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JOANNA WEISS

To prevent sexual assault, appeal to peer pressure

istockphoto/globe staff illustration

My 5-year-old son was smitten. There was a new girl in pre-K, with long curly hair. “She dances when there’s no music,” he said. “It’s weird.” He talked about her constantly. Then one day, on the way to school, he mentioned that another boy had lifted her off the ground.

I stiffened. “Does she want to get picked up?” I said.

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“Yes,” he replied.

“If she tells you not to pick her up, you stop,” I said. At the next stoplight, I turned in my seat and stared him down. “If a girl ever tells you to stop touching her, what do you do?” I said.

“Stop,” he said dutifully from his car seat, surely wondering why Mommy suddenly sounded so intense.

But I was extrapolating, straight past kindergarten and on to puberty and college, imagining him in the treacherous world of campus life and sexual assault — and realizing that, for girls’ sakes and his own, he would need the message early and often. The White House declares that one in five women survives sexual assault while in school. Fifty-five American colleges are under federal investigation for possible Title IX violations, accused of failing to investigate sexual assault charges.

Now some colleges are trying to change the concept of consent, shifting the power from “no” to “yes.” Last week, the California legislature passed a bill that — if signed by the governor — would require “an affirmative, unambiguous, and conscious decision,” from both parties, for state college students engaged in sexual activity.

There’s been a lot of chatter over “affirmative consent,” much of it dealing with how impractical it would be to enforce and how absurd it is, taken to its logical extreme. Of course, we should agree that silence or lack of a fight aren’t the same as “yes.” But can we really expect college kids to pause and re-check on the way from second base to third — then offer up proof that they did?

The skeptics are right. The policy is well-meaning, but unrealistic. And, as Oklahoma State University professor John Foubert points out, it doesn’t address the real problem: On a broad basis, we still haven’t figured out how to teach boys to behave.

Over the decades, we’ve floundered through a range of unsatisfying messages, said Foubert, who has spent two decades researching rape in colleges and the military. We’ve said that girls should watch where they walk and what they wear. We’ve hinted that boys are predators by nature. We’ve taken back the night and declared that “no means no.”

Now some say we need to cease the culture of partying on campus — a nice idea but a pipe dream. Others say it’s mostly drunken he-said-she-said, anyway; Foubert says that’s a myth, and research paints a different picture.

“Often you will have a male who is encouraging the female to drink to the point that she is unable to physically resist,” he said. “Those men tend to surround themselves with other men who will support that.”

In other words, peer pressure and groupthink are huge factors in campus rape, Foubert said. Studies show that fraternity members are three times as likely as non-frat members to commit sexual assault.

That’s why his own prevention program, an hourlong seminar called “Men to Men,” tries to channel peer pressure for good.

First, it encourages empathy, helping boys understand what it’s like to be a survivor of sexual assault. (They’re shown a video, in which a police officer graphically describes a male officer’s rape by two other men.) Next, it encourages bystanders to step in, appealing to boys’ best instincts, giving them role-playing exercises and a chance to talk it out. A study published in 2007, in the journal Student Affairs Research and Practice, found that the program led to a 40 percent decline in rape among high-risk men.

So far, “Men to Men” is used by 15 colleges and the military. Foubert said he’s been getting more calls: More colleges, facing legal pressures, are looking for educational tools. Surely there are other good prevention programs, too — though Foubert warns that colleges might turn to the cheapest ones, online videos that don’t offer a chance for back-and-forth or emphasize the power of peer pressure.

He also says we should be sending the message earlier — reaching boys in middle school, when the hormones kick in.

I imagine you can never start too soon.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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