President's Blog

What can we do to prevent sexual violence on campus?  

I was invited to serve on the Governor’s task force to eliminate campus sexual violence and was assigned to the Subcommittee on Prevention. The subcommittee is meeting today at the University of Virginia for the first time.  We’re dedicating our first meeting to gathering evidence and facts.  I find it refreshing to hear the experts share what we know and we don’t know about the root causes of the problem and the most effective mechanisms of prevention.

The renewed interest in this important issue, driven by leaders in multiple spheres reaching all the way to the White House, has attracted a great deal of public attention and generated a great deal of noise– some of it politically motivated, some of it misinformed. The debates that fill websites and airwaves these days (whose fault is it when it happens, are the statistics exaggerated, what does “yes”–or “no”–mean) are fruitless at best if not outright harmful.

This is some of what I’m learning today from people who have studied this problem for a long time:

  • Prevention is not about telling women how to avoid being victimized or about lecturing men. Prevention is about changing the beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that lead someone to perpetrate a sexual assault.
  • Primary prevention means avoiding sexual violence before it occurs. It entails promoting healthy relationships and sexuality and counteracting the factors that enable or lead to sexual violence and intimate partner violence.
  • Prevention requires a broad culture change on campus. Calling men out as perpetrators and characterizing women as victims creates and perpetuates a gender divide which doesn’t help trigger a broad, shared culture change.
  • Typical prevention training sessions around “don’t blame the victim” admonitions, consent and similar topics are less effective than normally assumed and may in fact contribute to making students defensive and assume a confrontational attitude.
  • A much more effective angle may be to organize discussions about “what can we do (as potential bystanders) to avoid sexual violence?” That question creates a safer space for young men and women to understand the causes of sexual violence without becoming prematurely defensive (“I would never be that stupid or that bad”). It switches discussion from reactive to pro-active. It positions students not as potential perpetrators and victims but as potential actors of positive change.
  • Attitude change takes time, intrinsic motivation and incremental steps. A single shot, mandatory, one-hour session filled with dos and don’ts won’t do the trick. Embedding this content throughout existing, ongoing training and educational sessions could be more effective.
  • Because the vast majority of assaults is committed by serial perpetrators, a climate that promotes reporting and an effective response process lead to effective prevention.