Trailblazing initiatives to engage students in conversations about masculinity are key to the U's efforts to prevent sexual assault.
By Susan Maas, Illustration by Andre da Loba
Q: Who is responsible for preventing sexual violence at the U?
That’s the premise underlying the University of Minnesota’s approach to combating sexual assault and fostering healthy relationships. Campus sexual assault isn’t a new problem, but several high profile cases, combined with survivor advocacy campaigns, heightened media scrutiny, and recent attention from Congress and the White House have made addressing it a growing priority for many colleges and universities. And at the U, addressing it includes getting at its root causes—with increasing involvement from male students.
“Let’s be honest: Women are tired of being told how to protect themselves from violence,” says Katie Eichele, executive director of the U’s Aurora Center for Advocacy & Education, which provides support to victims of sexual violence while raising awareness about how to end it. “We need to enlist men, too.” Or as freshman Jackson Ridl, a Beta Theta Pi member and volunteer violence prevention educator with the Aurora Center, puts it, “You can’t make 100 percent change by only including 50 percent of the population. We have to all have an understanding that sexual assault is something we’re not going to allow.”
The U’s prevention efforts are five-fold: educating students about consent and healthy relationships, empowering women, teaching bystander intervention skills, promoting gender equity, and reevaluating what it means to be a man. Of these, the fifth is a novel initiative that’s prompted campus-wide conversations. Under Eichele’s guidance and with leadership from students in the Greek community, Athletics, and residence halls, the conversations are happening in sometimes unexpected places.
Creating male allies
Eichele and other staff have been deliberate and methodical in reaching out to young men at the U, including athletes and fraternity members. Presentations on sexual violence prevention—some focused on defining consent, some on bystander intervention tactics aimed at stopping assault—are now incorporated into first-year programs, as well as programs for freshman residence halls and fraternities and sororities.
Step Up, Aurora’s bystander intervention program, guides male and female students in how to respond when they witness a sexual assault unfolding. A fundamental part of Step Up’s effectiveness is simply giving bystanders permission to be involved, says Peyton Owens III, assistant director of athletics in charge of student athlete development.
Peyton Owens III, Jackson Ridl, and Katie Eichele
“Because the initial recognition [that something might be unfolding right before them] can just paralyze people, we’re trying to give them a blueprint so they have various ways to address it, whether that’s inserting themselves into it, working collectively as a group to stop it, or looking for authorities to help,” Owens says.
Student athletes are introduced to Step Up training via team meetings, in addition to participating in other presentations and discussions during the spring, Owens says. “For our student athletes, these events are mandatory. That’s our expectation: This is no different than having to go to class or team practice. This is part of your education and it’s non-negotiable—it’s vital to the success and safety of our entire University.”
The U’s Greek system has embraced the approach, which, according to assistant vice provost for student life Lamar Hylton, may be key to fraternities’ survival. As a Phi Beta Sigma alumnus, that’s important to him. “When I’m walking around campus in my three letters, I don’t want there to be unfair assumptions about me: If reputation is going to be the ‘hook’ that gets fraternities engaged, that’s where we can start,” he says.
Some are already engaged. Last November, Phi Beta Sigma organized a panel discussion about what they called “toxic masculinity.” The event was the brainchild of senior George Darvehn, who suggested to his fraternity brothers that they hold a public forum after watching the film “The Mask You Live In,” which explores how restrictive social norms and expectations around masculinity hurt boys and men, as well as girls and women.
"They were all for it,” Darvehn says, calling the panel “phenomenal.”
Participants spoke about how stereotypical ideas of manhood— stoicism, extreme independence, physical toughness, and sexual promiscuity—harm both women and men. “The audience really got into the question of, ‘what does it mean to be a fraternity man on this campus?’ We got a lot of positive feedback. People are happy to be having this conversation.”
In fact, the event drew so much interest that Sigma Phi Epsilon convened a follow-up panel. Several hundred students, many of them fraternity and sorority members, packed an auditorium in the Tate Laboratory of Physics on April 14 to delve into the ways rigid definitions of manhood enable and fuel sexual violence.
Among the topics explored was how alcohol can intersect with sexual assault. Panelist Tim Garay (B.S. ’14), an Aurora Center volunteer, says he and his colleagues advise students that consensual sex and heavy drinking don’t mix. “If someone has been drinking a lot, you honestly don’t know if they’re able to give consent. If you have to question it, maybe you shouldn’t be having sex. Wait until the next day.”
Owens is facilitating discussions about gender roles among student athletes, too. “These are the conversations I really enjoy—when we’re discussing some of the things they’re seeing in their everyday life. They start to put on a different lens and say, ‘Hmmm. What is this really saying about women? About relationships?'”
Aurora Center volunteer Enoch Sun has been trying to start such discussions in his residence hall. “I live on the international student floor, and I have tons of friends who are also from other countries. Everybody has different cultural backgrounds, and many of them have little understanding of sexual assault, stalking, or relationship violence,” Sun says.
Even among U.S.–born students, freshmen arrive with a vast range of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, say Owens and Hylton, adding a layer of complexity to the challenge of reaching them all. “We have students from the South, students from the West, students from rural areas, students from the city. Everyone has a different idea of what’s acceptable. So we start the dialogue about being ambassadors for the maroon and gold: expectations of the University, and of the law, first and foremost,” Owens says. “From there, the conversation takes a different shape every time. We really try to meet them where they are.”
Hylton is optimistic that the conversations are yielding change. To see fraternity men stepping up to organize panel discussions on sexual violence and masculinity—to have Greek men participating enthusiastically in conversations with Aurora Center volunteers, and becoming Aurora Center volunteers—makes him happy as an administrator and as a Phi Beta Sigma, he says. “I’m just so thankful for the leadership of the students,” he adds.
He also credits the Aurora Center. “This is the first institution I’ve worked for that has a place like Aurora, with dedicated staff for prevention and advocacy around sexual assault. That says something about the priorities here,” Hylton says. Those priorities were reinforced this spring when the Office of Student Affairs gave the center funding for a new men’s engagement coordinator position.
Hylton sees a need to broaden the discussion about relationship violence. “Same-sex gender violence does occur, and to exempt that from the discussion would be short-sighted,” he says. And although women assaulting men is less common than men assaulting women, Hylton thinks it should be part of the discussion, too. ”We need to look at sexual violence broadly in terms of who is impacted,” he says.
Owens maintains that the effort to end sexual assault has gone from a monologue to a dialogue at the U. “We’re not here to point fingers. We’re going to talk, and we’re going to ask you, ‘What do you hear? What do you think?’ And with this approach, we’ve gotten more men on board, and they’re coming up with ideas and solutions. That’s been terrific, because this is not just a women’s issue.”
Susan Maas is a Minneapolis-based writer and the copy editor of Minnesota.