There is mounting evidence that sexual assault and harassment are widespread and recurring challenges among college women in spite of the fact that most colleges and universities in the United States have put in place sexual assault prevention and risk reduction programs to address the ever rising levels of sexual aggression targeted at women (Jozkowski, Peterson, Sanders, Dennis, & Reece, 2014; Krebs, Lindquist, Warner, Fisher, & Martin, 2009). A number of studies categorize the reasons why sexual assault and harassment among college women are on the increase into three main groups, namely developmental and socialization dynamics, beliefs and personality factors, and situational characteristics (Jozkowski et al., 2014; Krebs et al., 2009; Warkentin & Gidycz, 2007). This paper argues that most prevention programs aimed at addressing sexual assault and harassment underline the need to counsel victims and perpetrators, but fail to look deeply into the various dynamics that continue to fuel aggression against women in college and hence are ineffective in minimizing incidences of sexual assault and harassment.
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Context of Issue
Krebs et al (2009) report that sexual assault and harassment of college women require closer scrutiny, as between 20 and 25 percent of women studying in American colleges and universities are raped during the course of their college life in spite of the existence of various sexual assault prevention programs. Jozkowski et al (2014) cite other researchers to acknowledge that many of these programs are ineffective as they lay much focus on advising individuals to obtain consent in the context of a sexual dyad and hence fail to take into consideration “the contextual factors that impact the expression and interpretation of consent (e.g., gender roles, gender stereotypes about sexual behavior, or sociocultural expectations and influences regarding appropriate sexual communication)” (p. 904).
Another seminal paper on preventing sexual violence in college campuses notes that most college-based sexual assault prevention programs fail to deliver as they concentrate on brief, one-session educational interventions to shift awareness and beliefs rather than comprehensive, multiple-session interventions aimed at addressing attitudes, social norms, policy and safety concerns, and healthy relationship skills (DeGue, 2014). Drawing from these elaborations, it is clear that most of these prevention programs have failed to address the various social dynamics that continue to expose women to elevated risks of sexual assault and harassment, as demonstrated below.
Constraints to the Effectiveness of Sexual Assault Prevention Programs
Developmental and Socialization Dynamics
There is an underlying concern that most sexual assault prevention programs fail to address the developmental and socialization dynamics that are often blamed for inspiring men to become sexually aggressive. In their research, Warkentin and Gidycz (2007) found that members of all-male college groups such as athletic teams are more likely than other students to use the prestige associated with their positions or abilities in the groups to not only perpetuate acts of sexual harassment, but also to support beliefs that appear to advocate for rape and aggression. The situation is made worse by the fact such students can engage in sexual aggression without fearing any repercussions whatsoever because, as demonstrated by Wuensch and Moore (2014), society views physically attractive and popular people more favorably than physically unattractive and unpopular people.
In one particular case in Geneva, New York, an 18-year old female student was repeatedly raped and sexually molested by members of the institution’s football team, who were later left off the hook by the administration for supposedly finishing undefeated in the school’s conference; however, the victim was left to face consequences of “threats and harassment for accusing members of the most popular sports team on campus” (Bogdanich, 2014, para. 6). In my considered opinion, the administration should have treated the case with the seriousness it deserved especially after comprehensive tests found sperm or semen on the victim’s private parts and underwear. However, the school and other students chose to protect the prestige and popularity of the sexual aggressors by virtual of them being members of the college football team.
Research has also found that men in closely-knit groups are often socialized into believing that women are powerless and should be used to satisfy the desires of men as dictated upon by traditional gender ideologies (Jozkowski et al., 2014). Perhaps this research finding can be used to explain why the football players in Geneva’s case even found it necessary to invite their friends to take pictures when the sexual assault was being perpetuated in a darkened dance hall (Bogdanich, 2014). However, when asked to elaborate, one of the perpetrators said that “he was too tired after a football game to get an erection” (Jozkowski et al., 2014, para. 3). Such a statement not only demonstrates how most college men use closely-knit groups to perpetuate sexual aggression against women, but also paints a very negative picture on how men view women merely as sexual tools.
Drawing for this elaboration, there is an urgent need for college administrations to consider introducing strategies and policies that make it difficult for men to use prestige, position, or popularity in college athletic teams and other groups to perpetuate sexual assault and harassment. Members of such groups need to be educated on the need to respect women and on how to manage their prestige, reputation and popularity without putting the lives of female students in danger through sexual aggression.
Beliefs and Personality Dynamics
In their study, Zawacki, Abbey, Buck, McAuslan, and Clinton-Sherrod (2003) found that perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment “reported stronger histories of delinquency, more aggressive and dominant personalities, and greater engagement in and endorsement of casual sex” (p. 375). But as demonstrated by DeGue (2014), most sexual harassment programs being used in American colleges fail to address the beliefs and personality issues of perpetrators, leading to increased instances of women-targeted sexual assault and harassment. Undoubtedly, many news outlets in America are today abound with stories of individuals who strongly support violence against women and who are driven by a stronger motivation to perpetrate sexual aggression in order to feel dominant. Yet, as acknowledged by Jozkowski et al (2014), many sexual harassment prevention programs found in colleges and universities do not explicitly state how men with such beliefs and personality deficits can be assisted to reform, not mentioning that they are silent on what criteria women can use to identify men with antisocial personality traits that may be reflected in a general lifestyle of societal transgression.
It has also been reported in the literature that perpetrators of sexual assault and rape “are highly motivated to pursue all sexual encounters, consensual or not, and espouse stereotypes about sex and sex that condone sexual aggression” (Zawacki et al., 2003, p. 375). In the Geneva case, it is apparent that one of the perpetrators was so motivated to pursue the sexual encounter with the victim to a point where he employed all means including drugging to achieve his goal (Bogdanich, 2014). The perpetrator saw it wise to invite a group of friends to take pictures of the rape incidence just to fulfill his raw sexual urges irrespective of the immense psychological and emotional trauma that such an incidence caused to the victim.
Although it may be impossible to prevent all incidences of sexual assault and harassment, it is argued here that may be the victim could have realized the personality deficits of her partying friends if the school had put in place a program aimed at assisting potential victims to identify the hallmark beliefs and personality dynamics of sexual aggressors. As demonstrated by Jozkowski et al (2014), there is an urgent need to make sexual assault prevention programs more proactive than merely reactive. A good starting point for college administrations would be to develop programs aimed at assisting women to identify the beliefs and personality dynamics of potential rapists and sexual molesters.
Still, there is evidence demonstrating that most men who sexually abuse or harass women adhere to traditional gender roles and readily accept sexually coercive behaviors demonstrated by others (Warkentin & Gidycz, 2007). In the Geneva case, it is surprising to note how fellow students castigated the rape victim for reporting the football players to the school administration irrespective of the incriminating evidence and horrendous graphics showing the actual rape incidence (Bogdanich, 2014). Such castigation demonstrates that other students were ready to accept that the sexual assault against the victim was a normal incidence and the victim should have just accepted and moved on. It is indeed not surprising that levels of sexual assault in America have not declined for the past 50 years despite most colleges and universities providing some form of sexual assault prevention or risk-reduction education to their students (Jozkowski et al., 2014). In my own considered opinion, levels of sexual assault will never decrease if concerted efforts are not put in place to dilute traditional gender roles and ensure sexually coercive behaviors cease from being accepted based on gender considerations.
Many sexual assault prevention programs underline the fact that alcohol contributes substantially to increasingly incidences of sexual aggression in colleges and universities. Similarly, most of these programs have a component demonstrating that sexual aggression is perpetuated by individuals close to the victim rather than by strangers (Benson, Gohm, & Gross, 2007; DeGue, 2014). However, there has been a noted weakness in associating alcohol with sexual aggression, as there are many males who consume alcohol yet they do not demonstrate violence against women. Indeed, as demonstrated in the literature, most men who sexually assault or harass women use alcohol as an excuse for their actions and also as a cover for their predetermined misconceptions (Lindgren, Parkhill, George, & Hendershot, 2008; Warkentin & Gidycz, 2007).
The noted weakness is amplified in the sexual assault prevention programs, which demonize alcohol instead of addressing the situational dynamics that make men to sexually abuse women under the guise of alcohol (DeGue, 2014). Although it is important to include alcohol-related information in the prevention programs and continually create awareness on the dangers of trusting some friends, it is also equally important to provide adequate information on how alcohol consumption by a woman is often used by an aggressive man as a cue to signal that such a woman is willing to engage in sexual activity (Benson et al., 2007). Similarly, it is important for the prevention programs to contain information on how women should demarcate the limits to friendly behavior as available literature demonstrates that “friendly behavior by a woman may be misperceived as sexual interest if the man or woman is drinking” (Benson et al., 2007, p. 342). Lastly, rather than being told that alcohol leads to sexual assault or harassment, women need to be provided with information on how alcohol minimizes their physical capacity to resist an assault and how it diminishes their competence to think clearly.
Reflection on the Available Programs
Of course many of the existing programs have been credited for offering an all inclusive approach to perpetrators and victims of sexual assault by offering counseling services aimed at dealing with arising events and experiences (DeGue, 2014). However, it is clear that these programs are not being effective as incidences of sexual assault and harassment are still high (Jozkowski et al., 2014). It has also been argued that sexual assault prevention programs may never achieve the effectiveness deserved as most women are partially or wholly involved in ‘encouraging’ men to sexually assault or molest them. This school of thought rests on the assumption that women stimulate men into action by their suggestive clothing patterns and nonverbal communication. However, although it is indeed true that a number of women dress suggestively, research has shown that most men premeditate to commit sexual assault and harassment irrespective of how the victim may have dressed (Lindgren et al., 2008). Additionally, the issues of how a woman is dressed or whom to relate to should never arise as the American Constitution guarantees the right of choice and freedom of association. Consequently, it is up to the relevant school administrations to come up with sexual assault strategies that aim to shift men’s behavioral patterns and thought systems rather than curtailing women’s right s to dress according to their own wishes.
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Drawing from this elaboration, it is evident that most of the existing sexual harassment prevention programs are not achieving the desired effectiveness due to their demonstrated weaknesses and constraints in dealing with the social dynamics of sexual assault and harassment. The evidence adduced in this paper demonstrates an urgent need for college administrations to develop proactive prevention programs, hence the need to include the discussed dynamics in any attempts or efforts geared towards minimizing incidences of sexual assault and harassment of women in college. Overall, it is evident that a fully effective sexual harassment prevention program at the college or university level needs to address the underlying developmental and socialization factors, beliefs and personality dynamics as well as situational characteristics for it to be a success. Owing to the fact that there is available evidence detailing how these dynamics affect the trajectories of sexual aggression, it is the position of this paper that these dynamics need to be included in sexual assault prevention programs to deal with the underlying issues as demonstrated here rather than aim to reactively deal with the aggression through counseling.
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Bogdanich, W. (2014, July 12). Reporting rape, and wishing she hadn’t: How one college handled a sexual assault complaint. New York Times. Web.
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