Sexual Violence and Guns: A Recipe for Disaster on College Campuses

03/23/2015 11:03 am ET | Updated May 23, 2015

An unacceptably large percentage of female students are objectified, harassed and attacked on America's college campuses. The trend and the attention to it is not stopping; look at the recent example involving online nude photos at a Penn State fraternity, apparently taken without the women's knowledge or consent. The truth is that there is no single strategy to resolve this problem. But, our current approach is vastly too scattered, akin to throwing paint on the wall like a Jackson Pollack painting. We need, instead, to discard simplistic approaches and adopt several targeted approaches that we can assess in the relative near term. This is not a problem that can or should wait decades for solutions.

Two things are critically important as starting points: (1) Equipping women in college with guns is not, in my view, all or even part of the solution despite the recent push for weapons on campuses; and (2) Turning our attention to male athletes and how they bond with each other is a good place to begin and can lead to effective peer-to-peer modeling. The latter may seem Pollyannaish but an exploration of this approach suggests it offers promise -- and it is not as if we are meeting with extraordinary success with our current approaches.

No Guns on Campus Please

Here's why guns on campuses -- to stop sexual assault or for any reason -- are a bad idea. First, most rapes are committed by students who knew each other; stranger rape happens but it is a beast of a different sort. Drugs and alcohol are often present when there is sexual assault, and studies demonstrate that adding guns to that mix is fraught with risk.

One can only imagine the injuries that guns would cause on campuses: victims could be shot; guns could be stolen for other nefarious activity as thefts on campuses remain a problem; guns should be kept at home only under lock and key as college students could be tempted to treat them as playthings; and for students who are struggling with academics or psycho-social issues (not uncommon), guns would make injuries, or worse yet suicide, a quick option.

The Promise of College Athletes

The approach suggested here initially may seem counter-intuitive: to help college women, we need to help college men. We should begin by understanding homosocial interaction in American society. If men, particularly young adult males, believe they must show each other power and worthiness through, for example gang rape, then curbing sexual assault must refocus this distorted thinking. We must find different ways for men to bond with each other; we need to rethink how male friendship is built and sustained.

Ponder the Sports Illustrated cover (still on some news stands) depicting model Hannah Davis in a tantalizingly low cut bikini that has raised controversy as to whether the bottom portion was too revealing. That cover certainly adds to perceptions of her boyfriend Derek Jeter's masculinity (which has been questioned) and enables 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 pay for the privilege of comparing, contrasting, critiquing and praising women's bodies. The commentary on women's attire (and the actual attire) at the recent Grammy Awards and Oscars furthered the objectification of women's bodies.

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.

We can learn from experts like Michael Kimmel and Jackson Katz. But, I have been quite taken by what 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 astutely, is not like the real game of baseball where you see how many bases you can steal and get rewarded for it. "Getting on base" or "stealing third or home" is not transferable to sex; it should be left to the baseball playing field.

Like Smith's analogy to baseball, one place to find solutions would be with male athletic teams - an idea promulgated by Dr. Katz, among others. 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. Some work has already begun in this arena, in part because data demonstrate that there is a higher percentage of sexual abuse on campuses committed by male athletes.

What if we spent time with selected teams on key campuses, understanding and helping the student-athletes understand their bonding and culture and group think and group behavior? What if the NCAA stepped up to the proverbial plate, erased the ambiguity as to its role, and did vastly more to help curb abuse? Surely the NCAA has standing to speak and act on these issues. True, the NCAA has now undertaken several initiatives beyond deciding that athletic departments cannot investigate their own athletes charged with sexual offenses. But, their approach strikes me as both lukewarm in substance and inconsistent in application.

Whether through case studies or films or reading or peer conversations, perhaps we can increase team member self-awareness and then alter how they prove their identity, build their friendships and engage in sexual relationships. Athletes would become heroes on campus -- not just because of their athletic prowess. They could become mentors to each other and to non-athletes as role models, an approach that works. Positive role modeling has power.

Next Steps

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.

That said, given the gravity of what is occurring on campuses to women and men, we do not have time to waste. A quick fix like legalizing guns on campus isn't an enduring solution to campus rape. Best not to shoot ourselves in the foot -- literally and figuratively -- in our effort to help all avoid predatory sexual behavior.

The suggested focus on men can help women and can certainly benefit from some solution that gains traction, shows positive and measurable results and can be replicated and scaled on campuses across the nation.

One more thought. Sexual assaults happen at high schools too. Perhaps we can also move down the educational pipeline by working with middle and high schools too; that would give new and added meaning to the traditional definition of "college readiness." And, then young male athletes would arrive on our campuses better prepared to handle college life. Since some data show that sexual assaults are more prevalent early in a student's life on campus, turning our efforts to high schools offers promise too.