Men as Allies: The Efficacy of a High School Rape Prevention Intervention

Article excerpt

Traditional approaches to rape prevention that seek to motivate behavior change among males by focusing almost exclusively on the perpetrator's behavior and highlighting the consequences of abusive behavior have had mixed results (Lonsway, 1996; Schewe, 2002). In fact, some studies using traditional approaches have demonstrated a worsening of attitudes following rape prevention programming (Berg, 1993; Berg, Lonsway, & Fitzgerald, 1999; Fischer, 1986). There is a growing philosophy among rape prevention educators that using a Men as Allies approach, compared with traditional approaches, may be more effective in reducing male defensiveness and promoting change in attitudes and behaviors. Although these interventions acknowledge men as the overwhelming perpetrators of sexual violence, they recognize the enormous power of men as allies and encourage men to be active participants rather than passive bystanders in changing a rape-supportive culture.

Social norms theory (Perkins & Berkowitz, 1986) has great promise for guiding rape prevention curriculum development and evaluation from a Men as Allies perspective. According to social norms theory, the influence of one's peers is based more on what one thinks one's peers do and believe (perceived norms) rather than on the actual behaviors and real beliefs of peers (actual norms). This misperception is the basis of social norms theory. By presenting accurate information, those who intervene lessen the pressure to conform to perceived norms, resulting in an individual acting in a way that is more consistent with his or her own preexisting attxtudes (Berkowitz, 2003b). Berkowitz (2003b) outlined the various misperceptions related to social norms that are most important to the theory. The most common type of misperception has been labeled pluralistic ignorance, which occurs when an individual who engages in healthy behavior incorrectly believes he or she is in the minority. Individuals who incorrectly believe they are in the majority but are actually in the minority experience false consensus (Ross, Greene, & House, 1977). Through both pluralistic ignorance and false consensus, the majority is often silenced, whereas the minority is made to seem more normative, thus reinforcing the distortions. The final type of misperception occurs when an individual considers his or her behavior to be more unique than it actually is, which is labeled false uniqueness. This type of misperception can also result from a self-serving bias, with the individual feeling more special than he or she actually is. To date, the majority of programming using social norms theory has been in the realm of alcohol abuse prevention (Perkins & Berkowitz, 1986). However, Berkowitz (2003a) argued that this theory has much to offer the field of sexual assault by altering the culture surrounding a perpetrator. To be more specific, he suggested that young men who oppose rape-supportive attitudes and behaviors may remain silent bystanders if they incorrectly assume most of their peers support rape, whereas if they view rape-supportive behavior as outside the norm, they may be more likely to confront perpetrators.

Recent research at the college level provides support for some of the assumptions of social norm theory as applied to rape prevention. For example, studies (Bruce, 2002; Kilmartin, Conway, Friedberg, McQuoid, & Tschan, 1999) reveal the tendency for men to underestimate the extent to which others feel uncomfortable with language that objectifies women and that men indicate they would not enjoy forcing a woman to be sexually intimate but believe most other men would (Berkowitz, 2003a). Muehlenhard and Cook (1998) found that two thirds of male participants reported engaging in unwanted sexual activity because of perceived male peer pressure to be sexually active, and Boulter (1997) found that students believed their peers are more likely to believe in rape myths than they actually do. …