Building a Respect Culture

So much is disturbing about the Steubenville video, released by Anonymous, in which Michael Nodianos makes horrifying jokes about the raped woman, that I can hardly begin. Here’s one: the guy saying “that’s not cool.” Oh, I’m glad he’s saying that rape, and joking about rape, aren’t funny. But “that’s not cool” isn’t enough. If two football players took the body of a drunk and unconscious young woman and used it as a plaything all night, why didn’t someone intervene? For god’s sake, even if it was too hard to take her body away from them, why did no one call the police?

I know, that’s easy for me to say. I wasn’t there; I don’t have to live in that town where football is the primary industry, where football is the central social currency, where standing up to football bullies could mean social death and physical danger, not just at the time but later as well. Those social norms were already in place—enforced, Jessica Valenti at The Nation contends, not just by the town’s football culture, but also the nation at large. From the bystander effect to Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, we all know that situational norms have an incredibly powerful effect on our behavior: No matter what we imagine afterwards, or from the sidelines, few of us have the moral confidence or confrontational courage to stand up to everyone around us. I may be appalled and grieved, but I am not surprised at the observers’ paralysis—or even their unwillingness to testify. Nobody likes a snitch.

But what if the town had had different norms? What if the norm was—instead of celebrating cruelty—to stand up for each other, to deflect violence, to protect the vulnerable? What if you got social cred not for putdowns and cruelty but for helping others out? As my friend and colleague Michele Weldon reports at Al Jazeera, some projects genuinely do help change social norms. With some effort we can shift from a rape culture to its opposite: a respect culture. And it can help not just women, not just the most socially vulnerable, but the entire social climate.  

That can be done with one of the most basic of public health insights: by teaching young people what’s really the social norm. a lot of research has shown that college students are more likely to binge-drink if they think everyone is doing it. Do a survey, get accurate stats, reveal that the heavy partiers are a serious minority, and you can change student behavior and campus norms. Similar projects can work the same way for such related phenomenons as bullying, slut-shaming, gaybashing, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence generally. Very few men are rapists. Serial rapists are a small group of predators who commit other acts of violence as well; stop them early and you protect more than just one individual woman. More important, establish among young men and women that exploiting a drunk girl by raping and humiliating her repeatedly is not the norm, and you can change a campus climate—improving the life not just of that one young woman, but of the others whose lives are slightly more dangerous and significantly coarser because that rape was a community event.

I know of several programs in which leaders teach either peers or younger men that rape isn’t acceptable—and show them how they can intervene without confrontation: they include Men Can Stop Rape, Coaching Boys into Men, Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), a number of offshoot programs on college campuses, and surely more than I don’t know yet. Some of these programs are being evaluated by social science researchers; I’m told that preliminary results show that they work, and will report more when the research is published. (Full disclosure: my wife, Michelle King, was one of the founders of the MVP program; she helped develop it, and is doing some work with it now.) What they have in common: this bystander intervention approach teaches young men and women that they can look out for others in trouble, and show them how to intervene without confrontation or danger. I can’t remember where I first saw this video, which is identified on YouTube as a UW Madison lesson in how to intervene, but I think it’s just spectacular as a quick lesson that stopping an acquaintance rape before it happens doesn’t have to take an enormous effort; it simply requires being awake, thoughtful, and willing to care about others actively. My wife tells me she uses this longer video from New Zealand in her train-the-trainers efforts; I found it a little harsher, but it shows many different moments that a variety of people—a friend, a bartender, a stranger, a roommate—could have prevented one predator from raping, without direct confrontation or danger. 

The larger issue, of course, is how we go from specific, scattershot workshops and good parents to creating a broader culture of respect. How do we train people to step up for each other, rather than mocking one another’s vulnerability as a way to increase their own social power, or ignoring one another as a selfish, self-succeeding strategy? It will take a lot of very particular, very local efforts. A high school will have to be determined to change the social climate from one of cruelty to one of connection, teaching its students that they can be involved with one another instead of dissing one another. A college president can decide that the entire campus is going to switch from one of hero-worship to one of mutual respect. We can do it if we decide to. There’s less rape in the United States than in India. Some schools are more welcoming than others. People do help one another when it’s seen as the norm.

Rape is just one of the many manifestations of a climate of cruelty and selfishness; it’s related to the disconnected climate that encourages rampant bullying, as Emily Bazelon reports in her forthcoming book Sticks and Stones (my reviewed of which will appear in the next print issue of The American Prospect).  Let me quote what she says about her insights in a post this week about John Cook’s recent confession at Gawker about his youth as a bully:

The dynamics of bullying are not a complete mystery. At some schools, kids rise in the social ranks for attacking other kids’ reputations. That sounds like what was happening at Cook’s junior high. He was trying to impress the cool kids. He didn’t think about the feelings of the girls he sacrificed to that aim. They were fodder, not people, somehow. He cut himself off from empathy for them. This is the thing about bullying that makes it so hard to stomach: In a particular ill-starred place and time, it turns kids utterly cold and heartless. For an up-to-date example, listen to this amazing story from WNYC’s Radio Rookies about slut shaming. Sixteen-year-old Temitayo Fagbenle interviews a boy who expresses no remorse for ruining a girl’s reputation by posting compromising photos of her online. Because he and Fagbenle are friends, we get the unvarnished version of his unfazed response. What he cares about are the coolness points he scored. He’s still reveling in that.

Rape is not inevitable. What if we changed that culture of bullying—including gaybaiting, slut-shaming, conquistador masculinity, violence against women, and sexual assault, of which the Steubenville rape is an extreme example—into one of mutual respect?

You may also like