Does Mandatory Sexual Misconduct Training Make Campuses Safer?
By Carlos Contreras and Melanie Sayuri Dominguez | September 12, 2018
A 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter issued by Barack Obama’s Office of Civil Rights reaffirmed that sexual violence in educational institutions constitutes a Title IX violation. The letter reminded colleges that Title IX and Clery Act compliance – and continued federal funding -requires on-campus training programs to prevent and reduce sexual assault and harassment. As the schools struggled to end the problem of sexual misconduct, they mandated students, staff, and faculty to participate in online or in-person trainings. All of this prompted our team to ask the rather straightforward question: Does mandatory training actually help change campus climates and reduce sexual misconduct?
Our ongoing study, co-authored with Mala Htun, Francesca Jensenius, and Justine Tinkler considers the effects of policies like these and may serve to inform other organizations considering mandatory training. We use data from a case study of a diverse university in the Southwest that introduced mandatory training for all its 27,000 students. With more than 760 student surveys administered before and after the training and 33 in-depth interviews, our data helps illuminate students’ understandings of sexual assault and harassment, attitudes about the issue, and experiences with the training.
Like most policies, the training appears to have both positive effects and unintended consequences.
In this preliminary data, we find that students – particularly men – who undergo training are less likely to endorse “rape myths” including dismissing sexual assault with statements like “she asked for it” or “she may have provoked him” and the idea that women may use rape accusations as a form of revenge. Because such rape myths contribute to normalizing sexual violence and rape culture, it is a relief to learn that mandatory training helps dispel these attitudes among students.
Further, those who complete training report that they are more likely to think campus authorities would believe them if they reported an incident of sexual violence. Students expect they will be taken seriously if they speak up about harassment and assault.
Among the unintended and concerning consequences of the training, however, we find that both male and female students are less likely, after training, to say they would report an incident of sexual assault.
Two plausible explanations for this shift include individuals’ general dislike of mandatory training and individuals’ new-found understanding of the complexity of sex on campus.
First, as Dobbin, Schrage, and Kalev 2015 suggest, people chafe against institutional mandates and rebel against initiatives they think are meant to micromanage them. This is to say, mandating training may activate social biases, even as it changes individual attitudes. Many of the students we have interviewed expressed resentment for being forced to sit through a 1.5 hour long training, even if they acknowledged that it was important.
Second, the students reported that the training’s focus on how complex campus sex can be led to a post-training hesitation to report sexual violence. Specifically, they recognized that many sexual encounters involve drugs and/or alcohol, which, as the training put it, makes it impossible for anyone to truly consent. In general, students want to avoid both explaining themselves to authorities and potentially getting into trouble.
Those who use substances said they would not report an assault because they would believe they were “responsible” for whatever of a sexual nature may happen to them.
After training, students were also markedly more likely to uphold traditional gender stereotypes – a finding that has come up in other types of trainings in other contexts (Tinkler 2008, 2012, 2013), but should also make universities take pause in designing their sexual assault trainings toward their student population. Both male and female students were more likely to describe men as not respected and followers, and women as incompetent, not respected, powerless, and incapable. One interviewee recalled experiencing distance and alienation from the “other” gender present in the training.
Concrete policy recommendations are starting to emerge from this ongoing research. The development of targeted training sessions for certain groups (based on gender, cultural identities, lifestyles, histories of victimization, and even ideology) is one promising idea, as is dividing the training into individual sessions with specific goals such as learning about consent, encouraging healthy and respectful relationships, reporting procedures, and sexual violence awareness. Finally, these programs should be offered in a variety of formats including lectures, panels, workshops, in-class discussions, conferences, digital sources, and student events to achieve maximum impact.