An interview with Alan Berkowitz, PhD, an independent consultant who helps colleges, universities, public health agencies and communities design programs that address health and social justice issues, such as sexual violence. As a leading prevention expert, Berkowitz is well-known for his scholarship and innovative programs which address issues of substance misuse, sexual assault, gender and diversity. He is the editor and founder of The Report on Social Norms.
Location: Zoom (Northern California + New York City, USA!)
We know that a majority of sexual assaults are committed by a few men, and another significant minority of men admit to sexually coercive behaviour.
Universities have to overcome this fear of publicity and recognise that everyone has this problem. It's better to have publicity that you are doing something about sexual violence than to be exposed for refusing to address the problem. Thank goodness for survivor activism.
Berkowitz is not only a sexual violence prevention expert who has devoted his career to developing theories and programs that contribute to long-lasting cultural change. He is also an activist - an intelligent activist - with a mature understanding of his activism and how he can contribute to this cause. Long term change doesn't just happen. As Berkowitz said, 'you may score a victory but then you lose the war'. Intelligent activism is sustained, ongoing and strategic.
Alan shared a story that clearly illustrates the role of activism to achieve sociocultural change.
When I was a senior in high school (1969) I was part of an effort to provide meaningful programs about the politics of the 60's. We invited the Black Panthers to speak at our school. Then the next day we had an African-American lawyer who worked for the Ford Foundation (he was the only African-American lawyer there at that time) speak. His first words were: "I heard the Panthers were here yesterday - I bet you are wondering what I think of them?" We were all ready for him to put-down and 'dis' the Panthers. Instead he said: "I need them. When they get people upset then I get what I have been asking for.
This left me with a profound insight into the importance of activism in promoting social change and how it empowers those who are working with sincerity and accountability 'inside the system' to make changes. I have never forgotten it.
One of Berkowitz's activist efforts is his openness to speak with survivor-activists like me. His willingness to contribute to my learning assists me in bridging the gap between effective prevention programming and activism in my own context.
Aside from his work as a prevention expert and an activist, Berkowitz also specialises in engaging men in prevention and uses social norms theory to change behaviour. One of the first things Berkowitz said to me that resonated immediately was the challenge of not wanting to be heteronormative in our approach, but acknowledging that the problem is a product of heteronormativity. As we know, overwhelmingly the majority of perpetrators of sexual violence are men (approx. 97% of sexual offenders in Australia are men to be exact!)
We need to go inside heteronormativity without affirming it.
The strongest predictor of sexual assault confirmed by research is hypermasculinity - the need to be 'macho-male' which includes to have sex with women to affirm oneself as a man. The other side of the coin is that even though the majority of men are not sexually assaulting others, they may still be engaging in harmful behaviours and/or not say anything when they are bystanders to such behaviour. Most men are trapped in the same framework of wanting to be seen as masculine (which is why bringing down the patriarchy benefits everyone!).
The magic ingredient of a bystander intervention workshop is creating an environment where men can have an honest conversation in a safe environment and share how they feel - which is an undoing of what society has taught men not to do. Leading them to be less likely to perpetrate as they feel validated by their peers when they know other men don't like this behaviour. There is however a dilemma that comes about when men try to intervene as bystanders, which is - the 'knight on a white horse mentality' - when men intervene out of a paternalistic attitude that women need to be 'saved'. We've seen this saviour complex be played out in other settings - like the white saviour complex we see time and time again in the humanitarian and community services sectors. This is where motivational interviewing skills of the facilitator come in handy, as this is an opportunity to challenge these attitudes and invite men to engage in dialogue to further understand why men must be accountable to women without the need to ‘save’ anyone.
Now let's be clear, Berkowitz is not saying any one program is the be-all-end-all. Rather, he advocates for a comprehensive range of synergistic, mutually reinforcing components that contribute to a larger cultural change agenda.
So, what should universities do?
Firstly, they need to engage with prevention experts, activists, advocates, victim-survivors, students, the local services in the university's community across various sectors including health, education, government, policy and advocacy, to form a connected, respectful and collaborative partnership to specifically address sexual violence on campus. This means that universities must appoint specific people to solve these problems with adequate resources. For too long universities have underfunded and undervalued this work. They must engage with all stakeholders in good faith.
We can't tolerate disconnected efforts.
And that is exactly right - why is it that universities (and even university sexual violence prevention centres) consistently exclude key stakeholders, such as The STOP Campaign, victim-survivors and students, from being a part of solutions to sexual violence on campus? Why are we consistently belittled and ignored when we are doing the work to actually address sexual violence in these communities?
When one organisation, group or person does one thing, then another organisation, group or person does another, to address sexual violence in the same community, these are probably not effective unless they are linked, comprehensive and mutually reinforcing programs co-existing (I'm looking at you, ANU). Prevention is not just about a program or initiative - it's about the process. This leads to a key question I had for Berkowitz ...
Universities in Australia are using the online Consent Matters module as a compliance activity by forcing all students to complete it. Only then to report they have 'educated all students on consent and sexual violence'. But the problem is HOW they deliver the module to students - even forcing international students to complete it quickly before being given their room key when checking into their accommodation - with no regard for the actual content of the program or its intended purpose. So, with this in mind, was the Consent Matters module intended to be a tick and flick exercise and how should universities use this resource?
Berkowitz was a consultant on the module, and emphasised that some universities may have taken the module and used it as a way to 'solve' the problem. But no one program will solve any problem - the Consent Matters module is not sufficient. What universities must do is implement a comprehensive range of synergistic, mutual reinforcing components, which could include the Consent Matters module, a follow up in-person workshop, then an event with a panel of speakers to come and further educate on the issue. This is one proposal of what a university residential hall could do in a Semester.
And when we have these programs, what should they look like?
Successful prevention programs must be comprehensive, intensive, relevant, include positive messaging and be data driven. We must focus on the positive to normalise healthy relationships and health on our campuses. This means a clear focus on sexual wellbeing as an alternative to sexual harm.
How can we set up this program in the first place?
Bring all the key players to the table
Resource it adequately and stop undervaluing this work
Start by believing!
Institutions need to face their fears, stop threatening, silencing and belittling activists and victim-survivors, and begin to value us as equal players in this space.
Thank you again to Berkowitz for your consistent and comprehensive work in the field of preventing sexual violence. It was a privilege to be heard and validated about the work I do with The STOP Campaign and beyond by someone who understands what real prevention looks like.
References / Learn more: