Note on content: includes discussion of sexual violence and racism.
While discussions about sexual assault on college campuses have too often been defined by silence, the recent outcry by students and activists have pushed a once much-hushed subject to the forefront.
As of Aug. 13, The Federal Department of Education has initiated investigations at 76 institutions of higher education across the country about their alleged mishandling of sexual assault cases. And in September, a student at Columbia University attracted national media attention for her thesis project entitled “Carry That Weight,” where she carries around a dorm mattress to symbolize the weight of the trauma that faces survivors of sexual assault. She plans to do so until her alleged rapist, whom Columbia previously found not responsible for the alleged assault, is expelled.
All this is to say, there are many — both at an official and activist level — working to end sexual violence, and the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, SAPAC, is one such organization at the University of Michigan. SAPAC is staffed both by professionals who provide care for survivors and crisis services, and student volunteers who work to educate peers about sexual assault prevention through group outreach sessions and SAPAC-facilitated workshops on bystander intervention.
Men’s Activism is a branch of SAPAC dedicated to facilitating these workshops. Founded 10 years ago, Men’s Activism works under the assumption that men, as the primary perpetrators of sexual violence, can also play a critical role in preventing it. For example, SAPAC is staging a No-Shave November campaign where participants will take a pledge to spread awareness about one of SAPAC’s fundamental tenets — namely, that “all sexual activity should be consensual and come after an enthusiastic yes,” as stated on the website about the campaign.
“The reality of it is, we’re getting men involved beyond just taking a pledge,” said Donald Lyons, LSA junior and co-coordinator for Men’s Activism. “We’re trying, basically, to invite men into the role of advocates and educators.”
Lyons described the difficulty in mobilizing men for a cause, which generally does not affect them directly — though according to a 1994 study, nine percent of all rape victims are male. While men are socialized to the idea that a woman’s behavior or attire determines her sexual availability and, by implication, their culpability in sexual violence, the job of someone like Lyons or Sarah Hong, LSA junior and the other co-coordinator of Men’s Activism, is to propel men into the “‘Oh’ moment,” to use Lyons’s phrase, where they recognize that the focus should be on preventing sexual assault in the first place and not blaming survivors.
At one of his his recent workshops with a fraternity on campus, Lyons went through several scenarios written specifically for that organization as he and the members of the house collectively detailed the ways that they would intervene in the situation at hand. From there, they identified the problems and barriers — physical, emotional and social — that come into play when one has taken the step to take preventative action in that problematic or violent situation.
“We want to work with everyone we can, especially communities of color, communities that have stories or narratives that are not what you see in the whole ‘Hail to the Victors’ stuff,” Lyons said. “So now, what we do is co-facilitation.”
“We’re trying this new thing where one person from the community is co-presenting with one person from SAPAC. And the reason we do this is because we recognize that when the information is given from someone within the community they’re more receptive, instead of them going ‘who is this intruder coming into my community and preaching down to us,’” Hong explained.
Part of SAPAC’s ethos is a sensitivity to a partner community’s narratives. The objective of co-facilitation is to hand craft a framework for discussing and confronting the problems of bystander intervention in a way that doesn’t rely on blank abstractions or empty generalities. Furthermore, this focus makes clear SAPAC’s belief that the best relationship they can form with an organization in one that is creative, collaborative and, most importantly, enduring. To be put narratively in the moment when one is faced with the possibility of intervention and prevention, to recognize the barriers to action in a given situation in one’s own community — this is what SAPAC aims to impress on the participants of its workshops.
“We are more focused on groups or organizations on campus that are more male-dominated. So in this case, (that means) fraternities, ROTC, the Athletic Department. And we’re also trying to reach out to different culturally diverse communities on campus because we recognize the idea of how masculinity and misogyny are perpetuated differently based on culture,” Hong said.
This isn’t to say that the volunteers for Men’s Activism end up missing the larger issues by focusing their work with specific groups. Part of the work is contextualizing these discrete instances of sexual violence in a broader, more structural analytical framework.
“Part of what I believe and what SAPAC believes is that to talk about sexual assault, you have to address way more than someone drugging someone else at a party. You have to address sexism as a whole, you have to address why society devalues women and objectifies women, why our society erases or ridicules people of non-binary genders.” Lyons said. “Beyond that, you have to go into racism, why our society devalues and dehumanizes people of color, why it is that when people think about rape they think about the hyper-sexualized black male.”
Sexual assault is a relation of force, coercion and control where gender, sexuality, race, class and all other social determinants converge. Hong, Lyons and the volunteers of Men’s Activism attempt to come to an understanding of sexual violence with the participants of the workshop that takes account of these factors and instructs them in becoming a thoughtful and effective bystander.