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Men Against Sexual Violence group aims to improve campus culture

This article was originally published on Nov. 9, 2015.

One in six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, compared to one in 33 American men, according to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. These are some of the “sickening” statistics that motivated Sean Beckford’18 to help form a new group on campus, Men Against Sexual Violence, along with other male students and Caitlin Paterson’15, who is leading the group as part of her honors term project.

The group had its first meeting on Monday, Oct. 20, and now meets every Monday at 12:30 p.m. in Mead Room in Pearsons. As a COO-recognized club, it must welcome all students, though Paterson expects it will mostly attract men. Other key members include Jake Dragonetti’16, Mohammed Abbed’16, Alex LeRoy’16 and Dewight Walker’17.

Paterson praises the work of Jackson Katz, an anti-sexist activist who spoke on campus on Oct. 21. She particularly appreciates his emphasis that sexual assault is not a “women’s issue.”

“The patriarchy affects everyone,” she said. “If you shut out 50 percent of the population on a social issue that affects 100 percent of the population, you’re not going to get any good results,” Paterson said.

As co-founder, Dragonetti stated, “This is a men’s issue and thus males need to be better engaged and involved.”

Paterson, a Critical Identities and Sociology double major, wrote her honors thesis focusing on sexual violence and male athletes. Titled “(Dis)Connections Between Collegiate Athletics, Masculinity and Sexual Assault: A Case Study of Beloit College,” she looked at “less so perpetration [of sexual violence] and more their attitudes towards the whole thing, especially in light of Division I issues.”

These “issues” include the ways Division 1 athletics can create a patriarchal masculine culture that encourages sexual violence. Paterson followed national news stories, such as the investigation into quarterback football player Jameis Winston’s case. She was also influenced to pursue the project while studying prostitution and the sex trade abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark.

In 2012, a Florida State University student accused Winston of raping her, and another student sought counseling after having a sexual encounter with him, suggesting a traumatic experience. A New York Times investigative piece revealed that the city police and the administration delayed questioning witnesses, interviewing Winston and collecting his DNA. The university cleared the charges; this spring, after the survivor filed a suit against him, he filed a counterclaim denying all charges and arguing he is the one suffering because his reputation is threatened. In April, he signed a four-year $23.35 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The case is one of many that have colleges and universities facing mounting criticism for how they deal with sexual assault cases, especially when it comes to possibly giving athletes preferential treatment. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study released in Dec. 2014, “for the period 1995–2013, females ages 18 to 24 had the highest rate of rape and sexual assault victimizations compared to females in all other age groups.”

Paterson, an athlete who believes in “female empowerment through women’s athletics,” notes that as a Division III school, Beloit College has a different culture, in large part because it does not give out athletic scholarships. “You don’t become popular at Beloit College because you’re a star athlete,” she said. “A lot of research in D1 schools shows there’s a feeling of entitlement, [while at Beloit] there’s so many things that pull your identity in different ways that I think diffuses that feeling of entitlement.”

An important aspect of Paterson’s research revolved around the team dynamic. “One of my theories was that higher solidarity within teams can actually lead to either greater likelihood of accepting attitudes that encourage sexual assault or decrease likelihood — because if you have more solidarity within a team, it’s much easier to transmit certain values,” she said. “If you have a role model, a coach, a captain, prominent individuals on a team that are like, ‘no this isn’t cool,’ that just becomes the accepted standard.”

Beloit College is still not immune from the national trends. Two instances of a Beloit alum, Kristina Erickson’14, being sexually assaulted while at Beloit were featured in a Washington Post article this summer, for instance. According to the 2014-15 Annual Security Report, there was one reported instance of forcible sexual offenses in 2011, four in 2012 and six in 2013. All occurred on campus and most in residential halls. These numbers do not necessarily completely reflect the reality, however, considering that most cases go unreported. “We don’t want sexual assault to happen, but people are reporting, and that’s a good thing,” Paterson remarked.

After writing her thesis, Paterson felt compelled to act. “Many men I’ve talked to tell me ‘I really want to do something but don’t know how, and don’t feel comfortable,’” she said. Last spring, Laramie Wieseman’14’s honors term research on participant engagement and involvement at Beloit College found that the only significant difference in engagement was by gender. This is consistent with national trends, Paterson said, that show women tend to be more involved on campuses than men. Feeling she had the skills, knowledge and experience to engage men on sexual violence, she took the initiative to create this opportunity.

While Paterson acknowledged that Beloit College’s administration has faced criticisms for its sexual violence policies and, she stands by them. “Beloit College cares far less about its reputation than about what actually happens to students,” she said. “That being said, we can’t run as an institution unless we’re in compliance with policy and unless we do protect our reputation in some ways.”

She sees many improvements being made. For instance, the current first-year orientation educational video about sexual assault and consent is “way better” than the one she watched.

LeRoy worked with the administration to revise the sexual assault policies. While he also sees improvements, “it was pretty obvious that the administration can not fix this problem alone. The only way to make Beloit a safer, healthier environment for all is through a present and active student body that wants change,” he said.

Men Against Sexual Violence members point to the importance of changing the college’s social trends, which are reflective of broader popular culture. “Most of the songs we listen to are kind of not okay,” Paterson added. “I love Justin Bieber’s new song ‘What Do You Mean,’ but he’s really saying, ‘I don’t know if you want to have sex with me or not, but I might assume that you do’ — it’s not about consent at all,” she said.

“The ‘sober, verbal yes’ policy is too idealistic to be effective when drinking and hookup culture are often intertwined, so a more realistic means needs to be in place to make that a safe atmosphere as well,” LeRoy said. “This includes anything from bystander intervention training, to taking steps before intervention is needed. Clear, honest and open communication is needed to be sexually healthy.”

Paterson, who plans to pursue work in anti-sexist activism, has approached this issue from a number of angles, including working with Sexual Assault Recovery Program (SARP), and with Dean of Students Christina Klawitter this past summer; she also gave a TEDxBeloit talk on the subject. While her project is mostly self-driven, Klawitter and sociology professor Kate Linnenberg provide support, along with Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Intercultural Affairs Cecil Youngblood. Political science and Health and Society Professor Ron Nikora serves as the club’s advisor.

Describing the college as having a “PC culture,” Paterson said that there’s a “learning process for everybody” especially around identity-based topics. “I wouldn’t say we don’t have a rape culture but we don’t have a culture in which it’s explicitly condoned,” she said. “I think rape culture is something that exists everywhere … Beloit is not isolated. We can’t let it then become normal.”

“I wanted to make sure that the space was — I hate using safe or comfortable; none of this is safe or comfortable, really — but more welcoming to men in particular,” Paterson said.

Beckford describes the group as an effort to “facilitate workshops, speaking engagements and volunteering” in the community. “It will also stand as a space to air out uncomfortable questions, thoughts and to just listen to each other so that everyone can stand on equal footing in understanding this complex issue,” he added.

The group is currently interviewing male students “regarding their thoughts and feelings pertaining masculinity, the role it plays in their lives and in issues of sexual violence, and the issue of sexual violence itself,” according to Dragonetti.

Paterson said the group has received mostly positive feedback, though there has been some “pushback” stemming from the idea that this would create a “male power culture” and that membership might be “used as an excuse” if a member were to sexually assault someone.

“I’m probably naïve in thinking that no guy in my group has ever done something that can be considered not wanted by another individual,” she said. However, if a member were to commit an assault, “so much of that would be in the hands of what happens through the school,” but mainly, she said, “the group is not going to protect them at all. The whole point is to say, men want to help, and they can’t help unless others say ‘Yes, we want your help.’”

Along with offering a space for learning, Paterson wants to provide role models, especially for first-year students. She hopes to see the group form partnerships both on and off campus. They held a domestic violence awareness event with Feminist Collective and the Health and Wellness Center, as part of Domestic Violence Awareness month in October. Paterson would like to invite a SARP representative to speak about their programs and what sexual violence looks like in Rock County. She would also like to connect with Youngblood’s work on bystander intervention.

“As long as gender inequality exists …  there will be people who will abuse others and use their greater amount of power over others in some way to get what they want,” Paterson said. “I think that should be always something we aspire to, is to have a rape-free culture. Because if you don’t have that goal, you’re just giving up. Even if you know there’s no way to accomplish that goal, there’s no reason not to try.”

Source: RAINN, Bureau of Justice Statistics, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times

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