Research Paper Review: Reducing Sexual Violence on Campus: The Role of Student Leaders as Empowered Bystanders

Dear Engaged Bystander:  If you are like me, you have a stack of research papers you have been meaning to read all summer.  I wanted to create a short series of my favorite research articles to share with you and I hope to keep them all  to under 500 words.  

So this is the first in a series of reviews of key research.  I hope you find them helpful. 

 
This article by Banyard, Moynihan and Crossman provides an excellent overview of the problem of sexual violence in college communities and important insights into future directors for prevention programming within this institutional setting. The study itself examines one bystander program that targets student leaders as key to shifting awareness and social norms around sexual violence in a campus environment. 
 
Background
College campuses are often considered high risk environments for sexual and physical violence because of the high concentration of the most at-risk age group (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2004). With this high concentration of high risk individual and with the unique capacity of these institutions to reach a large number of young people with healthy messaging, one might assume that every college and university has a program to address this growing problem. Unfortunately, a recent report by Karjane et al. (2005) showed that fewer than half of the colleges and universities surveyed by their study offered training related to sexual assault and only 60% offered any kind of educational prevention program. 
 
Using the wider ecological context of peer and community norms, the authors point to previous research which shows that communities have higher rates of sexual violence when community and peer norms support individual coercive behavior in relationships.   This is the foundation for positive change which suggests that bystanders, by their presence and actions may be able to help deter the perpetration of sexual violence or in some way help to protect a potential victim. 
 
Study Results
The bystander program targeted student leaders teaching them to be engaged, positive bystanders by raising awareness about sexual violence and building skills to respond and prevent it. The model for this evaluation was a 90 minute session (although not a part of the evaluation, the program also has a longer multi-session component).   A key component of the training was the opportunity to plan how to intervene and to practice the skills for acting as an empowered bystander -- this interactive training went far beyond a lecture format. 
 
The evaluation found that after going through the program, participants (both men and women) endorsed fewer rape myths, expressed greater willingness to help as a bystander and more confident enacting positive bystander behaviors, and last, more strongly agreed with statements reflecting greater bystander engagement.  One participant remarked, “The information about just doing something is so simple but it really hit home this time…” In fact, the study reflected that the bystander program was equally effective among students who began with a higher level of general awareness and training. 
 
Implications
According to David Finkelhor’s four precondition model for perpetration (1984), one of the key preconditions to sexual violence is the ability to overcome external inhibitions to abuse. When students enter the campus environment, they are leaving behind many of the external social controls (external inhibitions) that surrounded them for the previous 18 years. At the same time, they are encouraged to explore, to experiment and to stretch beyond what they had thought possible in their home towns. The bystander framework offers colleges and universities a chance to build social norms to establish safe relationships and give a powerful role to students in creating peer “external inhibitions to abuse.” 
 
This evaluation study demonstrated how student leaders can be easily engaged in a more active bystander role in their communities. With a relatively small investment of time, these leaders have the potential for becoming role models and endorser of the important bystander role that students can play. As student leaders, they have the ability to spread this attitude (and these skills) across their spheres of influence.