A Scripted Response to Sexual Assault

With new federal rules looming, colleges are trying to reach students using packaged online courses that emphasize strategies like bystander intervention.
August 25, 2014

Jen crosses her arms as she begins to tell her friend Marissa about her night.

"I passed out at that guy Alex’s house like an idiot and ... he um…," Jen starts.

"He what, Jen?" Marissa asks.

"He apparently had sex with me when I was passed out," Jen says. "I woke up this morning with nothing on."

"Oh Jen, this is really serious," Marissa says.

Freshmen at about 170 colleges will watch that scene this month or next as part of Think About It, an online course aimed at preventing sexual violence. Proposed federal rules expected to be published in November would require institutions to offer prevention programs to new students, as well as employees, but many campuses have already begun. A few must do so under settlements resolving federal investigations of compliance with the gender-equity law known as Title IX. Elsewhere, students have pushed for more prevention training, or administrators have hastened to adopt it.

The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Roanoke College, San Diego State University, Virginia Tech: Those are among the institutions that now require students to take online courses to raise awareness of sexual violence. Stepping up prevention is just one way colleges are responding to pressure from activists and government officials as the institutions grapple with their legal obligation to examine and resolve students’ reports of rape.

While some colleges are creating programs of their own, many are buying online courses produced by technology companies and other groups. One of the more popular programs on the market is Haven, which nearly 400 colleges have purchased since the education-technology company EverFi introduced it last year, updating the five-year-old SexualAssaultEdu. Other common choices are Think About It, a product of the employment-law service LawRoom; MyStudentBody, offered by the nonprofit Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation; and Every Choice and Not Anymore, created by the company Student Success. The courses, which students typically take on their own, cost colleges $2,500 to $50,000 a year, depending on the number of participants.

Gloria Laureano thinks training students is a good investment. "We knew that we needed to do something more with education on prevention around sexual assault and consent," says Ms. Laureano, dean of students at Winston-Salem State University, which uses Haven. "What I found," she says, "is it plants a seed in a student’s head." The college then follows up with in-person training on bystander intervention.

Nadir Nibras, a junior at Oklahoma State University, worked last spring with a recent graduate on a student-government bill encouraging the university to offer more prevention education. This academic year Oklahoma State is requiring all incoming students to take a 45-minute online course. Those who do not will have holds placed on their registrations.

What the Programs Say

A screening of the online prevention programs reveals a number of similarities among five of the most popular ones—Every Choice, Haven, Not Anymore, Think About It, and a program created by the University of Montana called Personal Empowerment Through Self Awareness, or Petsa.

All five cite statistics on sexual violence, including the figure that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in college, from a 2007 study by the National Institute of Justice. One-third of dating violence, says Every Choice, occurs while a bystander is present.

The programs depict nearly identical scenes of a college house party. In Haven, Every Choice, and Not Anymore, actors drink clear liquids from plastic cups in living-room areas with faint music in the background. Petsa uses animated characters who crowd around a table with a mix of cups and martini glasses, while Think About It’s animated students play beer pong. The common message is that alcohol is a tool perpetrators use to incapacitate victims so they can’t say no or fight back, and that victims can’t be blamed if they’re assaulted, even if they’ve been drinking.

Typically, a male student tries to get a female student to drink more alcohol as fellow partiers look on uncomfortably. All of the programs then illustrate how bystanders can intervene and protect the woman. In one scene, a friend jumps into a conversation, distracting the potential perpetrator by asking him to get a drink and if he's enjoying the party.

All of the programs try to dispel "rape myths," like that if women wear revealing clothing, they are asking for sex. And all offer lessons on consent, often using analogies. Not Anymore compares nonconsensual sex to forcing someone to eat a cheeseburger they don’t want, while Think About It likens having sex with someone who is too intoxicated to consent to taking a drunk person’s cellphone.

Not Anymore also incorporates testimonies from real victims of campus sexual assault. One is Julia Dixon, who graduated from the University of Akron in 2011 and filed a federal complaint against the institution for allegedly mishandling her report, including by discouraging her from pursuing the campus judicial process. Her assailant, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in court to two charges of sexual imposition and assault.

On screen, Ms. Dixon breaks down in tears describing how she was raped in her dorm room after an acquaintance came by asking for some food. She recalls him laughing before he forced her to have sex. Watching the video is still upsetting, Ms. Dixon says, but she’s glad she shared her experience for other students to hear.

What Students Think

Students’ reactions to one of the programs, the widely used Haven, are mixed.

Frank Commisso, a freshman at Iona College, says he didn’t find the skits realistic. "The acting was horrible," he says. "It sounded like they were just reading off of a piece of paper."

"I guess if I could sum it up in one word I would say ‘cheesy,’" Mr. Commisso says.

In trying to seem cool, the programs may fail to connect with students. For instance, in Think About It, characters use the word "flippin’." Real students? Not so much.

While the proposed federal rules would require colleges to train students on bystander intervention, Kaylee J. Crawford, a freshman at the Art Institute of Chicago, thought Haven dwelled on it too much.

"It focused more on how to help other people," she says. "I would have liked to know more about how I could help myself in that situation."

Experts and vendors both emphasize that online sexual-violence-prevention training alone will not keep students safe or fulfill federal requirements. Continuing prevention programs are important, they say, and must be listed in colleges’ annual security reports.

"I hope schools wouldn’t think of this as a checkbox," Anne Hedgepeth, government relations manager at the American Association of University Women, says of online training. "You really need to think about who are your students, what are the issues facing them, and how do you reach them."