First they used to blame the victim: her skirt was too short, she shouldn’t have gotten drunk. Then they switched to blaming all men as potential rapists. Over the past 20 years a constructive new program has been teaching violence prevention as a form of leadership in which everyone can participate. Student athletes and others are trained as mentors to promote a shift in campus culture.
Jeffrey O’Brien, director of the Mentors in Violence Protection (MVP) National Program, spoke at the NASPA annual conference in Orlando FL in March. He and his colleagues have taught the MVP leadership model on more than 150 college campuses as well as with academies for the U.S. Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force.
Instead of the blame game, which puts people on the defensive, MVP engages participants as part of the solution. Violence prevention is everyone’s responsibility.
Rape is not the only form of gender-related violence. Bullying may be one reason LGBT youth attempt suicide almost four times more often than heterosexual youth. MVP aims to motivate student leaders to speak out against all forms of sexist abuse including rape, battering, gay-bashing and sexual harassment.
Emphasizing the role of bystanders instead of only perpetrators and victims, MVP was developed in 1993 at the Northeastern University MA Center for the Study of Sport in Society. Trainers initially worked with college and high school male student athletes, for several reasons.
First, gender violence on campus is particularly associated with athletics and fraternities, which often promote a macho culture. Gender violence is mostly but not always against women, and most but not all perpetrators are men.
Second, earlier educational initiatives sponsored by women’s shelters and rape crisis centers ran into barriers concerning men’s athletics. Male athletic directors, coaches and student athletes were generally indifferent, defensive or hostile toward them.
Third, men in high-profile team sports such as football, basketball or hockey have tremendous clout on campus. They are role models for other men on campus trying to figure out the meaning of manhood. If the sports heroes shift from abusing women to insisting that women be respected, others may follow their example.
MVP introduced a complementary program the next year in 1994 for women student athletes, who are role models for other women on campus.
As athletes, they are already shifting the norms of womanhood. When they take action to support other women (or abused men) in a visible way, they can change cultural assumptions about what women have the power to do.
MVP soon expanded to include other groups on and off campus. It works best when administrators commit to offering it year after year, because the cadre of student mentors keeps changing. The program’s attention to bystander status and leadership applies regardless of gender or status. Anyone can be a bystander and a leader.
How many people at Penn State suspected that children were being abused but did nothing about it? How many New Yorkers in 1964 heard Kitty Genovese call for help as she was being stabbed to death but did not call the police? For every young woman dragged off to a residence hall room incapacitated by a date rape drug slipped into her drink, how many fellow students know what is going on?
U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that in twothirds of the cases of interpersonal violence over a period of years, at least one other person was present besides the perpetrator(s) and the victim. Third parties were present at about 70% of assaults, 50% of robberies and 30% of sexual assaults. Only in 20% of the incidents did a third party try to do something to help.
Our culture promotes non-involvement in things we deem none of our business. We tell children not to be tattle- tales. What goes on behind closed doors is none of our business. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
We even need laws to protect whistle-blowers from retaliation, although those laws rarely work. We don’t want to get involved, especially with strangers. Risks from getting involved range from personal physical harm to being bullied or shunned as uncool. MVP rests on the idea that the same peer pressure that too often keeps bystanders passive can be used to get them involved.
MVP workshops open with a scenario of abuse and the question: “Is this realistic?” Students need to agree that it is real before the discussion moves on. Otherwise it is too easy to dismiss the scenario as unlikely or irrelevant, when the conversation gets uncomfortable.
Students identify the obstacles to intervening when they see a problem developing. Then they generate a list of options for actions they could take when they see a situation. It isn’t a choice between putting themselves in harm’s way and refusing to get involved. “There is always something to do. Not doing anything is not an option you can choose,” O’Brien said.
For instance, when a guy isn’t taking a woman’s no for an answer, a bystander might:
- Make up an excuse to take her home.
- Keep a group together, including the pair.
- Step in between them in a friendly way.
- Distract the guy and whisk the woman away.
- Get help from the bartender or the RA.
- Call the police.
Lively discussion follows, with lots of interaction about which approaches to use. Workshop participants role-play and practice. As these types of interventions become part of the campus culture, individuals can feel less threatened or helpless about stepping in. Small groups can collaborate quickly because they already know what to do.
“It takes a leader to change violence patterns. Strong leaders will help with norming,” O’Brien said. A student Jeffrey O’Brien For every young woman dragged off … how many fellow students know what is going on? Women in Higher Education (www.wihe.com) / August 2013 Page 19 leader is not necessarily president of student council; any student has the potential to lead in her circle of friends.
Male student athletes have a particular role in shaping the definition of masculinity. “We knew for sure that athletes had more prestige on campus,” he said. Their visible leadership can help to create a cultural norm that real men don’t let other men hurt women and they reject homophobia.
They can also model that intervening physically is not the only alternative to detaching. American culture expects men to go in as superheroes to save the day. Often this is not realistic or productive. As male student athletes’ awareness of other options expands, their practical, nonviolent intervention can serve as an example to others.
In one scenario the MVP trainers present to male athletes, imagine you’re at a party. You see a teammate trying to get a woman to have sex with him. You know the woman and she seems reluctant. She is falling-down drunk. What thoughts occur to you? What are your options?
This opens up a lively conversation about alcohol and drugs. Participants recall similar situations. Sooner or later someone mentions talking with friends earlier in the evening about planning to get a woman drunk and have sex with her. Animated discussion turns to the peer culture that promotes disrespect for women.
Bystander intervention takes particular courage for a teammate who was in on those earlier plans. But would you let the situation go on if the woman was your sister? What would you do? You might say hey, this isn’t cool, let’s get out of here. “The train is going along, but bystander power can make it change track,” O’Brien said.
While MVP training has spread far beyond male athletes and the military, those are still among the core constituencies. Many perpetrators come from their ranks; they have strong mutual bonds of loyalty and they set the model of masculinity for other men. When the college football star says objectifying women isn’t cool, he serves as a mentor for other men all over campus.
Continuum of behavior
If even a few in each training session come out inspired to speak out when locker room jokes make women into objects, they begin to break into a continuum of behavior. Offensive email, crude jokes, homophobic or misogynistic language and bluster about scoring are part of a continuum. Ignored, it can build to extreme physical violence.
What happens in high school when two boys square off for a fight? A crowd gathers around. MVP trainers ask participants, is the crowd pleading with the boys to calm down? No, the mob is egging them on. They know that to quit now would be to come across as a coward.
Take the crowd away and the boys’ incentive to fight would drop dramatically, since fighting would no longer boost their male status. Incidents of male violence would drop significantly. Bystanders with realistic prevention strategies could break up most such fights, reducing the risk of escalation into violence against women.
O’Brien finds the real key to motivating students to intervene is the question, “What’s in it for me?” When trainers present students with data and talk about the cascading impact of the continuum of violence, attitudes shift.
MVP uses scenarios, discussion and brainstorming to personalize the issues and engage students in active learning. This approach brings out the best in people and breaks down their defenses. Treating students—especially men— as well-intentioned people who can help women allows them to connect with the topic more openly.
As they probe the complexities of the issue, some notice for themselves their involvement in certain behaviors on the continuum. This is more effective than shaming to motivate a change in behavior.
Social justice and power
Gender violence is a social justice issue. One individual may commit the assault, but he does it in the context of social norms that support violence. Several studies point to the role of community norms as a cause of violence, especially on college campuses.
Power and prestige significantly influence who gets away with what. The Penn State child sex abuse scandal broke in 2011 after years of denial and cover-up; the perpetrator was a former assistant football coach. When a beloved football or men’s basketball star commits gender violence, a student who reports it may face harsh repercussions from the entire student body.
Peer pressure is a major reason for the violence in the first place. Most homophobic violence is committed by men against men. Studies suggest that it is rarely motivated by opinions about gay people but rather by a desire to prove the offender’s manhood to his peers. In group violence, some individuals may take part only because they want to be accepted by the others.
Violence against women has complex social causes including the macho culture that identifies masculinity with power and aggression. Men who commit violence against women in the presence of others evidently don’t expect to be challenged.
MVP workshops address gender violence as a social issue and look at issues of privilege. “We know about political correctness but we want to push things further, to make them uncomfortable,” O’Brien said. Change comes after pressing beyond the point of discomfort.
Focusing on bystander behavior treats gender violence as a community issue, not simply an interaction of individuals. Changing norms and assumptions is a community responsibility, and so is taking action when the new norms are violated.
Addressing women as bystanders rather than victims, MVP replaces norms of passivity with empowerment. Women learn that they have the power to support peers who are abused and confront those who are abusive. Workshops emphasize putting one’s own safety first, teaching ways to intervene that will not put them at physical risk.
Addressing men as empowered bystanders rather than perpetrators, MVP shifts the emphasis in defining masculinity. Real men respect women; real men protect people in need. With a focus on bystander behavior and leadership, MVP empowers students to change the culture on campus.
Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, August). MVP Model Prevents Gender Violence on Campus. Women in Higher Education, 22(8), 18-19.