On Northwestern’s campus, men are addressing their role in sexual violence

Logo for the Northwestern University group Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault (MARS)

By Chris Schulz
Medill Reports

The topic of sexual assault and misconduct is nothing new, but  conversations among men about the role they can play in prevention is. For generations, masculine sexual aggression has been dismissed as “boys will be boys” or locker room talk. Now that society is demanding accountability where sexual violence or misconduct occurs, new conversations and allegations are expanding communication and enforcement.

“The most salient issue is getting men to stop abstracting the issue, to stop thinking of sexual violence as something that happens around them rather than something they contribute to” said David Fishman. He is the president of the Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault group at Northwestern University. MARS provides training to fraternities on campus about masculine identity and the role it can play in sexual assault.

“The biggest challenge is getting each and every one of us, myself included, to recognize places that we contribute to a culture of violence.” Fishman said.

Bar graphs showing replies to Northwestern's 2015 Campus Climate Survey
Responses to Northwestern’s 2015 Campus Climate Survey show small but significant differences between genders in perceptions and assumptions surrounding sexual assault on campus . A new Campus Climate Survey is due out later this year.

Many people believe that the type of training MARS provides should be mandatory on college campuses. However, the type of self-awareness Fishman is advocating comes from serious self-reflection and contemplation. Even advocates aren’t sure if mandating such intense introspection would be practical, or even beneficial.

“In an ideal world, that would be fantastic if people had some sort of requirement to get more familiar with some of these issues” said  Saed Hill. Hill is the assistant director of prevention and masculine engagement at Northwestern’s Center for Awareness, Response and Education, better known as CARE.

“The issue you run into is, ‘Who is ready to hear and listen to that information?’” he said.

When engaging men on their role in a culture of sexual misconduct, the issue is not only about who is ready to join the conversation, but also who they are willing to listen to, according to Hill.

“A lot of the time we notice from research that men and masculine people just respond unfortunately much better when it comes to some of these issues, and much less defensively when the message is coming from a man and masculine identified person” Hill said.

Responses to Northwestern’s 2015 Campus Climate Survey show that experiences of sexual harassment and violence overwhelmingly affect undergraduate females. A new Campus Climate Survey is due out later this year.

Everyone engaged with the topic of sexual assault and its eradication wants to find out how to get men to involve themselves in the process.

“I would love to see more men engage in the conversation in more authentic ways” said Robert Brown, Northwestern’s Director of Social Justice Education. Brown helps lead the NU Men program on campus, a voluntary 6-week course that engages participants in an in-depth dialogue about masculinity.

“My preference would be through scaffolding education and relationship building” Brown said. That way, Brown hopes to spark investment in the necessary work so that it is seen as “not an obligation but an opportunity”.

Photo at top: The logo of MARS, one of Northwestern’s student-led sexual health peer education groups. MARS is one of the only groups on campus that dedicates itself to all-masculine education on the topics of masculine identity and the role it plays in sexual violence.