Building a Respect Culture

So much is disturbing about the Steubenville video, released by Anonymous, in which Michael Nodianos makes horrifying jokes about the raped woman, that I can hardly begin. Here’s one: the guy saying “that’s not cool.” Oh, I’m glad he’s saying that rape, and joking about rape, aren’t funny. But “that’s not cool” isn’t enough. If two football players took the body of a drunk and unconscious young woman and used it as a plaything all night, why didn’t someone intervene? For god’s sake, even if it was too hard to take her body away from them, why did no one call the police?

I know, that’s easy for me to say. I wasn’t there; I don’t have to live in that town where football is the primary industry, where football is the central social currency, where standing up to football bullies could mean social death and physical danger, not just at the time but later as well. Those social norms were already in place—enforced, Jessica Valenti at The Nation contends, not just by the town’s football culture, but also the nation at large. From the bystander effect to Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, we all know that situational norms have an incredibly powerful effect on our behavior: No matter what we imagine afterwards, or from the sidelines, few of us have the moral confidence or confrontational courage to stand up to everyone around us. I may be appalled and grieved, but I am not surprised at the observers’ paralysis—or even their unwillingness to testify. Nobody likes a snitch.

But what if the town had had different norms? What if the norm was—instead of celebrating cruelty—to stand up for each other, to deflect violence, to protect the vulnerable? What if you got social cred not for putdowns and cruelty but for helping others out? As my friend and colleague Michele Weldon reports at Al Jazeera, some projects genuinely do help change social norms. With some effort we can shift from a rape culture to its opposite: a respect culture. And it can help not just women, not just the most socially vulnerable, but the entire social climate.  

That can be done with one of the most basic of public health insights: by teaching young people what’s really the social norm. a lot of research has shown that college students are more likely to binge-drink if they think everyone is doing it. Do a survey, get accurate stats, reveal that the heavy partiers are a serious minority, and you can change student behavior and campus norms. Similar projects can work the same way for such related phenomenons as bullying, slut-shaming, gaybashing, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence generally. Very few men are rapists. Serial rapists are a small group of predators who commit other acts of violence as well; stop them early and you protect more than just one individual woman. More important, establish among young men and women that exploiting a drunk girl by raping and humiliating her repeatedly is not the norm, and you can change a campus climate—improving the life not just of that one young woman, but of the others whose lives are slightly more dangerous and significantly coarser because that rape was a community event.

I know of several programs in which leaders teach either peers or younger men that rape isn’t acceptable—and show them how they can intervene without confrontation: they include Men Can Stop Rape, Coaching Boys into Men, Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), a number of offshoot programs on college campuses, and surely more than I don’t know yet. Some of these programs are being evaluated by social science researchers; I’m told that preliminary results show that they work, and will report more when the research is published. (Full disclosure: my wife, Michelle King, was one of the founders of the MVP program; she helped develop it, and is doing some work with it now.) What they have in common: this bystander intervention approach teaches young men and women that they can look out for others in trouble, and show them how to intervene without confrontation or danger. I can’t remember where I first saw this video, which is identified on YouTube as a UW Madison lesson in how to intervene, but I think it’s just spectacular as a quick lesson that stopping an acquaintance rape before it happens doesn’t have to take an enormous effort; it simply requires being awake, thoughtful, and willing to care about others actively. My wife tells me she uses this longer video from New Zealand in her train-the-trainers efforts; I found it a little harsher, but it shows many different moments that a variety of people—a friend, a bartender, a stranger, a roommate—could have prevented one predator from raping, without direct confrontation or danger. 

The larger issue, of course, is how we go from specific, scattershot workshops and good parents to creating a broader culture of respect. How do we train people to step up for each other, rather than mocking one another’s vulnerability as a way to increase their own social power, or ignoring one another as a selfish, self-succeeding strategy? It will take a lot of very particular, very local efforts. A high school will have to be determined to change the social climate from one of cruelty to one of connection, teaching its students that they can be involved with one another instead of dissing one another. A college president can decide that the entire campus is going to switch from one of hero-worship to one of mutual respect. We can do it if we decide to. There’s less rape in the United States than in India. Some schools are more welcoming than others. People do help one another when it’s seen as the norm.

Rape is just one of the many manifestations of a climate of cruelty and selfishness; it’s related to the disconnected climate that encourages rampant bullying, as Emily Bazelon reports in her forthcoming book Sticks and Stones (my reviewed of which will appear in the next print issue of The American Prospect).  Let me quote what she says about her insights in a post this week about John Cook’s recent confession at Gawker about his youth as a bully:

The dynamics of bullying are not a complete mystery. At some schools, kids rise in the social ranks for attacking other kids’ reputations. That sounds like what was happening at Cook’s junior high. He was trying to impress the cool kids. He didn’t think about the feelings of the girls he sacrificed to that aim. They were fodder, not people, somehow. He cut himself off from empathy for them. This is the thing about bullying that makes it so hard to stomach: In a particular ill-starred place and time, it turns kids utterly cold and heartless. For an up-to-date example, listen to this amazing story from WNYC’s Radio Rookies about slut shaming. Sixteen-year-old Temitayo Fagbenle interviews a boy who expresses no remorse for ruining a girl’s reputation by posting compromising photos of her online. Because he and Fagbenle are friends, we get the unvarnished version of his unfazed response. What he cares about are the coolness points he scored. He’s still reveling in that.

Rape is not inevitable. What if we changed that culture of bullying—including gaybaiting, slut-shaming, conquistador masculinity, violence against women, and sexual assault, of which the Steubenville rape is an extreme example—into one of mutual respect?


My middle son played football all through high school and played Div. 1 ball in college. He was an extremely large kid and lifted weights, working on his strength. From the time he was a little guy, I told him that he had been blessed with a very large, strong body. Because of that, he owed it to the people that were smaller and weaker than him to protect them. I specified that included women, children, other guys, the elderly. I told him that if I even once ever heard of him using his size and strength against others that he would never walk onto the football field again. He ended up being the kindest, sweetest kid, always sticking up for the underdog. He was an O-line tackle and once he had mowed the opponent down, he would stand hulking over him and put out his hand to help them up.

Football is not the problem. Violent video games in and of themselves are not the problem. Kindness, respect, gentleness, they all must be taught and expected and that job belongs to the parents. Today he works with severely mentally and physically handicapped kids, the most vulnerable among us. The kids adore him and he creates all kinds of games the boys can play that accommodate their limitations but allow them to experience the joy of sports and teamwork.

Do not blame football, blame the parents who don't teach by example, who don't require high standards of behavior from their kids, and who teach win at any cost. I always taught my son that adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it.

Sure, football is not the problem, but it is the focus -- and the magnifier -- of a lot of problems. It is up to all inolved, especially those who make lots of money out of it at all levels, to take active steps to promote correct attitudes.
Instead of, as now, promoting bad attitudes by overlooking bad behaviour and indeed actively promoting a phoney glorification of players.

hkrafka apparently has an exemplary son; but somehow has failed to notice that this is not the norm, and to criticise where criticism is due

A few good football players, to my mind, proves the norm isn't well behaved football players.

I grew up in a small town where men their forties, fifties and sixties and beyond squeeze into their old letter jackets for every home game and scream from the stands and practically worship the football coach and players, where football players are granted immunity from the rules the govern every one else. Football itself isn't the problem, the entire culture around it that valorizes football and its players is the problem. The idea that some people are exempt from the rules of behavior that govern the rest of us is a problem. I was lucky to attend a private high school that treated students as if we could make choices - and gave us comprehensive information about sexuality. To this day, I only know of a handful of persons in my high school graduating class who was sexually active while at that school.

The small liberal arts college I attended began every semester with a "safe sex study break" held in every dorm lounge. These study breaks focused on negotiating condom and contraceptive use and practicing safe sex in the broadest sense - looking out for one another, using good judgement, making certain both partners actually gave consent (and were capable of giving consent). The school made it widely known that contraceptives were available at the health center. The officialdom of the college campus was incredibly proactive about our college aged sexuality and treated us with respect (i.e. they assumed we were smart enough to make smart choices and gave us the information we needed). It made a huge difference. There was lots of sex and lots of drinking on campus, but very few incidents of acquaintance rape.

Two points then - first I agree we need to transform to a respect culture and part of that means treating people with respect to get it (starting young!) and second our efforts need to include effective education programs about human sexuality. The good news is such programs already exist - we don't have to invent them. The UUA and UCC denominations created one of the best, Our Whole Lives, that can be used in any setting. The resources are out there, we have to choose to use them.

My son played football, midget style, but opted out in high school not because of the culture but because he made a choice. I am very blessed to have raised two sons but I always tell the story of my son's last year in college. His senior year he rented an apartment with 5 women - yes women. The all to comment I get, particularly from groups of young men, are how much did he get, must have gotten lucky quite a bit -then all the rib poking - a sea of uniforms and wishing they all had 5 female roommates. My son never had relations, other than sharing the rent, utilities and a draw in the bathroom, with any of these talented and lovely young women. I am very proud of my son - his response when I asked him was that it wouldn't have been appropriate and would have ruined the boundaries they as a group set down prior to rooming together. Of course after saying that I always hear one or two side comments that oh He must be gay....
Our society, as a whole, needs to stop looking the other way, to stop turning away from what we see, hear and begin step up and say no more, enough is enough.
Just recently a fraternity @ Duke again showed its arrogance in hosting an event that told party goers to dress and talk like Asians. How senseless and arrogant - and yes white privilege males reared their ugly heads once again .....
The programs Men Can Stop Rape, MVP, 1 in Four and others are great organizations who work with men to become part of the solutions ; to stand in solidarity with women. And yes the resources are out there - University of New Hampshire, Arizona State...the list goes on but 90 minutes of training is not enough. It needs to be a continuous event other wise we check the box and move on.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)