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Let's Talk: What is Problematic Sexual Behavior?

Let's Talk: What is Problematic Sexual Behavior?

“Why are we labeling people by the very behaviors we want them to change?” 
Gwen Willis vi 

These materials use the term “problematic sexual behavior” to encompass behaviors including what is generally recognized as sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, sexual assault, rape, and attempted rape – a broad spectrum of sexual and gender-based violence. The term ‘sexual assault’ will be used if the research noted is also using this term2.  Finally, the term ‘sexual misconduct’ is used when referring to a situation that has been reported to the institution as a violation of a school’s policies or code of conduct.   

These terms are not used to minimize the very real impact of what students have done and the harm they have caused.

Why are we focusing on problematic sexual behavior?  If a campus wants a truly comprehensive approach to preventing and responding to problematic sexual behavior on campus, there needs to be a focus on preventing the perpetration of these behaviors.  Most people living and working in the campus setting are familiar with the statistics that one in four females (26%) and 7% of males will be sexually assaulted while in college. vii However, very few people will be able to share the same information about the statistics of perpetration.  While there are fewer studies to pull from, research has reported that between 6-13% of male students have either raped or attempted to rape while in college. viii Studies using a broader definition of problematic sexual behaviors report prevalence of perpetration estimates ranging from 20-47%.ix Together, these studies show that there is a broad range of sexually inappropriate behaviors on campus, and these behaviors are found in a substantial portion of the student body. As mentioned earlier, most of these behaviors are never reported.

Just as students who have been sexually harmed experience trauma or react to trauma in many different ways, it is also true that students with problematic sexual behavior do not fit within a single box. Each student will reflect differences in what they have done as well as differences in their motivations, their tactics/intentions, and their developmental stage and cognitive capacity.  There are situations and behaviors where it makes sense to step in and say something.  There will be situations where, when approached, the student will listen and even appreciate the chance to learn a better way of interacting. These materials are for people who know and care about that student. These materials are also for the student who may recognize or worry that they themselves have crossed a line with another person and are unsure of what to do.  Some students might be unwilling to change their behaviors or may become hostile when someone tries to talk with them.  In these cases, it may not be helpful to continue the conversation. It may be helpful to also reach out to resources on campus such as your Title IX coordinator, campus police, or the national sexual assault hotline and referral service, Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN.org).  

If someone has experienced sexual violence – ask them if they are OK and ask them what they need.  You can also let them know about the available resources on your campus.
There also may be circumstances where it is NOT safe for you to address the situation directly.  In these situations, it does not mean do nothing. Consider the resources on campus and a range of options that involve others so that you are not alone.  

Deciding What to Do

Bystander intervention programs in the campus setting offer a range of options to intervene if someone says or does something that puts a student at risk, with a focus on stopping the behavior in that moment. These programs are based on the idea that every member of the community has a role to play in ending problematic sexual behaviors. Each of the interventions is designed to interrupt what is being done or what is being said and protect someone at risk of being harmed.  

However, in many cases, a missing piece of the bystander intervention prevention approach is following up the next day. Who is having a conversation the next day to talk about the impact of these behaviors?  Who is encouraging the student exhibiting problematic sexual behaviors to consider how to change how they behave and talk about why?   

This section will offer some insights into when and how to have this conversation. Recognizing that these are difficult conversations to have, it makes sense to initiate a conversation like this only when it feels safe to do so. It is also important to first explore available campus resources and to get some support for yourself. You don’t have to do this alone, and it is important that you have a sounding board as you explore what you want to do. You will be best positioned to have this conversation when the person is a friend, someone in the same house, a teammate or classmate -- when you can start with the idea that you are having this conversation because you care. 

It is important to note that how we respond to situations is influenced by many factors including our age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language and socioeconomic status. x  For students who are a part of a marginalized group or community, any interaction with a system can trigger caution – especially when that system on campus or off campus does not reflect a diverse population. Therefore, some students may view even a protective intervention as more harmful than helpful and may respond in a way that can be viewed as resistance or neglect. On the other hand, some simple interactions might be misunderstood by an outsider because of differences in cultural norms and values and be viewed as harmful when that is not the case. xi

It is also true that all of the identities and factors listed above can influence how people respond to a situation. In many cases the response will depend, at least in part, by an "in-group / out-of-group" effect where culture influences not only who intervenes but with whom. xii In other words, when there is some affinity for another individual, a sense that “this could be me or someone I care about,” a student is more likely to respond or offer help. Furthermore, there are differences in how different cultures and communities view accountability or seek out any institutional support. For example, Indigenous communities have a long tradition of restorative justice practices that may not be tied to a criminal justice or legal system, and students from communities that have been historically underserved may not seek out any institutional support to resolve a difficult or abusive situation.  The systemic factors that contribute to these circumstances warrants critical attention, research and further institutional investment.   

Connecting with the student who was harmed
In addition to reaching out to the student engaging in problematic sexual behaviors, you may be in a position to reach out the next day to speak with the person who was harmed.  If you are connected to the person directly harmed, talk with them about how they want to handle the situation. In this case, defer to their wishes and help them seek and connect to the options and resources available to them.

Next: When to Intervene

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