. Aggrieved entitlement is a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back. And its gender is masculine.

Patriarchy hurts men as much as it hurts women by eliminating any space for men’s victimization. It does not allow male victims to let themselves feel victimized, or allow the rest of us to take men’s victimization seriously. Instead, it teaches men to get revenge by victimizing others.

Unfortunately, sexual coercion has become a “normal” part of teenage sexuality. Aggrieved entitlement flourishes in a culture that treats sex like a commodity: we teach men to measure their worth by how much sex they “get” from women, while conversely we teach women that their worth is determined by what they “give away.”

Likewise, the patriarchy teaches men that their worth is derived from power. It does not teach young men how to share power, or how to put the needs of others before their own. It teaches men to lash out in revenge when they lose power. Today it seems our Tea Party politicians are fighting — the way they learned in the backseats and bedrooms of their adolescence — to regain their power through coercion, threats, and ultimately, the victimization of others.

It’s generally not a good idea to use “rape” as a metaphor, but in this case, the comparison is disturbingly apt.

What Ron Paul meant when he said “honest rape”

CNN’s Piers Morgan challenged Ron Paul about his position on abortion in the case of rape, asking “You have two daughters. You have many granddaughters. If one of them was raped — and I accept it’s a very unlikely thing to happen — but if they were, would you honestly look at them in the eye and say they had to have that child if they were impregnated?” In his wavering response, Ron Paul used the phrase “honest rape,” implying that only some rapes are valid — or as Whoopi Goldberg would say, “rape rape.”

Ron Paul used “honest rape” as code for rapes that fit the prescribed, social narrative of rape: When an innocent, attractive, young woman is attacked by a criminal stranger in a dark alley. Of all the rape narratives that actually exist (incest, partner violence, date rape, acquaintance rape, etc.), this is the only one in which predators “look like” predators and victims “look like” victims. When our predators look like choir boys or world leaders or women, the Ron Pauls of the world are less likely to believe the rape was “honest.” When our victims are not pure and chaste, or young and beautiful, or women, they are less likely to believe the rape was “honest.”

Of course, this is bullshit.

All rape is “honest rape,” no matter who perpetrated it, no matter the victim is (or what she was wearing or drinking), no matter where or how it occurred. The idea that some rape is more valid than other rape is a device used to preserve the false notion that some victims are “asking for it.”

Ron Paul seems to believe that “honest rapes” are rapes that are reported right away. But anyone who knows anything about the reality of rape and sexual assault knows that the majority of rapes go unreported. Why? Because the very idea of “honest rape,” the very same that Ron Paul is propagating, deters victims from coming forward.

Victims worry that their rape might not be taken seriously because they knew their attacker or because they don’t have physical injuries. Sixteen percent of victims say that they fear reprisal, while about six percent don’t report because they believe that the police are “biased.” Biased by what?  The idea that only some rapes are “honest,” and therefore only some victims are credible.

One more thing.

Just as there is no such thing as an “honest rape,” there is no such thing as an “honest abortion.”  You don’t need to be raped–“honestly” or otherwise–in order to deserve the right to terminate a pregnancy. (#justsayin’)

Rape culture? I’ll show you rape culture.

The following is an excerpt from a comment recently left on my post, “Can Women Really Get Laid Whenever They Want?

For good looking guys, lets say, you approach someone in a club (CONSIDER YOU DONT GET HER REALLY DRUNK). it will take you atleast 1 week to get laid! or lets say 3x of meeting with her :) )))))))),

It is a different story tho if you keep her drinking lotsa alchohol….if she is totally drunk (With tequila, and she pass out in the club, you could get her easy = this is one tactics those players are using!).

BUT KEEP IN MIND, It wont also work if you see this beautiful girls with their guy friends (you might end up in a fight with the GUYS….. LOOOL)

IN CONCLUSION, girls want it, but sometimes they are too shy, and guys need sweet talks if they want the sex :D

[sic]

“Shame and Blame: Facing the Unintended Consequences of Health Messaging” on Huffpost

Today my op-ed on shame and blame in health campaigns was published on the Huffington Post. Check it out!

Shame and Blame: Facing the Unintended Consequences of Health Messaging

A solemn black and white poster shows a picture of an obese girl with copy that reads: “Warning: It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not.” Another poster displays a woman’s naked legs with her panties around her ankles and the word: “She didn’t want to do it, but she couldn’t say no.” The first is part of the Georgia “Strong 4 Life” campaign to prevent childhood obesity; the other is part of the Pennsylvania “Control Tonight” campaign to reduce excessive alcohol consumption. Though the campaigns are unrelated, they have one thing in common: disregard for the effects of shame and blame — the frequent unintended consequences of health campaigns.

The promotion of health and social welfare is one of those noble causes that attracts people who want to “do good.” Physicians are taught to “First, do no harm,” but health communication professionals take for granted that their work is “doing good” without considering that it might cause unintentional harm. For example, stigmatizing sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention messages may make people with STIs too embarrassed to seek treatment or too ashamed to tell their sexual partners. Not only can health promotion messages lead to such negative health outcomes, they can also promote destructive social values, like fat stigma and rape culture.

Read the rest at the Huffington Post.

Why we need more earnest letters to men, and women, about the problem with rape jokes

Let me start by saying that I am tickled by how many people have shared and commented on my letter to guys about the problem with rape jokes. I am humbly grateful for all of the feedback and I wanted to address a major criticism about why my letter was directed to guys, even though women also tell rape jokes, and even though men can also be victims of rape.

James Landrith, like many others, called out my letter and the original Organon letter as sexist because of the choice to focus on men who tell rape jokes. Landrith argued that the letters were based on the assumption that only men promote rape jokes. He also argued that the letters minimized the importance of male survivors compared to female survivors. It’s tough to read that because I consider myself a fighter-of-sexism and I actually do agree with Landrith and support everything he is saying.

It IS important to recognize that women also tell rape jokes. It IS important to recognize that men can be victims of rape, and not just prison rape. It IS important to call out woman-on-man rape jokes, like in the movie Horrible Bosses, as despicable. It is so important because so few people recognize it as a serious issue and because we, as a society, have way too many fucked up ideas and misconceptions about masculinity and male sexuality. I hear that and I’m with you. But I still chose to write my letter to guys who don’t see the problem with rape jokes.

The goal of the letter was to reach a particular audience. It wasn’t written for every male-identified person in the world. It was written for a certain type of guy: the kind of guy who doesn’t get why rape jokes are a big deal — the guy who thinks that the only reason people don’t want him to tell rape jokes is because they don’t have a sense of humor or because they’re just prudes who are trying to make everybody “PC.” These are guys who actually might want to fight rape (or who are probably against rape, at least) but don’t yet recognize or understand the connection between rape and rape culture.

The letter wasn’t intended to be a manifesto on rape or a report on rape statistics. It wasn’t meant to cover all bases or speak to all the issues or players involved in the perpetration of rape culture. It was a letter, to a certain type of guy. It was designed to try to open his mind by presenting an argument that has nothing to do with political correctness, which he would most likely dismiss as over-sensitivity. I think what’s so powerful about the letter is that it reframes the issue by saying it’s not about “offending people,” it’s about unintentionally validating and normalizing the actions of rapists.

It was also written to address a certain aspect of guy culture — the kind of “bro on bro” socialization that’s all about demonstrating your masculinity, virility, whatever. It was directed towards men inhabiting the kind of all-male cultural spaces identified by Jessica Bennett and Jacob Bernstein in the Daily Beast that, like the Catholic Church and Penn State football, seem to promote or at least tolerate abuse. It was meant to appeal to the side of masculinity that’s protective and heroic, to say: “You guys have the power to shut down rapists, kick them out of your circles and protect the people around you who may be more vulnerable.”

That was what my letter was about. But we need more letters.

We need letters to all the different kinds of women who make rape jokes, as well as letters to all of the other kinds of men who make rape jokes. We should ALL be writing letters — personalized letters to our individual friends, brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, teachers, coworkers, classmates, local representatives, and anyone else who doesn’t get why rape jokes are a problem.

I just wrote one letter.

To whom will you write yours?

An earnest letter to guys about the problem with rape jokes; It’s not about being PC

A letter to “all those men who don’t think rape jokes are a problem” has been circulating on Tumblr. I think the point it makes is brilliant and critically important, but it’s not really written for the men it needs to reach. It’s written using the classic style of self-affirming snark commonly found on feminist blogs. Don’t get me wrong. I love the snark. But it’s not the most effective way to talk to people who don’t already agree with you. So here’s an earnest letter to men who don’t get why rape jokes are a problem, snark-free.

Dear guys,

I’m writing to tell you why joking about rape is a bad idea, and it has nothing to do with being PC or offending anybody.

I know a lot of guys feel like feminists are hyper-sensitive or quick to take offense, especially when it comes to off-color or edgy jokes. I don’t entirely blame them for feeling this way. The reality is that people embrace feminism in their own way and some are more likely to be offended than others. Unfortunately, much of the “work” of feminism is done within the context of offense, written in the language of outrage and accusation. While I don’t begrudge anyone the right to be angry or express their rage (I do it myself) I don’t think it’s always the most productive way to create change. Especially when we’re asking you guys to join us and become our allies in preventing rape.

The reason rape jokes are a bad idea has nothing to do with offending feminists or rape victims (although purposefully offending a rape victim is a pretty shitty thing to do). It’s not about how women react to the joke; it’s about how other men react.

The sad truth is that some men really are rapists. And they aren’t just the crazy serial-rapist-killers you see on Law and Order SVU or Dexter; they’re just guys. According to Robin Warshaw’s I Never Called It Rape8% of men admit committing acts that meet the legal definition of rape or attempted rape, but they don’t usually think of themselves as rapists. Other studies report this number is as high as 15%. This shit is happening, and the guys doing it aren’t freaks or psychos. They’re your classmates, they’re on the football team, they’re in your WoW guild, they were at your last party.

The problem with rape jokes is that these guys — these guys who seem normal but are actually rapists — hear the jokes and interpret them as a secret wink and nod that you approve of what they’re doing and that you would, or are, doing it too. Via Organon:

Virtually all rapists genuinely believe that all men rape, and other men just keep it hushed up better. And more, these people who really are rapists are constantly reaffirmed in their belief about the rest of mankind being rapists like them by things like rape jokes, that dismiss and normalize the idea of rape.

That is why you shouldn’t tell rape jokes. That is why you should stand up and call out your friends when they do it. Not because you need to worry about being PC or offending feminists, but because you’re actually helping prevent rape. By changing the “culture of rape” from one where rape is something normal and/or expected to one where rape is treated like the crime it really is, you can make a difference.

And it’s not like I’m asking you to be hyper-sensitive about every single joke. I think there’s a difference between jokes that make fun of rape, or rape victims, and jokes that make fun of rapists. I even made a handy flow-chart to help you figure out which rape jokes are validating rapists and which are shaming rapists. But those jokes that do validate rapists, those are the ones you need to do something about.

I know it’s asking a lot to expect someone to stand up to their friends or strangers. It really is, and it’s usually not fun. But think about it. Do you really want those guys out there — those secret rapists who look just like everybody else — to think you’re on their side? That you support what they’re doing? That you’re doing it too, or would be if you could get away with it?

A lot of guys say they would step in and stop a rape if they saw it happening. Heroic as the idea is, it doesn’t happen very often because rape doesn’t usually happen directly in front of you. But the rape jokes that encourage rapists to think that all guys think rape is funny or okay or not a big deal? Those do happen in front of you. And you can do something about that.

And if you do, it’s not because you’re the “PC police.” It’s not because you don’t have a sense of humor. It’s because you actually care about preventing rape, protecting women, and letting rapists know that you are NOT their comrade, their ally, or their bro.

***Edit 12/2/11: Please check out the follow-up post: Why we need more earnest letters to men, and women, about the problem with rape jokes.