No one ever shows up at brunch and says, “Oh my gosh, I was so sober last night!”
Risky behavior draws attention. As a result, people tend to assume that everyone else is doing it more than they really are.
But, over the last two decades, research on college campuses has shown that giving students the real facts about their peers reduces unsafe drinking. This approach is called positive social norms. It works because of a basic truth of human nature: People want to do what others are doing.
Now, that research is starting to be applied to a novel area: preventing sexual assault and harassment. From an unwanted comment on the street to groping in the hallways at school, surveys suggest more than half of young women and almost half of young men have experienced sexual harassment before age 18.
And about 8 percent of girls experience rape or attempted rape by this young age.
Since the #MeToo movement, six states have introduced or passed bills to require the teaching of consent in their sex ed classes in K-12. But there’s not yet much research on what kind of education actually works to shift teens’ attitudes and actions.
Sandra Malone directs prevention and training at Day One, a nonprofit in Providence, R.I., which offers both education and rape crisis services. Her program has been among the first to try to move teens to seek consent and build healthier sexual relationships by harnessing an unlikely force: peer pressure.
She says she can remember from her own teenage years: “Their peers are so important to them. Those are powerful years where you don’t want to make yourself vulnerable and stand out.”
In its workshops at high schools, Day One uses a version of the positive social norms approach adapted from alcohol education programs.
“Peers are very, very influential, and people of any age who want to fit in will try and behave according to what they perceive as the group norm,” explains Alan Berkowitz, a psychologist and expert on preventing sexual assault. But when you’re talking about transgressive behavior, like underage drinking, drug use or nonconsensual sexual behavior, there’s often a “misperception of the norm.”
Social norms approaches start by surveying a population to get accurate information, which is then used to correct that misperception. “One of the most effective and powerful ways of encouraging young people to make healthy decisions is to know the truth about their friends,” Berkowitz explains. “Because in fact most of their friends are healthy.”
This message doesn’t necessarily fit on a poster.
Wes Perkins, a professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, was one of the originators of social norms education for alcohol. On his campus in Geneva, N.Y., they do things like setting up a voluntary random Breathalyzer to test students on a Saturday night, proving that they’re just as likely to be in the library as at a frat party.
Yet, compared to drinking, Perkins says that sexual behavior is “politically a little more tricky.” By publicizing the fact that “most men” don’t commit or condone sexual violence, you don’t want to sound like you’re downplaying the issue. “It can easily be misunderstood as trying to whitewash the problem.”
However, with plenty of conversation, perhaps in a workshop setting, “in the long run you can get men to act more as allies.”
To see how the Day One program works, I visited a consent workshop at The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, a high school in Providence. Leslie, a studious 10th-grader, was one of the participants. (We’re not using the students’ last names to protect their privacy.)
She explains that the workshop leaders started with survey questions. For example: Would you care if a girl at your school was being verbally harassed? Do you think others at your school would care?
“We could see that everybody thought nobody would care,” Leslie says. But in fact, “everybody saw, oh, a lot of people do care, which is something a lot of people don’t know.”
Lindsay Orchowski at Brown University and her team worked with Day One to survey nearly 8,000 students at 26 high schools across Rhode Island, in research funded by the Centers for Disease and Prevention. They shared their as-yet-unpublished data with us, which found trends similar to what Leslie learned:
- 87 percent of students said that they, personally, would believe someone who reported a sexual assault. But only 51 percent of students thought their peers would believe such a report.
- 92 percent of students personally agreed that bystanders can help prevent sexual violence. But only 55 percent thought their peers would agree on the power of bystanders.
To correct these kinds of misperceptions, the four one-hour sessions in Day One’s program cover scenarios like street harassment, groping, sexual assault by an acquaintance and cyberbullying.
Sadly, these are all common, says Kevin, a 15-year-old with curly hair.
“I’ve been cyberbullied in eighth grade and that was a horrible experience,” he says. “And I remember the first time I got catcalled. It was kind of weird … good thing I was with a friend, I was shook.”
Once they learn that their fellow students agree on things like supporting survivors, the next step is to make that positive social norm more visible.
Alan Berkowitz, the sexual assault prevention expert, lays out a common scenario: A young man makes a sexist remark or even gropes a woman in front of his friends. Most of them probably feel uncomfortable, yet they say nothing, or even laugh along.
As a result, “You have a silent majority that thinks it’s a minority,” he says. Publicizing the social norms lets that majority know that they have numbers on their side.
But even so, it can feel scary to speak up. Day One’s final workshop session focuses on how and when to intervene if students witness something like a boy trying to maneuver an obviously intoxicated girl into a bedroom at a party.
Anyla, one of the more outspoken members of the class, says, “What I learned today is, you not saying anything is making it look like it’s OK, and it will continue.”
Sandra Malone adds that, in every group of students, you’re not just speaking to potential bystanders or potential victims. There are potential perpetrators as well. She says the social norms approach works for them too.
“I think it stops a good percentage of kids from maybe participating in those behaviors because they’re seeing that most of their peers aren’t OK with that,” she adds. “You can see the light bulb go off.”
Stopping offenders, not just empowering survivors and bystanders, is obviously central to sexual violence prevention. Perkins, at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, says research shows the vast majority of campus sex offenses involve a heavily intoxicated assaulter. While social norms education may not work for a motivated repeat abuser, he says it can be successful to “discourage the men who might think about carelessly stepping over the line.”
But, he emphasizes that most men, in high school and college, prefer to seek consent. “‘Boys will be boys,’ is not true.”
Alan Berkowitz and Lindsay Orchowksi are currently evaluating the effectiveness of Day One’s program on students’ attitudes and behaviors, an analysis that will be released in several months.
Fifteen-year-old Anyla says that for her, it’s definitely made a difference.
She owned up that, since elementary school, she and her friends would grab each other’s rear ends to be funny. But now? “After taking this class? No. Absolutely not.” She tells her classmates, “If you catch me doing that, honestly, tell me to stop, please.”