Peer pressure is an important factor in students’ use of alcohol and drugs. Social norms or what students perceive to be social norms also play a role in sexual assaults, according to a recent study in Journal of Counseling & Development.
Students who are bystanders or aggressors in sexual assaults often mistakenly believe their peers have attitudes and behaviors that are rape-supportive, the researchers write.
A promising rape prevention program for high school students, Men as Allies, aims to give students a more realistic view of their peers’ attitudes towards sexual behavior. The intervention is based on social norms theory, which holds that people base their behaviors on perceived norms rather than actual norms. One of the most common types of misperceptions is believing that one’s own healthy behavior is unusual instead of typical.
In participating in the program, students find out about how their peers as a group respond to the “What Would You Do?” (WWYD) questionnaire, a 9-item measure to assess male participants’ behavior in certain situations (e.g. How likely are you to stop the first time a girl says no to your sexual advances?) Girls completed a version that asked them what they think the “typical guy” at school would answer.
“The results provide support for the social norms theory in that the treatment group’s view of their peers’ rape-supportive behavior and discomfort with sexist situations changed from pretest to posttest in a positive direction, whereas the control group’s view of peers did not change,” the researchers report. Pretesting and post-testing revealed changes in students’ own attitudes towards sexual behaviors, effects that were maintained at follow-up testing 4 weeks after the intervention.
However, when boys were asked in WWYD if they would be willing to take action to intervene in another’s behavior, there was no change post-test compared to pretest, the researchers report. There was a decrease in the control group’s willingness to intervene. It may be that the change in perception does not translate to behavior, the researchers speculate, or that the WWYD is not a good tool for measuring the effect on behavior.
The intervention consisted of 3 45-minute sessions on healthy sexual behaviors and the prevention of sexual violence presented by a 35-year-old Caucasian female who had 4 years of experience giving high school talks on this topic. Posters were developed with the accurate social norms data from the questionnaires and those results were discussed.
Participating in the study were 212 high school students from 2 high schools in the Midwest, 124 in the experimental group and 88 in the control group. The breakdown for the experimental group was 63% male and 37% female; for the control group it was 57% male and 43% female. Half of the participants were recruited from 5 10th-grade health classes at one high school and the other half from 7 health classes at another high school. Some 74% of participants were in 10th grade.
The intervention was based on a Men as Allies philosophy and comprised 6 specific activities from the Working Together manual. Those activities include discussion of acts of courage in challenging sexist or abusive behavior or attitudes and of the importance of male support of females who have been raped. Participants also viewed a music video by a rap artist about men’s role in preventing sexual violence. As a final activity, there was a student role play on how males can be a support to a rape survivor.
“In addition to the use of these specific data, the presenter focused on the students’ disagreement with rape-supportive behavior and commended them for their thoughtful suggestions to decrease abusive behavior,” the researchers write. “Any rape-supportive comments made were highlighted as being a minority opinion.”
Besides the WWYD measure, the following other instruments were used during the study:
The Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance –Short form consisting of 20 items that assess adherence to rape myths, defined as “attitudes and beliefs that are generally false yet widely and persistently held and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women”
Self-Protective Behaviors Measure – Includes 21 items taken from a larger inventory created for teen female students for the ICASA project and assessing willingness to engage in rape-preventive behaviors and precautionary behaviors (e.g. How likely would you be to ask friends about the reputation of a potential date?)
The Discomfort With Sexist Situations-Revised – Assesses how comfortable respondents would be in 7 situations that are sexist or rape-supportive using a 5-point Likert scale
The Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale-Form C – Assesses whether participants respond in a socially desirable manner
Pretesting was conducted 1 day before the first intervention session and post-testing, immediately after the intervention ( 2-4 days after pretesting). Follow-up testing was administered 4 weeks after the posttest.
To date, the majority of programming using social norms theory has been in the realm of alcohol abuse prevention. Given that many high schools require participation in health classes, school counselors could work a rape prevention program such as this one into the curriculum. A simple 10-item survey a day in advance of the program can quickly provide class-specific norms, the researchers write.
“Social norms theory holds promise for empowering those young men who already believe rape-supportive behaviors are wrong but do not know how to serve as allies,” the study says. “Whereas it may be difficult to change the beliefs and attitudes of those most likely to commit violent crimes against girls and women during a one- to three-session intervention, interventions using social norms theory may help prevent violence by slowly changing a culture.”
“Men as Allies: The Efficacy of a High School Rape Prevention Intervention,” by Theresa Hillenbrand-Gunn et al., Journal of Counseling & Development, Winter 2010, Volume 88, pps. 43-51.