What Progressives Get Wrong About Campus Sexual Assault Prevention

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This post was authored by Austin Henshaw

A couple of weeks ago I did a piece on “The Cost of Campus Sexual Assault Hysteria”. In quickly summarizing that piece, misleading data in regards to campus sexual assault is being used to justify policies largely considered unconstitutional by experts, creating an environment where the innocent have a higher likelihood to be punished, while arguably doing little to help legitimate victims. I won’t reiterate too much of that here, and will instead focus on actual effective prevention.

As somebody who previously worked in a campus sexual violence prevention office, this is an area where I am afforded more insight than most feminists in a Facebook comments section. Something that made our office unique compared to many other campuses is we focused much more on being evidence-based as opposed to ideology based, which many other similar offices at other universities did. Unfortunately being evidence-based didn’t always make us popular, and we oftentimes clashed with other departments on the issue of campus sexual violence, in particular the Women’s Center on campus.

Many current efforts focus on pushing affirmative consent policies, mandatory consent education (whether that be through sessions at student orientation or online education programs), or teaching the harms of toxic masculinity or male privilege. While many of these efforts could be argued to be well-intentioned, they are at best not effective, and at worse, actively harmful.

An issue with affirmative consent policies is they often run the risk of pathologizing normal sexual interactions between students while creating a sex bureaucracy on campuses, as argued by the California Law Review. They also do relatively little at stopping actual perpetrators. As dissident feminist Cathy Young feminist argues; “Such rules are unlikely to protect anyone from sexual assault. The activists often cite a scenario in which a woman submits without saying no because she is paralyzed by fear. Yet the perpetrator in such a case is very likely to be a sexual predator, not a clueless guy making an innocent mistake — and there is nothing to stop him from lying and claiming that he obtained explicit consent. As for sex with an incapacitated victim, it is already not only a violation of college codes of conduct but a felony.”

I’m all for both individuals involved in sexual interactions being better at sexual communication, and it could be argued that sexual education in schools could be improved to better prepare students on communicating effectively in their sexual interactions, but “affirmative consent” policies largely waste limited university resources and do little in helping actual victims.

Many colleges are implementing programs to help male students confront their “toxic masculinity” and examine their male privilege. While there certainly can be examples of “pathological masculinity”, there are harms in demonizing masculinity as a whole, which can lead to other psychological problems in men. Not to mention the overwhelming majority of men are against sexual assault, and these programs would likely do little to stop actual rapists.

The program our office used in giving presentations to different groups about sexual violence prevention was “Mentors in Violence Prevention,” a program developed by Jackson Katz in the 1990’s to utilize the positive aspects of men and masculinity to confront sexual violence and abuse relationships. His previous research found that a reason men in the past weren’t engaged as allies in sexual violence prevention is they oftentimes felt they would be blamed as inherently part of the problem. Many male college students today feel ostracized by gender studies programs and Women’s Centers on campuses, even though the overwhelming majority of them are against sexual violence as well.

Mentors in Violence Prevention and other similar programs teaches “bystander intervention” techniques and helps students confront “barriers to intervention”. It engages males as allies for sexual violence prevention, instead of as inherently part of the problem, which many male students in the past felt previous programs did, whether intentional or not. It teaches them potential signs of sexual assault before they are about to happen and effective ways to intervene to stop them from happening, and how to respond after learning about a potential sexual assault taking place.

Another effective technique is teaching potential victims “self-protective behaviors” to reduce their chances of sexual assault. While many feminists unfortunately dismiss advocating for self-protective behaviors as “victim blaming”, even RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) acknowledges it’s irresponsible not to teach self-protective behaviors to potential victims if it could potentially help them in the future. Obviously this should be done in a careful way to not imply those who are victimized “deserved it” since they didn’t engage in these behaviors in the past, but teaching self-protective behaviors should not be framed as inherently victim blaming.

Campus sexual violence is a legitimate problem and despite the misleading data on the issue, even one is obviously one too many. Campus activists and Women’s Centers will best help victims by using accurate data with good methodology behind it, focusing on evidence-based prevention versus ideology, and effectively engaging allies. Hysteria and misinformation only serve to divert already limited resources while alienating potential allies, and potentially doing harm to the innocent while not effectively helping the victimized.

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