Stopping the Next Steubenville

web illo1 Stopping the Next SteubenvilleIf you see something, say something. That paranoid punch line of a public service campaign has worked: nobody looks the same way at a stray backpack on the subway, and we just might call the cops.

Sadly, the same adage doesn’t apply to young American men and women watching guys strip and violate a drunken female.

By now, we’ve all absorbed the main lesson of Steubenville: the dehumanization of the female is so pervasive that young people will stand by and not just watch rape, but laugh at it, video it, tweet it, post it to Facebook, and try to cover their tracks when police investigate.

What to do?

Jackson Katz has been crusading around America for 20 years trying to change the way men respond to gender-based violence. His experiment, the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), aims to train bystanders to feel enough compassion for female victims to act, whether by intervening to discourage attacks, offering aid or calling the authorities.

Mr. Katz, the first male student to minor in women’s studies at UMass Amherst in the 1980s, has made a career writing and speaking about gender violence. “In college, I saw women standing up for public safety out of fear of male violence,” he said. “I was a big football player, but I did see dysfunctional men all around me, really damaged human beings. When I saw women standing up for themselves, I related on a visceral level. As a male, I knew I was in a position to do something about this.”

While a graduate student, Mr. Katz came up with the idea of training bystanders to prevent gender violence. In 1993, with federal funding, he started a pilot MVP program in the athletic department at Northeastern University. The program targeted male college athletes, and it has since been deployed at hundreds of colleges. The goal is to use peer pressure to transform men and boys who participate in gender-based violence and humiliation into the outliers and those who speak up into the norm, instead of the other way around.

The program works by training older students, juniors and seniors, to talk to younger peers, using an “MVP Playbook” of specific behaviors and scenarios, some of which are similar to the Steubenville incident. The scenarios have sporty names, the better to penetrate the teen male cortex. There’s “the slapshot” (you see a friend of yours hitting a girlfriend) and the “illegal motion” (you see your buddy pushing a drunken girl out of a party, and she seems reluctant to leave). Students then discuss their reactions to these scenarios and examine their own behavioral options, from “It’s none of my business” to offering aid.

So far, the program has been implemented at hundreds of colleges, among pro footballers, and in the U.S. Air Force and Navy, but in very few high schools. Steubenville High was not one of them.

Where it has been tested, high school administrators report some success. Between 2008 and 2011, Sioux City, Iowa, ran the program in three large public high schools. Over the course of the program, “positive trends” occurred with regard to 13 of the 18 abusive behaviors covered in the MVP Playbook, meaning students found those behaviors more wrong and were more willing to intervene after the program than they had been before.

The Violence Against Women Act—a federal law covering a wide range of gender violence issues, from domestic violence to rape—was reauthorized this year with a new provision mandating that high schools across the country provide bystander training.

Harvard law professor Diane Rosenfeld teaches the Gender Violence Legal Policy Workshop and has been working for years to push the federal government to fund programs like MVP in schools. “It is definitely in a school’s best interest to do as much on the prevention side as possible,” she said, noting that the Steubenville event—sensational as it was—was hardly a one-off, but a growing phenomenon among students at high schools and colleges.

Group sex attacks against girls are statistically on the rise. For the last quarter-century, since numbers have been kept, sexual violence has also become more brutal, the age of perpetrators is dropping, and attacks by multiple perpetrators are up. According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics provided by University of Arizona Public health professor Mary P. Koss, the percentage of rapes involving two or more offenders went from 7 percent in 1994-1998 to 10 percent in 2005-2010.

Easier access to violent and dehumanizing Internet porn has coincided with the increases, and many observers believe the trends are related.

And it isn’t just teenage boys who are complicit. Among the many disturbing aspects of the Steubenville case were the attitudes of the female bystanders, and the haters who took to Twitter to threaten the victim after the verdict.

Classical feminist theory has an explanation for that. In primate populations—our simian forebears—female solidarity keeps male aggression in check, and males do not form alliances to control females. The human species is alone among mammals in the degree to which male alliances subjugate females, and feminist scholars think that anomaly pre-existed and enabled patriarchal civilization. Once prehistoric human males gained the upper hand through a combination of alliances, controlling resources and, eventually, language and ideology, females found they could do better allying with males than with each other.

Et voila, the fully evolved Steubenville girl threatening to kill the rape victim.

“The numbers are telling us something,” Mr. Katz said. “There has been a dramatic desensitization to women’s humanity and sexual agency through media representations that have become completely mainstream. It is more accessible, and the porn itself has gotten way more brutal. There is no question that the level of open misogyny and brutality in our culture has grown as well.”

High school and college leaders can be reluctant to institute gender violence training and programs because they fear that to do so will implicate them in the behavior. Penn State, for example, consistently declined to institute bystander training programs in the years prior to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Mr. Katz repeatedly offered Penn State the choice of opting into his MVP program, and the school declined.

“It’s not just these boys in Steubenville, this is a systemic failure,” said Mr. Katz. “When you hear there were all these people standing around—that’s a failure of adults. We have known what to do for years. Why hasn’t gender violence training become completely mainstream in high schools?”

Mr. Katz is one courageous feminist and we applaud him. Women and girls—for the sake of ourselves, our sisters and our daughters—can only hope that his program will someday soon spawn thousands like him.