Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Can Rape Be Stopped?

That is the title of a recent article in Salon by Irin Carmon and, unfortunately, the answer was a flat “No.” However, a close read of the article reveals a number of assumptions that easily brought the writer to the wrong conclusion.

The author wrote: “But the problem with saying ‘tell men not to rape’ is that the majority of rapists probably won’t listen. That’s because the majority of them are repeat offenders who don’t care about consent.” Carmon based this statement upon unique research conducted by David Lisak focusing on men in college. Lisak explored the sexual behaviors (and in some cases sexual abuse) reported by young men who were not convicted of any sexual offense. His study found that a large number of self-reported campus rapes were perpetrated by a small number of repeat offenders.

In science, it is generally unwise to make generalizations on the basis of “unique research.” More often, we require independent confirmation of findings before we begin to accept that something may be true in the larger scheme of things. As such, it would be a stretch – and we would say inaccurate – to claim that telling men about rape will not work. We are aware of a considerable body of research that suggests strongly that the dynamics of sexual harm are actually quite complex; that is, a single factor theory like ‘they don’t care about consent’ is unlikely to be a sole or even principal reason why some men engage in this behavior. Yet, on the basis of the findings of one study, Carmon has constructed a “one size fits all” argument, and by doing so we all lose an important opportunity to prevent sexual harm.

Using a public health approach, the best prevention programming will be comprehensive and guide interventions at all levels of the ecological model. What that means is that interventions should be directed at:
  • the individual who might be at risk to abuse, to tell them to stop before anyone is harmed and to reinforce what it means to have a healthy consenting relationship,
  • the relationships for that individual, such as his (or her) friends and family to encourage them to talk with friends when they see unhealthy behaviors
  • the college community and its administration, so they can be encouraged to set a zero tolerance culture for the campus
  • society, through promulgation of laws that address this issue and provide funding for victim services, as well as help for potential abusers willing to come forward for counseling.
We believe that it is time for people concerned about sexual harm to reframe the discussion from one of risk management to one of prevention, and there is good cause for optimism. Indeed, for anyone who does not believe that some people who have sexually abused (or who were afraid they might) would ask for help, we would suggest a review of an incredible program in Germany called Prevention Project Dunkelfeld (translated as “dark field”). A hospital in Berlin sent out public service announcements telling men to call for help. In 2008, it was reported that over 800 men called Dunkelfeld’s hotline for help. This clearly contradicts any conjecture that prevention programs targeting men just won’t or can’t work.

David Finkelhor’s four-factor precondition model is a good way to understand how the volume of rapes on campus could occur. In this model, Finkelhor suggests that four conditions must be met for someone to rape. These include:
  • Motivation to sexually abuse
  • Removal of external inhibitors
  • Removal of internal inhibitors
  • Breaking the resistance of the victim
For colleges and universities, it is almost a perfect storm – where young men who used to have families or faith communities to watch over them are suddenly thrown into a fairly loose environment where they are encouraged to have sex. With alcohol or drugs, the internal inhibitors for young men at risk to abuse are removed as well as the resistance of the victim. We saw something akin to this dynamic in the recent Steubenville case.

There is hope. A number of programs targeting college men have begun to emerge. Mentors in Violence Prevention is a longstanding program targeting seniors in sports to take a leadership role in violence prevention. Men Can Stop Rape and the My Strength Campaign all have proven track records targeting men. There are also a number of bystander programs demonstrated to be effective with women and men. In addition to the Bringing in the Bystander program at the University of New Hampshire, there is the Green Dot program, the One in Four program, and a free book that Joan wrote, which you can order through the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

After a combined nearly 50 years of work in prevention and seeking to better understand sexual harm, we can say that we have seen enough research, as well as men who have abused in treatment, genuinely grappling with how they came to this point in their lives, to know that we can make a difference in the lives of these young men if we intervene, especially before someone is harmed.

Joan Tabachnick
Robin J. Wilson

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