"Alcohol was the weapon of choice for these men": Peer groups may be key to stopping campus rape

On NPR's Morning Edition earlier today, Laura Starecheski reported on efforts to use peer groups to prevent young men from becoming rapists. She set the stage by talking with psychologist David Lisack about a study he (and colleague Paul M. Miller of Brown University School of Medicine) conducted among male University of Massachusetts Boston students and published in Violence and Victims in 2002. Knowing that the majority of rapes are never reported to authorities, and wanting to know whether serial rapists were responsible for many of them, Lisack and Brown took a direct approach: They asked men to tell them about any rapes they had committed. Starecheski summarizes their findings:

He surveyed about 1,800 men, asking them a wide range of questions about their sexual experiences. To learn about sexual assault, he asked things like, "Have you ever had sex with an adult when they didn't want to because you used physical force?" When the results came back, he was stunned.

All told, 120 men in the sample, or about 6 percent of the total, had raped women they knew. Two-thirds of those men were serial rapists, who had done this, on average, six times. Many of the serial rapists began offending before college, back in high school. ... Together, the 120 men in Lisak's study were responsible for 439 rapes. None was ever reported.

The questions didn't ask "have you committed rape"; instead, rapists were identified by their "yes" answers to questions like "Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did no want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g., removing their clothes)? Of the 120 men whose responses identified them as rapists, 81% reported raping women who were incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, while smaller percentages admitted to using force.

Lisack interviewed men who'd committed rapes, and they described tactics such as preparing punch with sweet juice and a potent mix of alcohol, so young women would become drunk quickly. (The current online text version of the story doesn't contain all the chilling quotes; listen to the audio version for more on how rapists scope out their victims and get them into situations where they'll be vulnerable.) Starecheski summarizes the rapists' thinking:

Alcohol was the weapon of choice for these men, who typically saw themselves as college guys hooking up. They didn't think what they had done was a crime.

"Most of these men have an image or a myth about rape, that it's some guy in a ski mask wielding a knife," says Lisak. "They don't wear ski masks, they don't wield knives, so they don't see themselves as rapists."

In fact, they'd brag about what they had done afterwards to their friends. That implied endorsement from male friends — or at the very least, a lack of vocal objection — is a powerful force, perpetuating the idea that what these guys are doing is normal rather than criminal.

If such tacit acceptance from male peers is preventing rapists from understanding that they are criminals, perhaps explicit condemnation could prevent men from becoming rapists. That's the thinking behind the intervention Starecheski profiles: Mentors in Violence Prevention, or MVP. At a few Sioux City, Iowa high schools, older students are matched with incoming students, and the older students facilitate discussions about relationships, alcohol, and sexual assualt. Younger students have a chance to think about what they'd do in situations where a rape might occur, and discuss responses. Starecheski talked to one former MVP mentor, Tucker Carrell, who's now a junior at Iowa State University:

Tucker says that he's not afraid to confront his Delta Tau Delta fraternity brothers when they talk about women in a way that makes him uncomfortable. He'll sit down with them, sometimes even bringing a woman they've hit on into the conversation.

The day we talked, Tucker said he'd used his MVP training to intervene in a situation just the night before.

This was at a going-away party at a bar in Ames, Iowa. Tucker noticed that a friend's female cousin was pretty drunk. She was over by the jukebox with two guys who weren't part of the party. They were strangers. Tucker says he was paying attention to her body language, and something didn't look right. She looked almost cornered.

Carrell and a friend went over to the jukebox, picked out a song, and then casually asked the young woman if she'd like to head back over to the table to see her cousin. She did, and that was the end of the situation.

What struck me in listening to Tucker Carrell's description of the jukebox situation is that his ability to pick up on non-verbal cues from across the room is impressive and, I'm guessing, not something every male college student possesses. (In the recorded version of the story, Carrell gives more examples of the young woman's body language and also notes that his friend didn't pick up on those cues the way he did.) Such an ability can be useful not only in bars and at parties, but in personal relationships and the workplace.

In young adulthood, it can be especially hard for young men to stand up to their peers and tell them that their approach to sexual conquests is wrong. I admire the young men like Tucker Carrell, and I'd like to see more young men doing the kinds of things he is. When our society is such that 6 - 10% of men think it's okay to rape, we have to ask both men and women to take measures that might be difficult or uncomfortable at times. (See the Daily Show's Jessica Williams for a funny-but-not-really rundown on some of the measures women take to protect themselves.) The burden shouldn't fall entirely on women.

It's encouraging that researchers like those behind the MVP program are exploring ways to engage in primary prevention, in addition to the secondary-prevention efforts that many of us have seen. Anyone who's attended college over the past couple of decades has probably heard tips about looking out for one's friends at parties -- but that's only preventing individuals from falling victim to the rapist risk that's already widespread. Primary prevention, in this case, means preventing men from getting to the point where they think getting partygoers extremely drunk is an acceptable way to assure a successful sexual conquest. That's the goal, and I hope in the coming years we'll see more work to develop, evaluate, and disseminate successful primary-prevention interventions to stop men from becoming rapists.

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By Estie-Lome Mouton (not verified) on 20 Apr 2015 #permalink