March 11, 2013 11:28am
by Alex Leslie, Director of Prevention Programs, Cleveland Rape Crisis Center
As a culture, we keep asking our mother’s question about peer pressure, “If your friends were all jumping off a bridge, would you jump too?” Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the answer is yes. There are lots of good reasons for this. Peer social acceptance is arguably the most important facet of adolescence. These are the years when what our peer group thinks of us matter the most. Once we are older, we care progressively less about such things, which is why it is easy for us to look back and wonder, “Why do kids do such stupid things,” when, in fact, we were doing the same things when we were their age.
Some of the pressures to gain peer acceptance have a gender-based difference. Growing up as a young man I know that the pressures to achieve, appear powerful, and always be good with women are a part of adolescent manhood. These pressures make it hard to see the forest for the trees; that we might not speak our minds or we might let things go that aren’t part of our values for fear of being the odd man out; the tallest nail that gets hammered down. We learn these lessons from our peers, of course, but we also have them reinforced by the adults in our lives, especially those men who have a great deal of influence in our lives: our dads, coaches, teachers, and community leaders—and what they tolerate, we in turn tolerate.
And that’s what I think of when I think of the rape case in Steubenville, OH that has been making headlines on every newspaper and blog. I think of the young men who were in a position to do something at one of the parties where they knew something wrong was happening and what that pressure must have felt like for them to remain silent. I think about the social norms in the community and what’s tolerated. Many adults and teens have lived in Steubenville their whole lives, and may have a limited understanding about rape, yet tacitly allow gender-based violence to occur by degrading women and girls with humiliating harassment. How does that behavior fit with what we know that men actually believe?
The research is clear that most men would never commit a rape, nor would they condone it. In fact, the vast majority of men are uncomfortable by abusive language directed at women. Given this, why don’t we act when we see something harmful happening? We actually know some of the reasons: feeling like we don’t have the skills to intervene and help, not seeing people making the same choices (norms), and personal obstacles (I’m shy, I don’t want to make a scene).
That’s why I love violence prevention; with it, we can address these reasons. First, we can equip people with the skills to intervene when someone crosses the line. Beyond this, we can change the norms of our culture through long-term prevention programs that help men and boys see their roles as allies in preventing violence, especially sexual violence. Finally, we can empower everyone, male and female to see themselves as agents of change in the community.
The exciting part is that we know that prevention programming works: from the fraternity men who set up new norms in their organization so that they can call each other out on unhealthy behavior without being embarrassing or making a scene to the participants who cite a bystander skills program as the reason why they were able to intervene with a friend before they were hurt. I’ve worked with young men who see that they have a healthy role to play in preventing sexual violence; and it doesn’t have to be them getting in a guy’s face or starting a fight, but instead distracting the person or enlisting the help of friends or authority figures to make a difference. It’s not enough to just go in and tell people to not rape—we have to give them skills so that they feel equipped to be positive agents of change.
But we can’t do it without resources. Prevention can be challenging to fund, since it is harder to measure, but when we look at situations like Steubenville, can we wait any longer to fully fund prevention efforts? The answer seems obvious. Take action today, call your State Senator or State Representative and see what they are doing to fund sexual violence prevention programs in your community.