How you can change the sexual culture on your campus—and why that matters

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We all want campuses without sexual violence, but it can be hard to know where to start. In-the-moment strategies like bystander intervention are powerful tools to make our communities safer, but how can we proactively build cultures in which everyone feels safe and respected?

Sexual violence doesn’t come out of nowhere: It emerges from everyday patterns of disrespect and pressure. In any culture that normalizes low-level disrespect, it’s harder to spot coercion and force. What’s low-level disrespect? It’s when your female classmate is objectified because of the length of her skirt. Or that time your roommate hooked up with someone he wasn’t really into because “that’s what guys are supposed to do.” It’s every time someone makes a rape joke—and every time someone laughs. It contributes to a culture of disrespect, and a culture of disrespect provides camouflage for violence. It functions as “the cultural scaffolding” of sexual assault, wrote Dr. Nicola Gavey, professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, in her book Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape (Routledge, 2005).

In contrast, when we expect respect and mutuality, it’s much easier to spot behaviors that don’t fit that norm. By challenging casual disrespect when we see it—and setting up conversations so that disrespect doesn’t happen in the first place—we can build communities where everyone expects to be treated well.

This means that even small actions can have a big impact in building a safe, supportive campus culture. By ensuring that all of our conversations about romance, sex, and social life are respectful, we can help to dismantle “the cultural scaffolding” of assault. And that starts with you—your friends and your conversations. Here’s how to make sure those convos are building the community you want.

Ask better questions

Two girls walking and talking

Too often, our casual conversations set the expectation that everyone is doing the same things when it comes to romance and sex. If your crew gets together for brunch on Sunday, is everyone expected to share stories about hookups the night before? Conversations like this create “ambient pressure”: a feeling that you must act a certain way in order to fit in. Ambient pressure is a problem in its own right, and also makes interpersonal pressure easier by suggesting that people’s desires aren’t important.

If your friends regularly have conversations like this, you can help shift them in a more positive direction. Start by asking better questions.

Two-column, four-row chart displaying alternative options for discussing evening plans with friends. Left column includes four questions students might ask in casual conversations with friends labeled “instead of this.” Right column includes four different ways to ask those questions that make less assumptions labeled “try this.” Row 1: Instead of “Did you hook up?” Try “How was your night?” Row 2: Instead of “How far did you get?” Try “Did you enjoy hanging out with her?” Row 3: Instead of “Are you going out tonight?” Try “What are your plans later?” Row 4: Instead of “Is he hot?” Try “What do you like about him?”

These questions reduce ambient pressure by removing some of the assumptions about what people are doing and how they’re talking about it. Bonus points for making your conversations more interesting and less rom com.   

Tell different stories

Try sharing stories of times when things went well in unexpected or nontraditional ways, like when you met someone at a party and ended the night talking Shakespeare sonnets and downing pizza instead of hooking up. There are a number of dangerous myths about campus sexual culture, such as the false belief that everyone wants to be having more sex than they’re currently having, that no one wants to get into anything serious because everyone is looking for hookups, that “casual” sexual encounters can’t be intimate, and so on.

Sharing diverse experiences and stories is a powerful way of disrupting these myths and offering more positive alternatives. If you had a great Saturday night binge-watching House of Cards with your roommate, then say so!

Positive change involves people inspiring each other—and that starts with telling different stories. In a study, college students who reported drinking heavily received info on how much their peers were actually drinking, and spoiler alert, it was less than they thought. Six weeks later, the heavy drinkers were consuming less alcohol and drinking less often, according to The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (2000). This is an example of how social norms work: Expectations about how we should act actually affect how we do act. Once we realize that others are doing things differently, we adjust ourselves accordingly. This can work in your favor when it comes to convos about hookups: By demonstrating that there are many positive, respectful ways to be social, you can challenge social norms that give rise to pressure.

Figure out what matters to you—and live it

Several hands raised up together

In order to build a culture that reflects your values, you first need to figure out what those are. “Communities feel more connected and supportive when the people in them have a clear idea of what they want their culture to be like and are actively working toward that ideal,” wrote Chip Heath of Stanford University and Dan Heath of Duke University in Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Broadway Business, 2010), which examines individual, organizational, and social transformations.

Ask your communities (i.e., the clubs you’re in, the groups you belong to, and the friends you spend your time with) what they see as their shared goals. This doesn’t have to be scary or even formal; having an awesome group of people to lean on is a legit goal. When we’re all focused on a positive value—like genuine friendship, interdependence, or mutual trust—it’s easier to ensure that everyone is treated well. “Identifying shared community values is a critical step in building safe, supportive communities in which everyone can thrive,” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, assistant dean of student affairs and lecturer in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University in Connecticut.

Think about what you want from your interactions

It also helps to think about what you want from any given interaction, whether it’s meeting up with a couple of friends at your place or hosting a party. When we’re actively thinking about what we want out of our social events, we can ensure that they reflect and support what matters to us.

  • Why are you hosting this event or going to this hangout? What do you want from it?
  • What are you hoping to get out of it? What are you hoping others will get out of it? Do you want to meet new friends, to relax with a small group, or to try something new?
  • What vibe do you want? Intimate, classy, chill, or something else?
  • Now that the big stuff is sorted, how will you make sure your goals are met? Think about everything from the theme to the space, music, food and drinks, invites, etc.
  • What options are there? What choices do you or others have about what to wear, drink, and do?

By mindfully planning and attending events that reflect our values, we can create and support spaces without ambient pressure, and where interpersonal pressure stands out. Well-planned events with lots of options also mean more fun for the people coming and less stress for the people planning. That’s a win.

The power of small change

It all comes down to this—a culture in which respect is the norm is our most effective protection against sexual assault. And respect starts small. By making subtle changes to our everyday conversations and in our everyday interactions, we can work together to build a community where everyone can thrive. So let’s do that.

[school_resource sh101resources=’no’ category=’mobileapp,counselingservices, healthservices, wellnesspromotion, titleix, suicideprevention, residentlife, campusministry, studentservices, studentlife, studentlife, titleix’] Get help or find out more

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard: Chip Heath & Dan Heath
Broadway Business, 2010

Sexual empowerment webinars & info: Amy Jo Goddard

What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety: Jaclyn Friedman
Seal Press, 2011

Step Up! intervention program: University of Arizona

Communication and Consent Educators program: Yale University

Find local services and other resources:

Article sources

Melanie Boyd, PhD, assistant dean of student affairs; lecturer in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, Yale University, Connecticut.

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Carmody, M. (2005). Ethical erotics: Reconceptualizing anti-rape education. Sexualities, 8(4), 465–480.

Gavey, N. (2005). Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape. London and New York: Routledge.

Gavey, N., & Senn, C. Y. (2014). Sexuality and sexual violence. In D. L. Tolman & L. M. Diamond (Eds.) APA Handbook on Sexuality and Psychology: Vol. 1. Person-Based Approaches (pp. 339–382). Washington, DC: APA Press.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. New York: Broadway Books.

Strang, E., & Peterson, Z. D. (2013). The relationships among perceived peer acceptance of sexual aggression, punishment certainty, and sexually aggressive behavior. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 28(18), 3369–3385.

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Wetherill, R. R., Neal, D. J., & Fromme, K. (2010). Parents, peers, and sexual values influence sexual behavior during the transition to college. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(3), 682–694.