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Taking a Community Approach to Campus Sexual Assault Prevention

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Ending sexual assault is not a "women's issue," and until we change our thinking to include everyone in the effort, we won't begin to see a significant decline in this form of violence. This move toward a more inclusive community approach has gained traction in the last decade, a trend I've noticed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Each semester, I ask students in the "Leadership in Violence Prevention" class I teach to imagine a world without sexual assault. At first their answers reflect the fear of stranger rape that affects women's daily lives: women could run at night with headphones safely; they wouldn't have to carry mace or pepper spray; they could greet male strangers as potential friends instead of as potential perpetrators; they would be able to work later hours and thus earn more money; women would be happier and healthier.

They then start to imagine the larger impact: we'd all have better friendships and relationships; we wouldn't police our own or others' gender expression; men -- particularly black men -- wouldn't be profiled as potential perpetrators; everyone would have safer and more fulfilling sex; people of all genders would be equal. In short, everyone would benefit if we ended sexual assault.

Imagining the possible alternatives to our violent present, the students conclude that true gender equity is hard to imagine until we end all forms of sexual violence. But then they encounter a chicken-and-egg moment: someone always asks "do we think it's even possible to end sexual assault if sexism and heterosexism still exist?"

We conclude that the answer is not one of either/or, it's one of both/and. We can't end the -isms in a world that tolerates sexual assault, but we'll never end sexual assault -- a physical and psychological assertion of power -- in a world filled with imbalances based on gender, sexuality and other systems of power. It's not a complicated point: we can't end rape until we change the culture that enables and supports rape. And we can't change this culture without a community-based approach.

This idea is not shared by everyone, however, including advocacy groups such as the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), who in their recommendations to a White House task force on college sexual assault, individualized the issue by suggesting that rape "is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime."

Claiming rape is solely the result of individual pathology is both naïve and defeatist. It ignores that individuals' "conscious decisions" are made within and shaped by the social and cultural context in which they live. Taken to its logical extreme, this kind of thinking also prevents us from helping entire communities see their role in preventing sexual assault.

Fortunately, more colleges and universities are taking a more inclusive community-based approach that positions all students not as potential victims or perpetrators but as allies. Specifically, we are seeing a rise in campus bystander education programs. I think these programs should be accompanied by more efforts to engage men in violence prevention efforts.

Bystander intervention programs -- trainings for which RAINN did advocate in their recommendations -- provide information for students to recognize dangerous and potentially violent behaviors in their surroundings, encourage them to assume some level of responsibility for stopping it, and offer specific skills for intervening. Perhaps most importantly, these programs work to change not only individual beliefs but cultural norms that enable sexual assault to occur such as unsafe party situations and individuals' assumptions that "it's not my place to say something." At their best -- and importantly, when they are embedded in more comprehensive training and education -- these programs have the potential to change social norms of campus groups and eventually the larger campus community.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, we are in our fourth year of a bystander education program called One Act, which trains hundreds of students each semester. We have begun to tailor this program to meet the needs and fit the cultures of specific campus communities, including partnerships with fraternity and sorority communities. Though the results are modest, our evaluations of One Act show improvement in students' attitudes about sexual assault, increased bystander efficacy, increased willingness to act, and even a slight increase in positive bystander behaviors -- all two months after they participate in the training.

UNC-CH also recently launched The UNC Men's Project, an effort to increase men's involvement in the issue. The response was a welcome one: students' interest in the program far exceeded our expectations and we accepted double the number of men we planned to enroll in the initial 12-week program.

In its pilot semester, The UNC Men's Project has brought together 23 men of diverse races, ethnicities, religions, sexualities, classes, and social and organizational affiliations. For two hours each week, these men have combined self- and group reflections on masculinity with more specific discussions of violence and men's roles in stopping it. As they wrap up the more explicitly educational portion of the program, the men involved have begun planning videos, social marketing, and peer education opportunities for next year in addition to recruiting new members for the fall.

Similar efforts on college campuses are important because while the great majority of men are not perpetrators of sexual violence, most perpetrators of violence are in fact men. Further, many men have experienced sexual violence themselves, and most are secondary survivors -- they know someone who has experienced assault.

All of us, especially male-identified folks and people in positions of power, not only have the ability but the responsibility to hold other men accountable and to make a positive impact on our cultural environments. And our colleges and universities have the responsibility to approach all students as allies and offer them opportunities to take part in a community approach to end sexual assault.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Read all posts in the series here.

Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.