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Using Peer Pressure for Good

Campus sexual assault is a hot issue right now, with a Presidential task force dedicated to the problem and stories of college students taking extreme measures to bring attention to their schools’ failure to take action against their rapists. Much of the focus has been devoted to how colleges and universities handle allegations of sexual assault — or how young female college students should bear the burden of not being raped. But what about preventing sexual assaults in the first place? How do we do that?

At Blackburn Center, we believe in the need for primary prevention efforts — addressing the social norms that perpetuate rape culture, as well as teaching boys and men to not rape — as the most effective way of ending sexual assault. This includes educating the public about what rape is, including the oft-ignored reality that if a person is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, she or he cannot consent to sexual activity. After primary prevention efforts come secondary methods, like bystander intervention — the idea that others can intervene if they see a troubling situation, like stepping in if you see witness someone who is getting on the receiving end of unwanted sexual attention.

However, it is important to know that bystander intervention is not enough. The only way to truly end sexual assault is to address the root causes of gender violence — which requires more than teaching students to simply intervene in isolated situations where a woman might be in danger. As writer and activist Dana Bolger brilliantly asked, “What if being an engaged bystander meant being someone who first and foremost is fiercely anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-oppression? A person who does more than interrupt individual 'situations in which sexual assault may occur' but rather takes it upon themselves to recognize and dismantle the very power structures that produce and perpetuate violence to begin with?” Yes, bystander intervention is a step — but on its own, it will never be enough to end sexual assault. If bystander intervention is combined with primary prevention efforts, it may be a more effective way to combat rape culture and reduce or end sexual assaults. A program created by activist Jackson Katz aims to do just that.

In high schools and colleges across the country, a program called Mentors in Violence Prevention, or MVP, pairs upperclassmen mentors with younger students. Throughout the school year, these students have discussions about relationships, drinking, sexual assault and rape. In doing so, they learn about what rape actually is — and the importance of consent. But the program does not stop there — it encourages these students to intervene when they see questionable situations, and to actively engage other students in conversations about sexual assault, and even the way that they view women. One participant has used the knowledge he learned through the program to confront his fraternity brothers when they talked about women in a derogatory way, and to intervene when he saw a female friend being cornered at a bar. In this way, primary prevention is combined with bystander intervention to become something even bigger — a culture where young men are informed about sexual assault, speak out about it and the broader cultural norms that perpetuate rape culture, and actively step in to prevent sexual assaults. Creating this culture through programs like MVP has the potential to truly change the epidemic of campus sexual assault in this country by using peer pressure in a positive way.

If you believe that schools in Westmoreland County would benefit from programs like these, ask your school board to consider implementing the MVP program or something similar. You can also ask your local school or community organization to schedule an educational program through Blackburn Center. Or educate yourself about sexual assault and commit to speaking out about these issues, and intervening where appropriate. Together, we can work together to change our culture — and end sexual assault!

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