Carol Mosely and Jeffrey Bucholtz started We End Violence in 2008 to develop and present innovative and creative sexual violence prevention education. We End Violence is a continuation of their collaboration which began 14 years ago at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Jeff and I began working together at a time of transition in the field of sexual assault prevention. Of course, the past 60 years has been a period of transition, but, it seems to me that around 1999, there was an even bigger shift. Years of activism and education had succeeded in widely establishing some awareness of the problem. Large numbers of people knew that sexual violence occurs, probably a lot; and were introduced to the concept that their assumptions about how and why assault happens were wrong. It was no longer a completely taboo subject, and new students weren’t shocked that they would be getting a presentation, a rape talk from the rape lady.
Finally, it was time for the next step and time to move beyond Myths and Facts. The majority of students believed that rape is wrong, but they couldn’t define it. And they certainly didn’t think it had anything to do with them. They thought it was sad and awful, but they would never be raped, or rape anyone, and there was nothing that they could do. It was a downer subject and they were glad that the talk would be short. For the survivors in the audience, these talks broke the silence for them in a small way, and let them know there was someone to talk to, but it didn’t help connect them to their fellow students.
At the time, our collaboration was a perfect fit for discovering what would work. Jeff brought a student perspective, a male presence, and lots of energy. I had years of experience, the long view of where we were headed, and—at last—the recognition that women couldn’t end this violence without men being involved.
The truth about why sexual violence occurs is simple but obfuscated by centuries of cultural beliefs and misinformation about gender and sex. Our job as prevention educators is to drag it into view. Turn the prism. Point out the picture in the picture. There is no rule or guide for how to do that; no guarantee that everything you try will work.
The Penis Registry got their attention, although it was much more amusing to the women than the men. It did make everyone curious. It shifted the focus from the survivor to the perpetrator without requiring a boring explanation about what it was designed to do and why. It addressed, in a humorous way, the fallacy of blaming a body part for a serious crime and made it clear that blaming men is not the goal or the solution. It gave them a way to talk about sexual violence in an everyday conversation.
This is how it worked: the student activists set up a table in a high-traffic area with a big sign that read Penis Registry. When the curious approached, they were told that anyone can register a penis, you don’t have to physically present a penis in order to register. This first step began the discussion of what is sexual violence. Those who wanted to register took a True/False quiz which had some penis-related questions but also basic questions about sexual violence. When they passed the quiz, they got a certificate, short and humorous but factual.
Many people did not stick around long enough to take the quiz or engage in much discussion, but those who did were transformed in their thinking and left with language they might use someday to help someone else’s understanding.
For some presentations, we put the word “slut” up on the screen in giant letters. It was unexpected, and elicited a roar of laughter and phones aimed at the screen taking photographs. Perfect response. We were not trying to make them be quiet and listen to us because we are the experts. We were trying to lead them to think about this problem in a different way.
So, why is the word “slut” up on the screen in giant letters? After the laughter subsided and the photos were sent, we explained. A word used commonly by college students but difficult for them to define. It’s gendered; about women and sex even when used toward a man. “Slut” is used as a joke and a weapon. It’s a powerful word that can have a serious negative impact on a woman’s life. It means she deserves what she got, that raping her isn’t really rape. It means she’s silenced, and if she does talk about it, she’ll get no support.
Did all the students in the audience get all that? Probably not. But most of them began to think about the word as they never had before.
The challenge for violence prevention educators is not finding ways to tell people what we know. The challenge is helping them interpret and articulate what they already know and then helping them move forward. We have done most of our work with college students and others of college age, such as military personnel, but the strategy has been successful with groups from junior high to my aunt’s cocktail parties.
Our collaboration has worked well because of our synergistic creativity. That is lucky, and we feel fortunate. What is not left to chance is our commitment to approach this as a woman and a man working together. Because, while it is important for men to hear from other men, at the heart of these problems is the reluctance, or refusal, of some men to listen to women. The “we” in We End Violence doesn’t mean Jeff and me. It means all of us, and it means women and men working together.
Carol Mosely, Director
We End Violence