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No clear solution to sexual assault

BY STACEY MURRAY | MARCH 06, 2014 5:00 AM

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Researchers, nonprofit organizations, advocates, and university officials are all striving to get to the bottom of sexual assaults.

But they don’t all agree on where that problem lies.

Monique DiCarlo, the UI sexual-misconduct-response coordinator, said the university strives to use several approaches to address sexual assault on campus.

“I think the research is we still need more research,” she said. “There’s no clear support for one approach over another.”

Experts and advocates offer different solutions — including redefining masculinity, training bystanders, and providing risk reduction and overall awareness — to fix the complex problem.

“If you focus on the social construction of gender in prevention efforts, you risk alienating [men] or communicating that it’s just a women’s issue …” DiCarlo said. “That means you might lose an opportunity to engage men in a conversation and engage them as allies in ending the problem.”

But some national organizations want to focus on changing the definition of masculinity in addition to more traditional responses, such as raising awareness of the issues at hand.

Jared Watkins, the development coordinator for the organization Men Can Stop Rape, said he and his colleagues reach out to develop a “healthy” sense of masculinity — one void of an emphasis on control and sexual aggression.

Watkins said this definition of masculinity has a permissive effect on sexual assault.

“It’s frustrating to know that sexual violence is pretty much condoned in our society by the dominant story of masculinity,” Watkins said.

This perspective brings serious implications.

“In our society and many others as well, we have expectations for how women should act and men should act, and if you don’t fit that mold, then you are more easily targeted, and often times, it’s more easily justified because you’re breaking those norms,” said Devon Thacker Thomas, an assistant professor of sociology at California State University-Fullerton.

She said on college campuses, there is a seemingly pervasive tolerance among students and, in some cases, faculty and administration, about sexism and sexist acts and a desensitization of rape and sexual assault through the media — a contributor to the campus culture.

But not all organizations think redefining masculinity is the best approach. Scott Berkowitz, the president of the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, said other efforts would be more effective.

Berkowitz said by the time students reach college, they have heard 18 years’ worth of prevention messages, but the problem arises with those who have not been affected by the message — and further education efforts will be lost on this small population.

“It’s not men in general that are the problem,” he said. “It’s a small subset that choose to commit felonies.”

According to the national organization One in Four, 99 percent of rapists are men, while 8 percent of men admit committing acts that meet the legal definition of rape or attempted rape.

Watkins, too, said men were stigmatized from these statistics.

“A small percentage are committing sexual assault, but because we know the vast majority of rapists are men, all men get painted with the brush of sexual violence,” Watkins said.

But authorities don’t agree on which efforts are most helpful, leading universities to try them all in order to recognize men as part of the solution.

“Rape and sexual assault are societal issues,” Thacker Thomas said. “They are not women's issues or men's issues. They're issues that everyone, regardless of sex and gender, should, and must, be involved in stopping.”


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