By Jennifer S. Hirsch
March 11, 2015
IDEAS
Jennifer S. Hirsch is a Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.

It’s been more than 30 years since I stood outside Tiger Inn at Princeton University, scared but determined. A friend and I were about to lead an educational session about date rape at one of three all-male eating clubs, part of a nascent effort to make the campus safer and healthier.

Back then, candlelit “Take Back the Night” marches felt like the one moment every year when sexual violence became visible. Three decades later, there is a sustained national conversation about the issue both on campuses and far beyond. From my current vantage point as a professor of public health at Columbia University, I have watched the conversation evolve into a robust debate over the respective roles of law enforcement and schools, and an energized national movement of student activists.

But while debate rages over how to respond to sexual assault claims, there’s been an almost deafening silence around the critical issue of effective prevention. How do we stop campus rapes from happening in the first place?

One thing is clear: the approaches most commonly found on campuses across the nation are not enough. All too often they consist of drastic and reactive policy changes, such as temporary shutdowns of fraternities and bans on booze, with an occasional foray into the dangerously absurd, such as the recent push by gun rights advocates to arm female students. Last year, a CDC report for the White House reviewed 140 sexual violence prevention programs and found that almost none showed any evidence of impact. Moreover, even those few that did modify attitudes neglected the need for broader social change in campus communities, the study reported. Beliefs matter, but attitudes alone don’t produce sexual violence. So even the best and clearest educational messages—don’t rape, here’s what to do so you won’t get raped, here’s how to keep your friends from being raped—are insufficient.

The time has come for a public health approach to the ongoing crisis—one that focuses on the social conditions that render students vulnerable to sexual violence. This strategy is both in line with the recommendations of the CDC report, and borne out by the history of public health. Consider that none of the ten great public health achievements of the 20th century was accomplished solely by exhorting people to act differently, instructing them in the adverse consequences of not doing so, shaming those who did not change their behavior, or creating systems that would punish them if they did not comply. To the contrary, the 25 years that public health has added to life expectancy in the United States reflect a focus on context, on actions such as shutting down the water-polluting factory or lowering the speed limit to reduce traffic fatalities.

What is the equivalent for preventing sexual assault on college campuses? What could we change about college environments to make non-consensual sexual behavior less likely to happen in the first place? That’s where there are some real gaps in the science. Complicating these questions is the fact that few complex health problems have a single major determinant.

Faced with this information void, it’s incumbent upon universities and colleges to start devoting their considerable research capacities to finding out what works. Last week, my own institution launched such an initiative, a multi-year project that brings together a team of faculty from across the campus to study undergraduate life and to develop recommendations to transform the social fabric, to weave a safer campus. As the co-leader of this project—and as someone who has spent my career doing research on gender, sexuality, and health—I am hopeful that it will soon become one of many such initiatives around the country.

Without question, there are pieces of this problem that are beyond the reach of schools. Students arrive on campus after 18 years spent in communities and families that teach them how to interact with other people. Few adolescents learn at home or in their church, synagogue, or mosque that consenting and pleasurable sexual intimacy is a normal part of a healthy life. To the contrary, America’s sexual culture is fundamentally unhealthy, with one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy of any western country. Most students still don’t get medically accurate, comprehensive education in the basics of pregnancy and disease prevention at school. Images of masculinity that glorify aggression, representations of sexuality that normalize violence and coercion, and sadistic pornography also play a part.

That said, school policies shape the fabric of daily life for students in ways that go far beyond what academic subjects are on offer: they determine where students sleep, what they eat, how they spend their free time, and even whether they can own lava lamps. They have enormous power to shape the architecture of campus life—both physical and social—in ways that could nudge students towards healthier, more respectful (and dare I say more pleasurable) patterns of sexual and social behavior. But those changes need to draw on evidence, not only good intentions.

I know a lot more than I did that night outside Tiger Inn. I know that it is not just women who are targets of sexual violence. I’ve learned not to assume that a man is not a feminist just because he’s a popular athlete. And I know that this moment, when the silence of decades has become a veritable cacophony of concern, represents our opportunity for a “moonshot”—a giant leap for humankind towards understanding sexual violence so that we can prevent it.

Universities and colleges are centers of knowledge production – asking hard questions and drawing on insights from across the disciplines to answer them is what we do best. As scientists and members of academic communities, now is the moment to make ourselves useful. Our power to transform starts with our capacity to think big, whether our goal is safer highways, clean water—or stopping campus rapes.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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