Teaching students to intervene in acquaintance rape

By Kate Golden
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Posted Feb. 28, 2010

Message to students:

See that guy pressuring your friend to take yet another shot?

Someone leading a wasted girl upstairs?

It’s your responsibility to step in.

The researchers call it “bystander intervention,” and it amounts to teaching students how to react when their friends are in sketchy situations.

(Video courtesy of

Bystander intervention education is popping up at University of Wisconsin campuses and nationwide.

They’re an example of how some UW campuses have begun to tailor their anti-violence programs to new research on how rapes happen and how to prevent them.

Researchers have known since the mid-1980s how common campus rape is. And the numbers haven’t changed much.

About one in eight women is raped during her college career, and that doesn’t include other less serious forms of sexual assault, according to a 2009 federally funded study led by Christopher Krebs of RTI International, a research institute based in North Carolina.

The number makes it sound like there must be a lot of rapists out there. And there are — but not as many as you might think.

"Ask for consent every time," says an advertising campaign on Madison Metro buses sponsored by Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment (PAVE), a UW-Madison student activist group. Photo contributed by Rachel Netols of PAVE.

The last decade of research suggests that most rapes — more than 90 percent — are committed by serial rapists. These are people who commit rape after rape.

In a 2002 survey of 1,882 Boston-area men by David Lisak, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts, 6 percent reported acts that could be defined as rape or attempted rape. Of those previously undetected rapists, 63 percent reported multiple rapes–and in fact averaged 5.8 rapes each.

Although the study wasn’t focused upon college students specifically, these data have reshaped the perception of sexual violence on campuses. Lisak, who often serves as a consultant on sexual violence issues at universities around the country, emphasizes that most people are not rapists, and most rapists are not regular people.

Lisak calls them — sometimes, he says, to the dismay of college administrators — “sex offenders” or “sexual predators.” And research has shown sex offenders are very difficult to rehabilitate.

In this light, Lisak said, sexual assault prevention programs are unlikely to convince rapists not to rape.

And the programs shouldn’t treat men as though they’re all potential rapists, he said, since the data show they’re not. Rather, students need to learn to stop the few undetected sex offenders in their midst, Lisak said.

That requires overcoming men’s loyalty to their buddies and desire not to snitch.

“These guys who are committing these rapes: These are not your buddies; these are sex offenders. Why would you want to stand by them?” Lisak said.

At UW-Madison, bystander intervention is part of the video all incoming undergrads have to watch. Violence prevention specialist Carmen Hotvedt says students like having concrete examples of how to intervene without seeming like a square: Men telling other men, “You don’t need to get her drunk to have sex. You’re much cooler than that.” Men and women interrupting the guy leading the girl up the stairs, saying, “It’s our party, too. That’s not going to happen at our party.”

“Just simple things,” she said, “that aren’t about yelling. . . but are an interruption of what could be a harmful story.”♦


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