Meet The Male University Lecturer Teaching Sexual Assault Prevention To College Students

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As we look ahead to 2016 and prepare ourselves for change and a new year, there is one issue that will definitely not disappear overnight  – sexual assault. More specifically, the issue of sexual assault and rape on college campuses across the United States which has been a major topic that everyone from President Obama to filmmakers, activists, legislators and students have been raising their voices about.

The increased amount of intense scrutiny on the inaction many universities take when assaults are reported has meant we are learning about various aspects of the problem that perhaps weren’t as visible before. In the ground-breaking documentary ‘The Hunting Ground’, a number of college professors, students and admin staff exposed how poorly rape victims are often treated, especially if the alleged perpetrator of a rape is a star college football player.

In light of the growing discussion around campus sexual assault, two states have created laws that seek to increase penalties and help prevent assaults in greater measure – New York and California. While many other states have legislation pertaining to rape and sexual assault generally, the fact that only 2 out of 50 states in the US are recognizing the scale of this problem and choosing to do something about it is appalling to say the least.

Nevertheless, we are holding out hope that with increased awareness, comes more and more change. One university playing their part in a big way is the University of New Hampshire which has created an innovative organization called the Preventions Innovations Research Center. Established in October 2006, their mission is to see the end of sexual and relationship violence by creating partnerships with research bodies that will help shape and implement effective policies.

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The 18-member faculty is made up of all women, except one male member, Robert Eckstein, who is the lead trainer and curriculum development specialist. In an interview with Lena Dunham for her Lenny newsletter, Robert spoke exclusively with the actress and writer about his work and some of the specifics of what they teach students on campus.

Robert started by telling Lena about one of their more popular programs which he helped co-author, called ‘Bringing in the Bystander’, and how they target both men and women.

One of the things that was unique about bystander intervention when it started, and now I think it’s become a little bit more of the norm, is that it attempts to train women and men at the same time, with the same program. Historically, sexual-assault prevention and relationship-abuse prevention was very gendered, in that women were basically taught how to stay safe, how not to get into dangerous situations, even more traditionally taught self-defense, things like that,” he said.

when you start talking about teaching women to be safe, there’s a very fine line between victim responsibility and victim blaming. When you talk to young men and you teach them to not be a rapist, quote unquote, a lot of young men are going to enter that being somewhat defensive. With bystander-intervention training, what we say is that rather than targeting men as potential perpetrators, targeting women as potential victims, we have a responsibility to target everybody in a community, regardless of gender, to be more aware of what sexual assault looks like,” he continued.

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It’s crucial to see how they are bringing more men into the conversation but in a way that speaks directly to the concerns they have in this already complex issue. In the UK recently, a male Warwick University student caused an uproar in the media after writing an essay about his problem with lessons around sexual consent. George Lawlor’s pushback against the lesson was not because he didn’t believe in consent, but because he said he “does not look like a rapist” and explained how he felt the course shamed him simply because he was a guy and the majority of rape victims are women.

While there are definitely some eye-roll-inducing moments when reading his letter (from the standpoint that he comes across as a privileged young man), his concern about being painted with a broad brushstroke by some existing rape prevention material which can seem like all men should be looked at warily, is worth paying attention to.

In the interview for Lenny, Robert says although there is increased awareness and knowledge of the problem, the issue is in fact getting better, but the data is often all over the place as nuances about the problem are still being learned as time goes on. One of the key things is that as a society we become better about talking about sex.

The good consent programs that I’ve seen are really open, maybe sometimes a little bit fun, very sex positive, and I think it takes a different type of educator to be able to talk about sex, to be able to talk about sexuality, to talk about healthy communication. I think it has to be this multi-pronged repeated thing where there’s discussions around healthy sexuality, healthy communication,” said Robert.

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Lena Dunham, who has been quite open about her own sexual assault experience, agrees that the healthy, shame-free discussions about sexuality is a key missing link in the road to preventing rape altogether.

There were two points of action Robert shared that everyone should be aware of if they ever come across someone who has been assaulted, or if they become a victim themselves. The first is being a good listener, and believing someone who shares about such an awful experience.

When a friend or a family member discloses that they’ve been abused or they’ve been assaulted…rather than saying ‘I’m going to do this for you’ or ‘I’m going to do that for you’, what we know is that a really open-ended ‘Tell me what I can do for you’ or ‘How can I help you?’ is a better response. It leaves the ball in their court, in terms of how they want to move forward, when they want to move forward,” he said.

The second thing be aware of is the resources available. Sounds like a no-brainer, but it is worth repeating, especially in light of such a culture of silence and shame that continues to exist around assault victims.

I think we sometimes make the assumption that younger people are super savvy. But a lot of people just don’t know what a crisis center is. What does it mean when they say that it’s entirely confidential? What does it mean when it says that you can go there and they’re not going to call the police? I think educating ourselves around what the local resources are, where would they go where it would have to be reported, where could they go where it doesn’t have to be reported,” he said.

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As for his experience with the male college students he has worked with, Robert says there have been many who ask a lot of questions and he can see they are thinking quite deeply and intelligently about this subject.

What I see more is, at the trainings we have, men who will sometimes ask questions around either something that maybe they did, or something that one of their friends did. Sometimes I think that question is coming from [them feeling] ‘I may have done something, and I feel really badly about it.’ Other times you get the sense that they’re challenging a little bit and almost trying to figure out what they can get away with. That can be really tricky,” he said.

The PIRC program utilizes the expertise of psychologists, sociologists, women’s-studies professors, communications professors, some attorneys, and practitioners who work directly in the field with survivors. Men like Robert give us hope that they do in fact care about trying to prevent and stop rape altogether. Lena says when she first met Robert years ago, it made her realize how important the male voice was in tackling the problem.

“Our dialogue didn’t just enlighten me about the challenges of creating a curriculum around consent. It also gave me hope: that there were gentle men armed with information, men who could teach a new crop of boys to wield their power responsibly. Talking to Bobby, even if it was about stats and facts and figures, was encouraging and healing. He is one of the figures who have transformed my understanding of this issue, made me feel like part of a mighty many and not just one of a broken kind,” she shared.

We hope to see many more universities adopt the PIRC program and utilize it as a force for good on college campuses. Sexual assault and rape is not just a woman’s issue, it is a humanity issue which all of us can work to prevent, and the first step is awareness. To find out more about the program, click here.

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