Lessons from Steubenville: An Interview with Jackson Katz, Part 2

Lessons from Steubenville: An Interview with Jackson Katz, Part 2

By Jeremy Earp
Director of Production, Media Education Foundation
Posted on MEF blog March 20, 2013

Part 2

JE: When it comes to high-profile cases of sexual violence – or violence generally – there often seems to be less talk about the way the culture shapes attitudes than there is about the responsibility of parents in all of this. What’s your take on that?

JK: One of the chapters in my first book The Macho Paradox is called “It Takes a Village to Rape a Woman.” The premise is that while parents play an incredibly important role, there’s a larger culture out there that’s helping to socialize our sons and daughters. It’s naive to think of “the family” as a unit that is somehow isolated from the rest of society; families are deeply embedded in social systems and cultural norms as well. Those of us who are parents have ourselves been profoundly influenced by those norms. So our parenting is shaped not only by how we were parented, but also by our peer-culture experiences, the media we’ve consumed, the cultural practices and social norms we’ve been socialized into, including those having to do with gender. The gender and sexual norms in our culture are way bigger than any individual parent or set of parents can hope to impart. The idea that somehow criminally misogynous behavior by young men can be laid exclusively at the feet of their parents is flat out simplistic and wrong. It’s like saying racism is something learned in the family, as opposed to saying it’s a much larger system of inequality and exploitation, rooted in long-term historical and institutional practices and ideologies, whose pernicious influence and impact is felt in many aspects of our individual as well as collective lives, including experiences in our families. It’s the same with sexism.

JE: In your view, what are some of the most dangerous cultural messages parents are contending with?

JK: The main ones in this case are the devaluation of anything that’s feminine and the depersonalization and dehumanization of women, especially in a sexual context. The message is that women and girls are not full human beings entitled to full dignity and an absolute right to their bodily autonomy. In patriarchal cultures, many boys and men are taught these sexist ideas from a very early age. Look at the role of pornography. Porn culture plays an immensely influential role in shaping the sexual psyches of millions and millions of boys and men. What porn culture constructs as a normative heterosexual experience in most cases is the complete objectification of the girl or woman: the man – or men – are doing something to her; they are ejaculating into or onto an object rather than having a sexual relationship with another human being. In much of the mainstream porn that’s marketed to men and boys, men call women degrading names as they’re having sex with them, order them around, and sometimes are incredibly callous and cruel to them. This is normative behavior in contemporary heterosexual “gonzo” porn. That’s an example of a widespread cultural message that transcends parenting. And because of the availability of porn on the Internet, it’s virtually impossible for parents of heterosexual boys to prevent their sons from being immersed in that world if that’s the road the child is going down. We need to remember that the vast majority of what passes for sex “education” in this society has been coming from wealthy media corporations in the form of pornography – not from schools or parents.

JE: But the cultural forces that parents – and even teachers – contend with go beyond pornography, right?

JK: It’s not just pornography itself; it’s the pervasive objectification of women across the culture. Whether it’s in advertising during football games, or any other form of mainstream media – especially media targeted at young men – there’s a widespread and casual dismissal of women’s humanity and an objectification of women’s bodies at the core of a lot of the media that boys and men consume, and that girls and women consume as well. So a larger cultural analysis of rape and its prevalence has to incorporate some insight about the role of media in shaping social norms. It needs to pay attention to how media reinforce ideas about women as objects rather than as autonomous subjects. It also needs to account for how the devaluation of what the culture defines as feminine is not just a devaluing of women – but also of core elements of boys and men’s identities and emotional lives as well. Feminists have been saying for decades that when everything defined as feminine is seen as “less than” or contemptible or somehow inferior, it not only hurts women, but also narrows the range and depth of men’s humanity. We’ve come to expect boys and men to shy away from those aspects of themselves they’ve been told are “feminine” – qualities like empathy, compassion, or even concern with personal appearance. All of these things register in the culture – and especially male culture – as unmanly and “girlie.” And I think this has exacted a huge toll on men’s lives.

JE: You mentioned earlier that there were very likely a lot of young men who witnessed the assault on this young woman in Steubenville, knew it was wrong, and yet remained silent. Is one explanation for their silence this larger fear of the feminine you’re talking about – in this case, the fear of being seen as overly sensitive and empathetic if they dared to speak up and defend her?

JK: I think that’s right. Being “one of the guys” means going along with certain behaviors – even when they’re clearly sexist and abusive – because if you don’t go along with the behaviors, your manhood will be questioned. You risk being seen as feminine, as soft. And these pressures only intensify when the abuse is being carried out and led by popular guys. If being masculine means being aggressive, misogynist, and sexually exploitative towards girls and women, and you don’t stay in line and go along with those things – well, according to our gender binary system, you must not be very masculine. Or you must be acting like a girl.

In the case of gang rape scenarios like Steubenville, if qualities like compassion and concern for the vulnerable are seen as “unmasculine,” or you’re seen as “taking the side of the girl” against your boys, a lot of young men – and older men – are going to freeze and fail to act. There’s a lot of pressure on men to fall in line and be “one of the guys,” to resist breaking with the dominant ethos of the group – even if they might find some of the things they encounter uncomfortable or worse.

JE: There’s this brutal paradox in male culture that says if you stand up for someone who’s in a vulnerable position – in this case an intoxicated and outnumbered young woman, in other cases maybe it’s a kid being bullied – then somehow you’re overly sensitive and therefore weak. The sheer courage it takes for a kid to stand up to his peers when they’re doing something wrong is somehow flipped into cowardice. This is more or less the perfect way for a culture to perpetuate abuse.

JK: That’s right. The fact is that it takes a lot more strength for a guy – especially for a guy operating within the hypermasculine environment of something like football culture – to challenge his friends and his teammates when they’re acting out in sexist or abusive ways than it does to keep quiet and conform. And yet the guy who has the guts to stand up in the face of these pressures – and to be his own man – gets called “soft,” a “pussy,” a “wimp,” or worse. It’s Orwellian.

JE: This is precisely the underlying principle of the bystander approach you created for the Center for the Society of Sport in Society at Northeastern University 20 years ago, isn’t it? Isn’t it the central premise of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) approach that men are, in some sense, looking for cultural permission to say what a lot of them are already thinking but feel too boxed in by traditional gender roles to say?

JK: Yes, these are exactly the kinds of dynamics we’ve been talking about in MVP for two decades. When we developed MVP back in 1993, our work was focused initially on the college male sports culture. MVP quickly expanded into a mixed-gender program, and we now work with female student-athletes, coaches, and administrators, in addition to women and girls in the general student population. But the original idea was how do you start talking about these dynamics in all sorts of racially and ethnically diverse male peer cultures in a way that begins to change the social norms in that group, or at the very least bring the more positive social norms to the surface. We know that a lot of guys are uncomfortable with abusive behavior by their peers, including sexist and misogynist and gay-bashing behavior, but they rarely speak up. So part of the idea with MVP was to encourage men to break the unspoken code of silence within these peer cultures – to empower them to stand up and say, “Okay, wait a second.  I don’t like this.  I don’t like what you’re saying, and I don’t appreciate this kind of behavior. I think it’s weak, I think it’s stupid, I think it’s bad.” In that way, what we’re really doing is trying to redefine how the culture defines strength in men – so that guys who speak up like this aren’t seen as “going soft” or being a “wuss,” but as strong and having integrity.

I should say that from the beginning, my goal was to see programs like this implemented in every high school, every middle school, every college, and every high school athletic program, in the United States. And while we’ve made some progress — the bystander approach, whether it’s explicitly MVP or a variation of MVP, is being employed by all four major services in the U.S. military at this point – the sad fact is that the vast majority of high schools and high school athletic programs have no sexual and relationship abuse prevention programs at all. The same goes for colleges and universities. There are schools that have comprehensive programming in place, and some that have the beginnings of systematic programming, but they’re still the exception. Too many don’t have these kinds of programs at all.

JE: Why is that? What’s the main source of resistance there? Is it institutional?

JK: Yes. Let’s be clear: the obstacles haven’t been pedagogical or curricular; the major obstacle has been a lack of leadership in secondary education, higher education, and the sports culture in general. The school boards, superintendents, principals, athletic directors, and coaches at the high school level, as well as the administrators, athletic directors, and coaches at the college and university level, with some exceptions, have largely failed to step up and take this stuff on. It’s on the shoulders of the powerful men and women who run these institutions to say this is a priority and that we need to be addressing these issues.

When I heard about Steubenville, the first question that crossed my mind was, “Did they have a gender violence prevention program in Steubenville for student-athletes or other students?” And of course the answer was no. If they had had a program like MVP, a bystander program, would all the kids in that room have behaved the same way and done nothing? Or would some of them have spoken up and said it was wrong? I mean, we’ve been using a scenario in MVP trainings for twenty years that looks an awful lot like the Steubenville case. We ask young men: what would you do if you were at a party and a friend or teammate of yours was trying to have sex with an obviously drunk young woman. We’ve used this scenario in trainings thousands of times. In an interactive dialogue, we play the whole thing out with them: what is their responsibility to her? What is their responsibility to him? What’s your responsibility to yourself, and the kind of person you are or want to be? We discuss many possible options for what to do. If they had been doing bystander training at Steubenville High, would that have made a difference in this case? Obviously we can’t be sure. But I do think it’s far less likely that every one of them would have done nothing in that situation.

JE: So is one element of your approach not only to encourage young men to empathize with young women outside the hypermasculine box of their own peer group, but also to understand how these attitudes and behaviors are destructive to their male friends?

JK: Yes. One of the things the MVP model is designed to do is to get guys to think about their responsibility not just to the innocent girls and women that get preyed upon in these situations, but also their responsibility to their friends, their teammates, who are committing these acts. My first concern in the Steubenville case was – and is – about the young woman who was raped, but the two boys who were convicted of this crime are also facing truly significant consequences. To be sure, they are the consequences of their own actions. But they too have been badly hurt by those actions. Their lives are essentially ruined. They might be registered sex offenders for the rest of their lives. They’ll forever be marked by acts they committed when they were 16 and 17 years old. And where were their friends? Where were the guys around them who said, “I got your back, man. You’re my boy, you’re my friend, you’re my teammate. You shouldn’t be doing this to her. She’s a person, just like your sister or your mom is a person. Just like you’re a person. This is dead wrong. And it’s beneath you.”

These are the kinds of things we talk about with young men in MVP, yet it’s been a struggle, to say the least, to get this kind of programming into high schools, into colleges, into athletic programs. Every student should have access to quality gender violence prevention education. It says something about the priorities of our society that this isn’t yet the case.

JE: But isn’t the reluctance of men in leadership positions to take on these issues in high schools and college sports programs symptomatic of the very problem MVP seeks to redress?

JK: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I think what we have here is a failure of leadership. The first thing I would look at in Steubenville is what is the role of the school principal, the high school football coach, the athletic director? What have they done to address sexism and sexual assault and relationship abuse? And if they’ve done nothing, I’d say that as leaders they’re failing the boys and girls of Steubenville. We need to remember that adult men are in many ways themselves policed into silence around these issues – in the same ways that adolescent boys are. So while we need to figure out ways to encourage boys and young men to speak up and break their silence and show strength and leadership, that’s also true for adult men. It’s not fair to put the burden of leadership on the shoulders of 16- and 17-year-old boys. It should be on the shoulders of adult men as well.

Here’s one suggestion: When athletic directors are interviewing candidates for coaching positions on the football team, they should be asking, straight-up, what their thoughts are about how to encourage boys and young men to respect girls and women. They should make it clear this is considered part of what they’re looking for in hiring a coach. If you take a systemic analysis of the role of various institutions, of various cultural practices, of the various roles of individuals in those institutions in helping to shape the social norms in those institutions, then you have to expand the focus and assignment of responsibility and accountability further than simply a group of kids at a party.

JE: You mentioned the video that was shot in Steubenville the night of the rape, and how it went viral. The thing that was maybe most shocking about this video was how un-shocked most of the kids in the video seemed about the girls’ well-being and the gang rape that had happened just moments before.

JK: Yes. I think a lot of people were really, really put off by the cavalier way this guy talked about the rape of this girl. Some people I know couldn’t watch it. They could only watch 30 seconds of it. I think in many ways this video was a testament to the fact that this case was about more than just this single instance of violence – atrocious as the incident itself was. It revealed that this was also about the widespread cultural attitudes that support this kind of behavior. It pointed to a problem than runs deeper than just two pathological individuals acting out their power games and their abusive mentality. And I think that’s what made the video so unsettling.

JE: So when you think about culture, specifically the relationship between traditional ideals of manhood and gender violence, would you say you’re more concerned with the way these ideals work to silence the vast majority of boys and men who never commit this kind of violence or with how these ideals lead a minority of boys and men to commit these acts?

JK: I’m concerned about both. The first thing to say is that I don’t think culture creates scripts that boys and men simply imitate. I think it’s about how the culture creates scripts that are then normalized. And I don’t think there’s any question that a big part of the way boys and men learn what it means to be a “normal” man is through their exposure to media. If it’s normal and cool for guys to do a certain thing, and that’s enshrined in the media they’re consuming, then why wouldn’t they think that’s cool? That’s the air they’re breathing. But I do think that in spite of the sexism and misogyny they see in media, most men and young men have the capacity to achieve a higher state of moral reasoning and decide what’s right and wrong. So the question, for me, is always about why they don’t say anything. That’s the heart of what we do with the MVP model. We try to figure out why the guys wouldn’t say something, identify the pressures they experience, and then explore what can be done to change things and break the culture of men’s silence around these issues.

JE: So the bottom line, for you, seems to be that while Steubenville raised important questions about football culture and jock culture, we have to be careful not to lose sight of how the stories we tell ourselves as a culture about manhood perpetuate men’s violence, and men’s silence in the face of violence, in American society as a whole.

JK: Yes. We have incidents in the sports culture, and we talk about what’s going on in sports. But we see similar patterns in many different male-dominated institutions and masculine subcultures. Look at the military. There were approximately 26,000 sexual assaults last year in the U.S. military. This has prompted a long-overdue conversation about what’s going on there. We have incidents that happen within gun culture, and we talk about what’s going on with guns. We have incidents that happen in neither sports culture, the military culture, nor gun culture, and we start talking about the variables that are specific to that subculture. Well, the one thing that connects all the men and boys operating within these subcultures is that they’re men and boys, and that they make sense of their lives in gendered ways that transcend whatever specific subculture they happen to be a part of. You can go from one case to the next: sexual violence, gun violence. This violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, young men, and boys, and yet when a big story breaks, we come up with all of these variables to try to make sense of it and ignore the single most important connection – the gender of the perpetrators. There’s just no question about it: if we’re serious about understanding and confronting violence, the larger conversation we need to be having as a society is about manhood.

Edgy Ontario ad combating sexual violence goes global

Premier Kathleen Wynne’s crusade has gone global thanks to an ad viewed more than 7 million times, which urges bystanders to step in.

Ontario’s premier announced a $41-million plan to combat sexual assault and violence and a new advertising blitz


Robert Benzie

Queen’s Park Bureau Chief
Published on Mon Mar 16 2015

Premier Kathleen Wynne’s crusade against sexual violence has gone global, thanks to an edgy Ontario government ad that has been viewed more than 7 million times.

The one-minute TV spot — created by Leo Burnett Toronto and unveiled by Wynne on March 6 — is part of a three-year, $41-million campaign to fight sexual violence and harassment.
It has become a viral sensation around the world, with 2.48-million Facebook views in Turkey, where local activists added Turkish subtitles, and 1.42 million times in Portugal.
“This will make everyone safer. It’s very important to me that we take action,” Wynne said Monday in a statement.
The premier’s dozen Twitter posts of the ad with the hashtag #WhoWillYouHelp have been retweeted 24,000 times, potentially reaching 23.9 million people.
Embedded in tweets and posted on Facebook, YouTube, and news sites like thestar.com, the ad has been viewed 7.1 million times and depicts four disturbing vignettes of women being assaulted by men while onlookers do nothing to intervene:

A supervisor harassing an employee looks at the camera and says, "Thanks for minding your own business" - reminding bystanders that they have a role to play in preventing abuse.
GOVERNMENT OF ONTARIO: A supervisor harassing an employee looks at the camera and says, “Thanks for minding your own business” – reminding bystanders that they have a role to play in preventing abuse.
  • A barely conscious drunk woman is videoed by a group of men at a party, when one turns to the screen and says: “Thanks for keeping your mouth shut.”
  • A woman working at her office computer receives a shoulder massage from a creepy looking supervisor, who looks into the camera and says: “Thanks for minding your own business.”
  • A teenage boy, showing racy photographs on his phone to his friends, whispers: “Thanks for not telling my girlfriend.”
  • A man in a crowded bar slips a date-rape drug into a woman’s drink and says: “Thanks for not telling anyone.”

“When you do nothing, you’re helping him,” intones a male announcer.
“But when you do something, you help her.”
Then, the four women look into the camera and express gratitude for helping them in the harrowing scenarios.
Wynne said she is pleased by the reception to her government’s “It’s Never Okay” action plan, sparked by Star investigations into sexual assault allegations against ex-broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi and an examination of how universities and colleges ‎handled complaints of sexual violence.
“By having this discussion as a society, we can do a much better job of increasing awareness, having an open discussion about what healthy relationships are and what appropriate behaviour is,” the premier said.
“This will make everyone safer. It’s very important to me that we take action,” she said.
“Given the number of people from around the world who have seen this ad, be it in English, French, or the international translations we’ve seen posted, we know this issue is resonating and there is an expectation that government helps enact change.”


  • The Ontario government’s new TV ad has been viewed 242,000 times on YouTube — more than double Queen’s Park’s entire monthly average of views after just 10 days.
  • Locally made Turkish and Portuguese translations have been seen 2.48 million and 1.42 million times respectively on Facebook.
  • The Ontario government’s Facebook post has reached 487,000 people, the most ever for a posting by the province.
  • Other nations where the ad has been widely seen on YouTube: the United States, Philippines, India, and France

Letter from Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Executive Director of UN Women

Dear Men and Boys of the World,

You may be aware that there are almost 3.6 billion women and girls in the world. They are your sisters, mothers, wives, partners, daughters, nieces, aunts, cousins and friends. They have hopes and beautiful dreams for themselves, their families, communities and the world. If many of their dreams were to come true, the world would be a much better place for all of humanity.

Today I am writing this letter to you, because there are more than 60 million girls worldwide who are denied access to education. One in three women in the world is a victim of physical or sexual violence, the most humiliating and dehumanizing form of discrimination. Most of this violence happens at the hand of a partner or relative within her own home. Today two-thirds of the global illiterate population is women. If trends continue in this way, poor girls in Sub-Saharan Africa will not reach universal access to primary education until 2086.

So gentlemen, can we talk? I know many of you desire a better world for women and girls, a few of you are actively working on bringing about positive changes. We now have rising evidence that everyone, not just women, benefits from gender equality. Did you know that if women farmers had the same tools and fertilizer as men in agriculture, we would reduce hunger by up to 150 million people? Fortune 500 companies with the most women managers were found to deliver a 34 per cent higher return to shareholders. Discriminating against women comes at a cost to humanity and nations and denies women and girls their inalienable rights.

Yes, women are strong, bold, and brave, but men and boys also have a big role to play in ending gender inequality. It is both the right thing and the smart thing to do. Take action and influence change in society. We need your action and your voices to be louder.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, I issue a call to men and boys and invite you to take action wherever you are and support the SHE Imperative. Make sure SHE is secured and Safe from gender-based violence. That SHE has her Human rights respected, including her re-productive rights. That She has Economic Empowerment through Education, participation and leadership.

This sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet if we applied this imperative, the world would be a very different and far better place. SHE would enjoy equal opportunity, access to education and no longer be the face of poverty, and her gender will not decide her status and place in society.

When we fought against apartheid, which the United Nations declared a crime against humanity, the whole world took a stand. All self-respecting people—leaders of nations, religious institutions, commerce and sports—crossed the line to be on the right side of history.

The unity and purpose of the people of the world played a major role in ushering in freedom for South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela, in whose cabinet I had the honour to serve. In Mandela, a force for good was unleashed, not just for South Africa but for all of humanity. He inspired those of us who worked with him, and countless millions around the world, to stand up for a just cause. He also emphasized that “For every moment we remain silent, we conspire against our women.” Now is your time to stand up for a just cause.

Men and women of the 21st century can make their mark by crossing the line united, and joining the women as a powerful force for gender equality. I invite you to join me and the women and men of the world who have led many long struggles for the gender equality.

In Africa, we have a saying that I want to leave with you: ‘If you go alone you go fast, but if we go together, we go far’. Let us go far together.

Pro Football Already Plays a Key Role in DV Prevention

By Jackson Katz, Ph.D.
The Huffington Post

For evidence of the kind of impact the National Football League (NFL) could have if it turned its considerable cultural power and resources toward the prevention of domestic and sexual violence, one need look no further than the experience of our neighbors to the north.

A growing number of teams in the Canadian Football League are already out doing the work.

For the past four years the Ending Violence Association of British Columbia (EVA BC), a well-respected women’s organization, has been partnering with the B.C. Lions of the CFL, and the U.S.-based Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program on a multi-tiered campaign entitled “Be More Than a Bystander.” (BMTAB)

The BMTAB campaign is perhaps the most high-profile example of the “bystander approach” to prevention that MVP introduced to the domestic violence and sexual assault fields in the early 1990s. This now widely popular prevention strategy moves beyond a fixation on perpetrators and victims, and focuses on the role that everyone in a given peer culture can play in preventing incidents of harassment, abuse or violence.

The public service component of the campaign consists of TV, radio, billboard and social media spots that feature BC Lions players speaking directly to the camera and delivering an unequivocal message: men need to step up when they see their friends or teammates treating women — or anyone — with disrespect.

EVA BC reports that the messaging campaign has garnered over 100 million views in the past four years, an astounding number in a province of 4.6 million people. EVA BC Executive Director Tracy Porteous describes Be More Than A Bystander as “the most successful public awareness, crime prevention program I have ever seen in Canada.”

In addition, a number of BC Lions players who went through a special MVP training have been delivering educational programs to high school students in large, all-school assemblies for the past three years. At the beginning of these events, the players introduce themselves and tell the students why they’ve decided to speak out about gender violence. Sometimes they share stories about abuse they or people close to them suffered or witnessed as children, adolescents or adults.

The players show a brief video that highlights some of the Lions’ on-field exploits. The presentation then turns to their core message, which is that everyone — men and women, boys and girls — needs to work together to prevent abusive behavior, and promote healthy and respectful relationships.

It’s a message that’s meant for all the students, but it’s especially aimed at the boys. It doesn’t hurt that it’s delivered by popular, successful men of racially diverse backgrounds who make it clear that it’s a measure of a young man’s strength, not his weakness, when he takes a stand in his peer culture and his school against sexism and the mistreatment of women.

To date, the Lions players have spoken to more than 45,000 students in these assemblies throughout BC, including First Nations communities in the northern part of the province.

The participation of the BC Lions in this initiative sends a powerful message to Lions fans – as well as to the team’s current and future players, coaches and front office staff — about the kind of leadership the team values on and off the field. Furthermore, by partnering with a prominent, multiracial women’s organization that represents 240 domestic and sexual violence response programs throughout the province, the Lions also send the strong message that men can work with women as allies in the long-term struggle to reduce and end the violence that causes so much pain and suffering in families and in society as a whole.

As Porteous says, “There is immense power in men and women working together; I am astounded by the reach and access the BC Lions have with the kids, the public and influential people. I am happy to say that the Lions have shared this access with us. On our own we could never reach the demographic the Lions are reaching with our joint message.”

Porteous says that as a result of the program, other corporations and sectors have stepped up. “Business, labor, municipal governments, other sports teams and universities, to name a few, have come forward, wanting to help, seeing that it is their role to become part of the solution.” Furthermore, she adds, it’s a win/win situation. “We get help delivering this important message, and these other entities get to be associated with both the celebrity of the BC Lions and an immensely popular program that brings them good will…and helps them to reach a much larger female demographic.”

If the NFL or its member teams truly want to have this type of impact, they can easily do so. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They can implement MVP training or those of other prevention education programs. They can adapt existing models of public engagement like Be More Than a Bystander, which has already spread to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders of the CFL.

The time is right and the need is great. The NFL simply has to follow through on its stated commitment to “get it right” on this critical issue and use its unparalleled platform to do so.

It Takes a Campus to Stop Assaults

By Jackson Katz, Ph.D.
The Chronicle of Higher Education
July 10, 2014

Sen. Claire McCaskill’s investigations into the state of sexual-assault policies on the nation’s college campuses have revealed a system badly in need of reform. Many of us who work in this area have been arguing as much for decades—and we welcome the increased political attention to this topic that has been catalyzed, in part, by the courageous activism of sexual-assault survivors.

While reform is needed at multiple levels, I would like to provide some recent historical perspective and context for what has been happening in prevention. When my colleagues and I created a violence-prevention program in the early 1990s at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, the central challenge in sexual-assault and relationship-abuse prevention was about how best to engage men. Previously, most “prevention” education took the form of teaching girls and women risk-reduction strategies. When men were the focus, it was almost always as perpetrators or potential perpetrators, which understandably caused defensive reactions among men who resented the cynical prejudgment.

We wanted, in the words of Esta Soler, the founder of Futures Without Violence, to invite men into the process, not indict them as potential rapists and batterers. We experimented with an exciting new strategy that had recently been developed by middle-school anti-bullying researchers. Known as the “bystander” approach, the central idea behind this paradigm-shifting strategy was that everyone in a given peer culture—boys and girls, men and women—had a role in supporting victims, confronting abusers, and thus creating a climate in which abusive behavior of any type would not be tolerated.

This approach offered a way to respond to men who claimed that gender violence was not their problem because they themselves did not harass or abuse women. The counterargument was simple, and drawn from the basic social-justice idea that all members of dominant groups– men, whites, heterosexuals–have an important role in challenging systems of unfair and unearned power and privilege. If abusive behaviors by individual men are often rooted in social norms whose origins lie in deeper misogynist beliefs, then everyone is responsible for changing those norms to make sexist abuse socially unacceptable.

The bystander approach provided a strategy for encouraging men to interrupt their peers’ abusive behaviors and make it clear that treating women disrespectfully was a problem not only because it was against the rules and possibly illegal but because it would not be tolerated in the peer culture itself. In other words, if you behave in sexist and abusive ways toward women (or other men), you will lose status and standing among your teammates, classmates, fraternity brothers, and friends, who will not accept or condone that sort of behavior–and who will let you know it.

The focus on bystanders also provided a positive role for women. They were positioned not as victims or potential targets of abuse—or as perpetrators—but as empowered bystanders who could support victims and challenge and interrupt abusive behaviors. In the process they would not only help to prevent sexual assaults and other abuses but also provide powerful examples of women’s strength to younger girls (and boys).

The rationale for beginning our work in athletics did not have to do with specific problems in that subculture—although of course there are some. Rather, the idea was to utilize the popularity, high visibility, and leadership platform of college athletes to help shift social norms in male culture far beyond the locker room. The plan was to start in athletics and then move out into general populations of college students and others.

As the philosophy and methods of bystander work grew in popularity, variations on the central theme arose. For example, in recent years, “bystander intervention” programs that de-emphasize discussions of gender norms and instead focus on the development of personal skills have proliferated. To be sure, helping people develop skills for intervention is essential, but at its essence, bystander training is about more than skill building. People—especially men—need permission from each other to act, and reassurance that those who do intervene and interrupt abusive behavior will be respected, not rejected.

Men, as well as women, need the opportunity to talk and ask questions about the dynamics of their relationships with their peers, and the opportunity to explore the ethical implications of various courses of action: If my friend is constantly making degrading comments about women, should I say something? If another friend is circulating a sext message with nude photos of his former girlfriend, how should I respond? If I’m at a party and see a guy I know who’s trying to get a stumbling and obviously inebriated woman to leave with him, what should I do? Do I have a responsibility to her? To him? To myself? To whom can I turn for ideas or support? What have others done in similar circumstances?

Bystander education at its best does more than teach skills for intervention. Its short-term goal is to prevent assaults. But its long-term goal is to change the underlying belief systems and social norms that tolerate or encourage sexist and abusive behaviors. This is sometimes an uphill fight, especially in a media culture where the sexual objectification of women is pervasive, and men’s callous cruelty toward women is sexualized in pornography, music lyrics, and elsewhere.

But those who do bystander work on gender-violence issues with college students have reason to be optimistic. We know from more than two decades of experience that when given the opportunity to debate and discuss these matters, by and large the students—women and men—jump in and grow in the process.

Lessons from Steubenville: An Interview with Jackson Katz, Part I

by Jeremy Earp
Director of Production, Media Education Foundation
Posted on MEF blog March 20, 2013

This past Sunday in Steubenville, Ohio, high school football stars Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond were convicted of raping an intoxicated and barely conscious 16-year-old girl. Author and cultural critic Jackson Katz talked about the implications of the case in this wide-ranging two-part interview with Media Education Foundation (MEF) Production Director Jeremy Earp.

Katz, a leading expert in the gender violence prevention field, co-founded the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program in 1993 at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. MVP’s innovative “bystander” approach has since become mainstream practice in gender violence prevention education, and the MVP program itself has been implemented widely in college athletics, in all branches of the US military, the NFL, Major League Baseball, and in scores of other organizations, including many high schools and middle schools across the country, reaching beyond athletics to the general student population. In addition to his pioneering work with MVP, Katz is the author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women & How All Men Can Help (2006) and Leading Men: Presidential Campaigns & the Politics of Manhood (2012). He is also the creator of MEF’s bestselling film Tough Guise: Violence, Media & the Crisis in Masculinity.

JE: What was your immediate reaction to the verdict in the Steubenville rape case?

JK: I can’t say I was very surprised by the verdict, but the entire case and the way it played out with convictions was unusual. First of all, a rape was reported, young men were charged with it, and they were convicted. That in itself makes this case atypical. I also think it’s important to note that because this case was tried in juvenile court, the verdict was rendered by a judge; it’s an open question whether a jury in an adult court would have reached the same conclusion. Then there’s the added dimension that the perpetrators were high-profile members of a prominent football team in an Eastern Ohio town known for its “jockocracy,” which made this a national story and gave the case greater cultural weight and significance. I also think it’s notable that since one of the perpetrators was white and the other was African-American, the story didn’t immediately become about race. I don’t think there’s any question that if both of the perpetrators had been African-American, the discussion around the case would have been very different, especially given the victim was white. Social media also played a role — both in the public discussion around the case, in Steubenville and around the country, and because there was actual evidence in the trial drawn from video from cell phones and text messaging and such.

Rape is a huge problem in the United States and around the world, and those of us who work in this field know that cases like this happen a lot more often than people think. But because of some of these media-friendly aspects, this case has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist in a way that most rapes don’t. The fact is that most rapes are never even reported. And so this case gives us an opportunity to have a discussion about the dominant features of rape culture in ways that might help us prevent crimes like this from happening in the first place. In that way, even though this incident has been sad and tragic for everyone involved, this is a teachable moment.

JE: As you just pointed out, one of the big reasons this case has received so much attention is because the perpetrators were prominent members of the high school football team in a town where high school football is a big deal. In what ways do you think football culture might have shaped the town’s response to this case – and also the media’s coverage of it? CNN, in particular, has been drawing fire for showing excessive sympathy for the perpetrators in its reporting on the verdict Sunday.

JK: The first thing I’d say is it’s not illegitimate to express concern about those boys. That doesn’t in any way excuse their behavior, far from it — but there’s a reason why they were tried in juvenile court. They’re kids. And I hope they turn their lives around. All of that said, though, I do think the degree of sympathy shown for the perpetrators speaks to a larger problem in mainstream media coverage of sexual assault cases generally. The fact is that media coverage of sexual assault tends to spend a lot less time establishing the basic humanity of the victims than it does looking at other aspects of the story. In this specific case, the media frame was all about how the perpetrators were young football players who were held in high esteem in the town and had the rest of their lives before them, that sort of thing. As a result, a lot of the coverage focused on what a conviction would mean for their futures, what the rape said about this town, what it said about the prominence of football in this town. And this carried through the coverage even after the conviction, as we saw on CNN.

Well, the net effect of all this has been to deflect attention away from the victim. The mainstream media haven’t spent nearly as much time focusing on what this young woman went through that night, what she’s been through since, what kind of a person she is, how this will affect her future. Then you add to that all the questions that inevitably arise in sexual assault cases about whether the victim was really a victim or whether she willingly participated in this, that kind of sexist stuff – which in turn plays into all the warped ideas and double standards we have as a culture about women’s sexuality and men’s sexuality – and this adds yet another layer that distances us from the this victim as a person. Part of this has to do with the need to protect the anonymity of the victim. But it also has to do with all these other ideas and norms that circulate in the culture about sex and gender and power and entitlement – and with the pivotal role mainstream media play in reinforcing these norms.

JE: Can you give another example of how the media coverage of this case has dehumanized – or at least distanced us from the humanity of – this young woman?

JK: Well, one thing I’ve seen is that a lot of the news coverage – even on the day the guilty verdict was rendered – has repeatedly used the word “accuser” to refer to the victim of this crime. And this isn’t a new development; it’s become common practice to use words like “accuser” to refer to victims in rape cases. One of the reasons this is so deeply problematic is that it turns the focus of the crime onto her — it shifts the sympathy of the public from seeing her as an alleged victim to seeing her as an alleged perpetrator of a false charge. It’s an extremely regressive and disturbing media convention, and I think it shows how we conspire as a society to silence victims.

JE: What do you make of the football angle in this case, the media storyline that these were high school football stars being put on trial?

JK: The dominant storyline has emphasized football culture in Steubenville, Ohio, how the two young men who were convicted were star players, and how a lot of the people in the town tried to protect them for that reason. I think that’s an interesting and important angle, and I appreciate the fact that it’s the main reason this case was elevated to this level. But I also think there’s a danger that the focus on football will distract us from the bigger picture here – which is that that the problem of sexual violence goes way beyond the football culture in Steubenville, Ohio, and way beyond football culture generally. My fear is that a lot of people will scapegoat this one community, or this one jock subculture, rather than doing the tougher work of looking introspectively at the culture as a whole.

I think another thing that’s bound to happen over the coming days, is that there’s going to be very little discussion about prevention programs and leadership by coaches and athletic administrators. My sense is that the national discussion will focus much too narrowly on student-athletes, rather than on the larger system of values and the role of adult leaders within that subculture. Student-athletes are just symptoms of the problem. And unless and until we change the athletic subculture, the priorities of the leadership in that subculture, and the relationship of that subculture to the larger society, then we’re likely to continue seeing these problems surfacing.

JE: I take it you’re not holding your breath for mainstream media to give people this kind of wider cultural view of the case?

JK: No, I’m not. Based on their track record, and the dearth of real journalism in corporate media generally, I don’t expect the mainstream media to do this kind of work. I think mainstream media do a really poor job drawing deeper analyses and making more sophisticated connections between cultural practices, sociological forces, and individual behavior. They’re much more focused on the criminal justice system, the battle between prosecutors and defense attorneys, the legal steps taken and not taken, than on a broader cultural analysis. And over the years it’s been the source of endless frustration for me and a lot of other people working in this field to see the media treat one high-profile sexual assault, domestic violence, and homicide case after another with a criminal justice focus that has overwhelmed any broader sociological or cultural examination of what’s driving this epidemic of gender violence in the first place.

JE: How would a broader sociological or cultural analysis apply to the football angle in this case?

JK: I think one of the reasons why, initially, this case was covered up to a certain degree was because, like in so many of these situations, the perpetrators — or the “alleged perpetrators” at the time — had more social power than the victim. The fact that they were members of the football team was an important part of their social capital. And in a town where football is king and these guys are football players, there’s an extent to which the town’s identity is implicated in the behavior of the players.

There are some similarities to the infamous 1989 gang rape case in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, which was recounted in Bernard Lefkowitz’s book Our Guys. The book details how prominent members of various sports teams, all of them white boys, perpetrated this planned and staged sexual assault against a mentally retarded girl. Some of the townspeople blamed the girl – who had the emotional and cognitive development of an eight-year-old – and attacked anybody who defended her because they saw it as an attack on “their guys.” The mentality was that “our guys wouldn’t do something like that, she must have tempted them,” and so forth. It’s an embarrassingly predictable response. And I think something similar went on in the Steubenville case, at least initially. There was clearly a lot of denial and defensiveness about the crime. A lot of people there didn’t want to think their community, their football team, had produced rapists.

Cases like these are especially painful because they force a level of introspection on the part of the townspeople – including the parents of other players, the boosters of the football program, and the residents who come to games and celebrate their boys. It implicates all of them on some level, even though – and let’s be clear – they’re not the ones who perpetrated the crime. Nevertheless, I believe this incident does say something about Steubenville, about the football culture there. When people have an identity investment in denying what happened, the most logical course is to blame the victim. It’s much easier – and a lot more self-interested, in many cases – to say that she was either making it up or exaggerating, to suggest it was really consensual, or to minimize it and say, “Well, you know, maybe it wasn’t good behavior, but it wasn’t criminal, just young guys being stupid and callous. Boys will be boys, after all.” All the predictable things you hear in defense of perpetrators in these kinds of cases.

JE: And in fact there were a lot of people in the town who were blaming the girl’s supporters and the news media for blowing things out of proportion.

JK: That’s classic. It happens in pro sports. When a popular professional athlete is charged with a sexual or domestic violence crime, the impulse — especially in the case of sex crimes — is to deny it ever happened, disbelieve the complaining witness, claim it was consensual, imply she had an ulterior motive (often money), or suggest she might have used the false rape allegation as an act of revenge. People often know in the depths of their conscience that something happened, but they refuse to accept that the guy they root for, their star player, would do something like this because it’s too painful to admit and to acknowledge that, yes, he would do something like this. Because you cheer for him – your child might even have his poster on his/her bedroom wall! – you have an identity stake in his good behavior.

I realize some people reject this and say, “Well, they’re just athletes. We know that they’re not model citizens. And we cheer for them on the court.” I mean, after allegations of sexual assault against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a couple of years ago, the eminent sportswriter Frank Deford said, “At a certain point, don’t you just stop caring whether our athletes — who for some reason or other are always called ‘role models’ — don’t you just stop caring whether they behave? Don’t you just want to say, ‘Let the thugs play?’” Obviously I don’t agree with that. I think that’s a completely cynical view and I don’t share it. We should never simply forget these things and move on like nothing happened.

JE: When it became clear the victim in this case was going to cooperate with the prosecution, one of the convicted rapists sent text messages to her pleading with her to back off because he was going to be kicked off the team. My guess is that he wasn’t alone in making football the central concern.

JK: That’s right. Obviously he had a self-interest in squelching the case. But on a larger level I think this speaks to a real distortion of values. You have to wonder about the value system of a culture that places football and the events on the field higher than a young woman’s, or a young man’s, right not to be the victim of violence and humiliation. It’s a truly disfigured value system that defends football over a rape victim’s bodily integrity and humanity.

JE: I know you’re careful to broaden your analysis of sexism and cultural misogyny beyond sports culture, but do you think there’s something about sports culture – more than other societal subcultures – that may be working to reinforce regressive ideas and ideals that lead to sexual assaults like these? And within the sports culture, would you say there’s something about football culture, specifically, that we need to be looking at – given the inherent violence of the sport?

JK: I would see it as an indictment of the centrality of football and football culture in the larger society, rather than the specifics inherent in the sport of football. These kinds of incidents happen in cultures all over the world that don’t play American-style football. Take societies where soccer is the most important sport. Men who play soccer at elite levels are very popular, enjoy great privileges, get all kinds of breaks. Some of the dynamics of the male peer cultures where sports are played are very different — soccer and football are very different sports — but the social position of the athletes is similar. Generally speaking, young male athletes tend to get more attention from heterosexual girls and women, including sexual attention. There’s a certain sense of social privilege and license that’s implied and sometimes explicitly stated. You know, football players can get away with certain things and can act certain ways — their coach will make a phone call or people won’t pursue accountability for them because they have this elevated status.

So I don’t think it’s as much about the game itself as it is about the social position that being successful at that game or sport affords men. I don’t think you can dismiss the idea that football is a violent game, where brute strength and physical aggression are rewarded. But I do think that football players know the difference between the field — where they’re in between the white lines playing against a well-trained opponent with bright lights and referees — and a party or other social situation. I think they know the difference between using aggression in the context of sports, where it’s socially rewarded, and other contexts where it’s illegal. I wouldn’t dismiss out of hand any possible relationship between aggression and violence in sports and violence off the field. I think that would be naive. But I don’t think that’s the most important piece of it.

JE: Is the main issue for you, then, the sense of entitlement that comes from playing sports? Or are you equally concerned about the regressive masculine ideals that circulate and are glamorized within sports culture?

JK: I think a bigger question than “What is the role of the sports culture?” is “What is the role of culture in shaping norms of masculinity, femininity, sex and power?” And I’m also concerned about how race intersects with these other forces. The bottom line is that sports culture is a really important subculture that influences the larger culture, and is in turn influenced by the larger culture. But let’s be clear: this goes way beyond sports. Gang rapes, for example, are perpetrated all the time by men who don’t identify with the sports culture – they’re in street gangs, motorcycle gangs, fraternities, in the military. It’s not just about sports. The dynamics of male peer culture are implicated more than sports culture is implicated, and cultural misogyny is implicated in a more general way than the sports culture’s misogyny. So it’s important to emphasize that gang rape and group sexual assaults happen in all kinds of different contexts not involving athletes or student-athletes.

The most important questions, for me, center on why gang rape remains such a persistent problem in American society and around the world. What is the role of misogyny? What is the role of male socialization? What are the dynamics in hierarchical and non-hierarchical male peer cultures? What is the role of subcultural variation versus the larger culture’s norms? Given the insanely high levels of gang rape around the world, we need to be asking these questions.

Bear in mind, also, that lots of incidents occur under the public radar screen. Take young men’s sexual assault of other young men in various male organizations. Sexualized violence is often a feature of “hazing” rituals. It’s not typically described as sexual violence – it’s euphemized as a ritual or rite of passage – but forced penetration (digital or otherwise) of adolescent boys and young men by other boys and men is a disturbingly common feature in certain types of hazing rituals – especially in the sports culture and in parts of military culture. I’m not saying the Steubenville rape was part of a hazing ritual. I am saying that boys and men do this to each other, as well as to girls and women.

JE: What do you make of that? How do these rituals square with the rampant levels of homophobia we tend to see among guys in these hypermasculine heterosexual subcultures?

JK: The anthropologist Peggy Sanday wrote a book called Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood and Privilege on Campus. Among the book’s insights was that gang rape could be understood as a group sexual experience between men, who use women’s bodies as a vehicle to symbolically have sex with each other. The woman has been completely depersonalized and dehumanized in that context. And I think this makes a lot of sense. In these gang rape situations, guys aren’t thinking about her as a real person. You saw this in that infamous video released by the hacktivist group KnightSec that captured a Steubenville kid making fun of the rape the night it happened. He went on and on about “how raped she was” and “how dead she was.” The most striking thing about it was how devoid his language was of any sense of the young woman as a human being – let alone a human being in a vulnerable position. In so many gang rapes, the woman (or man) is seen as an inanimate object. This is really about the group process between the guys. Another way to think about this is that they’re performing a kind of manhood for themselves and for each other. The girl is just a prop in their theatrical performance.

JE: So in a lot of these cases it makes perfect sense to you that the women are treated like rag dolls, like inanimate objects. They tend to be drunk, passed out, not really there at all.

JK: Yes. And again, you can move this out of sports culture and talk about all these other gang rapes. They happen all over the world. I just read yesterday about the gang rape of a Swiss tourist in central India by a group of guys that weren’t American high school football players in Ohio. Again, the questions we need to be asking have to do with the dynamics of male peer cultures that produce these gang rapes. We need to be thinking about the effects of misogynous attitudes and beliefs about women, and how many people who are not perpetrators nonetheless help to perpetuate those beliefs. These are very uncomfortable questions. A lot of people would much rather say it’s bad parenting, or they’re a pathological community that is obsessed with football. It’s painful to think introspectively about who and what we’ve become as a society. And other cultures need to be similarly inward-looking.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of men are not rapists. The vast majority of Steubenville football players are not rapists. I suspect that most of them are probably good guys. The dynamics in male peer culture, especially on teams and other close-knit groups, are powerful, and some young men do succumb to pressures, or do enact abusive behaviors. There’s no excuse for that, but there’s a difference between trying to understand it and excusing it. I don’t know the details here about how many guys were in the room or heard about what was going on in social media. But I guarantee you there were a number of young men on that football team who were part of this process in some fashion, who were not happy about it and did not approve of it, but didn’t do anything to stop it.

Penn State: The Mother Of All Teachable Moments For The Bystander Approach (Part 1 of a 3-part series)

By Jackson Katz, Ph.D.
December 1, 2011

For those of us who have been advocating a bystander-focused approach to the prevention of sexual violence, the scandal rocking State College, Pennsylvania, might be the mother of all teachable moments. If what is being alleged is true, then all the necessary elements are present:

  • Incidents of sexual abuse witnessed by people in a position to intervene who did not;
  • Pressures on people (men) in various peer cultures to remain silent
  • The failure of institutional leaders to act, resulting in disastrous consequences; and
  • All of this taking place in one of the bastions of male power and privilege – the Penn State University football program, presided over for 46 years by one of the iconic patriarchs in American sports culture.

The “bystander approach” at its best has direct relevance to all of these elements. Understanding the dynamics of bystander behavior — in this case especially in male sports culture — helps to explain what allegedly happened at Penn State. But perhaps even more importantly, the bystander approach offers concrete ideas about how to reform institutional practices in order to prevent future tragedies.

First, it is necessary to provide some brief background about the bystander approach, and clarify what I mean by the term. In media discussions about Penn State, some experts have made reference to the social psychological literature about the “bystander effect,” the societal phenomenon where people are reluctant to get involved in potentially dangerous situations on the streets and elsewhere. Unfortunately, this use of the term “bystander” is easily confused with the bystander approach to prevention.

The key difference, for the purpose of this discussion, is that “bystander” in the prevention field refers to anyone who plays some role in an act of harassment, abuse or violence — but is neither the perpetrator nor the victim. They are someone who is present and thus potentially in position to discourage, prevent, or interrupt an incident. They are a member of a peer culture who has relationships with others who might be perpetrators or victims, or perhaps vulnerable to becoming one. A bystander could also be a teacher, coach, military commander or campus administrator who is in a position to respond assertively to incidents once they’ve occurred — or to initiate prevention programs before something bad happens.

It is important to note that when sexual assault prevention educators talk about bystanders, they typically mean people who know each other, such as friends, classmates, colleagues, or members of sports teams. The dynamics of bystander behavior – and the impediments to action – are very different when people know the perpetrator or victim, versus when they are strangers.


My colleagues and I co-founded the first bystander program in the gender violence prevention field in 1993, at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. We called it the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program.

The initial idea behind MVP was to train college male student-athletes to use their status in male peer culture to speak out about issues that historically had been considered “women’s issues,” such as rape, relationship abuse and sexual harassment. If young men with status and a kind of “manhood credibility” on college and high school campuses would break their silence and make it clear to their peers and younger boys that they would not accept or tolerate sexist or heterosexist beliefs and behaviors, it would open up space for young men beyond the insular sports culture similarly to raise their voices. MVP was based on the elementary premise in social justice education that members of dominant groups — men, whites, heterosexuals – play an important role in efforts to challenge sexism, racism and homophobia.

In the second year, we developed a complementary model for working with female student-athletes, coaches, and administrators; since the mid-1990s MVP has been a mixed-gender program. It should be noted, however, that whether we’re working with student-athletes, the general student population, coaches, teachers, or other professionals, the MVP model includes space for both single and mixed-gender sessions. It is also worth noting that in recent years a number of other bystander initiatives have been developed, each with their own philosophies and emphases. What follows focuses on the MVP model: what we have been doing — and some of what we have learned — in our work in college athletics for nearly two decades. Because the Penn State case underscores so emphatically the necessity of examining — and transforming — social norms within male-dominated institutions, for the purpose of this article I have chosen to highlight our work in the sub-culture of college male athletics.

For at least the past generation, male sports culture has too often been the site of gender violence scandals. But MVP did not originate in organized athletics because of the problems in that sub-culture. The impetus was more proactive and positive, and had to do with the potential leadership of successful male (and later, female) student-athletes and coaches who, because they are seen as exemplars of traditional masculine success, have an enhanced level of credibility with their male peers and with younger men. If one of the long-term goals of the anti-rape movement is to transform rape-supportive attitudes in mainstream U.S. culture, who better to catalyze this transformation than men who — more than most — help to define the mainstream?

To put it another way, sexual violence prevention initiatives that fail to engage men in the sports culture and other areas of cultural hegemony are often ignored by mainstream populations, and can easily be marginalized. Why stay on the margins and not go right for the center? As the Penn State debacle makes clear, sports culture provides an unparalleled platform from which to call attention to a range of societal problems — and to catalyze efforts to change the social norms that often underlie them.

Nonetheless, because the MVP program originated in sports culture, and continues to use sports terminology in some of its curricular materials, it is sometimes mistakenly seen as a program designed exclusively for athletics. For the past 18 years we have trained tens of thousands of student-athletes, coaches and athletic administrators across the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic spectrum at hundreds of Division 1, 2 and 3 programs, and with professional sports organizations and teams in the NFL, CFL, NBA, WNBA, MLB, and NASCAR. But from the beginning, the strategic vision of MVP was to begin in athletics and then move into broader student and professional populations in colleges, high schools, middle schools and other institutions like the U.S. military – a process that continues to this day.

In the early days of MVP, we were looking to develop a pedagogical model that could provide critical information and refute common rape myths, but do so in a way that would, in the words of Futures Without Violence founder Esta Soler, “invite, not indict” men, and engage them in critical dialogue. We quickly realized that the “bystander” category offered a way to transcend the limitations of the perpetrator-victim binary, which up until that point had held sway in conventional gender violence prevention theory and practice. In many educational programs developed in the 1970s and 1980s, women were regarded primarily as victims, potential victims, or empowered survivors, and men as perpetrators or potential perpetrators.

Among the many limitations of this narrow approach is that most men did not see themselves as potential perpetrators — and as a result shut down in a way that precluded honest participation or critical dialogue. This is not about me, their thinking went, but about the kind of men – those men — who need to be helped, or held accountable, for bad behavior toward women. But when men – and women – are positioned as friends, family members, teammates, classmates, colleagues and co-workers of women who are or might one day be abused, or men who are abusive or perhaps going down that path, then “bystander” represents a virtually universal category – and men can’t as easily tune it out. At MVP, we understood that this offered a creative solution to one of the central challenges in gender violence prevention education: how to engage men without approaching them as potential rapists and batterers.

The short and long-term solution wasn’t to “fix” individual men; it was to change social norms, especially but not exclusively within male peer cultures. The strategy we settled on was to encourage people to speak out in the face of abusive behavior before, during or after the fact, and thus contribute to a climate where sexist abuse was seen as uncool and unacceptable, and with men in particular, as a transgression against — rather than an enactment of — the social norms of masculinity.

We also wanted to address the relation between men’s violence against women and men’s violence against … men. This was prompted by empathy with men as victims, but it was also strategic. Appeals to men’s altruism are more likely to be successful when bolstered by appeals to self-interest. Men’s self-interest in preventing gender violence includes men’s concern for the women in their lives: their mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends and friends.

But in MVP, we also talk about the abuse, harassment and violence that men experience – usually (but not always) at the hands of other men. The same cultural and socialization processes that produce men who are violent toward women also help to produce men who verbally, physically and sexually assault each other — and sexually abuse boys. From the beginning, MVP has used real-life scenarios that address the role of the bystander in instances of male-on-male bullying, gay-bashing and other forms of abuse that are common in men’s lives. The alleged 2002 assault of a 10-year-old boy in a locker room shower by former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky that was witnessed by then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary sounds like a scenario that could have come right out of our program’s main teaching tool, the MVP Playbook.

Penn State & The Bystander Approach: Laying Bare The Dynamics In Male Peer Culture (Part 2 of a 3-part series)

By Jackson Katz, Ph.D.
December 8, 2011

To many people, one of the most astounding things about the Penn State scandal is that in at least two separate incidents, adult men allegedly witnessed another adult man sexually assaulting boys and yet did not intervene — according to the Grand Jury report on one of the incidents — or immediately report it to the police. How could they not have taken stronger action? How could athletic administrators and other university officials not have acted more forcefully and responsibly?

Much commentary about Penn State – and to a certain extent, Syracuse University — has included speculation that the silence of various individuals might have been due to their placing a greater priority on maintaining the good name and reputation of the university and its athletic program over the safety of children. Whether or not this theory of misplaced priorities holds true, it clearly merits further investigation by outside authorities — and deep introspection on the part of Penn State partisans — in the weeks and months ahead.

But the bystander passivity that has come under critical scrutiny in the Happy Valley is sadly very common in male peer culture – especially in cases of gender and sexual violence involving “one of the guys.” To many people this seems perplexing. How could people not act, especially when the alleged abuse involves children? Many callers to sports talk radio programs in recent weeks have asserted that if they had observed or been told about what went down at Penn State, they would have taken immediate, forceful action. Maybe so, but talk is cheap. It is easy from a distance to judge others’ failure to act. But as someone who has led hundreds of interactive discussions with men on the topic of engaging bystanders in the prevention of sexual and domestic violence, I know it is more complicated than that.

In reality there is often a price men must be willing to pay for doing the right thing. For example, when it comes to men’s mistreatment of women, men who speak out and confront or interrupt each other’s abusive behavior run the risk of fostering resentment from other men, increasing tensions in their daily interpersonal relationships, or in some cases, even suffering violent reprisals. Or they have to contend with their peers questioning their “manhood,” even their heterosexuality. The stress and anxiety this kind of disapproval produces can be as disturbing for a 45-year-old man as it is for a 15-year-old boy.

In a powerful college athletic program, fraternity or military organization a man who “drops a dime” on another man — especially someone who is well-respected or critical to the group’s image or success — might be seen as being disloyal to the group itself. In groups that prize blind loyalty over other ethical considerations, acting on principle thus comes with a cost. Depending on the popularity of the alleged perpetrator, a man who breaks the informal code of silence runs the risk of committing social suicide.

Sometimes there are practical — including financial — considerations. This is particularly true if the active bystander has less social capital — or institutional power — than the perpetrator. Consider the case of a first-year student-athlete who is uncomfortable with the way a senior co-captain talks about women. Should he say something? Or a scholarship student-athlete who finds out that his coach is abusing his wife, but the same coach controls the student-athlete’s playing time, or maybe even the status of his scholarship. Should the student-athlete confront the coach? Is it fair to expect low-level university employees or military members to challenge their bosses or superior officers when they face a realistic fear of being fired or losing out on a promotion? The answer might be “yes” to all these hypothetical situations, but let’s not pretend these are easy decisions for anyone to make.

In fact, a big part of the reason for the reluctance of men in general — and men in sports culture in specific — to speak out about men’s violence against women is that it often takes a good deal of courage for a man to do so. In the Penn State case, as Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out in
The New York Times, squeamishness about homosexuality also seems to have played an important role in both Mike McQueary’s reaction to the rape he witnessed, and the kinds of euphemisms university officials initially used to describe the incident (e.g. “horsing around” in the showers.)

As the multiple failures to protect children at Penn State demonstrate, it is important for people to learn and practice techniques they can use to intervene effectively in potential sexual assaults and a variety of other social situations. But more than skill-building is required. People — in this case especially, men — need permission from each other to act, and reassurance that those who do intervene and interrupt abusive behavior will be respected, not rejected, for actually “stepping up to the plate.” Men, as well as women, need the opportunity to talk about the dynamics of their relationships with their peers, and with those in authority. What are the pros and cons of this course of action, or that one? If I see something that makes me uncomfortable, what should I do? To whom can I turn for ideas or support? What have others done in similar circumstances?

The answers to these sorts of questions are not likely to be found in a PowerPoint presentation, or a briefing about applicable state law or university rules. To be sure, it is important for everyone to know their obligations under the law. The Penn State case has made clear that university regulations on sexual abuse reporting — and state laws themselves — need to be scrutinized and strengthened. But the key to the success of the bystander approach in sexual assault prevention education has as much to do with the process as the content.

The power of critical dialogue focused on the role of the bystander is that the dialogue itself is the vehicle for a shift in group norms around the acceptance and perpetuation of rape and battering-supportive attitudes and behaviors.

In the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) Playbook, as in the Penn State case, all of the bystander scenarios depict situations where the bystander knows the perpetrator (or potential perpetrator) and/or the victim (or potential victim). The interactive discussion highlights the nature of the bystander’s relationship with both parties, as well as the larger peer culture in which they are all imbedded.

Understanding the specific dynamics of a given peer culture is crucial to understanding what factors can catalyze or impede responsible action. For example, one of the key differences in facilitating bystander education sessions with cohesive groups like teams, and with groups composed of people who don’t know each other well, is that few ties bind the latter group. Unlike teams, they have no shared experience to fall back on, and no ongoing mechanism for accountability (to each other). Jeff O’Brien, long-time director of MVP-National, explains:

“Individuals can conceivably go back to their peer groups and no one would ever know they participated in a [gender violence] training. With athletic teams or in the military, you have common goals and organizational values that change the dynamic in the room. With these groups you are always reinforcing the idea that they are responsible to each other – and for each other’s behavior. Just by having this conversation together, members of a team or military unit agree that they need to address these issues, and that they have responsibilities as leaders, teammates, fellow marines, etc. There is power in the shared experience [of the discussion.] I remember once a team told us, after we visited with them the year before, that they couldn’t always think of profound things to say or do, but they could always say, ‘MVP!’ in a teammate’s ear and he would know to stop what he was doing. The shared experience triggered the memory for them, both as a team and as individuals.”

In MVP sessions with athletic teams, we refer to “teammates” more often than “bystanders,” although operationally the two words are closely related. Outside of the athletic context, a bystander — in the best sense of the word — has a responsibility to others because of their shared humanity, not because they play a sport together. But a team is comprised of people who not only have shared goals, but oftentimes friendships, and a special kind of camaraderie. In MVP we customize our language and try, whenever possible, to adapt the bystander concept to various institutional cultures.

In dialogues with athletes, we raise a number of questions specific to the kinds of relationships people have on teams and in the broader athletic subculture:

  • Would you be more likely to intervene in this (potential acquaintance rape) scenario if your teammate was involved, rather than someone you knew casually?  Why or why not?  What if the guy was a close friend, but not a teammate?  Would there be any difference in your response?
  • We also ask questions about the bystander’s enlightened self-interest.  For example, if a teammate is charged with a sexual assault or is arrested for a domestic violence incident, how does that affect the team’s reputation and self-image? Isn’t it in your self-interest as a member of the team to prevent these things from happening, if at all possible?
  • In sessions with coaches and athletic administrators, we ask questions like: What responsibility do you have to the student-athletes to model behavior in your personal behavior, and in your peer relationships, that you expect the student-athletes to emulate?

Moving Beyond Penn State: Bystander Training As Leadership Training (Part 3 of a 3-part series)

By Jackson Katz, Ph.D.
December 15, 2011

Bystander training can actually be understood as a kind of entry-level leadership training, because bystanders who assess a situation, consider their options, and take action are doing what leaders do. Near the beginning of extended Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) trainings, we do a simple exercise where participants are asked to define leadership. What qualities do good leaders possess? We write the answers on a flip chart, and use those definitions throughout the training to reinforce the idea that “empowered bystanders” who interrupt abusive behaviors are better described as “leaders.”

This exercise is especially effective with groups — such as sports teams and military units — whose members are already invested in the idea of becoming leaders. Long-time MVP trainer Daryl Fort says he can often feel a palpable sense of relief in the air when men (and women) figure out that pressure on them to conform to stereotypical gender norms is sometimes in conflict with the ideas of leadership and courage to which they aspire. “It can be liberating for them,” he says, “when these contradictions are confronted and lifted in the group, freeing individuals to behave in ways they identify internally as more positive for the team/unit, as well as self-affirming. Sometimes participants will approach us after a relatively brief 90-minute session and say things like, ‘We really needed to hear/talk about that as a team. Thank you.’ ”

Bystander training helps individual men think about how their actions or inactions — even well-intentioned — sometimes contribute to a cultural climate that encourages, or at the very least tolerates, relationship abuse, sexual assault, and the sexual abuse of children. But while individual bystanders play a critical role, most solutions to social problems of the magnitude of sexual violence have to be of a social and institutional nature. For example, there is no excuse for any college or university that has an athletic program NOT to have mandated sexual assault and relationship abuse prevention education for all student-athletes, coaches and athletic administrators. If a college or university does not have this kind of programming — and hundreds do not — it represents a failure of leadership at the level of the athletic director or university administration.

Sexual assault prevention education should be part of the student-athlete experience — for men and women — from the first moment a young student-athlete steps onto campus. It should also be part of routine professional training required of coaches and athletic administrators. From the beginning of MVP we have insisted that athletic staffs need bystander training as much as the student-athletes. They need the opportunity to think through their responsibilities as leaders and mentors, but also their responsibilities as members of their own peer cultures. Too often, powerful coaches and administrators skip their part in the trainings. If asked, they typically say it’s the students who really “need to hear the message,” as if men and women in their thirties, forties, fifties and older in powerful leadership roles have all these issues figured out, and have better things to do than to learn — and engage in dialogue — about how to notice and interrupt rape and abuse-supportive attitudes and behaviors.

As the Penn State situation clearly demonstrates, it is time for a shift in our expectations about the role of campus leaders — university officials, athletic administrators, and coaches. Even before Penn State there had already been movement underway on the risk-management side of things. Now campus officials are even more concerned about their legal liabilities in sexual assault cases, and new federal regulations and Title IX investigations are prompting schools to make sure their policies and procedures are comprehensive and up-to-date.

But aside from any legal requirements, athletic directors who do not offer or require prevention programs, and participate in them themselves, are in a sense being passive bystanders who are complicit in sexually abusive behaviors. This same logic about institutional responsibility in higher education applies to administrators in charge of Greek affairs, housing, health services, and other college and university systems. The best possible outcome of the sad events at Penn State and Syracuse University will be for institutions to see that taking a proactive approach to sexual assault and abuse prevention is infinitely preferable to picking up the pieces once the damage has been done.

Jackson Katz, Ph.D., is an educator, author, filmmaker, and cultural theorist who is internationally recognized for his groundbreaking work in the field of gender violence prevention education and critical media literacy. He is the author of the book, The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, and creator of the film, Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity. He has lectured on hundreds of college and high school campuses and has conducted hundreds of professional trainings, seminars, and workshops in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan. He is co-founder of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program, the leading gender violence prevention initiative in college and professional athletics.

There Are Victims in the Penn State Tragedy, Not “Accusers”

By Jackson Katz, Ph.D.
The Huffington Post
November 18, 2011

At least one positive development has emerged from the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. In news and commentary about that tragic case, the victims are actually being referred to as “victims.” While it’s easy to find references to “Jerry Sandusky’s accusers,” it is perhaps equally as likely to read and hear about “Sandusky’s victims.”

This marks a significant break with journalistic convention in several high-profile alleged sex crime spectacles in recent years, such as the ones involving Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or the current sexual harassment scandal surrounding Republican presidential primary candidate Herman Cain.

In each of these (in)famous cases the alleged victims of powerful men were labeled almost exclusively as “accusers.” According to sexual assault victim advocates, the Kobe Bryant rape trial in 2004 was a pivotal moment in this emergent journalistic practice. From that point on, media accounts of sex crime reports and prosecutions began referring to alleged victims as accusers, and their behavior and motives have come increasingly under the glare of media scrutiny and public skepticism. The alleged victims of Roethlisberger, Strauss-Kahn, Cain and many others have been pilloried on TV and in the blogosphere. Unlike in the Penn State case, where the alleged victims are presumed to be telling the truth, in these other cases doubts about the honesty and integrity of the “accusers” became central to the story.

Of course there are critical differences between the Penn State situation and these other events. The chief one is that in the State College tragedy, Jerry Sandusky’s victims were boys at the time of the alleged abuse, so there can be no ambiguity about the notion of “consenting adults.” By contrast, the aforementioned scandals all involved adult women as the complaining witnesses. This difference in the social position and gender of the victims is largely responsible for the qualitative difference in the tone and tenor of media coverage and commentary about the Penn State case.

For one thing, few people are willing to publicly defend the alleged perpetrator’s character in the face of these appalling charges. In previous high-profile sexual violence cases that involved adult men as alleged perps and women as their victims — perhaps most poignant among them the recent case involving DSK and an African immigrant hotel maid in New York City — friends and associates of the accused man have been quick to declare that the man they know is incapable of acting in the way he was alleged to have acted. This implicitly — and explicitly — casts aspersions on the credibility of the alleged victim. If he is incapable of it, she must be making it up. And so in the court of public opinion if not in the actual courtroom, she’s the one who is put on trial. It is important to note that these testimonials of confidence in the alleged perpetrator are typically offered even in the face of criminal indictments that were brought on the basis of specific and credible evidence of a crime.

Another key difference between the Penn State case and previous ones is that at Penn State there were eyewitness accounts that a crime occurred. Most sexual abuse takes place in private, without witnesses. But in the case of Sandusky’s alleged crimes, at least two men reported that they observed the prominent football coach sexually assaulting young boys on school property. This precluded predictable dismissals from people blindly supporting the perpetrator that this was another “he said-she said” (or “he said-he said”) case, where it’s impossible to know the truth — and where as a result there can never be any accountability.

But in spite of these important differences, it is surely worth noting that the gender of the Penn State victims has affected the way the story has been framed in media and the court of public opinion. As this case makes clear, boys as well as girls are too often the victims of sexually predatory men (and sometimes women) who exploit their vulnerability, violate their trust, and shatter their innocence. Like girls who have been sexually abused, boys and men can and do sometimes suffer lifelong negative consequences. They are at increased risk of suffering from depression, developing eating disorders, alcohol and other drug addictions, and a range of other problems. In addition to the shame of being violated that causes pain in victims of both sexes, boys also have to struggle with the added shame of not having been “man enough” to protect themselves.

But generally speaking boys do not have to contend — as do girls — with the sexist presumption that their sex somehow causes them to entice or invite men to sexually abuse them. To be sure, many boys who are sexually abused by men do indeed struggle with issues of sexual identity. But in public discourse, boys/men who are victimized are less likely than girls to face criticism for bringing it on themselves. Our cultural landscape is littered with examples where young girls — not women — have been blamed for men’s sexual violence against them. One notable example of this phenomenon: the case in Cleveland, Texas in early 2011 where an 11-year-old girl was brutally gang-raped by a group of young men and boys and community members, defending the boys, explained that she had “dressed provocatively.”

In a blog entry entitled, The Penn State Scandal: Connect the Dots Between Child Abuse and the Sexual Assault of Women on Campus, Claire Potter, professor of history and American studies at Wesleyan University, argued that:

“As you absorb the news about the key people at Penn State who ought to have reported what they knew of Coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged assaults on little boys, please keep one thing in mind. Penn State’s cover-up is embedded in the interest it, and all universities, have in keeping many forms of sexual violence and sexual harassment a private, internal matter. The mistake Penn State made was, in many ways, a simple category error: they mistook these pubescent boys for women. They forgot that children occupy a very different status in the law than do the female students, faculty and staff who are most frequently the object of unwanted sexual attention and/or violence… Since most people don’t believe that ten-year-olds want to be anally penetrated by grown men, once there is credible evidence that the sex happened, people tend not to spin alternative scenarios about little boys like: ‘look what he was wearing;’ ‘he’s probably just mad that Coach Sandusky wouldn’t hook up with him;’ ‘he was drunk;’ or ‘it was just bad sex and he’s trying to get back at Coach.’”

In other words, the cynicism and deep mistrust of women that is woven into the DNA of patriarchal cultures is not a big factor in a case where a powerful adult man was alleged to have sexually assaulted vulnerable boys.

One of the ways this sexist cynicism is operationalized linguistically is in the journalistic convention of referring to female victims as “accusers.” Male victims are sometimes tagged with that label as well. There were many “accusers” in the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, or in the Georgia sexual abuse scandal involving the popular Baptist Minister Bishop Eddie Long. But in sheer numbers the references to women as “accusers” clearly predominates.

This language usage plays a powerful ideological function. Consider: the public is inclined to sympathize — even empathize — with female and male victims of rape, or prior to a finding of guilt of the accused/defendant, “alleged victims.” Unless our psyches have been hopelessly distorted by misogyny or desensitization we not only feel badly about what has happened to them; we identify with them. Victim-blaming often distorts this sympathetic identification, but the sentiment derives in part from an understanding that “the victim could just as easily have been someone I love — or me.”

Referring to the victim as the “accuser” reverses this process. She is no longer the victim of his (alleged) attack. She is the one doing something — to him. She is accusing him. In other words, she is now the perpetrator of an accusation against him. At the same time, he is transformed from the alleged perpetrator of sexual assault to the actual victim of her accusation. The public is thus positioned to identify sympathetically with him — to feel sorry for him – as the true victim.

Every time a well-meaning journalist or commentator refers to sexual assault victims as “accusers” they contribute to this dynamic. They tilt the scales of justice away from victims and toward alleged perpetrators. The presumption of innocence for accused men — and women — is a critical feature of our judicial system. It represents a basic commitment to equal justice and fairness that is well worth fighting to preserve.

But this presumption of innocence for defendants in the court of public opinion — if not always in the formal legal system — should not come at the expense of the rights of victims. In media coverage of these cases it should be possible to respect both the presumption of innocence for the accused and the integrity of victims. This is a standard to which we should hold ourselves — as well as the media we consume and help to sustain.

Finally, the sad events unfolding at Penn State demonstrate clearly that the tide is turning. The voices of sexual abuse victims — girls and boys, women and men — are breaking through the walls of silence that powerful men have built to advance their interests and protect their privilege. Look at the institutions that have been rocked to their core in just the past decade. The Catholic Church. The U.S. military. And now Joe Paterno and Penn State football.

The redemptive potential of these sad scandals is that because they are so high-profile, they have provided an opening for men to talk about their experiences of sexual violence, a subject long shrouded in secrecy and shame. They have also created an opportunity for powerful, male-dominated institutions finally to live up to their stated values. Maybe then, when the dust of the current debacle settles, the Nittany Lions of Penn State and their legions of fans will be able to say with integrity that they truly aspire to “success with honor.”

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