Men As Partners In Primary Sexual Violence Prevention

Male involvement in sexual violence prevention has increased sharply over the past decade. Organizations such as Men Can Stop Rape, The Oakland Men’s Project, One In Four, and the White Ribbon Campaign have received tremendous interest from both within, and outside of, the established anti-rape movement. The past ten years have also seen some sexual assault crisis centers (SACCs) renewing the social change “roots” of their work by developing or strengthening primary prevention projects - projects intended to prevent the initial perpetration of sexual violence. Many of these SACCs, sometimes in conjunction with campus-based sexual violence programs, have recognized the need for prevention programming that connects with young men. The rationale for this heightened interest in male-focused programming comes from the fact that males commit the vast majority of sexual violence, and are thus in a powerful position to generate change. To this end, these programs often seek participation from male allies in order to gain greater insight into what types of messages and methods might resonate with men in their larger community, offer positive, non-violent alternatives to traditional masculinity, and/or model constructive cross-gender collaboration.

What is a male ally?
For this article, the term “male ally” will be used to represent men and boys who work in partnership with established sexual violence agencies on primary prevention initiatives. A male ally could be a participant in an on-going community partnership helping to plan and implement a prevention project, or he could be a teenager developing his skills as a peer educator in that prevention project. The question of how to determine which men/boys should “be allowed” to be allies under this definition is a slightly different issue, and will be partially addressed later in the article. In reality though, each individual primary sexual violence prevention project must answer that question for itself.
Why are male allies important to primary prevention work?
For most SACCs, the desire to involve men as active participants in primary sexual violence prevention was initially intuitive: The rationale was a product of their experiences doing community education and organizing. However, there is also a body of research literature that supports the effectiveness of involving men in sexual violence prevention initiatives.
On a general conceptual level, well-established theories of attitude change, such as the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986; Petty & Wegener, 1998), describe the numerous variables influencing the extent to which people receive, internalize, and act on information. When applied to the issue at hand, this theory can explain how a man’s motivation to hear and meaningfully process an idea like, “I should be involved in ending sexual violence” is affected by such factors as the similarity of the message source to the message recipient, the perceived credibility of the source, the perceived relevance and the framing of the message itself, and the reinforcement of peers. Each of these variables can be manipulated to our advantage by working with, and obtaining input from, a diverse array of male allies.
For example, a diverse group of young men developing and implementing a peer education program might be able to more effectively reach other male students in their high school because of:
- Their shared environment/backgrounds to the other male students (similarity),
- Their ability to “speak the language” of other young men, getting messages across in a manner that reflects their common experiences of growing up male in a given culture (framing and relevance),
- Their ability to model the behavior they are endorsing by respecting others, outwardly refraining from sexist/homophobic/violent behaviors, and proactively sparking discussions about healthy relationships (peer reinforcement), and
- The simple fact that they are male, and thus are not as likely to be perceived by other male students as having a “vested personal interest” in men behaving respectfully toward women (perceived credibility - it goes against the “battle of the sexes” expectation many of us learn around the time we pass into puberty)
The growing body of applied research literature in the areas of public health and violence prevention also reinforces the value of male allies. Two independent reviews of multiple sexual violence prevention education programs indicated that “single-gender” formats (i.e., female facilitator with female participants and male facilitator with male participants) were more effective than mixed-gender formats in producing positive attitude change (Brecklin & Forde, 2001; Berkowitz, 2002). It should be noted that most of the programs reviewed in these articles would be considered “introductory” educational projects (i.e., they were mostly “one-shot” programs designed to positively impact a basic set of attitudes about sexual violence and gender), and were typically not designed to build healthy relationship skills or engage participants as agents of change on an on-going basis. Thus, the advantage of the single-gender format might disappear when men are engaged in a more intensive, sustained manner.
Likewise, the wealth of public health literature demonstrating the efficacy of peer-to-peer and community development approaches (see for example, Ender & Newton, 2000; World Health Organization R.O.E., 2002) shows the importance of engaging key stakeholders to sustaining effective prevention projects. Applied to male allies in sexual violence prevention, these principles suggest that men become more invested when they are empowered to help articulate the issue and develop “solutions” in a manner relevant to their experiences. A group of male allies engaged in such a process (perhaps by an established sexual violence organization) have the potential to produce highly-nuanced strategies that may not otherwise be conceived. For example, several violence prevention projects in Virginia have indicated that it was the authentic involvement of male allies that first prompted them to approach men as potential allies (rather than potential perpetrators), illuminate the “everyday” links between masculinity and violence, and focus on building positive skills and behaviors (in addition to avoiding negative behaviors).
How can SACCs engage male allies in primary sexual violence prevention?
A major factor associated with male involvement on the local level is the public image – fair and accurate, or not – of a given SACC. Does the public understand that the SACC undertakes community education and/or primary prevention work in addition to providing crisis intervention and hospital/court accompaniment? Does the SACC have a history of working in collaboration with various other community institutions, or are they perceived to be “closed off” or open only to working with certain types of people? SACCs should ask themselves these questions before engaging any community allies in male-focused primary prevention efforts. They may find that the first step is building capacity for this kind of work, both within the SACC as an organization, and in the community as a whole. Doing so means sitting down with staff, volunteers, and key community members, and discussing the causes of sexual violence, the meaning of primary prevention, goals for the involvement of male allies, and how male-focused primary prevention strategies might “look” and “feel.”
A related factor to the public image of SACCs is the fact that most men simply do not understand why sexual violence is an issue in which they should become involved - it is thought of singularly as a “woman’s issue.” Much of the important work being accomplished everyday at SACCs fits squarely into the American stereotype of “women’s work”: social work, counseling, teaching, etc. The reasons for why this work is stereotyped - and usually devalued - are beyond the scope of this article, but it is important to recognize this phenomenon as an obstacle to male involvement. A man might be a survivor of sexual violence or be the loved one of a survivor, but in order to be moved to any sustained action (such as volunteering with a SACC, organizing a White Ribbon Campaign in his neighborhood, seeking to educate himself further on the matter, etc.) he will have to first learn how to critically examine, and at least partially reject, the powerful societal pressures telling him, “this is not your problem”, “real men are unaffected and just get over it”, and “helping people is women’s work.” SACCs can address this obstacle by putting primary prevention concepts “out in front” along side victim services during community awareness events, emphasizing men’s stake in this issue and listing some of the specific prevention activities in which men/boys could become involved.
If there is an impression in the community that the only role for volunteers is to work the hotline and accompany victims to the hospital - a daunting prospect to many men and women - then highlighting activities such as, “talking with young men about what it means to be a ‘real man’”, “participating in planning a healthy relationships campaign”, or “helping to organize a group of teen peer educators” might pique a wider range of interests. Expanding public awareness in this matter can build a base of male allies, which will in turn make the work more “viable” to other men. Additionally, SACCs can expand their base of male allies by connecting with high-profile male community members whose identities are linked to sexual violence prevention or positive models of masculinity.
Regardless of how potential male allies come to the attention of SACCs, the ability to identify who will be a capable and reliable partner is essential. It is perhaps most beneficial to consider potential male partners in primary prevention initiatives in the same manner as any other prevention partner. That is, SACCs should strive to find the right combination of mind-set (both in terms of openness and basic outlook on gender, violence, oppression, etc.), motivation, commitment, access, and personality in any prevention partner, regardless of gender. Of course, the fact that men do not live on the “receiving end” of sexism should be taken into account, but most of the basic “ingredients” of an effective ally are the same. It is both unwise and unrealistic to only seek men who “get it” (i.e., outwardly self-identify as “feminist,” accept that sexual violence exists on a continuum of sexism, use terminology held in high-esteem by sexual violence professionals, such as “survivor” and “LGBT-persons,” etc.). There are plenty of men (and women) who live lives defined by fairness, empathy, honesty, and cooperation – people who could be effective allies – who do not overtly subscribe to these concepts. Also, male allies, like female allies, are certainly capable of updating their world view, and often do so once they are exposed to further education. Furthermore, men who are deemed to “get it” are sometimes seen as “out of touch” by men in the general public, and/or might only be “talking the talk” and not living by those same principles.
The key to retaining male allies is also the same as that for any other type of community partner: Create a space for meaningful collaboration signified by mutual respect, honest dialogue, and a valuing of everyone’s contributions. Just as male allies should take care to avoid giving in to the gender pressures that encourage them to think their own opinions matter the most, SACCs might want to consider the value of having men challenge conventional wisdom about what types of male-focused prevention strategies hold the most promise.
Women created the movement to end sexual violence, have continued to effectively lead the movement through periods of tremendous growth, and understandably take great pride in the fact that these accomplishments were achieved with almost no male involvement. However, as the movement becomes more diverse on numerous fronts, it is vital that we include men in the “big tent” of allies. Over the past 35 years, we have empowered women/girls to look at themselves and society in a manner that is both revolutionary and affirming to their experiences. By working with men/boys on this issue we powerfully demonstrate that males are not innately “savage” – that like women/girls, they can learn to see our society’s glorification of violence and dominance for what it is, and in partnerships across gender, transform it.
Berkowitz, A. (2002). Fostering men’s responsibility for preventing sexual assault. In Schewe P., Editor. Preventing Violence in Relationships: Interventions Across the Life Span. Washington, D.C.: APA.
Brecklin, L. R., & Forde, D. R. (2001). A meta-analysis of rape education programs. Violence and Victims, 16, 303-321.
Ender, S. & Newton, F. (2000). Students Helping Students. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.
Petty, R. E. and Cacioppo, J. T. (1986) Communication and persuasion: Central and peripheral routes to attitude change, New York: Springer-Verlag
Petty, R. E., & Wegener, D. T. (1998). Attitude change: Multiple roles for persuasion variables. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.). The Handbook of Social Psychology. (Vol. 1, 4th Edition, pp. 323-390). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
World Health Organization - Regional Office for Europe, (2002). Community participation in local health and sustainable development: a working document on approaches and techniques. European Sustainable Development & Health Series 4, Geneva.
Brad Perry, MA
Sexual Violence Prevention Coordinator, VSDVAA
Re-printed with permission from the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance; 508 Dale Avenue; Charlottesville, VA , USA, 22902.