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Social Norms and Sexual Assault Prevention

Data from a study published in 2003 suggested that men underestimate the importance that most men and women place on consent and the willingness of most men to intervene against sexual assault (Fabiano et al., 2003). In addition, this study demonstrated men's personal adherence to only consensual activity and their willingness to act as women's allies are strongly influenced by their perceptions of other men's and women's norms. These findings clearly support the proposition that accurate normative data which counter the misperception of rape-supportive environments can be a critical part of campus efforts to prevent sexual violence against women.

To date, there have been a small number of interventions that have used the social norms approach to reduce the incidence of sexual assault. Two of these are described briefly below.

James Madison University: "A Man…" Project

In a project funded by the Virginia Department of Health, James Madison University's "A Man…" Project used three approaches to address male sexual assault prevention: a social norms marketing campaign, intentional educational programs, and male peer-to-peer education. Year One of this project was completed in the 1999-2000 academic year and involved a quasi-experimental design. In a 1992 article Berkowitz suggested that, since most of the factors that facilitate male sexual coercion are learned in all male groups, prevention programs should be delivered by men to all-male groups. Therefore, four all-male student groups were recruited, but received no specific interventions for use as a comparison group. Four additional all-male organizations were recruited to serve as treatment groups. These groups posted social norms marketing flyers in their living and working areas and attended two educational programs: Dr. Christopher Kilmartin’s play, Crimes Against Nature, which addresses male socialization issues, and a presentation by a male peer education group.

Year-one comparison of the 10 behavioral items on the pre and post-test surveys indicated positive behavioral change among members of the treatment group and negative behavioral change among members of the comparison group. Specifically, there was a reported decrease in the percentage of men believing that the average James Madison University (JMU) male 1) has sex when intoxicated; 2) won't stop sexual activity when asked to if he is already aroused; and 3) makes out in remotely parked cars. There also was an increase in the percentage of men who indicated that they stop the first time their date says 'no' to sexual activity.

In year two the project was expanded to include the entire campus. Significant all-campus changes at the end of year two include decreases in the percentage of men who believe that the average JMU male: 1) has sex when his partner is intoxicated; 2) won't stop sexual activity when asked to if he is already sexually aroused. Decreases were also found in the percentage of men who indicated that 1) they believe talking about sex destroys the romance of the moment; and 2) they think it is okay to pressure a date to drink alcohol in order to improve one's chances of getting one's date to have sex (Bruce, 2002).

Acquaintance Rape and Male High School Students

A recent study in Missouri investigated the effects of a social norms based intervention on high school males' rape-supportive attitudes and behaviors, as well as their views of the norms of their peers. The experimental group participated in a 3-session intervention on acquaintance rape, which incorporated local social norms. Following each session, the participants completed a Thought Listing Form. At post-test and 4-week follow-up they again completed the quantitative measures. As hypothesized, the participants ratings of their peers were significantly worse than their ratings of themselves at pre-test regarding attitudes toward sexual violence. However, the experimental group participants ratings of their peers' were significantly more accurate following the intervention, indicating that they viewed their peers as less rape-supportive. At post-test, the experimental group demonstrated a significant decrease in rape-supportive attitudes as compared to the control group, and the decrease was maintained at follow-up.


Berkowitz, A.D. "College Men as Perpetrators of Acquaintance Rape and Sexual Assault." Journal of American College Health, 1992, 40, 175-181.

Bruce, S. The "A Man..." Campaign: marketing Social Norms to Prevent Sexual Assault. The Report on Social Norms, Working Paper #5, July 2002.

Fabiano, P., Perkins, H.W., Berkowitz, A., Stark, C. "Engaging Men as Social Justice Allies in Ending Violence Against Women: Evidence for a Social Norms Approach." Journal of American College Health, 2003, Vol. 52, No. 3, 105-112.

Hellenbrand-Gunn, T.L., Mauch, P.A., Park, H. "Acquaintance Rape and Male High School Students: Can a Social Norms Intervention Change Attitudes and Perceived Norms?" Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, August 2004, Honolulu, Hawaii.

**Portions of the information presented on this page were originally prepared by Michael Haines and Richard Rice and are printed here with their permission.