The culminating speaker of the Clayman Institute’s “Breaking the Culture of Sexual Assault” series, Zerlina Maxwell believes that men are the key to stopping sexual assault. A lawyer by training, as well as a sexual assault survivor and activist, Maxwell boldly pushed back against well-meaning arguments that claim women need to change their behavior—dress modestly, carry weapons, or learn self-defense—in order to avoid assault during her BCSA lecture. She instead asserted that the only way to prevent a rape is for the perpetrator to not commit the act: “We can prevent rape by telling men not to commit it.”
Maxwell’s perspective is exhilarating because it takes the shame and guilt of sexual assault away from survivors and instead places it firmly on the male perpetrators and the misogyny that fuels their violence against women. Like other activists, Maxwell knows that if changing the mindsets and actions of men is crucial to preventing rape, we must find realistic ways to bring men into the conversation about sexual assault.
Inspired by the programming of the Clayman Institute’s BCSA series, I spoke with five of my undergraduate male peers to understand their experiences and beliefs related to campus sexual assault. My aim was assess how what I learned about sexual assault from BCSA cohered with male students’ lived experience. They were mostly, but not all, white men: three freshmen, a sophomore, and a junior. This piece is not a holistic assessment or presentation of men’s perspective on sexual assault on campus but a personal exploration of an urgent local and global issue through first-person narrative.
From my interviews, it was apparent that both identity and personal experience powerfully shape men’s views on campus sexual assault. For Interviewee Three, a freshman from Europe, where sex education in school is mandated in most countries, the college emphasis on sexual assault was distinctly American: “I’ve heard the term sexual harassment perhaps before, but not really sexual assault,” he said. He was surprised to discover that students are largely uneducated about sexual assault prior to college: “They should have learned that [education about sexual assault] at 14 or 15, or whenever they legally [could] have sex for the first time.”
Personal, formative relationships also influence perspectives on sexual violence against women. For example, Interviewee Four’s understanding of sexual assault has been irrevocably shaped by his mother’s experience: “My mother was raped when she was younger,” he revealed, “so I could see [the victim’s perspective] from my own mom.” Because of his mother’s rape, Interviewee Four grapped with the sexual assault content in the New Student Orientation (NSO) prevention programming, particularly a scene of an NSO informational play, “The Real World,” that depicted an assault. “I thought about my mom …” he said, adding, “With my mom’s background, I take [sexual assault] personally.” While knowing someone who has been raped or assaulted should never be understood as a prerequisite for empathy or listening to female survivors of sexual violence, personal relationships with survivors undeniably affect how someone understands it.
When asked what they believe men can do to help eradicate sexual assault on campus, the interviewees emphasized being more proactive in asking for consent. Both Interviewee One and Interviewee Three noted this specific type of accountability in their responses to the question about preventing and ending sexual violence against women: “I would never be capable of [sexual assault] because I’m a person who always asks for consent even when perhaps I socially should not… And I think my friends do that as well.” The male students also emphasized the need for more education about consent and bystander intervention—preventative measures put forth by the experts and researchers featured in the Clayman Institute’s BCSA programming. (Stanford's Title IX Office offers tips on both bystander intervention and upstander intervention.) Similar to the findings presented by Stanford researchers Mike Baiocchi and Clea Sarnquist during their BSCA presentation, these male students also believe that an education that produces a change in mindset can influence more ethical behavior. Interviewee One, for example, stated that men need an “attitudinal shift” from defensively claiming to be one of the “nice, nonthreatening” men to “taking women at their word and respecting them.” Coincidentally, Interviewee Two experienced these defensive feelings firsthand when a group of women doubted his intentions when he was trying to take care of an intoxicated female friend: “The looks of contempt and skepticism I got were shocking,” he said. “Despite my sincere attempts to make sure my friend was doing okay, I was getting so much hatred.” But, in actually thinking about their perspective, he quickly realized that “[their] skepticism is understandable.”
Interviewees were squeamish about discussing toxic masculinity as a potential cause of rape, worried that it would prevent men from wanting to join conversation about ending sexual violence against women. However, Interviewee One remembered a positive experience with an outstanding freshman RA who was a member of a group called “Men Against Abuse Now,” recalling that it was incredibly helpful to “[have an] RA who was a good example of a man who was very conscious of [men’s role in sexual assault].” Interviewees Four and Five also thought male-only spaces where men could ask taboo questions without judgment and get clarification on consent policy could be useful. Nurturing these spaces could be an important step in starting a widespread, meaningful conversation about sexual assault among men on campus. These spaces were also discussed in the BCSA event programming, particularly the two events featured in the “Men and Masculinities” symposium.
Yet, as I’ve realized through speaking with these men, it’s not enough for men to have conversations with each other. They also need to be having these conversations with women, and especially with survivors. Conversations between male students and those affected by assault can feel incredibly challenging. It is on us to meet men where they are and hear their opinions with empathy. But as Maxwell said, we need men in this movement.
In fact, we can’t do it without them.