April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) and the 2015 campaign was built around the slogan “It’s time to act.” While SAAM’s campaign emphasizes something different each year, two of its goals remain constant. The first is the provision of resources for every individual in a community. As this year’s focus has been on creating informed communities on college campuses that work to prevent sexual violence, many resources tied explicitly to the 2015 campaign engage campuses in discussions of healthy sexuality and consent. The second goal is that sexual assault affects us all but is preventable. Combating violence requires communities working together to recognize and solve problems and create safer environments. SAAM’s campaigns provide resources for these communities and highlight individuals’ abilities to help prevent violence.
Here at Vassar College, some members of the community, primarily student-athletes, participated in a program with parallel aims to SAAM’s, called Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP). Both basketball teams participated earlier this year and in April, another group of students did as well. Assistant Director of Residential Life, Leadership and Professional Development as well as House Advisor for Cushing and Noyes, Anders van Minter along with SAVP coordinator Charlotte Strauss Swanson facilitated the training. The training sessions were broken up over 3 days for a total of 14 hours over one weekend.
One of the students involved was Men’s Volleyball Captain and senior Colin White-Dzuro. White-Dzuro’s reasons for choosing to participate in the program echoed SAAM’s call to action. “I think talk is cheap, and while it’s important to recognize that certain social inequalities exist, the best way to actually fight them is to take tangible action. MVP seemed like a great opportunity to fight some of these inequalities head-on.”
According to the mission statement on the MVP website (mvpnational.org), the program looks to give individuals the tools to combat sexism and sexual violence in their own spheres of influence. “MVP provides the leadership necessary, within sport and beyond, to address the global issues of sexism – especially men’s violence against women. In our advocacy efforts and training programs, we educate, inspire and empower men & women to prevent, interrupt and respond to sexist abuse.”
For another April training participant, sophomore Field Hockey standout Sophie Arnold, MVP’s mission statement seemed very applicable to her experience within the program, particularly the idea of the interruption of sexist abuse. “[Undergoing the training] really made me examine the little things I let slip by–especially the gendered and sexist language that has been so normalized in our society–this type of language is so often used by those around me and I am not always thinking about the implications of these words and how it perpetuates our sexist society. This is something I hope to begin interrupting.”
The history provided on the MVP website explains the creation of the MVP model and its broad, overarching goals from the beginning. “[The] MVP Model is an approach to gender violence and bullying prevention that was first developed in 1993 at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society and the National Consortium for Academics & Sports…[the] MVP Program was designed to train male college and high school student-athletes and other student leaders to use their status to speak out against rape, battering, sexual harassment, gay-bashing, and all forms of sexist abuse and violence. A female component was added in the second year with the complementary principle of training female student-athletes and others to be leaders on these issues.”
Dzuro-White felt that the model and training had a definite impact on the way in which he sees sexist abuse and gender violence and inequality in his every day life. “I was never really aware of all my privilege as a cis-gendered male, but the MVP training has definitely opened my eyes to the social disparities between men and women. I’ve learned that by making some changes in the way I act every day, I can make a big difference in promoting gender equality.”
While the group in April was predominantly female identifying, sophomore Rugby player Nathalie Freeman found the openness of the group, especially from the male-identifying members, as a positive takeaway from the program. “I think that the biggest thing I took away from this experience is an even deeper feeling of respect for my peers. The group of students that I took this training with were so open and intelligent that I was in awe of them and their responses. I was especially moved by how receptive the men in my group were to everything that we learned, and how interested they were in hearing about these issues from the point of view of female identifying people.“
Looking back at the program’s overall rationale as described on its website, the MVP model does not treat acts of sexual and gender-based violence as isolated incidents but rather treats violence against women as a deeper, socio-cultural problem and thus the model aims to expose these underlying issues.
Freeman explained the logistics of the specific MVP bystander intervention-training program she was involved with. “I would say that the program is a young-adult friendly way to talk about important issues in a small group setting. While we are actively learning during the entirety of the training, it feels more like a forum of peers discussing their experiences and how they can work together to create a campus environment that is safer for everyone.”
This is where the specific bystander intervention training undergone by Vassar College students comes into play. A good portion of the training involved examining various scenarios and discussing their nuances and contexts before coming up with different intervention options that are effective and maintain the safety of the bystander. In this way the program helps students learn to recognize the signs of sexual and gender-based violence as well as ways to help prevent its occurrence. But much of the training was also spent discussing the ways in which incidents of violence and objectification are accepted and normalized in society such as in advertisements and even everyday, normal speech. Participants discussed and explored the ways that things like gender and stereotypes seem to promulgate normalized attitudes surrounding violence. Examining these cultural contexts they were able to develop a deeper understanding of how smaller things like unwanted catcallers are connected to more serious instances of sexual and gender-based violence; they’re all included on a spectrum which condones and continues this corrosive culture.
For Freeman, recognition of this fact as well as in-depth discussion of the scenarios has helped her discover ways she can take action against sexual and gender-based violence whether using bystander intervention tactics while out at a party or by simply checking her own speech and avoiding language that could add to the legitimization of sexual-based violence. “Going through the training made me feel more secure with my knowledge and allowed me to reach a point where I feel like I could actually make a difference and help someone if I needed to…as I move forward in my daily life I will be able to use intervention skills that I learned in MVP training and I will also be more aware of the language that I use and the language that is used around me.”
As the prevalence of sexual assault and gender-based violence on college campuses continues to be recognized and brought out into the open after generations of media and institutional silence, bystander intervention training is one way student leaders and activists can continue to step up. MVP provides a space in which students and community members can explore and begin to understand and unpack the problem of sexual assault and violence. One reason MVP has been so successful throughout its history as well as an important experience for Vassar students is because it looks to treat the problem as a whole rather than a few isolated instances. By giving students the tools and information to enact positive change and create a safer environment on campuses, programs like MVP that help them to see how to create positive change on a daily basis such as through avoiding certain word choices or pointing out problematic representations, creates a more empowered and powerful community. “It’s time to act.”