Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sexual Assault and Rape on College Campuses: A Psychological Critique of Failed Public Health Approaches to Reducing Assaults on Campus – Katie Muto


Introduction
On a typical college campus in the United States, one in four women will experience a rape or attempted rape during their college career (1). The majority of these cases are acquaintance or date rape; 85% of women who experience sexual assault on campus indicate that they knew their assailant, and alcohol is reportedly involved in 75-90% of acquaintance rapes (2). One of the most concerning statistics indicates that between 25 and 50% of survivors seek treatment for depression, PTSD, and/or other mental health issues (4). Despite the fact that survivors face devastating consequences as a result of sexual assault, 81% of cases are not reported to college authorities, and a striking 95% of these incidents are not reported to the police (3).
Sexual assault rates on campus highlight a public health epidemic in this country. In order to improve sexual assault rates, it is essential to highlight the factors that promote a culture of assault on college campuses. And yet, despite the fact that the environment and culture of a college campus clearly plays an important role in the issue, as evidenced by higher assault rates on college campuses than the national average, promoting open, honest discourse on the issue has proven difficult. The public perception of this issue is strongly influenced by ideology and social constructs that make it difficult to change behavior and attitude toward assaults. While the usual suspects-misogyny, sexism, acceptance of rape culture- have helped shape our perception of campus assaults, public health campaigns meant to reduce assaults on campus and protect women against the “rape culture” have actually reinforced the very ideologies that they meant to overcome. Until recently, the majority of public health initiatives focused on primary prevention for women. These campaigns, both national and campus-based, focused on teaching women how to avoid being a victim of assault (1). Women are constantly reminded not to drink, wear provocative clothing, or travel alone at night. The unintended consequence of this type of campaign is that it suggests that women are responsible for instigating an assault. Primary prevention campaigns unintentionally reinforce “victim-blaming,” by implying that women are responsible for protecting themselves (1-4). As a result, assault victims often feel that they were responsible for the incident, and therefore don’t report assault to authorities.
Recently, a new public heath approach to campus assaults has gained significant traction. The approach focuses on shifting target audience from women to men, thus reframing the issue as a man’s problem, as opposed to a woman’s. One such campaign, which originated online and was eventually used as a poster campaign in various colleges across the United States, exemplifies this recent trend.  The poster is simply a list titled: “Sexual Assault Prevention Tips” (5). The list, which blatantly mocks previous women-centric public health campaigns, shifts blame, placing it squarely on the shoulders of men. Similar campaigns, including the “Don’t be That Guy” (6) initiative, which originated in Canada and eventually trickled onto college campuses in the United States, follow the same theoretical assumption that targeting men would incentivize them to change their behavior. While this approach was meant to improve upon previous campaigns by reframing the issue as a man’s problem, the campaign fails to consider the consequences of painting all men as potential rapists. In reality, this approach, based on the Transtheoretical model of behavior, not only reinforces victim-blaming by causing strong psychological reactance in male readers who immediately become defensive, but it also unintentionally frames the issue as a battle of the sexes as opposed to a serious public health problem that men and women need to address together.
Critique 1
The recent men-centered poster campaigns assume that the Transtheoretical model can be applied to men’s behavior. The transtheoretical, or “stages of change” model is based on the concept that behavior is a process, not a single event or decision. Individuals move through the five stages of the model, and thus interventions can be targeted to each stage (7).  The stages of the model include pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. The “tips to avoid assault” and “Don’t Be That Guy” campaigns assume that men follow the Transtheoretical model in relation to sexual assault.  The posters specifically target men at the contemplation and preparation stage of the model in an attempt to deter them from reaching the action stage, which, in this instance, translates into performing an assault. The campaign assumes that most men intend to rape or assault a woman, and/or have taken behavioral steps towards said assault.  The tips on one poster include suggestions like “don’t put drugs in woman’s drink,” “don’t have sex with someone while they are asleep…that’s rape,” and “just because she isn’t saying no, doesn’t mean she’s saying yes.”(5,6).  These suggestions clearly assume that men reading the poster have contemplated assaulting an individual, and therefore the poster serves to deter them from acting on the behavior by reminding them that these actions are, in fact, rape. The campaigns not only paints men as likely rapists, but also illuminate two major limitations to the Transtheoretical model: the assumption of reasoned action, and the lack of consideration of external and social/cultural influences (7). The campaigns assume that men’s decisions are based on reasoned behavior, and that they contemplate their actions before engaging in an assault.  While this may in fact be the case, this approach oversimplifies the issue by grouping two distinct rape scenarios into one model. On the “How to Avoid Sexual Assault” poster in particular, this oversimplification paints rape in a stereotypical light: half the tips on the poster are directed towards forcible, “stranger” rape, in which a woman is violently attacked and threatened by a random individual. Based on campus statistics, however, this scenario is the minority. The danger of tying the two scenarios into one campaign is that men may view the poster as unfairly characterizing them as a “rapist” in the stereotypical sense of the word. The limitations of this model highlight an important dilemma for public health officials: many men (and some women) view sexual assault on a spectrum, in which some assaults are considered legitimate, and some, though legally defined as assault, are considered socially acceptable or even normal. In fact, recent studies indicate that many men who have performed one or more assaults don’t think of themselves as rapists (8). This has far reaching impacts, as both men who’ve committed or will commit date rape, and men who have not contemplated or considered assaulting a person at all, react strongly and negatively to such campaigns, which they view as unjustly accusatory.  In this way, the poster campaign inadvertently reinforces the stereotypical view of rape as a violent and forcible act between “strangers,” and enables college assailants to distinguish themselves from these “stereotypical” rapists. Thus the application of the model reinforces the idea that date rape is not considered “legitimate rape.”
Critique 2
In aggressively targeting men, the poster campaigns inspire strong psychological reactance in men. Because the majority of assailants on a college campus engage in assault behavior that does not include weapons, and oftentimes involves coercion as opposed to overt violence (1-4), men are likely view the poster campaign as both unjust and unfairly condescending.   The campaign accentuates psychological reactance because it threatens men’s perceived freedom (9). The campaigns suggest that all men are potentially violent rapists and therefore, in painting men as evil, the campaign implies that men should be behind bars. Similarly, the condescending tone introduced in both campaigns paints men as brutish, childish, and unable to control themselves. The campaign implies that men are so irresponsible and immoral that they can’t be trusted to act reasonably or rationally without the help of campus-wide posters to remind them how to behave in civilized society. Men therefore perceive the campaign as a serious threat to their own liberty. Because the perceived loss of freedom is so strong men display negative reactance to the message. In fact, the reactance could be so powerful that men seem to have experience the “boomerang effect”(9). While it seems unlikely that aggressively trying to change men’s behavior and thus reducing assaults on campus may actually result in men assaulting women at an increased rate, consider the response to recent discourse on sexual assault. Men, and even some women, have reacted incredibly powerfully to the suggestion that men are responsible for the campus rape epidemic. In fact, some individuals have gone so far as to actively deny any problem exists on college campuses, thus reframing the issue as one of dishonesty and deception spearheaded by women, as opposed to a legitimate public health problem (10-15). As a direct result of psychological reactance, men not only reject the idea that they could possibly assault a woman, but go so far as to delegitimize the entire issue, thus promoting an environment in which women’s “false” claims of assault simply a means by which women attempt to limit men’s freedom. Evidence of psychological response ranges from men’s rights blogs demonizing feminist groups for creating “rape hysteria” to potential senate candidates. Todd Aiken’s “legitimate rape” comments not only highlights a disturbing perception of the issue, but also exemplifies psychological reactance to the concept of assault (11). By delegitimizing the plight of women on campus, men not only shift the focus from one of safety to one of men’s rights, but simultaneously perpetuate a cultural ideology in which date rape is a fake concept introduced by hysterical women, as opposed to a legitimate crime.   
Critique 3
By utilizing the Transtheoretical model of behavior, thus inspiring strong psychological reactance, men-centered campaigns unintentionally create two contrasting frames through which men and women view the issue of assault on campus. For women, the campaign is viewed through a safety/security frame, in which men are portrayed as brutish, unfeeling attackers who need to be reminded constantly not to rape (16). The imagery of the frame centers on the idea that men can’t help themselves when placed in a situation in which rape is a possible outcome, creates a metaphor of men as both incompetent children and as dangerous predators. The frame doesn’t distinguish character, it simply portrays all men as potential rapists who actively try to attack women’s sense of security. In contrast, men are more likely to view the posters in a negative light and thus create a frame that justifies this negative response. Instead of viewing sexual assault as an issue of safety and security for women, men reframe the issue in order to reduce cognitive dissonance between their view of self and the view portrayed in the poster of men as evil rapists (17). A recent viral poster campaign, created as a direct response to the “Tips to Avoid Sexual Assault,” exemplifies how men resolve cognitive dissonance by reframing the issue. The list of suggestions, titled “Top Tips to End False Rap Accusations,” implies that the true issue is not one of women’s safety, but one of men’s freedom and liberty from false rape accusations. Twenty years of research indicate that the false rape accusation rate lies between 2-8%, which is consistent with false allegations in every other crime. However, in this case, men’s groups aggressively reframe the issue in order to justify their negative response to rape campaigns and recuse themselves of alleged faults (19). In this freedom frame, women threaten men’s liberty by unfairly and unjustly accusing them of rape. This frame is incredibly strong, as the concept of false accusation towards men not only metaphorically reduces men’s sense of freedom by promoting fear and uncertainty around women, but, if accused, a man could literally be stripped of his freedom and put in jail. Images and keywords associated with this frame include women as liars and false accusers, women as power-crazed, and women as “feminazis” who create a false rape culture in order to control men. As long as men view sexual assault through this disturbing lens, it becomes almost impossible to introduce effective discourse on the subject.
A recent initiative by the Civil Liberties Union, which focused on enforcing equal rights on campus through Title IV by providing more protections for women from sexual assault, only strengthens this freedom frame. In an open letter titled “Dear Colleague,” the office for civil rights reminded colleges that they were responsible for enforcing protections for women.  The letter instructed colleges to apply a lower standard of proof in assault cases. Instead of requiring “clear and convincing evidence” which is often difficult for victims to produce, particularly if women do not immediately report to officials, colleges should now apply “preponderance of evidence standard” meaning if committee can discipline the alleged attacker if they believe with greater than 50% certainty that the woman was assaulted (20). While this directive is essential for ensuring that victims rights are protected, the outcry over male liberty was aggressive and immediate. The directive only fueled the freedom frame by further dividing men and women (21-23). Immediately, newspapers and blogs across the country reacted by portraying the initiative as an unconstitutional attack on male freedom. By reframing the directive as a direct assault on male liberty, men effectively refocused the argument from that of a serious public health and security issue for women to a freedom issue for men. In the process of reframing the issue, men’s groups also resorted to delegitimizing women’s group in the process, thus reducing women to the role of lying, manipulative, dishonest feminists who actively accuse men of rape in order to gain power and control by reducing men’s freedom. In doing so, men successfully recreate themselves the victims instead of accusers.
Recommendations
Aggressive campaigns that place blame for the sexual assault epidemic on men prove ineffective because they inadvertently threaten perceived freedom, thus inducing powerful psychological reactance. As a result of the strength of the reaction, men seek to protect their liberty by delegitimizing assault along with those individuals they perceive as threatening their freedom, namely women. As men’s groups continue to reframe the issue as one of men’s rights, as opposed to one of women’s safety and health, the divide between women and men continues to deepen. The poster campaigns instigate conflict between women and men, thus promoting a battle of the sexes. In reality, the campaign’s attempt to promote discourse instead reinforces the concept of rape as “he said v. she said” thus relegating the discussion to one of derisiveness and anger.
            In order to effectively reframe the highly emotional topic to better reach both sexes, we must unify the issues of men’s and women’s rights. The three major problems with the recent men-centered approaches to college assault—namely the ineffective use of Transtheoretical model, the induction of psychological reactance in men, and the ability for men to easily reframe the issue to one of freedom—must be resolved in order to improve the discourse about sexual assault on college campuses.
Recommendation 1
The Transtheoretical model neglects to take into account the social factors that influence behavior.  Instead, application of the Social Learning, or Social Cognitive Model would more effectively allow public health experts to make positive changes on campus.  Unlike the Transtheoretical Model, Social Cognition Model takes into account the dynamic interaction of person, behavior, and environment. On the college campus, observation and learning through social interactions enables modeling. Younger individuals model the behaviors of other people on the campus (7). Women often observe other women drinking heavily, going to large parties, and often going home with men (1-4). Younger individuals model this behavior, and the attention women get from their male counterparts reinforces the behavior. Similarly, men observe their fellow male classmates drinking heavily and actively pursuing women, often discussing their sexual exploits publicly with friends or teammates afterwards, thus reinforcing the behavior. In both cases, men and women consistently justify questionable sexual behavior with the excuse of alcohol (24).  Again, this type of behavior is reinforced in the campus setting, in which heavy drinking is considered not only acceptable but normal and even expected. At the same time, the reluctance to talk about sexual assault issues, coupled with the common use of alcohol as an excuse for often criminal behavior, promotes an environment in which men have the ability to both coerce women under the guise of “being drunk and stupid.” In this case, the environment plays an especially important role in permitting/deterring assault. Changing the environment could help shift the perception of sexual assault as normal or accepted within the context of the college campus. Using Social Cognitive Theory, we can focus public health efforts on changing the college environment in a way that promotes similar changes to attitude and ideally behavior.  
In order to design a campaign that promotes environmental and attitude changes, it is essential to understand the factor in the college environment that promotes rape culture. Twenty years of research indicates that alcohol and the “party” culture on college campuses plays a significant and even central role in upwards of 75% of assault cases (25). Alcohol undermines an individual’s ability to refuse sexual advances, while also reducing the victim’s likelihood of reporting assault due to their inability to remember the event clearly (25).  Despite the fact that alcohol is illegal for those under 21, the college environment seems to act above this law. In fact, both through media and social reinforcement, alcohol and binge drinking have become ingrained in college culture (25-28). Alcohol is the number one date rape drug in the country. Why then, in light of extensive information about the relationship between alcohol and assault, do most colleges openly flaunt this unhealthy drinking culture? Fraternities, tailgates at college games, even the weeklong booze-filled “senior week,” all hosted by the college, point to a significant conflict of interest between college administrators and their students. College administrations recognize that if the college experience is considered “fun,” alumni are more likely to donate to the school, and they are more likely to attract young teens seeking the “typical” college experience. To this end, colleges have voiced concern about implementing severe penalties for underage drinking, claiming such stringent rules would significantly reduce the appeal of the school, thus hurting the college’s reputation and reduce alumni donations (25). The takeaway is simple: Colleges care more about maintaining reputation and collecting money than they do about the security and wellbeing of their student body. This theme will be the basis of our new public health campaign. 
Recommendation 2
Recent assault campaigns failed because they instigated animosity between men and women; therefore, shifting blame away from college students and placing it on a third party allows public health campaigns to reframe the issue as one of security and/or freedom from the administration. In this case, irresponsible and immoral college administrators represent the third party, or common enemy.  Frames for this campaign will focus on the fact that both men and women, forced into a college culture of alcoholism and abuse, are stripped of their most basic rights to freedom and safety. Images and metaphors would develop from the following positions: women are at risk of being assaulted and then silenced, thus loosing the rights to security, free speech, and freedom from a life of mental instability and PTSD; men are at risk of being falsely accused of assault and quite literally stripped of their civil liberties and thrown in jail (27).
Recommendation 3
Because assault is such an emotionally charged issue, the risk of psychological reactance is high. To mitigate the negative effects of reactance, we must create a campaign that students view as familiar, reasonable, and similar to their own view and values. Therefore any new campaign targeting administrators should utilize themes and styles that are easily recognizable and enjoyable to college students. Memes, popular internet characters or themes on which individuals can write text to express their perception of an issue or call to light a hypocrisy or entertaining anecdote, could prove to be highly effective both as a poster campaign on campuses and as a viral campaign. One such meme, the “scumbag” meme, has gained significant popularity and would be easily recognizable to most college students. Utilizing this meme to express concern with the hypocrisy of the college administration could prove to be highly effective in the context of our frames.
For example, posers would simply include a picture of a stuffy older man in a suit sitting in a dark, intimidating office. The picture would never change but the text could be changed to convey different “scumbag administrator” examples. The first might read: “sponsors the tailgate party where you got in trouble, claims he can’t afford a lawyer for you.”  This one can be directed towards both men and women, as each side would assume that they deserve to have access to a fair and thorough trial or hearing.  Another poster conveys the hypocrisy and false security assurances from the college: “Tells you alcohol is a date rape drug…. provides free alcohol for the entire campus four times a week.” In addition to creating images that can translate between men and women, the very same image can target each gender specifically. For women, these posters could read, “ pays for a campus-wide party to raise awareness about assault … the theme: sexist bro’s and drunken ho’s.” This campaign can be especially effective because it is simple, easily recognizable, and it doesn’t have to simply come from one source. Ideally, students from all over the country could create their own version of the “scumbag” administrator meme. In fact, by creating a campaign which college students can contribute to, it is possible that this would further mitigate psychological reactance, as the message is not necessarily coming from a public health organization, but may be written by a classmate, friend, or colleague. The sense of otherness focuses itself entirely on the “scumbag administrator.” Ideally, contributing to or reading these simple memes could inspire a new perspective on formerly accepted campus culture norms. 
This recommendation addresses three problems faced by the men-centered public health campaigns. By recognizing that environment plays a central role in attitudes and behaviors, we sought to determine what environmental changes would likely influence the strongest shifts in attitude and behavior. Because previous campaigns didn’t focus specifically on the environment of the campus, their campaign goals were more driven towards changing behavior, which proves especially difficult with a topic that is so emotionally charged. While the men-centered campaigns caused significant backlash from males because they threatened perceived freedoms, thus instigating an angry and powerful psychological response, we mitigate this reactance by shifting blame from men to administrators. In addition, to ensure that our own campaign didn’t induce a negative response, we utilized familiar and well-known memes that students would view positively. Finally, because men framed the issue as one of men’s rights, thus pitting them against women’s groups and sexual assault prevention groups, our campaign seeks to reframe the issue as one of students vs. administrators. In doing so, men feel less persecuted and therefore don’t respond aggressively to discourse on assault. In addition, placing responsibility on administrators similarly forward our goal of reducing consumption on campus by singling out negligent leadership on campus. By reframing the administrator as the number one provider of date rape drugs on campus, our campaign effectively targets campus who, until know, have refused to take responsibility for their own students. With this campaign, college administrators become the attacker, and the only way to rid themselves of the image is to finally take the necessary steps to severely curb campus alcohol abuse, and therefore reduce sexual assaults on the campus.  
               

           
 REFERENCES
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1 Comments:

At September 25, 2013 at 1:12 PM , Blogger Vesta Duvall said...

Thanks for sharing your thesis, Amanda. It can be a good tool to spread awareness on how to keep sexual assault from inflating on the campuses. The cases can happen anytime, anywhere, and to anyone, however, it can also be an eye-opener.

Vesta @Zalkin.com

 

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