Sexual Assault Prevention: Are We Failing, or Just Flailing?

Missed opportunities in sexual assault prevention.

Posted Jul 12, 2018

Photo from Pixabay, Free for commercial use
Source: Photo from Pixabay, Free for commercial use

I am pleased to share this post from my colleague and author, Tom Bissonette, MSW, YoungandWiser, Inc.

When you declare war on something, it fights back. Political and cultural counter-forces emerge. Consider our historic wars on drugs and poverty. The harder we fight the more menacing they seem to become. Our efforts to prevent sexual assault face similar obstacles. What these campaigns have in common is their goal of changing human behavior from the outside through policies, legal prohibition, and social pressure, instead of fostering more internal transformation. Those who think they can program and proselytize youth into persistent behavioral change really don’t understand adolescent and young adult development. They don’t understand “primary” prevention either; which attempts to eliminate the need for something before it happens.

Many Have Tried

Due to the nationwide scourge of sexual assault and intense pressure from advocacy groups, prevention measures in public colleges are required by the U.S. government and many private schools are voluntarily doing prevention programs. Though efforts can be mandated, success cannot. To be successful we must anticipate the likely responses to prevention methods and have a deeper understanding of today’s youth.

Using scare tactics or guilt-trips to discourage these undesired behaviors has limited effect, partly because youth believe, “it will never happen to me.” In addition, these methods often backfire because they insult the intelligence of students — they already know the dangers, but they still feel compelled to navigate complex social situations for which they may be unprepared.

The bystander intervention approach is secondary prevention aimed at stopping behavior while it’s happening. Encouraging students to serve as peer interveners has helped; but this approach can produce a serious backlash effect. The pejorative term “cockblocker” has become part of the lexicon on many campuses for a reason. It speaks to the entitlement that many young men believe they possess, and their anger when it’s challenged. They need to be shown that this entitlement does not exist, and that it’s as toxic for them as it is for others. We should harvest the lessons from past anti-cigarette smoking campaigns, which only became effective once more smokers were convinced by hard data that they were harming themselves.

The more recent “social norming” approach makes a strong appeal to youth who are prone to social conformity, but it may have less effect on others. Social norming involves disseminating information such as, “95% of students don’t mistreat their partners.” Although it qualifies as primary prevention, it may only reinforce existing positive behavior. It is unlikely to change current or future negative behavior, especially once it becomes habitual.

College Youth

Unfortunately, all these methods can be even less compelling for today’s youth because they may be more egocentric than previous generations, and egocentrism tends to accelerate during the transition to college for many students. If these researchers are correct, we must appeal to students’ self-interest to get better results. We must also make the case in a way that shows them the more immediate benefits of treating sex as an interpersonal process, not just a pleasure-seeking activity or a way to gain social status. In other words, sexual development must be in sync with positive social and emotional development.

The Healthy Campus

We can accomplish these goals by teaching positive personal and social development concepts. These are not just psychology or sociology lessons; they could be covered in courses in all departments — such as the Business Department offering a course on “The Cost of Sexism in the Modern Workplace.”

Students need to understand the personal developmental pressures they are experiencing as well to minimize the possibility of auto-piloting their way into trouble. With more developmentally-focused education, the backlash effect will diminish because the battle will be more internalized and new norms will be more widely embraced. While peer intervention, social norming, and discipline can support the process, developmental education will sustain it because individual self-awareness and self-interest form the crucible where long-lasting change is forged.

As a society we are adopting a “wellness” perspective regarding general health, which focuses not only on avoiding illness but on promoting physical well-being. We need to implement a similar plan to engender positive social interactions for college students and other youth. There should be at least six elements in a healthy young adult sex education milieu. They are all related to fostering self-awareness and a less hazardous coming-of-age experience:

  1. Offer instruction on the developmental and psychological issues they face so they know what’s happening to them. For example, comparing themselves to peers can increase pressure to drink, have sex, etc. before they are ready.
  2. Help students understand the effects of alcohol and other drugs including the myth of instant adult status. Teach them to consider the possible unintended consequences and tradeoffs. After all, impaired sex, like impaired driving is dangerous — especially when you’re just learning how.
  3. Provide content about the joys of healthy relationships and intimacy, and specifically what they need to reach this level of relational development. The need to know that Intimacy is not just physical, it involves high levels of self-awareness and honesty.
  4. Teach them about self-esteem and how to be aware of their individual vulnerabilities. They simply can’t set boundaries if they don’t love themselves.
  5. Dispel myths about “sexual prowess” and “sexual dysfunction” and discourage a performance/milestone mentality so they can enjoy realistic expectations and more flexible experiences.
  6. Show them how to develop a specific social and sexual philosophy, and how to manage behavior accordingly. They need clarity on what’s OK and not OK for them as individuals. They need to solidify and protect their core beliefs, because If they don’t have a clear sexual identity there are lots of people willing to assign one to them.

Any faculty or staff can be trained in these areas, but of course, helping students aspire to and achieve real intimacy requires selling them on the importance of honest self-disclosure. In typical social situations they fall short because they live in a culture that promotes insincerity. Nonetheless, direct, clear communication is vitally important when meeting, beginning to date, or hanging out with others, and it’s a prerequisite for anything resembling intimacy.

Opportunity Found

Ample research has established that older adolescents and young adults generally have the cognitive ability to engage in hypothetical thinking, critical thinking, and rational decision making. Some research also debunks the myth that wisdom is the domain of those of us that have put in the most time. The quality of experience also matters.

Let’s not miss the opportunity to facilitate and accelerate practical life knowledge for our students. It’s time for an infusion of social wisdom that honors the intelligence of youth. We need an honest, deeply embedded developmental curriculum, because it sometimes takes intensive efforts to help young people see what’s right in front of them. Developmental education not only helps them recognize the risks, but it enables them to make corrections in real time.


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Schwartz, P. D., Maynard, A. M., & Uzelac, S. M. (2008). Adolescent egocentrism: A contemporary view. Adolescence, 43, 441-448.

Smith, J., & Baltes, P. B. (1990). Wisdom-related knowledge: Age/cohort differences in response to life-planning problems. Developmental Psychology, 26(3), 494.