It’s On Us study aims to further educate college men on sexual assault prevention | #schoolsaftey

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When Job Mayhue was a first-year student at the University of Michigan, both his girlfriend and best friend revealed within two weeks of each other that they had been sexually assaulted.

“I obviously knew that rape and sexual violence was an issue but had not had such clear proximity to it,” he said. “It hurts you different when it’s somebody that you know and love. I just was thinking, ‘I don’t want this to ever happen to anybody else.’”

Mayhue got involved with organizations that focus on sexual violence prevention, ultimately becoming a leader with It’s On Us, a national nonprofit program that works to support survivors and end college sexual assault. Having recently served as chair of It’s On Us’ male-identifying student athletes caucus, Mayhue — who graduated in the spring — found that men on college campuses simply are not adequately informed about sexual violence and consent.

“The trainings that we get — sometimes they aren’t even trainings — they’re just not enough,” Mayhue said. “They’re much more about checking the box rather than actually changing minds and hearts about issues. Obviously, that’s not effective.” 

A new report from It’s On Us about engaging college men in sexual assault prevention reached similar findings. Released in September, “Engaging Men Part 2: Measuring Attitudes and Behaviors” is a study of 1,152 college men across the nation conducted in partnership with the market research firm YouGov. The report is a follow-up to a survey completed last year. The new study found that 45 percent of respondents reported that they had not received sexual assault prevention training from their higher education institution and up to a third of those who did were ill equipped to identify and intervene in potentially violent interactions or relationships. Only 34 percent of respondents received formal training about consent in school, and just under a quarter (24 percent) of men learned about dating, sex and relationships in their K-12 education, meaning they had no baseline understanding of these issues or experience with comprehensive sex ed before starting college.

The report recommends several interventions, including a need for higher education institutions to offer comprehensive sex ed; effective trainings on campus sexual assault; prevention education that includes information on healthy relationships; bystander training; and a uniform definition of consent developed by policymakers.

“The vast majority of the men that we surveyed indicated that the ways that they learned about sex and relationships were from family or friends, the media, pornography or social media,” said Tracey Vitchers, executive director of It’s On Us. “You can’t guarantee that the information that they’re learning from those sources is accurate or healthy or comprehensive. In order to have effective prevention education, young men also need to have some form of comprehensive sex education prior to or in conjunction with the prevention education their colleges are providing them.”

The problem, Vitchers continued, is that most colleges do not provide comprehensive sex education based on the assumption that students already received it in grade school. But California, Oregon and Washington are the only three states that require comprehensive sex ed to be taught in all schools. 

“It sort of ties into this larger challenge that we see nationwide where the college level is the first time that there are federal mandates for institutions to provide comprehensive sexual assault prevention education under the Clery Act,” said Vitchers, referencing the federal statute requiring colleges and universities to compile campus crime data, support survivors and identify the policies they’ve adopted to make campuses safer. “Whereas sex education and healthy relationship education or sexual violence prevention education at the K-12 level is controlled by the state, and there isn’t a national mandate.”

As a result, some K-12 students might not receive any sex ed, others might receive abstinence-only instruction and a select group might receive comprehensive sexuality education. These disparities have a negative impact on young men receiving sexual violence prevention education when they get to college, Vitchers said.

“If you ask somebody to be an active bystander, but they’ve never been educated on what a scenario is where they might have to be one or they don’t know how to interpret somebody else’s body language or behavior or if they don’t know that the behavior of their friend towards their girlfriend is unhealthy, how are they supposed to know that’s the moment to step in?” Vitchers asked.

Eighth grade is the only time 23-year-old Mayhue, who is from Chicago, recalled receiving sex ed instruction before college. Sexuality education is optional in Illinois. In middle school, Mayhue said the curriculum he did get focused mostly on scare tactics. The message amounted to: “Don’t have sex; you’ll get STDs. Be abstinent.” Topics such as consent or rape did not come up, he said, making his college years the first time he seriously pondered the significance of sexual violence.

Silhouetted student's shadow is seen as they go up stairs on a college campus.
A new report from It’s On Us found that men on college campuses simply are not adequately informed about sexual violence and consent. (Getty Images)

Louis DiPede, a junior at Temple University in Philadelphia, had a similar experience. He said that he never received instruction about sex ed, dating or relationships at his private high school in northern New Jersey. A political science and criminal justice major, he decided to play an active role in sexual violence prevention after taking a class on sex crimes at Temple. Since then, the 21-year-old has become an It’s On Us leader, now serving as its fraternity caucus chair.

“We want to make sure that we’re telling people that, ‘It’s OK to have sex, but here’s how to do it safely,’” DiPede said. “‘It’s OK to have sex, but you have to ask for consent, and here’s how consent works. Here’s situations where you can’t consent.’ So, I think those are so important when we talk about sex ed and how the field as a whole needs to develop a holistic approach as well as actually get into schools.”

He is president of the Phi Mu Delta fraternity chapter at Temple and said that he’s proud of the organization for raising awareness about healthy forms of masculinity and being inclusive of  LGBTQ+ experiences, including how the queer community addresses sexual violence. According to “Engaging Men Part 2,” LGBTQ+ men and men of color were more likely to accurately identify unhealthy or abusive relationship behaviors than other groups of men.

“It’s very interesting that you have students who come from historically excluded communities who are better educated on these issues, whereas potentially their White or straight or cisgender counterparts are not as well educated,” Vitchers said. “And I think that that’s just really fascinating, and it’s something that we are really thinking about digging into more.”

DiPede wants Greek letter organizations to improve how they educate members about sexual assault. The It’s On Us report found that fraternity members, along with athletes, are more likely to receive sexual violence prevention training than other groups of college men. Still, Greeks “displayed a lack of understanding of when sexual assault can occur and who can be a survivor of sexual assault,” the report found.  

Some of the college men he’s encountered hesitate to get involved in sexual violence prevention because they believe it is a cause for victims only, DiPede said. 

He tells men that they don’t need a particular backstory to become an advocate and that simply listening or supporting the work of others may be helpful, he said. Eventually, they will be ready to take part in an open and honest dialogue about sex, relationships and consent. 

“We just need to get the right people in the room and equip them with the toolbox, so they can go back and help other people,” DiPede said. 

Sometimes, it is the men themselves who need support as survivors. Last year, the University of Michigan announced that it would pay a $490 million settlement to more than 1,000 current and former male students who said that a sports doctor fondled their genitals and subjected them to unneeded prostate and hernia examinations during his nearly 40-year tenure at the school.   Students protested the university for failing to respond to the allegations against the doctor much sooner. Mayhue invited men to discuss the controversy, but many brushed off what happened or simply didn’t feel comfortable discussing it, he said.

“Some guys didn’t know what to do with the weight of rape,” he said. When men do open up about their own experiences with sexual violence, however, it influences other men to do so, Mayhue added.

“It just creates a space where someone can say, ‘Hey, this happened to me, and if it’s happened to you, you’re safe here,’” he said.

Many colleges implement sexual assault awareness and prevention education programs that send the opposite message — that not only overlook that men can be victims of sexual violence but characterize all men as would-be perpetrators, Vitchers told The 19th.

“That immediately causes them to tune out because … that puts their guard up,” she said. “If you were to go to anybody and say, ‘I am telling you this because you are potentially a violent person,’ and that person feels that fundamentally they’re not, that’s going to cause that person to get defensive and tune out. That is something that we’ve seen across all of the research that we’ve done, that the young men on college campuses find that [prevention education] is either completely ‘name, blame, shame’ or is irrelevant to them as men within their campus community.”

The online platforms that higher education institutions have relied on since the COVID-19 pandemic shut schools down three years ago have added to the problem, according to Vitchers. They don’t reflect what most college campuses are like today and don’t give students the opportunity to ask questions or take part in role-playing discussions. They’re more like risk-management solutions than prevention education courses because they don’t include activities that “get to the heart of some of the nuances or biases or confusion that students have about some of these topics,” she said. Students pick up on the message that the schools aren’t invested in the issue and mentally and emotionally check out, too.

It doesn’t have to be this way, Vitchers said.

When It’s On Us officials have gathered college men in a room to discuss sexual assault, they have found that the students want to ask hard questions and engage in an intentional conversation. 

“We want to see a shift in the way that colleges invest in prevention education to actually being student-centered because otherwise students are going to continue to look elsewhere for this information,” Vitchers said. “And the information might not be wholly accurate or may be laden with really harmful myths about sexual violence and rape and who can or cannot be a perpetrator.”

Misinformation is one reason prevention advocates want to connect with a broad swath of college men about sexual violence. But DiPede is also motivated to cast a wide net because of how pervasive this kind of misconduct is.

“I think everyone is impacted by sexual assault,” he said. “We’re suffering at a societal level because of it.”

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