Vancouver’s “Don’t Be That Guy” ad campaign was credited for a 10% drop in reported sexual assaults for 2011 after its inception that summer. This begs the question, though, of how exactly the campaign’s effectiveness could be measured, whether there is both causation as well as correlation, and, if so, what worked?
I have doubts about the ability of education to reduce sexual violence on the part of offenders, simply because I believe that most men don’t need it and the relatively few who do won’t respond to it. This isn’t just some intuition I claim through experience. As I’ve written before, recent and replicated research on the most common type of rapist by far does not dovetail with the idea that we can teach the instinct to sexually offend out of a rapist- or even a boy who hasn’t yet offended, but likely will for a yet unknown reason. That’s part of the problem. We don’t know what causes boys, usually in adolescence, to begin viewing sexuality so pathologically. Our assumptions, like victimization in their childhood, have been revealed as dubious at best by psychologists like Anna Salter and others. It’s frightening and frustrating, but believing myths simply because they are comforting only makes predators more powerful and elusive.
Of course I can’t state with certainty that early intervention on the nature of consent or appropriate sexual interaction won’t lead to the better development of a potential offender. I also can’t say that a detected offender couldn’t be shown the error of his ways or benefit from whatever form of education his own detection might produce (investigation, prosecution, public repudiation). But I wouldn’t bet on either scenario. Reasonable people can argue limitlessly what works, what doesn’t, and what we’re dealing with. But we might as well begin with what we know. There has been some excellent study on acquaintance rape in the last 15 years, and, at bottom, here’s what it’s mined:
1. Most men who rape do so over and over again until they are detected, and very few are.
2. Rape is usually a planned, pre-mediated attack, not an honest mistake by a socially inept person.
Remember: There’s more at stake here than just wasting resources if education doesn’t work, or work well enough. If we believe that an act of rape is caused by a lack of some crucial, social education, we will be more likely to forgive it as such and demand less accountability. Acquaintance rape in particular is already committed far too often with impunity. The rapists are often socially accepted in their environments or at least non-threatening in appearance. So when we believe the rapist, already nicely ensconced within the environment, is really just misguided (a bumbling oaf, perhaps who just “didn’t understand consent” and “ended up” committing a rape), we go down a very dangerous path.
Imagine what follows: We believe a rape occurred. We even understand what a life-altering, traumatic event it was for the victim, male or female. But we also believe it was committed not by a serial predator but an “unenlightened” guy in need of intervention. We think he’s been “scared straight” by the system or otherwise, perhaps, at least now better educated. So how much will we want to punish him? And how likely, now that he’s been “taught,” is he to reoffend? Take this view, and the answers will boil down to 1) not much, if at all; and 2) not likely.
Zerlina Maxwell’s appeal to education to reduce sexual violence seems to be more targeted toward boys who have not yet offended. I’d love to believe there is purchase there, and maybe there is more than I understand. I absolutely agree, in any event, with teaching boys non-patriarchal respect and decency toward women. This is desperately needed, but it’s also constantly undermined by the “sex sells,” deeply objectifying culture we live in.
Still, I believe naturally, non-offending males can embolden each other as peers to stop rape by acting as bystanders and intervening before attacks can be planned or executed (women can do so as well). My point? If there was a real effect with the Vancouver campaign, I’m willing to bet that was a bigger part of it.