Can You Actually Train Men Not To Rape?

As every new rape or sexual assault case that grabs the headlines (and the millions that do not) reminds us, the fault and responsibility in situations of man-on-woman assault is usually placed firmly with the woman. What were you wearing? Why were you out so late at night? Why don't you learn self-defense? Why did you get so drunk? The fact that the public conversation around rape places the bulk of demands on the victims instead of the perpetrators is absurd: it's the equivalent of asking salmon who get eaten by bears why they look so delicious and tempting, and why they decided to go upstream for spawning instead of staying home out of harm's way. The fact that we aren't questioning the bears seems a fundamental problem here, and it's one that many people have started to notice.

Rebuttals to the idea of sexual assault education and consent workshops are usually based around misconceptions and myths about rape. Consent is more complex than "yes means yes, no means no;" rapists are not just random hideous men hiding in bushes; shaping people's attitudes towards the legal way to treat sexual partners is not a violation of their freedom; and committing sexual assault is not something that happens in isolation from societal influence and cultural norms. It can be tricky for people to accept that wider issues are at play and that better education might help, but preliminary evidence indicates that talking to men and boys about attraction, interest, consent, and issues surrounding them might well have a positive impact.

Bustle talked to Alexis Jones, founder of ProtectHer, an organization that does workshops for young male student athletes across the country, about the importance of consent work and how men can be brought into the rape culture conversation.

The Problem

Consent workshops, in which young people are taught to understand the more nuanced side of consent beyond just "no means no," are not universally popular. (A friend of mine who works as a sexual assault activist in the UK recently found herself on a radio show in which she was faced by arguments including "people will figure it out for themselves" and "it's wrong to tell people what to do sexually," even if "what to do" is basically "don't violate somebody else's body.") The overall perception still appears to be that rapists are both strangers and dyed-in-the-wool evil.

The first idea is easily refuted: estimates indicate that over 70 percent of victims of both genders know their assailants beforehand. And as for the second assumption, consent education seems to be exposing that as a lie, too. Rapists may simply grow up in a culture where, in an environment where "no" hasn't been spoken explicitly, they believe their sexual satisfaction is perfectly legitimate.

Here's just one bit of evidence that this culture exists and is a problem: a now-famous small-scale study found, in 2015, that 1 in 3 college-age men would conduct a sexual assault if they thought they could get away with it — but they didn't think of those particular actions as problematic. When the researchers asked them about "rape" using the word, they claimed they'd never do anything of the kind; but when it was less explicit, and called "intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse," 31.7 percent of the subjects said they'd do it if they'd face no consequences for it. There appears to be a significant understanding gap between what we see as assault and what it actually is, and that's where education for both sides really becomes a crucial point.

As Jones tells Bustle, "Creating a safer world for our girls is not a women’s issue, it’s a human issue. I don’t believe we can accurately address the problem while only including half the sky, I think it demands the attention and efforts of all humans." Plus, while it is less common, women are of course capable of committing sexual assault as well.

How Education Is Proven To Help

Intriguingly, ad campaigns that highlight the responsibility of the rapist or assaulter not to do anything that violates consent seem to make a genuine difference, though further research is needed to examine their far-reaching consequences. Reports of sexual assaults in Vancouver went down by 10 percent after an ad campaign called "Don't Be That Guy," though it's unclear whether there were other factors at play.

And a 2009 study produced something more intriguing: 184 college men who went through an hour-long rape prevention program at a college were interviewed extensively in the two years that followed. Of the participants, 79 percent reported that it had changed their behavior and attitudes, others intervened to prevent rapes from happening, and adjusted their positions on sex while they and their partner were intoxicated. And these positions lasted a full two years after the hour-long program was shown. It's a small study, but it's extremely powerful as an indicator that consent workshops really can stop people from acting like predators in the mistaken belief that it's OK or within the bounds of "normal" sexual behavior.

Jones tells Bustle she is keen on emphasizing that consent education can be a positive experience. "I often tell young men that the whole country is talking about them like they are the problem," she told Bustle, "when in reality, I think they are an essential ingredient in the cure. That being said, so many women have been hurt at the hands of reckless boys, so I think it’s understandably difficult for them to view men as part of the solution when they so often associate them with the problem."

New Research On Training For Sexual Cues Looks Positive

An intriguing new study released in October gives a new perspective on the kind of workshop that could provide a future for consent and behavioral education. It was based on the idea that correctly gauging somebody's sexual interest could help people make better decisions about their intentions. A group of 500 college students, 276 female and 220 male, were shown photographs of women and asked to make a "snap judgement" about whether they were expressing sexual interest or not. They also completed an assessment on how they felt about rape.

The results were remarkable and, in some cases, disturbing. The people, both male and female, who had attitudes towards rape like "women shouldn't wear such provocative clothing" and "women enjoy sexual violence" often assessed whether the woman in the picture wanted sex purely by how cute she was and what she was wearing. (Do I really need to explain why this is a problem?) Men were more likely than women in general to take the woman's clothing and attractiveness into consideration, while women relied more on their body language and other non-verbal cues.

But there was another side to the experiment that's more positive. Half of the students, before viewing the photographs, were given a bit of a lesson on "affective" cues in the women, like their body language and facial expression, and what they likely meant about their sexual interest. That sort of instruction made both genders focus more on those aspects, and less on her clothing. The training was effective both for participants with supportive attitudes towards rape victims and those without.

In a separate study of men, the same scientist found that guys who tended to rely on women's outfits to tell them about sexual interest were also likely to take the context into account: bar, club, library, whatever. To those men, miniskirt-plus-club really did equal automatic sexual interest, even if the women themselves showed no actual signs of it.

The Bottom Line

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So what can we learn from this? One: if you're a man, you really cannot tell if a woman's interested in you just from her prettiness, her clothing, and where you are at the time; none of them are actually relevant. Two: education along those lines, including context and body language, may actually help people in the future make better decisions about their sexual behavior, and be less likely to follow interpretations that could lead to social awkwardness or worse.

For Jones, "the most effective method of educating young men around consent and rape culture has to do first and foremost with how the conversation is communicated. Rather than standing on a soapbox pointing fingers and highlighting all the ways they are falling short; it’s incredibly powerful to invite them into the conversation and help them understand how they have been poorly programmed into disrespecting girls in the first place." And that's an excellent lesson to take forward.

Image: Pexels; Giphy