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How Can We Address Sexual Misconduct on our Campuses and in Society? Critical Conversations #12

February 6, 2018 Pete Mather Ohio University

This blog post is a preview of a session at the March 2018 NASPA national conference in Philadelphia. The session is titled, “Addressing Sexual Misconduct: Recent Scholarship on Sexual Violence and prevention from the Journal of College and Character.” This timely session is presented in the wake of a number of news, entertainment, and political figures being implicated for sexual misconduct and the emergence of the “#MeToo” movement. The session will be held on Tuesday, March 6, from 11:15a.m. to 12:05 p.m. in Convention Center 120 - B.

The following articles are the focus of this blog and the authors will present on their articles at the conference:

Larry D. Roper (2017) The Ethics of the Collegiate Locker Room, Journal of College and Character, 18:1, 70-73, DOI: 10.1080/2194587X.2016.1260480

Miriam Arbeit (2017) “It Could Affect you as a Person, Character-wise”: Promoting Character Development and Preventing Sexual Violence at West Point, Journal of College and Character, 18:4, 279-295, DOI: 10.1080/2194587X.2017.1371038 

The topic of sexual misconduct vaulted into the public discourse during the 2016 presidential campaign, when candidate Trump was caught on tape making offensive remarks about women. Subsequently the matter was dismissed by some as “locker room talk”—the implication being that athletics promotes attitudes and behaviors that lead to sexual violence. In his article, Larry Roper describes athletics as a rich, potential context for prosocial education. Drawing from "contact theory," Dr. Roper notes that the close interactions that are part of athletics participation can be leveraged to promote positive interpersonal interactions. 

 Employing a qualitative research method, Miriam R. Arbeit explores the ways in which both male and female army cadets make meaning of sexual relationships in their lives. Dr. Arbeit’s findings surface values and ways of making meaning in the military academy culture that can support positive relationships and, on the other hand, others that can result in harmful interactions. She provides implications focusing on leveraging the positive character principles and values at West Point to promote healthy relationships.

 Pete: I’d like to pose the following questions for the authors as we begin this conversation: 

1. Both of you have focused on particular environments or cultures with reputations for being disrespectful of women and, thus, ripe environments for sexual misconduct. However, the trends over the past few months have highlighted the widespread bad behavior in other environments, including in newsrooms and in the entertainment industry. For Mimi, what do you take from your findings at West Point that could be applicable in these other environments? Likewise for Larry, do you see contact theory being a useful model for changing behavior in these other environments?

Mimi’s Response: Sexual violence uses power to abuse sexuality, and/or uses sexuality to abuse power. Sometimes it is clear that sex or power is primary; sometimes it is not. Sometimes a particular form of abuse is so normalized in mainstream society that it is not even recognized as abuse by the community in which it occurs, or even by the person who is targeted. And while there are many forms of abusing sexuality and power that are intentional, there are also many people who are genuinely confused about what behaviors are ethical and what behaviors will be punished by their community. Note that unethical behaviors often go unpunished, and that in our society our ethics are so warped that it is truly not obvious to the average person, especially to people in positions of power, what ethical sexuality is and is not.

These things are true in the military and they are true in college campuses and they are true in the entertainment industry as well. And institutional complicity is rampant. Institutional complicity is not always explicit cover up. It is not always someone who knows something is wrong and chooses to keep it hidden anyway. Many of the people in positions of power in our institutions also cannot always identify sexual abuse. Many of the people in positions of power do not always know that their blaming and shaming comments will keep victim silent and will perpetuate abuse. Many people in positions of power refuse to acknowledge that effectively preventing and addressing abuse is their ethical responsibility.

Sexism and sexual violence is not unique to the military or the entertainment industry, but they do manifest within each institutional community in unique ways. That is actually the good news. That is where I find hope. I find hope in the possibility of institutional community transformation. These communities consist of a specific group of people trying to do a specific kind of work together. Can they make ending sexual violence part of that work? Can they do what it takes to change not just their statistics or their reputation but the actual experiences of actual people among them, trying to live and thrive?

Both the military and the entertainment industry are communities that glorify violence. One because it is their job and the other because it makes them money. In the work to end sexual violence and dismantle intersecting systems of oppression, the core values of a community are at stake: the core ways in which individual behavior is motivated, rewarded, and punished; the core ways in which people support each other and demean each other. To end sexual violence, people holding institutional power within these communities need to commit to the deep cultural work of making all kinds of changes.

Larry’s Response: Relationship-intensive environments, such a college and university campuses, are fertile ground for transforming interaction through the application of contact theory, with the major challenge being that of translating theory into organizational practice. In most of the sexual misconduct cases cited, a power differential appears to be the dominant dynamic in the sexual misconduct accusations. The challenge before those who are responsible for institutional/organizational dynamics is to construct a climate and communicate an ethos that asserts its priority for equal-status relationships over power-defined relationships. Adherence to rigid hierarchies is a major culprit in the misuse and abuse of power, which is at the core of many sexual misconduct incidents. Too often, the behaviors of those in positions of power go unchecked and unquestioned because we have become conditioned to honor dominance, power and status, even when the behavior of those in elevated roles contradict the espoused values and articulated policies of the organization.

The application of contact theory requires that relationships are equal-status, behavior/interactions are institutionally-sanctioned, that individuals work collaboratively to achieved organizational outcomes, and that supports are in place to support the development/growth of the desired community outcomes. The responsibility before leaders of our organizations is to identify and enact specific strategies to achieve the aforementioned dynamics. Among the actions we must take include: being explicit in articulating appropriate relationship/interaction standards, providimg concrete supports for those who chose to call to our attention previously unchallenged inappropriate behavior, ensuring safeguards are in place for those who demonstrate the courage to report inappropriate behavior, the codifying of specific processes for addressing inappropriate behaviors (including robust educational interventions). There must be concrete, identifiable institutional processes to support the climate we hope to create. The appropriate leadership will enable the transformation of relationships, while also empowering community members to name behaviors that do not align with the espoused values of the institution.

2. I recently heard a Title IX coordinator and public speaker say that despite all of the compliance requirements and educational initiatives taken over the past few decades, there has been no apparent decline in sexual misconduct. Do you agree with this? If this is true, why do you think these initiatives have been unsuccessful, and what alternatives do you recommend? Even if you think the Title IX-related approaches have been somewhat successful, please highlight a few approaches that could enhance the climate on campus environments.

Larry’s Response: As with many behaviors, it may be difficult to gauge success of a program or an initiative by the number of reported incidents. In some cases, as faith in an institution’s system grows, so do the number of reports – increased reports may not mean that more incidents are occurring, only that more previously unreported incidents are being reported. While we would like to see a decrease in the number of sexual misconduct cases, we also want our systems to be trustworthy enough that incidents are reported.

Clearly, some very impressive work is being done in the Title IX arena. Our institutions have invested in professionalizing Title IX leadership, constructing strong support networks, increasing educational efforts, and strengthening processes. I believe a major challenge now facing us is increasing our level of sophistication in managing the perils of campus conversations about Title IX, sexual misconduct, and the spectrum of sexual misconduct behaviors. Our ability to talk about sexual misconduct will have a direct impact on the direction and intensity of our educational efforts. For example, while many institutions provide an orientation to their misconduct policies, deeper conversation may reveal that mere orientation or overview of policies may be insufficient. Through open discussion with students we can explored their attitudes and values to which they have been socialized. Under sufficient conditions, we can learn from students how they have been conditioned to socialize and interact with each other and how those behaviors influence or result in the particular sexual misconduct situations that arise. These would clearly be perilous conversations, but they are necessary if we are to accomplish our goal of reducing sexual misconduct cases.

If we are able to engage in the kinds of difficult conversations that are needed, we will have an unprecedented opportunity to intensify our educational efforts. I believe, if managed properly, conversations will reveal ways in which students need to be re-educated (not merely oriented to policies) to look at their behaviors and attitudes – the world to which students have been conditioned is not necessarily consistent with the behaviors to which they will be held accountable on campus. We need to be much more assertive in educating students to meet the behavioral/relationship standards of our campuses. What do we know about students’ attitudes and behaviors? How prepared are we to help students acquire the necessary attitudes and behaviors? Specifically, how capable are we of helping students explore the positive and problematic aspects of peer relationship dynamics and especially those that could lead to sexual misconduct charges? What behaviors along the sexual misconduct spectrum are worthy of educational support versus those that are too egregious to be worth education investment in the student?

As we have more high-stakes campus conversations, we may find that more incidents will be reported. Our focus should be on addressing the community conditions that create the climate for the perpetuation of sexual misconduct behaviors, though we may lament the increased reports. Developing a deeper understanding of the attitudes, socialization and relationship behaviors of students may be the domain in which we find the greatest potential for transforming campus climate.

Mimi’s Response: Complying with federal law does not in and of itself remove institutional complicity with sexual violence. Everything universities do to protect and perpetuate sexism and rape culture makes them complicit in sexual violence. Again, hope resides in the potential for transformational institutional change.

Colleges, like the military and the entertainment industry and the United States government, have a deep history of white male power and white men’s violence. The cultural moment we are in right now requires us to betray that legacy: to demand that our institutions betray themselves, or to abandon our institutions entirely.

How can we expect universities run by white men to be effective in betraying white men’s violence?

This is what we need from white men in positions of power: We need them to commit to changing themselves, and we need them to make power itself change hands. We need to hand power over to those who have been systematically disempowered and abused.

And we must see white men’s power as exactly that – simultaneously both white and male. Patriarchal violence upholds white supremacist violence and vice versa. We must demand change in institutional power in relation to both race and gender. We must talk about both race and gender in the production of violence, including in the production of sexual violence.

The structure of university communities is bifurcated. In addition to the administration, there are also the students. And the students are young. Whether 18 to 22-year-olds are adolescents or young adults or something else, they are in the midst of sexual-social development. That’s the other thing that gives me hope on college campuses. That’s why I invest in these institutions in particular. I believe there are real opportunities in working with college students to undermine violent gender ideologies, to build capacity for skillfully navigating human sexuality, and to nurture deeply fulfilling interpersonal relationships. Young people hold within them the potential for transformation. But if the adults they are learning from don’t have these skills themselves, then students will not have access. So the transformation must occur on multiple levels at once.

Gender justice, racial justice, and sexual justice will take a lot of work, but must be within reach. And it is urgent and mandatory that we reach together, and get there.

Pete: These are important conversations and both of you have provided provocative and valuable considerations to address the vital issue of sexual violence on campus and in society. We invite others to weigh in with reactions and questions, and to join our session at the NASPA Conference in Philadelphia.