A scathing critique of Rolling Stone for its story on an alleged gang rape at a university fraternity reminds us that reportorial rigor can never take a day off.
But as a contrite Will Dana, Rolling Stone’s managing editor, wrote in response to the Columbia University School of Journalism’s recent report, sexual assault remains “a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward.”
The veracity of a story Rolling Stone published last November about the University of Virginia, titled “A Rape on Campus,” is being challenged by several media outlets, as well as by the fraternity.
To its credit, Rolling Stone sought out the esteemed journalism school to investigate its lapses, and expressed hope that future victims won’t fear coming forward.
“It saddens us to think that [victims’] willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings,” Dana said.
Dana is right about the seriousness of the issue; nearly one-fourth of college women report experiencing a rape or an attempted rape, and false rape claims remain a rare 2 to 8 percent of cases.
But we’re going down the wrong road here.
If we want to create change, let’s stop asking how to help victims come forward, and start asking how to create respectful and safe campus environments so that no student, female or male, ever fears being victimized.
Fortunately, many Minnesotans already are on the case.
“It’s been a pretty amazing couple of years,” said Ed Heisler, director of Duluth-based Men As Peacemakers (MAP), and one of my go-to people for fresh thinking about troubling topics.
For example, when Heisler sees a North Dakota State University study revealing that 30 percent of male students say they’d commit a sexual assault if they thought they could get away with it, he doesn’t lose hope.
That’s because Heisler sees proof that the vast majority of young men don’t commit sexual assault. He sees a growing number of college-age men joining their female peers to end sexual dominance, violence and objectification of women.
He sees change agents.
Heisler understands that college parties “are an integral part of the recreational and social experience” of college. He also understands that too many parties quickly become unsafe for some of its guests.
“The reality is that men are responsible for most of these damaging behaviors, and women are left to deal with party environments that become uncomfortable and dangerous,” Heisler said.
The solution, college students will be happy to hear, isn’t to put the kibosh on parties. It’s to remake them.
For many months, Heisler has been working with college students to create a model for doing this, called “BEST” (Be Equal, Safe and Trustworthy).
On the surface, the program offers smart and easy steps that party planners can take. Take down posters that objectify women, for example. Post in clear view taxicab numbers, the host’s rules of conduct, and photos of the hosts, male and female, who are ready and willing to help you if things get weird.
Also, how’s the lighting? How are you dealing with empty rooms? How do you plan to avoid crowding people into small spaces, which is where a lot of women get groped?
But the effort is far more than a series of tips. Heisler’s organization has been taking the BEST concept to multiple campuses, encouraging students to create individualized party environments “that normalize expectations of respect for women,” Heisler said.
Nineteen-year-old Corey Bardon, who has been working with Heisler on the effort, said he initially received “a lot of criticism” from male peers who didn’t want anyone messing with their party culture.
“They’d ask, ‘Why this change? Why are you against us?’ I’d say, ‘I’m not against you.’ It was about making them realize that it’s our job to break down that system. I’d say, ‘Do you have sisters? This could happen to them if this culture doesn’t change.’ ”
MAP is developing accessible materials and collecting feedback, hoping to find funding to develop a fully replicable model for other campuses, as well as for bars and concert venues, Heisler said.
Promising efforts are coming to the Twin Cities, too, noted Katie Eichele, director of the Aurora Center at the University of Minnesota.
Aurora, a crisis intervention center, has hired a new assistant director to engage men as allies in safe campus efforts, and is creating “friendship labs” for young men, who crave healthy male relationships but don’t know how to create them.
While we assume that young men understand how to behave in social settings, many of them — their developing brains juggling conflicting cultural and media messages — still need reminders.
Aurora follows a “positive prevention” model, Eichele said, teaching young men “about what consent is and is not.”
In addition, the center is expanding its Step-Up program, to give students skills to deal with emergencies, such as a friend who is intoxicated, depressed or the victim of stalking. The scope is wise and wide, with students from the Greek system, athletic affairs and the dorms.
“Students are starting from a grass-roots level to get behind the concept of consent, that sexual assault is a real thing,” Eichele said. “They’re saying, ‘We want a different climate.’ ”
These efforts come at a time of growing awareness that a sea change is needed. The Minnesota Legislature is currently considering both a campus sexual assault bill and an affirmative consent bill. President Obama signed into law the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act in 2013.
Yes, we need to assure our young people that they will be believed when they courageously step forward to report sexual violence. We need to assure them that they’ll be given every possible resource to help them heal. But we cannot stop there.
“We do a disservice to men with the statement, ‘Boys will be boys,’ ” said Heisler.
“No boy is born to be a perpetrator of sexual violence, nor any girl born to be victimized.
“We need to hold people accountable, raise the bar and provide opportunities to be our best selves.”
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum