Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The authors explore whether mandatory, universal, in-person sexual misconduct training achieves its goals to build knowledge about sexual assault and harassment and increase intentions to report episodes of assault

Effects of Mandatory Sexual Misconduct Training on University Campuses. Mala Htun et al. Socius, September 20, 2022.

Abstract: The authors explore whether mandatory, universal, in-person sexual misconduct training achieves its goals to build knowledge about sexual assault and harassment and increase intentions to report episodes of assault. The authors present results from three studies with quasi-experimental designs as well as interviews with students and staff members at a diverse public university in the western United States. The surprising finding is that participating in training makes women students less likely to say they that will report experiences of sexual assault to university authorities. The training produces some small positive effects: students gain broader definitions of sexual misconduct and are less likely to endorse common rape myths, and women students express less sexist attitudes immediately after training. This study raises questions about whether one-shot training helps reduce sexual violence and increase reporting on college campuses and whether universities should invest in these types of training.


The most striking finding of our study is that women students become less likely to say that they would report experiences of sexual assault after participating in sexual misconduct training. We see a 12 percentage point decline in the share of women who say they would report assault to the university. The share of men who say that they would report assault does not change. In addition, women become more likely to say they would encounter retaliation if they report.
Our results imply that the university’s considerable investments in reporting did not change women’s perceptions of reporting’s desirability and its risks. Women do not all welcome the possibility of reporting assault, and they are more worried about the consequences of reporting than are men. Not reporting allows women to downplay a bad experience, reject the label of victim, and preserve their existing relationships (Khan et al. 2018). Sitting through sexual misconduct training—perhaps by concretizing the meaning of assault for survivors or potential survivors—may actually induce greater resistance to reporting among women.
On the brighter side, we find that training expands student knowledge about, and attitudes toward, sexual assault and harassment in ways intended by the university and the federal government’s Title IX goals. This is potentially important, as changing knowledge and attitudes may be necessary to change the culture surrounding gendered violence on college campuses (Hirsch et al. 2019). However, the effect sizes are small and reflect the training’s immediate impact, as our study design precluded gathering evidence of changes in behavior and attitudes after more time had passed.23 Future research should probe whether the positive and negative effects of the training endure over the medium to longer term.
In contrast to other work showing that discussions of sexual assault and harassment activate gender stereotypes (e.g. Tinkler 2013), our surveys do not show that training aggravates sexist beliefs. However, we do find that men’s and women’s views on sexism diverge more after the training (see Figure 5). Some of our interviews suggest that for some people—and despite trainers’ gender neutral discourse and avoidance of the male perpetrator–female victim stereotype—the training may have reinforced differences between men and women. For example, one woman student told us she found the training to be “isolating”:
it made everyone feel, like the genders, feel polarized. So, when I walked in there, I was having a comfortable conversation with my neighbor who was a man and by the end it was like we were trying to distance our seats as much as we could from each other.24
The need to comply with federal mandates motivated university officials to develop the training program we studied, as is the case with hundreds of other institutions of higher education around the country. At our study site, the compliance process was intense because of the DOJ oversight agreement. The agreement led to multiple changes in policy and process, which were necessary and overdue, but it also had some detrimental effects on institutional culture.
A senior university leader characterized the challenge of reducing sexual assault on campus in the following way:
How do you solve a problem? Look to other cases of institutional success. [such as our work to increase graduation rates] Leadership took a strong stand and communicated a clear message. We made the issue a priority. We targeted problem cases. We did research and got data [that ruled out what many people thought to be the source of the problem]. . . . But it’s hard to launch this process under the guise of a [federal] investigation, which makes everyone defensive and resentful.25

University administrators had mixed interpretations of how much programming federal guidelines required. As one compliance officer put it, “I have super high expectations of what it means to meet [federal] expectations, but others see it more minimally.”26 Senior university leaders assigned responsibility for sexual violence prevention to certain campus units without giving them the extra staffing and budget that serious efforts require. One administrator of these units noted that the university “is continuing the pattern of marginalization and underfunding of these issues.”27 

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