Fighting Campus Sexual Assault By Engaging Men as Allies

Posted on 3 November 2015 |

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campus men as allies against sexual assaultOne in five women is sexually assaulted while in college. And one third of sexual assault survivors are freshman students 17-19 years old.1 Looking at these grim statistics, it’s no wonder many people might feel universities aren’t doing enough to prevent campus sexual assault.

A recent Association of American Universities (AAU) Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct, in which 27 universities and over 150,000 students participated, found that only five to 28 percent of sexual assaults are reported to campus officials, law enforcement or others. And one of the reasons sexual violence goes unreported is because students “did not think anything would be done about it.”2

Schools are Prioritizing Sexual Assault Education and Prevention

Right now, schools all over the country are concentrating on sexual assault prevention training and other strategies to educate students. And initiatives like “It’s on Us” and the Clery Act are helping colleges make their campuses places where students can focus on learning and growing, rather than being afraid of sexual violence.

There’s one strategy that’s getting a lot of attention: engaging men as allies to practice bystander intervention.

We recently worked with Tremayne Robertson, the violence prevention health educator at Virginia Commonwealth University, to talk about about getting men involved in preventing sexual assault on campus through men’s groups. You can read what he has to say by downloading our whitepaper: Interrupting Violence on Campus: Engaging Men as Allies.

What is Bystander Intervention?

Very few students are practicing bystander intervention. The AAU survey found that 44 percent of the students reported they witnessed a drunk person heading for a sexual encounter, and among those, a staggering 77 percent indicated that they didn’t do anything. And of the students that didn’t take action, 23 percent said the reason why was they were unsure of what to do.

It’s obvious that many students don’t understand bystander intervention and that campuses aren’t doing enough to promote it.

And to be clear, it’s is not about advising students to rat out a friend or put themselves in danger. Bystander intervention is about preventing two individuals from getting into a situation that will adversely affect them both.

There are many ways for students to practice bystander intervention on your campus:

  • speaking out against rape myths
  • not using sexist language
  • supporting victims
  • intervening in potentially violent situations3

 The goal of bystander intervention is to create a change in the campus culture surrounding sexual violence – and men need to be involved to help drive these changes.

How Can Your School Get Men Engaged as Allies?

It’s been said time and time again, but bares repeating – not all men are rapists. In fact, one of the most widely reported studies indicates that only six percent of men on campus have committed an act that meets the legal definitions for rape or attempted rape. And most sexual assaults are committed by repeat offenders. 4

The vast majority of men – 80 percent – are actually uncomfortable when women are belittled or mistreated.5 So what can your school do to get them engaged?

Get men involved in the conversation.  And one topic that’s perfect for men is defining masculinity.

Defining Traditional Masculinity and How It Affects Bystander Intervention

If you do a quick Google search for masculinity, you’ll see it defined with adjectives like strength and boldness. This traditional view of masculinity begins early.

Three members of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity state, “American society socializes boys and men to conform to a definition of masculinity that emphasizes toughness, stoicism, acquisitiveness and self-reliance.”6

Also, according to Janet T. Spence and Robert L. Helmreich in their book “Masculinity and Femininity: Their Psychological Dimensions, Correlates and Antecedents,” men areexpected to be dominant over women, represent the family to the outside world and take control of economic resources.7

Basically, men are told to be the living embodiment of Don Draper from “Mad Men” or Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.” But what happens is this ideal of only embracing traditionally masculine traits and values, keeps men from thinking about gender constructs. It also keeps them from intervening when they witness sexual violence.

Bringing Together Masculinity and Bystander Intervention

Creating a safe place for men to discuss other meanings of masculinity engages them as allies in the fight against sexual violence on campus and empowers them to practice bystander intervention.

When talking about “healthy” masculinity, Men Can Stop Rape (MCSR), a national non-profit with a mission to redefine masculinity and male strength as part of preventing men’s violence against women, recommends:

  • identifying potentially harmful attitudes and behaviors
  • replacing unhealthy attributes and actions with respectful ones
  • understanding how to empathize
  • supporting equality for all groups
  • using constructive methods to challenge others’ harmful attitudes and behaviors8

There’s still a lot of work to be done to stop sexual assault on college campuses. But educating your campus about bystander intervention, engaging men as allies in the conversation and discussing healthy masculinity are all positive steps your school can take.


  1. Campus Violence Infographic
  2. AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct
  3. Preventing Sexual Violence on College Campuses: Lessons from Research and Practice
  4. Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists
  5. Men Can Stop Rape: Bystander Intervention
  6. Redefining Masculinity
  7. Masculinity & Femininity: Their Psychological Dimensions, Correlates, and Antecedents
  8. It's On Us: Healthy Masculinity and Sexual Assault Prevention
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