Ask a group of male college students if they believe it is OK to have sex with a woman who is intoxicated. Many in the room will raise their hand… and maybe giggle a little. Now ask them to answer the same question anonymously. You may find that the results of both approaches to the same question bring completely contradicting results. The truth is that most men would not agree with this statement, despite what they demonstrated in the larger group. This is an exercise that comes from the social norming approach to addressing violence against women by men and is one that sparked an idea for a pilot program on a small New England college campus.
What men think other men think tends to be one of the strongest determinants of how men act. The problem is that this perception is a strong determinant even when it is drastically mistaken. In our research, we wanted to create a program that followed this social norming philosophy. We set out asking what it would take to get those men (in the overwhelming majority) who do not believe in violence or using control over women to feel comfortable in speaking out against the group. In other words, what would it take for those college men in that room to ascribe to their own definition of masculinity and disagree with that statement in public?
Our curriculum titled, One Man Up, was facilitated over an extended period of time at a small state university during the 2009-2010 academic year. A group of young men met with us on campus each week for nine two-hour sessions. The purpose of the program had been for young men to renegotiate masculinities related to the primary prevention of interpersonal violence. The program was distinctive in its focus on the specific challenges and resiliencies of men in predominately non-white, ethnically diverse, urban communities. In addition to guided discussion, the program exposed participants to other kinds of social norming activities and community activism. For example, the participants were asked to wear public awareness bracelets or pins for an entire week.
To differentiate ourselves from other so-called ‘anti-violence’ programs, we did not use guilt when discussing men’s violence against women, nor did we try to impart more noble or chivalrous masculinity. Instead, we found success in simply asking participants to define their own masculinity.
The results of the program are encouraging. Students who completed the multi-session program 1) felt more confident to challenge gender stereotypes and female objectification within their peer groups, 2) were able to identify healthy relationships and appropriate sexual interactions and 3) had increased their self-awareness in regards to the how they ascribe to masculinity. So when these young men are in a situation where someone is normalizing sexual assault and their friends are nodding along, maybe giggling to mask their discomfort, they will most likely be the first ones to demonstrate that this is, in fact, not normal, nor is it accepted as part of a masculine identity.
The question remains, however, how many men and women must pull the curtain on this falsely perceived social norm before we see a substantial decrease and end to violence against women by men?
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Kyle and Jessica