THE BLOG

Addressing Sexual Assault on America's Campuses: A Much Needed New Approach

03/09/2015 12:25 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

Start with this quiz. What do these three seemingly unrelated items have in common?

a. The recently released 2015 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover (still on news stands everywhere) showing Derek Jeter's on and off girlfriend model Hannah Davis in a tantalizingly low cut bikini that has raised controversy as to whether the bottom portion is too revealing;

b. The expanding scandal surrounding NBC's prime time news anchor Brian Williams lying about his experiences in Iraq in 2003 and perhaps other stories, such as Hurricane Katrina;

c. The stream of reports of sexual assault on America's campuses, some tied to events occurring at fraternities and many involving women as victims of gang rape.

The answer: They reveal how many men act to secure their masculine selves in America's ever-changing society.

Changing Lens

The impact of the quiz answer is that if we want to help women - many of whom are objectified, attacked, belittled, silenced and/or underpaid - we need to help men. Providing guns to women on campuses is not the answer; if anything, it could make things worse. As noted by Michael Kimmel among others, we need to shift the lens through which we address male behavior, and we must pay attention to their homosocial dynamics.

The study of the homosocial interaction has gotten far less attention than the study of the dynamics between men and women. If to develop friendships men need to show they are "part of the pact" and "worthy" and "powerful" by collectively raping one woman, then curbing rape needs to be remediated differently. Just look at Peggy Reeves Sanday's book, Fraternity Gang Rape.

We need to shift our focus off biology and pay attention to culturally constructed norms regarding how men become more accepted, admired, validated by their male counterparts. In India, for example, it is both common and acceptable for men to express friendship towards other men in public (like holding hands) without their heterosexuality being challenged. In the United States, that type of physical intimacy is replaced with simulated punching or a slap on the back or butt.

When young adult men get to college, they leave behind a male cohort with whom they have struggled hard to achieve friendship, comfort and connection. Now they have to start over again, creating another group of friendships. All that change creates stress; homosocial dynamics come into play.

What's Happening on Campuses?

Many of us struggle to understand the sexual behavior of students on our collective campuses. Before I became a college president, I had never heard the term "train sex." The abundance of sexual harassment and sexual assault at colleges make me both angry and baffled and deeply desirous of protecting victims. Students need to learn not only to respect their sexual partners (whatever their sexual orientation) but also to understand "good sex." How can sex be good when your sexual partner is drunk and virtually comatose and occasionally vomiting? Where is the reciprocity? Where is the intimacy?

More recently, President Philip Hanlon's efforts to remediate the storied campus culture at Dartmouth brought me back to an incident at Dartmouth I had not thought about for four decades. A particular fraternity hired a nurse from the local hospital and paid her to have sex with every member of the all white fraternity. One after the other after the other.

As a student on the Dartmouth campus who heard this story (now four decades ago), I kept thinking about this African American woman and how she felt. I wondered how it could be satisfying for the fraternity members to share sex with the same woman. How lacking in intimacy. Yes, I thought about the money she received too. Seems like we have not made much progress since then.

It is a truism that we need to improve civility and respect across campus. We need to deal more effectively with rape on campus - from how the victims are treated to how the incidents are investigated and addressed within the institution. But we also need to spend way more time thinking about how many of our male students speak and relate to each other and how they prove their virility to each other. Only then will we be able to change campus culture - in ways that benefit women.

Where to Look for Answers

No one knows why Brian Williams lied. Were I a guessing person, I would suspect that, at least in part, his embellishments must have made him appear more "masculine" at least in his subconscious mind - he moved from being an objective, distanced journalist to a warrior, just as his own aging process was progressing, just as the nature of journalism was becoming "softer" as Maureen Dowd observed. The Sports Illustrated cover certainly adds to perception of Derek Jeter's masculinity (which has been questioned) and enables some men to ogle together over what is underneath the bikini. The fact that the issue of Sports Illustrated is big business bespeaks how pervasively men need to compare and contrast, critique and praise women's bodies. The women's attire at the just held Grammy Awards was more of same. And, on our campuses, some young adult men - struggling to define themselves and establish new male-male relationships in an unfamiliar environment - seem to find power or comfort or assurance of their masculinity (at least as they imagine it for themselves and in the eyes of their peers) through sexual assault, sexual violence, sexual harassment and group sex/rape.

Michael Kimmel's books, including Guyland and Manhood in America, as well as the work of his Center, can begin to inform how we can make real change in our campus culture. And, the work of Australian Professor Michael Flood, an expert on male violence against women, and the multifaceted efforts of Jackson Katz, an anti-violence advocate who writes, speaks and produces films on homosocial behavior, add to and enhance our understanding of male students. And, we can learn from the student Chaz Smith whose YouTube video powerfully expresses how men need to look at themselves to stop sexual assault. Sex, he observes, is not a game of baseball where you see how many bases you can steal.

One place to begin finding solutions for our campus culture might be with athletic teams - male and female - an idea promulgated by Dr. Katz. These "pre-formed" groups are often admired, holding a certain "power" over other students; oft-times, they have a culture that clashes with campus norms. These students are together often and developing "teamwork" is key to their athletic success. What if we spent time with these teams understanding and helping them understand their bonding and culture and group think and group behavior? Whether through case studies or films or reading, perhaps we can increase team member self-awareness and then alter how they prove their identity, build their friendships and engage in sexual relationships.

In this effort, we need to be careful about homogenizing and blaming all men. As was true with the feminist movement, people of a single gender do not think and act similarly. In the quest to address the bad acts and bad actors on our collective campuses, let's be careful; let's not punish everyone. Let's do what educators do best: think carefully and wisely and reflect on the individual strengths and weaknesses our students bring to campus life.

Of this I am sure: we need to deploy on our campuses those individuals with expertise on young male adult development and behavior. These experts need to chime in loudly. Now. Given the gravity of what is occurring on campuses to women and men, we do not have time to waste. And, since what we are trying now is not exactly a smashing success (banning hard alcohol; seminars on civility; changing or eliminating fraternities), we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by tackling sexual harassment and rape on campuses differently.