How Understanding The Myths Students Hold About Sexual Violence and Domestic Abuse Is Key To Prevention

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Nationally and internationally there are growing concerns about sexual and domestic violence and this extends to the experience of students in higher institutions. Sexual violence and domestic abuse are public health problems in society – and they are issues that students in universities encounter which has the potential to disrupt their education and change the course of their lives if not handled properly. One 2011 study reported that during their time at university, 25% of female students in the UK had experienced sexual assault, 7% were subject to a serious sexual assault and 68% were subject to physical or verbal sexual harassment on campus.

A new study has also found that some students – both male and female – hold myths about sexual violence and domestic abuse when they arrive at university.

These include rape myths such as believing that the victim brought it on herself by her behavior or her consumption of alcohol, that rape is about sexual desire that men cannot control, that women and girls who visit men are asking to be raped, and that women lie about being raped when they regret sex or are caught cheating. For domestic abuse, myths include not believing that violence happens in young people’s relationships, and that controlling behavior is just an expression of “love”.

Myths shape societal perceptions of sexual violence, and can lead to many victims blaming themselves for their own victimization. They can prevent victims from disclosing their abuse for fear of not being believed or being blamed – leaving the perpetrators free to carry on abusing. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, women may also believe in rape myths because to do so protects them from the potential of being victimized themselves: if they can think that the victim brought it on herself then they can feel safe that it will not happen to them. Several studies have shown that rape myths are quite widely believed across society.

While there is little evidence about domestic abuse in universities, research shows partner violence is a significant concern in teenage and early adult relationships. Young women of university age are also at high risk of becoming victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse. Such sexual violence can lead to unfulfilled academic potential and interruption of studies as well as mental health problems.

By understanding whether new students endorse sexual violence and domestic abuse myths – and which myths – it should be possible to tailor prevention efforts more precisely. This way universities can work with students more effectively in tackling sexual violence and domestic abuse and survivors can be supported to access the help they need.

Prioritizing prevention

According to Dr Helen Mott and Rachel Fenton, one key component to empowering bystanders to intervene to prevent sexual violence and domestic abuse thereby creating cultural change, is tackling and reducing myths about sexual violence and domestic abuse.

In places where this research was conducted, they wanted to know whether myths had any bearing on the extent to which the undergraduates would be ready to help with work to prevent sexual violence and domestic abuse. Overall, they found an overwhelming majority of the students felt a responsibility to help. Women felt more responsibility to help than men and a slightly higher proportion of men than women felt sexual violence and domestic abuse was not a problem or not their concern. They also found that the more students held myths about sexual violence and domestic abuse, the more likely they were to think violence is not a problem and not their concern.

There are educational, health and legal reasons why universities should help address these issues. But doing research and prevention work around sexual violence means acknowledging the problem. Understandably, some universities may fear they are being singled out as having a problem with sexual violence and it might deter prospective students and parents and cause reputational damage. Yet the opposite is true. The more a university engages with tackling sexual violence, the more reason students have to trust that their university is genuinely concerned with their safety and support.

It is not surprising that some new students will come into university holding preconceptions about some of the causes and responsibility for sexual violence and domestic abuse – students are products of society where such myths are endorsed and are not to be blamed for holding them. Partnering with universities and adapting this form of research will show which myths must be tackled in prevention programs. Universities must engage both female and male students in a positive way in their prevention efforts.

Adapted from: The Conversation.  https://theconversation.com

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